Medieval WorldBuilding Mega-Tutorial

Here I will lay out some very general guides for worldbuilding a medieval country. Mostly these are based on real world numbers and historical precedent, but I give them in the spirit of a worldbuilder, not a historian, meaning these are jump off points for your inner muse, not hard and strict rules that must be followed. The medieval world was rife with disease and plagues, but if you don’t want to include them in your world, simply forget about them. You can tweak and add as much or as little importance to it as you wish. Whether you include these types of things in the story, or you just keep it for personal reference, it’s up to you. Also, you will no doubt be able to find exceptions and contradictions for everything I say, that’s great. Scrutiny, criticism, suggestions, contradictions, and questions are highly encouraged!

Table of contents:

#1 Towns and cities

#2 Population and land

#3 Health

#4 Professions

#5 Armies

#6 Technology, Crops

#7 Justice

#8 Travelers and Trade

#9 Distances and Travel

#10 Conclusion

#11 Currency, Coinage

#12 Economy

#13 Government, Serfdom, and Taxes, or “Feudalism“*

#1 Towns and cities, population distribution

Let’s talk about setting for a medieval fantasy world. Who are the people in the background? Where do they live? What kind of lives do they lead? Is setting in the country side, or is it within the boundaries of the Evil Empire’s capital? What is a capital? How many people live there? After all, armies that number in the hundreds of thousands do not make sense if the nation is comprised of nothing but sleepy little hamlets and the king’s castle.

Fantasy and historical fiction often overestimate urbanization to an absurd degree compared to real life. But I get it, we want Gondor! We want King’s Landing! We want wondrous capital cities to get lost in! We want our dashing rogue to steal a priceless treasure and vanish into the crowds!

Let’s start small and build up. From farms. Farms are everywhere in medieval times. Literally everywhere! Every inch of farmable land will be farmed if there’s people to farm it. Because why wouldn’t it be? (There’s probably a lot of reasons, but you’re in charge of those!)

In a typical inhabited country, you’re looking at population densities of 30 people per square mile to 120 per square mile over the entire landmass, depending if you’re trying to grow wheat from rocks, or your land has rich, beautiful, life giving soil blessed by the goddess Ceres herself. You probably can even go more dense than that if your people have invented anything more efficient than a hoe (Europe struggled to do this up until very recently).

If you have several families each farming adjacent to each other, it’s probably in their best interest to build their houses together for safety and convenience. This is what you can call a village or a hamlet. Villages consist of 50-1000 people, and there are THOUSANDS of them in any given country. When you have people clumped up like this, it will make sense to start distributing labor and specializing in skills. Your niece will go full time into brewing alcohol (historically brewing was a woman’s task) as her IPA is off the chain, and your brother-in-law’s uncle always made the sturdiest horseshoes, and so we built him new smithy right in the center of the village so he can supply all of our horseshoes (actually don’t do that– that’s a fire hazard).

Now, what sets apart your village from the next village is the location. Location, location, location. While most villages have to build wells and villagers travel to get to the nearest stream, your village is built right next to the river. That makes it easy to raft up and down for transportation, to fish, to collect water, and to defend if need be. Soon other families in the area, marveling at your ability to brew beer and make horseshoes, start visiting and relying on your village as a place for trading, for drinking, for celebrations, and for safety, even if it means they have to travel a little. Soon you start intermarrying, and what do you know, your brother in law’s uncle’s new wife’s cousin is a basket weaver. So we build him and his family a place right next to the smithy to weave all of our baskets. And why not a sturdy church or community building, for people to take refuge during times of danger and hardship? Suddenly there’s a lot more new faces around here, and the new baskets are the talk of the town. Town Population: 1000-8000

Your town is now bustling, you have inns and cobblers (they make human shoes), a marketplace, roads, merchants travelling through your roads to go to the marketplace to buy your shoes and beer, and there’s even a juggling clown! Smaller villages from all around will travel to the town to sell their surplus foods and crafts. Then you have people that cater to travelling merchants and craftsmen, as after all, travelers need food, animal feed, new shoes, wagon wheels, etc. But since it has a reputation of being such a great place to live, the people decide, “hey, why not build a wall, maybe a castle even?” so that no roving band of assholes can decide it’d be a great place for them to live instead. Suddenly, you find yourself living in a city! In the entire country there’s only a dozen of places like it. City Population: 8000-12,000.

In a city, you will begin to see things like walls, castles, universities, government buildings, and palatial estates probably made out of stone, rather than wood. Remember, hygiene is going to be way more important than before immigrants will have to replenish your city’s population because you worldbuilded a culture of public defecators. Along with horrible bouts of contagious dysentery, fires may become more common.

Any bigger, and you become a big city, or a capital,  and maybe just one or three like it exist in your country. Population: 12,000-100,000. These are places like Venice, London, Paris, Florence, Milan, Naples.

Is this as big as it can get? 100,000? No! Tenochitlan reached 250,000, Constantinople reached 500,000 souls, and China laughs at your accomplishments. Again, hygiene or plague!

Castles. While largely up to you and your culture, a good rule of thumb is one castle/large fortification/citadel per 50,000 people. You can find these in a city, in large towns, and/or wherever nobles have carved out their territory. Small folk in small villages and towns will have their own fall-back shelters to protect them against raids. These can be the local church, monastery, abbey, a stone administrative building, they could forts, wooden palisades, small stone keeps.  The local noble and his knights in a town will probably live in one of these small castles. There will be thousands of such structures in any country. Having plenty of border forts is a very good idea as well. Also why not throw in some bandit fortresses and goblin lairs ?

