Any urban area, whether village, town or city, arises out of the need for trade. While a small town can coalesce in a prosperous farming district or gather around a castle (indeed, skilled labor is necessary for a castle to be built), larger towns or cities only locate on navigable rivers or natural harbors. Just as an example, how many cities in the United States before the railroad era were NOT founded on a navigable waterway? (Answer: Indianapolis, and the founders thought that the White River was navigable.)
Consider also access to building materials, wood for fuel, fresh water, and nearby arable land. The more negative factors there are that deter growth – the site's on an invasion route, a lack of forests, mountainous or swampy terrain – there must be counterbalancing benefits that want to make people live there (there’s a large gold mine, the location is unusually defensible, the kingdom’s northern border army needs a base).
You’re also not going to get a town of any size far in the outback, away from trade routes or transportation infrastructure, no matter what the benefits. When all is said and done, the main reason people live in towns -- dirty, smelly, crowded, verminous, dangerous places at medieval tech -- is to find work. If work isn't to be had, they're not going to stick around. If there are no resources and no trade, a ruler would have to be mad (and filthy rich) in order to subsidize a city out in the middle of nowhere, for no good reason whatsoever. It's expensive enough, and hard enough on the soldiers, to subsidize a strictly military outpost in the middle of nowhere: ask the Romans, the French, the British, or the mid- to late-19th century Americans, for that matter.
If your realm tries anyway to maintain a sizable town or city away from natural resources (see below), that means you need an equally-sizable logistics train to support it. This is easily disruptible by the realm's enemies. (This, of course, can form the basis for plots.)
In basic terms, a town of a thousand people will consume twenty-five bushels of grain, around 800 gallons of wine, tea or beer, about three cattle, and about a hundred smaller livestock ... daily. Throw in vegetables, fruit, cooking oil, herbs ... Coming back to water. A human needs about two quarts of fresh water a day (or liquid equivalent) in order to survive. The various industries of a large town or city, at the medieval level, uses roughly ten times that much per capita – for tanners, laundries, fullers, foundries, smiths, numerous others.
You’ll have to have market squares (and probably more than one) to hawk that food. That means wagonloads of food and drink (the twenty-five bushels of grain alone takes up not quite two wagons), each and every day, and if your roads are impassible in winter, you need many more wagons coming through before then. Storage? Well ... if you keep your civic food stores dry, protected from vermin, and secure, they’ll keep two to four years without magic. Maybe. Say, does your gamesystem have a food preservation enchantment?
Also consider the stability of the countryside. If you have continual plagues, invasions, bandit hordes and wars trucking through your lands, you’re not going to have prosperous cities, because there won’t be enough peasants left to grow enough food to feed them, nor enough traders surviving the gauntlet to provide raw materials and needful goods at economically feasible prices. (That thousand-person town will need a minimum of five square miles of farming country, exclusive of the aforementioned peasant farmers needed to grow that food ... presuming the soil is good and the land is well watered and flat, there are no droughts, famines or civil disruptions, that the farmers employ sound agricultural practices, and that the harvest isn't whisked away to support a far-off royal capital or the realm's own marauding army. For anyone who knows anything about medieval life -- or, indeed, low-tech agricultural travails generally -- that is a very tall order, and most medieval towns were food-importers.) You’ll also need a surplus enough to support non-productive elements, such as religious centers, universities or the bureaucracy of a capitol city.
A large part depends on the size of your town. The absolute basic tradesmen without which a village doesn’t exist are a blacksmith and a miller. Next in importance comes potters, carpenters, weavers, leatherworkers, masons, a general merchant and at least one tavern.
A small town will have multiples of the more important trades, and in such a case specialization will start to occur: blacksmiths turn into farriers, silversmiths and armorers; weavers into tailors, dyers and fullers; leatherworkers into saddlers and cobblers; carpenters into coopers, cartwrights, cabinet and furniture makers. Specialized businesses will appear: scribe/notaries, brokers, herbalists, shipwrights, healers, various food occupations such as brewers, bakers and butchers. As a town gets larger, more specialization will be the rule. Some towns will concentrate on particular trades – the center of a wool-producing district will have a preponderance of cloth manufacturing trades (as much as two-thirds of all merchants), as well as wool merchants and factors for outside trade. A grape-producing district will not only produce vintners and distillers, but coopers and glassblowers as well. Two-thirds nautical trades is pretty standard for any port city – chandlers, shipfitters, boatwrights, brokers, longshoremen, and the several elements of a fishing industry. And so on.
