A Reign of Toads
The vast majority of people never go more than twenty miles from where they were born. Farmers and tradesmen mostly travel in order to get to a market square. Even lords and ladies rarely venture outside the region of their birth. It’s about a 50% chance that a Northern Lord would have ventured south of the neck for instance. The best traveled people are merchants, sailors and sellswords.
The literacy rate hovers around 3% in Westeros. It is not necessarily tied exclusively to class (though being born into the nobility makes literacy substantially more likely)—with the most literate people being those who have a professional interest in reading and writing: maesters, merchants, military and mercenary brass, stewards, and scribes. Some professions that might seem literate are much less clear—septons and priests of all religions for instance may be slightly more likely to be literate but not necessarily so. Singers and poets also are surprisingly often unable to read the songs they recite. The ideal education of a child of nobility includes reading and writing but even this does not imply literacy as we think of it. That 3% includes anyone who understands the basic mechanics of reading and can make out a sentence written on a raven. Literacy is even viewed as suspicious in some societies such as the Iron Islands.
Misinformation is common. While Maesters are very learned and can speak from a place of scientific inquiry, most people, even high lords and ladies, are likely to believe a number of untruths. Skepticism is a rare thing amongst the people of the world and so a fantastic tale about monsters in the East or depravity at court will likely go completely unchallenged.
Ties to one’s overlords is strong. Though there are the rudiments of class consciousness (and the occasional peasant revolt) among certain segments of the population, most people do not see their lords and ladies as oppressors. Often times the wealth disparity between say a successful farmer and his petty lord are negligible enough as to be non-existent save for a stone keep rather than a wooden farmhouse. And unlike today, most people are very familiar with at least their local rulers. A shepherd in the Wolfswood may not have ever met High-lord Stark, but has probably dined with Stark’s bannerman’s bannerman, Lord Forrester. Forrester, in turn is likely a good friend of his liege, Lord Glover, and Lord Glover might sit on Lord Stark’s small council. As a result, while powerful people like the King might be semi-mythical in the minds of the smallfolk, they live in a world where the people who have direct power over them are well-known to them.
Death is ever present. Even in times of peace, people die young all the time. Very few diseases can be cured or even have their symptoms eased. Most remedies are of the folk variety and even relatively advanced medicine like milk-of-the-poppy (a crude laudanum) is expensive enough that it is only used in dire cases and even then only among the rich. Add to that the presence of large wilderness spaces where legitimately dangerous animals like bears, lizard-lions and shadowcats are common, an imperfect King’s Peace where brigands and raiders are not unheard of, and decades long lean seasons where starvation is highly possible and most people generally view life as cheaper and more fragile than we do today.
People grow up quickly. The Westerosi age of majority is 16, but at 16 people are expected to take on full cultural responsibility: making their daily lives look more like those of a 30 year old than an 18 year old. Remember that Ned Stark is 35 at the time of his death—solidly middle aged, and Tyrion Lannister is 29 when he is put on trial. People who survive illness and injury live to about 65 or so (younger for the smallfolk) but there are also exceptions. Walder Frey is supposedly 90 at the time of the Red Wedding, and Maester Aemon is well over one hundred. Such people are profound exceptions. Dying in one’s 50s is not exceptional or surprising.
Winter is real. Some supernatural catastrophe caused the planet to go into long, unpredictable cycles of warmer and cooler weather. Every year has its cool and warm seasons (as well as planting and harvesting seasons which are the more usual ways to mark yearly time) but these are tiny epicycles compared to the massive climate shifts that the world experiences. A harvest in summer versus a harvest in winter might be 20 times greater, and winters in the north are truly terrifying events, on par with miniature ice ages. A typical cycle lasts 2-6 years and hot and cool seasons match one another in length—but there have been decades long winters in the past, and legends about the long night suggest that some could last a century or more. It is also true that the world skews cooler with a much larger temperature difference from cool seasons in summer versus cool seasons in winter than similarly tracked temperature highs.