Want to see a how all this worked out in Medieval France in the year 1200? This /r/askhistorians post paints a beautiful picture of how villages, towns, cities, castles, and industry worked in relation.

#2 Population and Land:

Let’s back out now and get some perspective on the country as a whole. We need to know how big it is and how many people are in it. There are two ways to do this: working up from arable land, working down from population.

To skip this section and its explanation, simply go to This website and use their calculator. It’s all based on this amazing website anyway.

Either way, here’s the important part. While I said in the last section that there can be an AVERAGE population density of up to 120, that does not mean that’s how many people live in a square mile. That’s just how many live when spread over the landmass, including mountains and rivers. People don’t normally live on mountain peaks or in rivers. It also does not mean that’s all the land is able to support. The farms should produce surplus, and to see how many people that 1 square mile of developed land can support, let’s use a number between 50-300. Bad, rocky farmland plagued with endless misfortune on one end, great farmland in the magic kingdom on the other. You can also have a stupidly low number in the case of subsistence farming, tundra plains, or worse– population decline leading to ghost towns. But let’s go down the middle, 180. (I personally like it higher, but let’s roll with 180).

Let’s make our landmass 100,000 square miles. That’s 75% of Germany, 120% of Great Britain, 50% of France.

The first way: If you know how much of the kingdom’s geography is arable, good, skip this. If you don’t, let’s say blankly that there is 5 million people in our hypothetical kingdom. In 1600, Great Britain’s population was 5.5mil and Germany 10mil. Sounds fair. So let’s divide the population by 180. You get 27,777 square miles. So almost 28% of the land in our kingdom is arable. Wow, That’s pretty poor, right? Great Britain looked like this, with most of its population in huddled in the south of England.

The second way: Let’s say I want 50% of my kingdom’s land arable. With 180 people per square mile of farmland, I get 9 million people. That’s a lot happier!

As for urbanization, let’s arbitrarily say we have 3 giant cities, population of 100, 75 and 50 thousand respectively. And arbitrarily adding 12 cities averaging 10,000 each, then 8 times as many towns as cities, averaging 4500 each. All together, I end up with 885,000 people living in 111 towns and cities. That’s roughly 1 out of every 10 people. And I have about 180 castles.

Anyway, these numbers are yours to play with. If you want a kingdom the size of Russia and Siberia, with 1 million people in the capital (or way more!), 20 metropolises, and farmland supporting 400 people each square mile, I support it! Remember, these are averages and maximum population densities on developed land. You will have plenty of room to add desolate regions within the country and leave room for growth in underdeveloped land.

I’ll just add some ranges for some reference.

2-15 cities seems pretty feasible and there’s no reason you can’t have several large, several mid-sized, and several small ones. Just think about whether there’s something, whether it’s a crossroads, a river, a shoreline, an artifact, a huge gold mine, anything that will justify the city being there.

x2-18 times as many towns as cities. x2 is what you would have seen during the dark ages, x18 is what you saw on the cusp of the renaissance.

#3 Birth Rates, Mortality, Dental Plaque, and Plagues

What’s very important to note is the health of your population. That is if you’re getting in the nitty gritty. Skip this section if you don’t intend on describing medieval shithouse etiquette, or you have widespread healing magic.

It’s often repeated that life expectancy was 30 years in more primitive times. This is extremely misleading and you need to know why! The biggest factor throughout history has been infant and child mortality, bringing the average life expectancy way, way down. For example, if half the population dies before the age of five but everybody else dies at exactly 70 years old, the average life expectancy will be about 36 years, while about 25% of the population will be between the ages of 50 and 70! This is mostly due to poor access to medicine (if there was any at all), and if your doctors washed their hands after handling corpses and before delivering a child (they didn’t).

This is why your medieval society will probably place an emphasis on having many children, for more help around the house, more children to take care of you in old age, or maybe it’s part of their religion. Or conversely, an advanced civilization may be entering into an era of decline, with child-rearing being too draining on the independence of its wealthy and leisurely citizens. City life alone may cause a drop in births, as women and men might be too busy plying their trade to have many children. Bonus to low medieval birth rates if you have access to birth control like Silphium!

Other factors that lower birthrates are wealth, education, female labor participation, urban residence, education, increased female marriageable age. Could be useful for your society or just on a character-by-character basis. Also, Silphium!

For those that live in cities, hygiene is very, very important! Shitting in the streets, dumping the dead in the river, lack of public bathhouses, no garbage disposal system, and overcrowded dirty apartments are great for plagues and diseases and fires, but not your citizens!


In this small section, I’ll explain how to chart growth over the years. This might not be too terribly useful for many people, but say you have some settlers moving to some huge, newly-discovered continent. How long until they can repulse an invasion from the Evil Dragon Empire? Let’s do some numbers. The global average birth rate is about 20 births per 1000 people per year, but plenty of developing nations are going to range anywhere from 25-50/1000 (it was 30 during the baby boom years). As for mortality, this is going to largely influenced by infant and child mortality, hygiene, and access to medicine. Historically, you’re looking at around 20-40/1000. If you wanted to chart the population growth over the years, use the equation:

Starting population*((1+(b-d))^years) 

Plug your birth rate as b and mortality rate as d in decimals. For a pretty ridiculous example, with b=.032 (that’s 32 births per 1000 per year, or 3.2%) and d=.010, you’ll end up with a population of 6.8 million, giving you roughly the population of great Britain in the 16th century in just 300 years, starting with a population of 10,000. (just by replacing b=.04, your population will jump to 130 million!) So add disasters, plagues, famines, or godly good health and fortune as you like to adjust the numbers how you want!

#4 Trades, Tradesmen, and Trading

Okay, so with this many people running around, what do they actually do?