Below is a rough outline of what businesses will be found in your population:
Village up to 500 people:
1 church (with 1-2 clergy, and appropriate acolytes)
1 healer/herbalist/physician (in some cultures, this would be one of the priests)
1 general merchant
2-3 miscellaneous businesses, depending on the nature of the town. A seaport village might have a boatwright (and the general merchant doubles as a chandler), a farming village might have a tanner, a mountain village might have a mining concern, anyone might have a cartwright – especially if the village is on a highroad.
The village wouldn’t have much in the way of bureaucracy: the mayor/reeve/headman, who’d be a respected farmer or businessman, and perhaps a single representative from the local overlord or central government, a tax/toll collector if the village is on a major trade route, perhaps a small barracks of a sergeant and a dozen soldiers.
In addition, most other residents will do various jobs – carpentry, pottery, basketweaving, brewing, weaving, masonry – on a part time basis. There wouldn't be storefronts or colorful shop signs – why, when everyone knows what everyone does? – but be more along the lines of "Eh, ma'am, if'n ye want some good jars, Goodwife Adrienne's a dab hand with the pottery. That there's her cottage, the one wi'the gate missin' a hinge. The smith promised he'd get t'that next week."
They also take on minor posts on a part-time basis – a village will have a constable (if there aren't soldiers doing the duty), a handful of aldermen and selectmen, and other more minor posts. The village may have a one-room schoolhouse, depending on the culture, and classes might be taught by the scribe, a priest, or an educated villager.
Town up to 1500 people:
6-10 scribes/notaries/lawyers (some working for the others)
2 churches (with 5-6 clergy between them and appropriate acolytes)
1-2 fishers or trappers (depending on location)
1 full scale inn, 3 taverns, 1 brothel
3 blacksmiths (one a specialist, such as a farrier), 1 silver/tinsmith
3 cloth shops, one which is likely to be a rug or tapestry maker; 1 tailor
4-5 general merchants, one which is likely to be a specialist (outfitters, say)
1 large-scale pottery
1-2 carpenters, 1 cart/wheelwright
7-8 miscellaneous businesses
Now we have a prosperous town, and the center of its district. When the local farmers say "I'm walkin' t' town, be back tomorra," this is where they're headed.
This is the point where a small bureaucracy would arise. The town would have a mayor, a captain for the local militia and who’d also be responsible for maintenance of any city defenses, a tax collector and a dedicated scribe. The mayor might double as the magistrate. If a regional center of any sort, the town would attract central government staff – a district governor or noble and his staff, an army company and officers – and there'd be an appropriate building housing the same: a manor house, a small keep.
For towns of over 1500 people, use the following percentages:
* Bakery: 1 per 750.
* Brewers: 1 per 1500, at a ratio of 3:1 between brewers and distilleries/wineries; obviously variable depending on what booze-producing crops you have. Inns and taverns often brewed their own tipple.
* Butcher: 1 per 800.
* Carpenters: 1 per 500, at a ratio of 2:1 between carpenters and specialty crafts such as wheel/cartwrights, cabinetmakers, coopers and carvers.
* Churches: 1 per 750.
* Clergy: 1 per 200, obviously hugely variable depending on how religious your town is.
* Dyers: 1 per 3000. This is a large, industrial-style operation, as opposed to smaller household- or job-lot sized businesses.
* Financial: 1 per 1200, at a ratio of 1:2 between banks and moneychangers/lenders.
* Fishmongers: 1 per 1000.
* Foundries: 1 per 5000.
* General Merchants: 1 per 350, at a ratio of 3:1:1 between “country stores,” salters/spice merchants and brokers/factors/large-scale shippers.
* Inn/Tavern: 1 per 200, at a ratio of 1:5 between inns and taverns. These neighborhood taverns are not your stereotype Giant Common Room places; a period neighborhood tavern seated about 30 with a bar about the size of a kitchen counter, and the clientele was exclusively from that block.
* Leatherworkers: 1 per 800, at a ratio of 2:1 between generic leatherworkers and cobblers/saddlers/etc.
* Masons: 1 per 750, at a ratio of 1:2:4 between sculptors, masons and stonecutters.
* Mills: 1 per 600, at a rough ratio of 3:1 between grist mills and sawmills, fulling mills and the like.
* Potteries: 1 per 500, at a ratio of 1:4 between glaziers/glassblowers and potteries.
* Scribes: 1 per 150, at a ratio of 1:2:5 between lawyers, notaries and scribes.
* Smith: 1 per 500, at a ratio of 3-4:1 between blacksmiths and silver/tin/goldsmiths/armorers.
* Tanners: 1 per 3500. This is a large, industrial-style operation, as opposed to smaller household- or job-lot sized businesses.