Well these two resources have some good tables on what professions to expect in an average town. You can Ctrl-f “Merchants and Services” on this page or examine a very thorough list here.

Up until very recently the vast majority of people were farmers living in the countryside. The efficiency of different agricultural techniques and technologies can allow for the division of labor to become a lot more broad. Essentially you have a sliding scale, from 9 farmers to every 1 tradesman at the most inefficient end (1790s America was here), all the way down to something like 7 to 3 tradesmen on the other (that’s better than Rome at its apex), going any further puts you near the limit of the medieval/renaissance and ventures into the industrial age, unless you are importing extreme amounts of food into your country.

Let’s do some numbers down the middle with 8:2. Which makes sense with the hypothetical kingdom we built above. Remember, we had 1 in every 10 people in a town or city. Having the rest spread out across a bunch of small villages and towns makes sense. Imagine if every small village of 200 had 20 dedicated tradesmen, 40 if you include their spouses. If you say they have two children each, that 80 people not farming in a single village, though its very likely that tradesman did own land too, at least in smaller villages. Still not unimaginable if you consider a square mile supporting 180 people, but maybe it’s not ideal for your circumstances. Children will typically be their parent’s apprentices, and they will have several, unless your society is more individualistic and schools are a thing. Keep in mind, after saving up some money, it’s not unheard of to buy an apprenticeship for your child, or for an extended family to support someone moving to the big city.

It’s also important to note that farmers aren’t only good for farming. Any man or woman worth their salt will be self sufficient to a certain extent. Your village might not have or need a stonemason, but a family of able bodied people should be build a house out of wood just fine. They would also tan their own leather, hunt (if the nobles don’t declare this an aristocratic sport), butcher, craft their own household supplies, milk and make cheese, fish, brew beer, keep bees, whatever. The point is, farmers weren’t just tilling soil and planting seeds all day every day all year.

*As a side note, while crushing poverty was a frequent problem in many places, there’s often a misconception about how much people worked and how poor people were. This /r/askhistorians thread asserts that there were about 80-100 holidays spread throughout the year!. While there was always plenty of work to do, there was an large amount of time devoted to diversion and festivities. You also have to remember that people didn’t work on Sundays! Looking at archaeological finds of typical households, there was plenty of frivolous and luxury items in peasants’ and craftsmen’s homes, indicating that not everyone was as poor as movies make them out to be.

I’ll cover the economy and peasantry in a different section. For now, let’s get to:

#5 The Army

The size of armies in fiction is often as overestimated as urbanization. The largest battle in medieval Europe was the battle of Grunwald, consisting of anywhere from 27,000 to 66,000 combatants. Legendary battles like the Battle Of Agincourt, was still decisive and a major victory with only 18,000 to 45,000. Even in China, accounts of 450,000 troops for a single side is widely romanticized and not supported by archeology. We think of the Warring States period in Japan as huge and vicious, and it was, but even the strongest of daimyos only regularly fielded about 10,000 soldiers in some of the most decisive battles, sometimes less. Towards the end though, combined armies did swell into the 100,000s. There’s always exceptions.

But I get it! We want war! We want massive armies! We want our Vile Force of Darkness to arrive in hordes of millions! So let’s break it down.

“No state, without being soon exhausted, can maintain above the hundredth part of its members in arms and idleness.” (Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Folio Society, vol 1 page 113.)

Rome had 450,000 active professional soldiers during its apex. 90% of these were auxiliaries, but nonetheless we are looking at an empire of 57 million. That’s less than 1% of its population as a fighting force. That’s a figure that has been time tested. A standing army of professional soldiers is typically less than 1% of the total population even today, else the empire goes bankrupt. That’s the upper limit, but without efficient tax systems, you’re going to be hurt worse. In europe, a typical standing army numbered anywhere from 3,000-12,000 if they had one. Henry II kept 3,000 professional troops, while the Burgundian ordonnance forces of Charles the Bold numbered 10,000.

*As a very interesting sidenote: Having large groups of idle warriors all over your kingdom is a recipe for social problems. While the West tends to view Knights and Samurai in the most romantic of lights, the reality was a lot more bleak. Small time knights and unemployed soldiers plagued Europe as bandits and ruffians in peacetime. There’s a good case to be made that several crusades were in part launched to get them out of Europe and put to work. It’s a pretty common view in Japan that Samurais outside of warfare were little more than heavily armed bullies with short fuses. In the time of peace after the warring states period, samurai became poor and disenfranchised because they were forbidden from taking up trades during a time of an economic boom. This culminated with the Haitorei Edict, outlawing samurai from carrying weapons. Which lead to several samurai rebellions. The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise is based on one of these rebellions, but the true story was a lot less about protecting the Emperor’s honor and more about keeping the disenfranchised samurai politically relevant. Having 7% of your population as starving career warriors is a great idea if you hate stability. Of course, in your world, warrior guilds and knightly orders or strict military organization can keep your troops in line, and hopefully happy enough.

Anyway! Back to the 1% rule! Using a hypothetical kingdom of 10 million, 1% of 10 million is a 100,000. Small, but we need to consider the draftees!

If you need to conscript an army, you might account for sex, age, and a host of other factors. This is the resource I am using for these numbers. To be honest, this next section will involve some major ass pulling. I’d appreciate any contributions and criticism if you would. I’m going to lay these factors out as things you might want to consider, some might bring up fundamental questions about what kind of society you have, some might cause you to commit to the art of medicine or healing magic, some of these things might provoke a subplot, but I’ll leave that in your entirely in your hands. If you want to skip it, the takeaway is thus:

Historically… no preindustrial culture managed to put more than 7% of the population under arms for an entire campaign season (90 days or so) without causing famine at home.