* Teachers: 1 per 200, of which 1 in 3-5 are non-teaching scholars and scientists, who might nonetheless do part-time teaching and tutoring to raise some coin. Small neighborhood schools and academies were far more common in medieval and Renaissance times than many folks imagine, and literacy rates in urban communities were 50% or better above the blue-collar classes.
* Textile trades: 1 per 100, at a ratio of 3:1:1 between weavers/spinners/carders, tailors/carpet/tapestry makers and furriers. A town of this size probably has at least one large-scale cloth manufactory.
* Universities: These come around one to a city. Starting at about 10,000 people, you’ll get at least an advanced institute of learning of some sort. Capitals of any size, as well as major regional cities, will have a full-blown university.
Miscellaneous Shops: 1 per 200. Possibilities for these:
* Common: stables, brothels, ropemakers, herbalist/apothecaries, barbers, lampmakers, painters, bathhouses, sharpeners, thatchers.
* Less common: bowyers/fletchers, ship’s chandlers, candlemakers, horse trainers, jewelers, outfitters, pawnshops, soapmakers, undertakers, messengers/heralds.
* Rare: gaming houses, perfumers, papermakers, seers, engravers, clockmakers, animal trainers, architects, cartographers, engineers, instrument makers.
Keep in mind regional trades – for instance, a seaport would have sailmakers, at least one ropewalk, fishdryers, nautical carvers, chandlers, warehouses, specialty ship’s carpenters and smiths, navigators, steersmen, boatmakers, tattoo artists, shipwrights, and if large enough marine underwriters and freight shippers. A mountain mining town would have specialty manufacturing shops producing mining tools and equipment, sawmills, assayers, alchemists (to produce certain chemicals necessary for mining and assaying certain ores), trappers and the like.
This is the population level where guilds will start to exist; around 4-5 similar businesses is the minimum number to form a sustainable guild. Those aren’t the only support groups, of course; churches will have at least one sodality (and usually more than that) each.
Towns this size will have a market square, at which the local farmers sell vegetables and itinerant traders peddle just about everything else. These are often heavily regulated and taxed, and crackdowns from town guilds are frequent. Entertainers also exist, largely performing in the market, in front of any civic building or church, or available to play in an inn.
Towns and cities of this level have sizable bureaucracies, operating out of a civic hall. Areas such as tax collection, records, justice and civic defense spawn whole departments. A seaport would have a harbormaster, his staff, and naval units; any trading town would have an official in charge of weights and measures. Formal military companies almost certainly exist.
Cities aren’t particularly logical – the odds of having a nice grid layout, if you’re mapping it, are poor. Consider that your city started out as a village. It’ll have a relatively primitive tangle of streets in the center, haphazardly radiating out of the original village, which will center around the river/harbor/major road running through the middle, or perhaps around a religious center, castle or other fortification.
Planned towns did exist, but it took certain situations: a government seeking to settle an unpeopled area, a feudal lord wanting the profits and trade a town could provide. Even so, most of them quickly spread organically from its original planned center ... those that survived. (Many planned towns quickly failed.) Plans were sometimes imposed upon extant towns and cities by new rulers or by the growing unsuitability of the original town; numerous cities in Europe had "oldtowns" and "newtowns" pressed together. Another factor would be in the aftermath of a major fire (that being the chief danger to a medieval town), where entire city blocks and neighborhoods might be redesigned after being razed.
Obviously, waterborne businesses (mills, shipwrights) will cluster around said river. It was common for a river town to expand to the other bank, which necessitated at least one bridge. Oftentimes the rich and poor parts of town were differentiated by which bank of the river they were on.
Low-class and odoriferous trades (tanneries, dyers, soapmakers, slaughterhouses) will cluster downwind in the “poor” part of town. Beyond that, certain trades required a lot of space -- metalworkers, cartwrights, potters -- and gravitated to the peripheries where land was more available and cheaper.
As towns grow larger, civic areas and buildings emerge: courts, wells and aqueducts, town halls, theaters, market squares, caravanserais, jails, belltowers, stadia.
Buildings would also grow taller. As the town got increasingly cramped, the only way to grow was up. Townhouses gained a second story, and sometimes a third, and a fourth. Seldom designed to take the load and with oft-mediocre building materials, structural collapses were all too frequent.
If the town is walled -- and unless your town is in a strong, powerful realm with secure borders and no internal threats (not a hallmark of RPG settings), it absolutely will be -- it may have been so quite some time before. If so, chances are the town’s grown beyond the perimeter. Medieval towns were almost invariably horribly overcrowded, disease-ridden places, and while it took extreme population pressure to abandon the protection of the walls, sooner or later it happened.
Some medieval cities had several separate walls, built somewhat haphazardly over centuries, all attempts to maintain some manner of defensible perimeter. Consider also that such construction is expensive – building a castle in just a few years took so much money few nobles managed it. It's also expensive to maintain, and it's entirely possible that broad sections of the walls are in disrepair. Indeed, the reason why so many Roman-era buildings were in ruins or disappeared entirely is that they were often cannibalized for the stone necessary to build or repair walls, in addition to other buildings.
A theme that keeps repeating throughout medieval annals is that towns and cities are firmly in the grasp of an oligarchy. A small handful of families and personalities dominate local politics, commerce and social life. They own the guilds that matter, public posts are filled by their patronage, civic amusements are graced by their money and presence. The laws and rules are rigged in their favor, and the culture is nowhere close to being a meritocracy.
This ethos doesn't sit well with the average gamer, raised in a Western democracy relatively free of corruption and bearing at least the appearance of a meritocracy, and bringing to the gaming table the paradigm that the PCs are the swaggering masters of the earth before whom lesser mortals (read, "NPCs") all kowtow. And it's okay if that's one of the aspects of medieval life -- along pervasive filth, disease, slavery, racism, fanaticism and sexual abuse -- you don't want to play. YMMV ("your mileage may vary," code on many a gaming forum for "Whatever works for you is okay, it doesn't bother me if you have different preferences") is one of the more useful aphorisms to keep in mind when doing tabletop RPG setting creation.
7) Giant Cities
Yes, I know. A lot of gamers love giant, million-man cities. A lot of gamewriters love them, too. They just don't work. A city of half a million people or more on medieval tech -- a Rome, a Constantinople, a Baghdad, a Chang'an -- requires a continent-spanning empire and awesome transportation infrastructure to survive. Once the empire falls, once the plug is pulled, those cities collapse overnight. In the course of a hundred years, the population of Rome fell twentyfold, and it didn't get back over a million until the 1930s. And why bother? A city of 10,000 will have several hundred businesses, more than all but the craziest gamers are ever going to create.
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POSTSCRIPT: A kind reader commented on MDDR Pt I, and made a remark that provoked this postscript: that he'd read Ross' numbers, as many gamers have, but that the numbers didn't work for him.
This is important. Let's take those 52 scabbardmakers, shall we? That seems ludicrous, but presuming the number is accurate, there are a few possible explanations. One is simply that there were a honking lot of swords and daggers in 13th century Paris. (Not the rapiers and main-gauches most people think of when they think of Parisian swordsmen – those weren't invented for over 200 more years. We don't actually know what kinds of sword for certain; the earliest known combat manual, the so-called "Tower manuscript," dates from no earlier than 1300.)
So, okay: now what happens if you envision Paris with severe weapon restrictions?
Answer: you probably don't have many scabbardmakers.
And that's the notion you ought to have in mind when assigning business numbers. If you have an illiterate populace, there'll be far fewer booksellers, papermakers and the like. (The number of scribes and teachers might not change – business still needs to be transacted, and those teachers might be working on rote memorization!) If there's no native clay, and far fewer potteries, there'll be more basketmakers, more turners and more leatherworkers churning out substitutes, and buildings will be made of wood, not brick. If the Word of the Gods is that anyone who sails out of sight of land is accursed and damned, a "port" town might have a few coast-hugging vessels for bulk transport and a modest fishing fleet, and that's it. And so on.
One last factor that you might want to keep in mind, not just for demographics but for anyone trying to tell you How Things Were In Medieval Times: we're talking about a few hundred years. The notion that "medieval" was some monolithic state of being where everything was exactly the same for 400 years, everywhere, is nonsense. Poor, chilly, backwards, thinly populated Scotland was a far different place than the rich, densely populated, glittering city-states of Northern Italy (and, as to that, both were far different places than China or India, lands our Eurocentric myopia usually leave out of "medieval" equations). The 11th century was a far different time than the 14th.
Heck, think of our own era, and how quickly things change. What kind of businesses exist in our cities, and in what numbers? In 1954, computers were giant installations that cost millions of dollars and filled large rooms; you could no more obtain them retail than you could walk into a store and buy an armored regiment. In 1984, indy computer stores were popping up all over the place: I bought my first one from a dedicated Atari ST store in Boston. In 2014, those computer stores are now mostly gone – computers are ubiquitous consumer appliances you can get in your average department store. I doubt it'll take until 2034 for "personal computers" to be museum pieces, and everyone's using smartphones and tablets ... or their successors.
So – YMMV.