If women aren’t included in your military, you’re penalized 50% off the bat. Next, age. Unfortunately, I haven’t found any solid sources for determining age distribution. I do know that typically the medieval population was very young, and apparently is mirrored by present day Angola. 43% of the population is under 14, too young for war (Christ, I hope so), and just 7% is over 55, too old for war. So again, take another 50% off. Now we are at 2,500,000. I have read at most 25% of a medieval population is men between 16 and 60, so I think I’m on the right track. Anyway, yes, I know even having 45 year olds in your army is a bad idea!

Take off another 20% as those physically not able, exempt, and draft dodgers, and we get 2,000,000 troops.

But now you have to think, 2,000,000 troops includes every farmer and every tradesman in every part of your country. Your villages are left unprotected, your cities and towns are deserted, no one is trading, no one is building or crafting or creating anything, no one is plowing the fields, that bastard draft-dodging cobbler “with the crippled leg” is plowing your wife, no one is contributing anything to society, and no one is even bringing food to your troops! Well, not “no one”, but how hardy are your women folk? In a more egalitarian society, sure, these problems will definitely be mitigated. But if not, the impending famine is going to wreck your kingdom worse than any evil empire ever could.

Logistics trumps tactics in warfare. And a army moves on its belly.

Maybe it’s a good idea to leave 50% of your men back home, to take care of the place. 1,000,000. (We should actually leave way more people behind, but working with easy numbers is nice for the purpose of demonstration. If you’re looking at a long, sustained campaign, leaving 80% behind is not a bad idea.)

Is this an offensive war? No army is defending home? Don’t forget your garrisons, your outposts, your castles, your city watch. That’ll be another 15%. You’re now at 850,000 men. This includes your professionals as well. That’s roughly 7% of the population. The magic number!

Now the shitty part: disease, oh boy the disease. Disease by having so many draftees in one place will be horrifying. At muster, disease reduces you battle ready troops by 25%. In two weeks, if not dead, you’re losing another 25%.  375,000. What’s that? Your opponent isn’t an existential threat? Your nobles rather wait out the war and hope you die in battle? 25% of your troops fail to show up at muster. 281,250. Not quite the army to end all armies we were hoping for is it? but it’s starting to look a lot more like something realistic. Half are peasants, 55 years old or 14 years old, who barely know which end of a sword to hold. If your country can even afford him a sword (probably not). But congrats!

But! I hear what you’re saying, “Hey, if you already said 2 out of every 10 people aren’t farmers in your kingdom, why not just send them?” To which I reply, “that’s a horrible idea!” but I get what you’re saying! If I just leave most of your farmers back home, I won’t have to worry about starvation! Let’s look at it from that angle and run the numbers again. 2mil -50%, -%50, -20%. Before disease and traitorous lords, we’re looking at just 400,000, including professionals. This 400,000 number is totally feasible and immune to famine!

It’s important to note that none of this at all takes the economy into question. Suffice it to say, 93% of you population paying their everyday taxes in addition to supporting 7% of the population at soldier’s wages is an extreme burden. And you better pay them if you don’t want a soldier’s rebellion that occurs often in history! Or in the Japanese model of society, you can have 7-8% of population as samurai, living off subsistence wages, more destitute and way more angry than your average farmer.

But let’s say we really want that million man march. Either get a population of 100 million so you can have that perfect professional army, or find ways to subvert these factors. Either way, I’m not here and say you can’t or shouldn’t!

If your nation is particularly spartan, you could have spent a decade building up your food supply, your equipment, and coffers in the expectation of war. In Britain, all free men were required to own a spear and a few pieces of cheap armor. Also, if your people don’t often die of dysentery, ignore the sickness penalty!

You should check out /u/sotonohito ‘s post on /u/ImperatorZor very enlightening thread about army sizing. It’s a very solid discussion!

#6 Technology, Crops:

For the vast majority of professions, the techniques and materials are absolutely going to be known and easily acquired by the artisans of those trades. Kilns made of mud can make charcoal from wood, and charcoal can be used to smelt ores and work metal. Technological progress was extremely slow in the dark ages and medieval times, so you can progress at any speed you want and it’d be perfectly reasonable.

Tin and lead will be smelted before any other metal because they can be smelted with a wood fire, you don’t even need charcoal. But both are pretty damn useless. Lead is too soft for use for weapons, armor, or structural components. But being easy to shape and quite dense, can be used for piping (this isn’t healthy!), slingshot ammo, or mortar for stone structures. Tin is more rare and has the same problems, minus the poisoning.

Copper can be smelted in a pottery kiln, and is a lot nicer metal. It can be used for weapons and armor, but by simply combining it with tin, you get bronze! This is much preferred to wooden, bone, or stone alternatives. And you can use it to craft anything else you can imagine.

Iron and steel and pig iron are the same thing: Iron! The difference is the carbon content. The iron that contains less than 2% carbon is called steel whereas iron containing more than 2% of carbon is known as pig iron, which is way too brittle to be useful for just about anything. Pig Iron can be refined into steel and wrought iron. Interestingly, for the majority of the iron age, people didn’t actually melt iron. Instead they heated it up just enough to be able to work it, this happens in a what is called a Bloomery. This will give you wrought iron (and slag) and from there, you can process it, pattern weld it, hammer it flat, and fold it, hammer, fold, repeat, until you get quality steel. The celts figured this out in ~600 BC. The despite popular mythology, Japanese Katana’s iron-folding technique is not at all unique, its the same exact thing everyone else did! Much later on (1500 CE), Europe used blast furnaces to melt iron and make higher quality steel. China probably figured out the blast furnace in 100 BC! Steel beats bronze, by the way.

There’s a bunch of steel alloys and smelting methods and mythical processes out there, so I’ll leave it to you to google Ferrous Metallurgy. Or you can simply have “low quality iron weapons, high quality steel, and wootz-damascus-valyrian-my- katana-can-cut-through-tanks type steel.”

But the most important technology you should be aware of are very simple inventions like horse collars, seed drills, coulter plows, and crop rotation, which will boost agriculture dramatically, leading to better health, free up the labor forces from farming to pursue trade, leading to larger cities, and larger armies. And it’s actually largely thanks to the seed drill that there could be an industrial revolution at all– Seed drills can increase crop yield by a factor of NINE TIMES. And there is absolutely no reason these can’t have been invented earlier! The Chinese, again, had seed drills in 200 BC, which made them capable of supporting gigantic populations. Horse collars led to the ubiquity of horses, as with them, they became much better draft animals than oxen, being able to pull 50% more weight and work for much longer hours.

As for crops, note that potatoes and corn were New World crops. But that doesn’t mean they can’t grow natively in Medieval Fantasy Kingdoms! Potatoes grow underground, protecting them from birds and other field pests, and could grow in cold climates, poor soil, hard ground, and are nutritious enough to live off alone. On the other hand if you’re worldbuilding a country in a warm or hot climate, corn is a great option for its staple food.

#7 Justice. Crime, Criminals, and Punishment

There are many types of criminal justice systems throughout history. Having one is very important if you don’t want your towns and cities overrun with blood feuds and revenge killings.

/r/askhistorians has an amazing thread devoted to this topic. I implore you to check it out!

The biggest fundamental question about criminal justice is whether or not crime is a public or private matter in yout culture.

Ordinarily, if it’s a private matter, there is still some kind of court or governing body. What makes it private is that the powers-that-be will not prosecute if you do not yourself file charges against that person to court, collect evidence, get witness testimony, etc. If a man kills your brother or steals your pig, it’s usually not your duty to kill that man, it’s the court’s duty to apprehend and punish, but your duty to initiate prosecution and argue your case. Friends and family can do this for you too, maybe even the church or the guild, anyone who cannot abide the injustice done to you. But that’s very optimistic to readily assume. Maybe they don’t want to get involved with your trouble, you untrustworthy, adulterous dog!

In some cultures, specifically England, this community-focused approach blossomed into the idea of The King’s Peace. Anyone that commits a crime commits a crime against the whole, the community, the country, and the king. It became every man’s duty to prevent crime, raise the hue and cry, bear witness, and prosecute. In towns some community leader would raise the posse comitatus (or pitchfork wielding mob, for those that don’t speak Latin), apprehend the criminal, collect evidence, and the court would judge. In England, Sheriffs usually presided day to day while travelling Justicars traveled to each county to read court documents and ensure everyone acted admirably.

The distinction between interpersonal crime and crimes against the state (ie, treason) are almost always clearly defined, even if there was no idea of shared responsibility or the king’s peace.

As for the city watch, these groups of armed men would often act more like security, crowd control, guardians of public order rather than out-and-out police. Usually they had nothing to do with criminal justice besides breaking up a fight or maybe chasing down a thief. Usually there is good reason for this. Having a group of armed men above the law, acting like thugs, breaking down doors, accusing this man or that man, forcing confessions, all of that was too dangerous. Rome was especially wary that whoever controlled the biggest gang of “police” would disrupt the balance of power.

It should be noted in many cultures that fines were levied against criminals rather than jail-time and death penalties. No one really wanted to build a bunch of prisons and feed criminals anyway! For example, at one time in European history, a woman was convicted of witchcraft (she was an alternative medicine quack) 4 times and got away with paying fines! In violent cases, usually payment of bloodmoney or wergild was enough compensate the victims or their family. There’s other alternatives too: slavery, indentured servitude, or banishment were popular from time to time, place to place. You don’t always have to lop off a hand, throw them in a prison, and execute someone for getting in a barfight or stealing an apple. Though we all have to admit that draconian government officials that use capital punishment capriciously make for the best villains.

Being declared an outlaw was quite devastating, which I’ll cover in:

#8 Traveler, Merchant, or Outlaw?

Whether travelers are a common sight or extremely rare, that’s going to depend on your economy and culture.

Again, /r/askhistorians absolutely knocks it out of the park in this thread.

Most people just didn’t travel. Most people stayed in their little village or town their entire lives. You are part of a big family after all, and everyone needs to support their family. Common folk that abandon their families are looked upon with suspicion. Doubly so if that person shows up in your town, trying to eat your food, drink your ale, plow your daughters in your barn, trying to steal your job and take your resources. It also raises the question: Is this person a criminal? An outlaw? A murderer making his escape? Perhaps the traveler could get by doing odd jobs or doing backbreaking labor for a church, but that’s relying on the kindness of strangers. And gods help you if you reach a new town and someone develops a cough, ye harbinger of bad omens! You can pretty much forget about trying to settle down. For these reasons, being outlawed or exiled was a horrible punishment.

But there were exceptions for refugees, pilgrims, clergy and the like.

Of course, all of this became so much more relaxed as the agricultural revolution came. People had surplus and disposable income, and merchants became more and more common. Merchants bring profit and much sought after resources, as well their own coin spent on lodging, food, equipment, clothing, firewood, escorts of all kinds, cambists, diversions, and taxes. Towns, cities, and even the small villages became much more accepting of visitors as the economy grew. In this sort of culture, maybe townsfolk wouldn’t bat an eyelash at a group of plucky young adventurers staying the night in town.

For a quick in-depth look about how a small village becomes a trade town, there’s this fascinating British History Podcast episode 123. Go ahead and skip to 17:08 to gloss over the parts about Roman Britain’s decline and the arrival of the dark age.

#9 Travel and distances

As far as travel times and distance between cities are concerned, realistically there’s going to be, at minimum, a day’s worth of travel between each city.  Any closer would have caused too much competition.

 /u/loofou’s post here put it quite succintly, so I’ll merely quote it.

“Not only the romans, but pretty much any civilisation with multiple cities. Even medieval christian cloisters and monasteries are about one day’s travel apart.

A day’s travel is the distance you can travel with the most common transportation method in daytime and until you are fatigued [and not suffer ill effects like blisters]. A few approximations (in kilometers):

  • On foot without any (big) luggage: 20 – 25 km (4 – 5 km/h for about 4 – 6 hours straight walking)
  • On foot with donkey for bigger luggage: 5 to 10 km (1 – 2 km/h for about 5 hours straight)
  • On horseback: 25 – 40 km (5 – 10 km/h for about 3 – 6 hours straight)
  • In carriage: 15 – 25 km (3 – 5 km/h for about 3 – 5 hours straight)

I have heard cases of horseback riders going 180+ km (117 miles) per day in endurance races, but a good number of those horses died or crippled themselves. Still possible though.

So if you want realistic distances between your cities, go with about one day’s travel on known roads. And keep in mind that not anyone may have the money to buy a horse or a carriage ride, so foot-travel (with donkey) might be the most common transportation method for peasants and common folk. But you can judge what’s best for your own world.

One last thing: If two cities are farther than one day’s travel apart, there should be a half-way point with a tavern or something similar in between. Camping in the wilderness wasn’t as fun as it may sound 😉

That’s a great rule of thumb, so let’s look at an example of this in action. Here’s a map of cities in England in 1086.Now, it may seem like Canterbury is close to London, but they are actually 60 km apart. And the distance between York and London is 280 km apart! So of course there will be plenty of places to stop in between, be it a church, a village, a town, an abbey, an inn, etc.

You can check travel out more indepth on DeepMagick.

#10 Conclusion

I hope you found some part of that helpful. I might go back to clean it up (particularly the army section), flesh it out, and add more citations throughout– I hope I gave everyone credit!! Again, questions and criticism is highly encouraged. If there’s anything else you want me to tutorial, go ahead and give me suggestions. I’ll probably add more sections in subsequent blog posts.

Just remember: You need honey bees to make mead, medieval people had hay stacks not hay bales, and don’t put a smithy in the middle of town if you don’t want to burn the place down!

Thanks for reading!

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Part 2: Coins, Economy, and Government

Table of Contents, part 2

#11 Currency, Coinage

#12 Economy

#13 Government, Serfdom, and Taxes, or “Feudalism“*

#11 Currency, Coinage

“Give me a beer, a bottle a whiskey, a room for a week, a steak dinner, a shave, and a haircut, a bath, some new clothes, a hat, some boots, some oats for my horse, a woman. Here you go.” Ping! One heavy coin. You’re fine! Nobody adds up all those things you mentioned. They don’t check to see what coin it was. The guy just keeps drying the glass. Things were very vague back then….

I think Louis CK’s bit is extremely relevamt to WorldBuilding. How much did goods and services cost? How much was a coin worth? How did the coins relate to the other?

In reality the picture he paints is quite an accurate one. Any coin was very valuable, perhaps a coin could buy all of those things if you had the right one. To understand how this works and to understand how to worldbuild your own simple, sensible currencies, let’s look back at history. As a side note, I’ll only be covering coin currencies for now. At a later date we will discuss sea-shell based economies.

To an American like me and I suspect to much of the rest of the world, the British shilling, pence, and farthing system is an indecipherable, complicated mess of a currency system. But ultimately it’s probably the best way to go about creating a gold/silver currency and is not an uncommon method. I’ll explain.

First, when a country has a large reserve of silver, it needs to be quantified. This was done by the basic unit of weight, like a pound (453 grams) or its equivalent. To turn this into coins, they divided it into 240 pennies(1.88g), which were each worth quite a lot. 12 of these pennies made a shilling(22.5g). 20 shillings made a pound. But why did they choose these numbers? Well, if you made pennies any smaller, they would be too easy to break and too easy to lose. Any bigger and it would be too valuable. These denominations worked very well for the time.

Now, for any bigger transactions, handing someone a full pound silver chunk was unreasonable. For this we needed gold. Conveniently, gold usually stayed between 10-14x more valuable than silver. This mirrors the actual availability of silver and gold on earth: gold being about 10 times more rare than silver. So theoretically a gold coin of 3.5 grams would therefore be worth 35 grams of silver, or about 18.6 pence. The face value of the British 3.5 gold florin was worth 20 pence (although it was actually undervalued, people melted it down themselves because it was worth 24 pence). So we are on the right track with 10-14x.

*As a side note, usually the owners of gold/silver mines smelted their precious metals into Bullions, or big bricks. These bricks were then brought to a royal mint who made them into coins. Often kings would add incentives and perks to attract these merchants of Bullion into choosing their mint and their currency instead of a foreign currency.

There is a problem with the gold/silver currency systems of the middle ages, however. While a craftsman’s wages could earn him 1-2 shillings a week, a servant might make only 2 shillings or 24 pence a year! Does this mean a servant or serf only bought food 24 times a year? Silver was simply too valuable even in pennies for the lower classes and the vast majority of people. It’s like walking around town and the only currency in the world is either 50 dollar bills or 1000 dollar bills. The inability to liquidate assets meant that common folk were relegated to the barter economy in order to make small purchases. (and also that serfs and servants were paid in other ways, like food and clothing)

The solution, as you might expect, would be copper coins. But that’s not what happened in the middle ages. Copper was used only as a raw material and sometimes slipped into silver coins to make more of them (see Debasement). It wasn’t until long after the middle ages that copper coins became used at all. Germany in the middle ages debased its silver coins with way too much copper, but it still wasn’t a copper coin as we think of them. Another problem with copper coins, is that I can’t find a single source, a single example of an exchange rate of copper in the middle ages or renaissance.

But that won’t stop me from worldbuilding my own copper, silver, and gold currencies!

Feel free to make your own currencies, or copy this exact system into your world, or change it how you like. It’s yours to play with, I’ll just demonstrate my method. I’m going ahead and using the pound (lb) system, but this time using nice easy numbers in multiples of 10. I’ll have the Copper Pigeon, the Silver Dove, the Silver Eagle, and the Golden Dragon.

1 Silver pound (453g) will be divided 20 times into Silver Eagles (22.5g each). They weigh less than the largest coin of Great Britian so it isn’t unreasonable for a large coin as valuable as this. Just remember, the Silver Pound is a amount not a coin. Not until the modern era was there a pound coin or a paper bill. Before the modern era it was a price or an amount, not a currency.

1 Silver Eagle(22.5g) can be divided into 10 Silver Doves (2.25g each). That’s about the weight of the American Nickle, so again, not unreasonable. 200 Silver Doves equals a Silver Pound.

1 Silver Dove can be divided into 10 Copper Pigeons. Again, I have no reference for the value of copper, so I cannot say how big or heavy a Copper Pigeon is. If I want them big I would make them from pure copper. If I want them small, I’d put 5-10% silver in them to compensate for size and value.

1 Golden Dragon(4.5g) is equal to 2 Silver Eagles, or 45 grams of silver. Using gold will make transportation of  large sums of money a lot easier. In history, there were 3.5g and 7g gold coins, but both of these were really only used for large transactions between rich trade companies and nobles. They were extremely uncommon in everday life. If you do want gold coins more common in your world, I suggest making a Gold Dragon Penny(2.25g) instead of the Silver Eagle(22.5)g. Just remember, a 22.5g shilling was a craftsman’s week salary, before rent, taxes, and food!

So alternatively, 10 Copper Pigeons = 1 Silver Dove. 10 Silver Doves(2.25g each) = 1 Golden Dragon Penny (2.25g). 40 Golden Dragon Pennies(45g total) = 1 Pound of Silver (453g).

Again, these are all yours to play around with. In the next section, I’ll apply what we’ve learned here to some real world pricing during the middle ages.

#12 Economy, Prices and Wages

We’ve already touched on several aspects of a world’s economy. Cities and towns, nestled next to rivers or at crossroads or in the mountains will inform you about their industries. The surplus of farms will supply those urban areas with supplies, and your craftsman may pursue different professions to produce an array of goods. The wealth of your citizens may warm their interactions with travelers and itinerant merchants. And now we’ve established a coin currency. Perhaps even your merchant class, as large and as powerful as they’ve gotten, even have a ledger and credit system! Or you’ve done none of these things, making a very interesting world indeed! Maybe you now know what an impoverished region looks like too.

So let’s talk about wages and prices. Here’s an amazingly well-sourced page for wages and prices throughout the Middle Ages.  There’s a lot of eye opening stuff here. In particular the wages table.

I’ll pick some things out that I think make good benchmarks. An axe cost 5 pence(1.88g silver each). Here is a comfy video on how to build an axe. Kind of gives you an idea how much work goes into it, and the materials, tools, and expertise it takes.  Imagine, it took mining, transport, smelting, forging, wood cutting, and woodcrafting, just to make one axe. Probably wasn’t all done by one guy either. 2 chisels cost 8 pence. Equally comfy video about that. 6 pence for a pair of boots.

A cow. 6-10 shillings or 72-120 pence! Expensive!  A sheep. 17 pence. A gallon of ale was 1 pence. Wait, how do you just order a pint? Two chickens. 1 pence. Wait again, how much is one chicken? Here we start to see the barter economy and the need for a copper coin. Maybe that explains The Hound’s reluctance to pay for just one chicken.

On the more expensive side of things, a craftsman’s house had annual rent of 20 shillings or a pound. A suit of good armor, 4 pounds or 80 shillings. Knight’s armor, 16 pounds.

Let’s talk about wages too. An unskilled laborer could expect to make 1 pence a day. A master mason, an extremely skilled laborer, 4 pence a day or 10 shillings per month (225g of silver!) or 6 pounds a year. A master carpenter, a extremely skilled craftsman, 3 pence a day or 7 shillings 6 pence a month. A clothes-maker, 12 shilling 6 pence per month. At the other end of the scale, where the product is extremely valuable are rare, an armorer could expect around 25 shillings per month or 13 pounds a year. All of this of course, doesn’t account for rent, taxes, food, supplies, candles, and the monthly whoring budget.

Farmers varied wildly in wealth and land, crop and harvest. Which is okay! When worldbuilding an economy like this, the amount people make is completely up to you. I only use these data-points as reference when keeping my economy coherent and consistent. When getting into the nitty gritty, I try to find a base level of subsistence, and work my way up from there, establishing poverty classes, middle classes, and on up. I might not know how much a gem crafter made, but if he tries to sell to the aristocracy as well to the middle class, I’d guess he’s under an armorer and above a weaver in terms of wealth.

In case you want to get a good idea of a farmer/peasant’s income, listen to this podcast episode. Skip to around 22:30 to get straight into it.

Here’s a source from earlier that paints a pretty clear picture what medieval society looked like. Can’t recommend it enough.

Earlier, in the army section, I mentioned how supporting a large army for very long would be devastating for an economy. I talked about the 1% standing army rule. When you get into soldier’s wages, it’s easy to see why. Where as a master carpenter could make 3 pence a day, a soldier’s pay could be 4-20 pence a day, depending on rank. From the source earlier, paying the English army cost approximately 2.4 million pence in the 57 days of the Agincourt campaign, which is almost 20% of the royal income for the year of £52,400 (12.6 million pence).

I wouldn’t let this discourage you, however. Prolonged warfare was very much a thing throughout history. Find ways to wring out money from your peasant’s economy, and make that economy even bigger! Or completely subvert it. Let pillaging be your troop’s pay. Speak of money, we haven’t got to…

#13 Government, Serfdom, Taxes, or “Feudalism“*

An annual, universal “tax” in the way we think of it is a modern one. Sometimes there was regular tax at all, but when the kingdom was strapped for cash in the wake of an expensive war, troops would go to every house with a chimney, kick open the door, start looting, and call it a tax. Some kings went to every vassal lord individually and asked for gifts to keep the country running. But being able to consistently collect revenue, being able to support building projects, law, and the military is the backbone to any sustainable kingdom.

I decided to roll these different ideas into a single section since the idea of tax in the European middle ages was inextricably linked into ideas of government, nobility, serfdom, and rent. I am still hesitant to call it Feudalism, in fear of being dragged away and lectured by long-winded historians (who would be justified).

Although Feudalism Pyramid will elicit groans from Historians, it’s perhaps the easiest way to convey the bureaucratic nightmare that is the medieval government. It was a ever-changing and non-uniform system, but nevertheless it represented the most efficient tax and governing system Europe has ever known. And that’s okay because we are merely worldbuilders trying to find ideas and references for a medieval fantasy kingdom.

Let’s start from the top with Kings. Kings, in theory, owned all the lands in the entire kingdom, and gave dominion over these lands to their vassals, who in turn granted dominion over smaller parts of it to their own vassals. Here’s a pdf on the various hierarchies of nobility as well as a bunch of other medieval titles.

Say for example a Duke is promised to provide 10,000 soldiers and 5% of revenue to the King. He then appoints 10 barons, who will provide him with 1000 soldiers and 8% of their revenue. That’s 5% to the king, and 3% to the Duke. These barons then appoint their own knights and give them land. Most of the revenue is paid in food or other goods, by the way.

The important part of all of this is that these lands they are given, from King to Duke to Knight, are called Manors. These manors include 3 different parts.

The first part is their Demesne. You can consider the demesne to be their personal house, lawn and garden. They will have serfs, servants, and slaves work on this land.

The second part is the Dependent Lands. This will probably include a mix of fields that serfs work full time, and land that Villeins will “rent”. Sometimes this “rent” is payed for each harvest, sometimes these “rented” lands the Villeins will harvest for themselves and in return they work part time on the Demesne or the lord’s other fields.

The third part is the free holds. These lands are held privately by Freemen, who will pay a usually low tax either to the Lord or the King’s tax collectors directly.

As in the Justice section above, if you were a Freeman or yeoman (someone who owned no less than 100 acres, according to some) or some sort of tradesman like a miller or merchant, you’d be organized first into a unit of 10 households, called a tithing, and/or secondly grouped into a unit of 100 households, called a Hundred, with a big H. These Hundreds were then organized into counties or shires. These communities often paid taxes as a collective to Reeves.

There were several types of mayors/governors called Reeves. There were Reeves over the Hundred, who were popularly elected. There were Reeves who only dealt with serfs on a manor and who presided over a manorial court. There were town and city Reeves too. Over the shire were Shire-Reeves (where we get the word Sheriff). City and Shire-Reeves were usually appointed by a powerful noble or the king directly. Sometimes they’d appoint a Sheriff over a place called Nottingham, and then a yeoman named Robin Hood would endlessly frustrate him.  Then there were High-Reeves who governed the king’s land, as kings still held their own private manors and their own free holds. Each of these Reeves collected taxes from their respective domains, and either handed it to the higher nobility over the shire, like an Earl, or directly to the king.

Also, poll taxes and tariffs were very common as a way of nobles padding their coffers. As well as fining people for “crimes”.

The confusing part of all this is that manors can envelope or be entirely enveloped by shires. Don’t let that deter or over-complicate the Kingdom you want to build. Smash it all down, have one type of noble, one type of shire-county, and no manors! Have it be more like Japanese Feudalism, where you had daimyos and samurai instead of long lists of nobility titles. Do it your own way!

Over time and as the economy improved, the percent of the population that were serfs declined and the percentage of freemen climbed. Eventually serfdom was abolished, and the manorial system followed, turning society on its head. Eventually more standardized tax systems developed.

Still the manorialism system was the most efficient the west had ever seen.

In Rome for instance, there’d be a auction for the right to tax a certain area or region for a specific length of time. The upfront lump sum payment would be the government’s revenue, and the winning bidder would spend the next couple of months or years trying to make bleed the region dry. This was very unpopular however, and one king’s revolt leaves us with the legend of pouring molten gold down a Roman Ambassador’s throat.

In Conclusion

Once again, thanks for reading.

Perhaps I’ll add more to this section later. China had many many different tax systems, Japan has very few English-language resources to figure anything concrete out, and Scandinavian countries had some pretty simplistic ones. If there’s anything in particular you’d like to point out or ask, please do so! Criticism is welcomed and encouraged as always!

Join me next time when I cover the wonderful and essential part of any medieval fantasy land, GUILDS.

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