16 November 2013

Medieval Demographics Done RIGHT: Stuff You Can Use

Medieval demographics and economics have long been an interest of mine.  I minored in the subject in college (seriously), largely because I wanted to become as expert as possible in the field for gaming purposes.  Between a divorce and what’s available on the Internet, I’ve trimmed down my library on the subject to a few dozen books, but I certainly have my opinions.

My opinion is that what you’ve been taught from gaming sources about low-tech cities is almost certainly wrong.

The most influential RPGer on the topic is S. John Ross, whose Medieval Demographics Made Easy article is widely cited and quoted as to what businesses existed in medieval cities and in what numbers.  Now S. John is a smart guy.  We were once on the same GURPS APA together, and we’ve corresponded; I respect the fellow.  But his article has some critical flaws, and I’d like to present this rebuttal both as a rant and for Wednesday’s Stuff.

* For instance, let's take his number on universities: "There will be one University for every 27.3 million people. This should be computed by continent, not by town!" Heck, by 1500 Italy alone had twenty universities which survive to the present day, let alone ephemeral ones in existence back in the medieval era. France, Spain and Germany each had over a dozen in medieval times ... even tiny Scotland (est. population in the Middle Ages, between 500,000 and a million) had three.  I've no idea from where he got that number.

* His break point on the population of town vs city is 8,000, but the true figure is around 5,000; most cities were chartered in England at between 4,500-5,000 population.  In Europe generally, the numbers and definitions were wildly skewed: in much of Germany and eastern Europe, for instance, the great majority of so-called "Free Cities" had a population of 1,000 or less.

* He asserts that a square mile of land will feed 180 people on medieval tech.  This is, in fact a hugely variable number.  Under ideal conditions, after the invention of the horse collar and crop rotation, on table-flat completely cleared land, in two-growing season areas like the Nile Delta and northern Italy, presuming the land's at peace, you can manage over twice that.  The presence of forests, orchards or pasture land?  A tidal wave of smallholders tilling just a few acres and not hugely efficiently?  Oxen instead of horses?  Poor soil, swampland or inadequate water?  Cold climes like Scotland or Scandinavia?  Hill country?  (And, oh, let's not discount politics and war.)  If you can manage a third of that number for much of Europe, most of the time, you're doing pretty well.

* The real killer are the totals for businesses, which are way, way, way out of kilter.

See, what Ross -- and many a gamer who doesn’t know any better -- uses for a guide is a single source: the so-called “1292 Parisian tax roll” cited in the end notes of Joseph and Frances Gies’ seminal work, Life In A Medieval City, which purports to give a comprehensive list of the 51 types of business in Paris in that time, and produces some oddities like there being 58 scabbardmakers in Paris in that year.

Yeah, but.

For openers, Paris was a very atypical place.  For most of the medieval period through to the 18th century, it was the most populous city in Europe, the national capital of Europe’s greatest kingdom.  Your average good-sized fantasy city would be a tenth the size, much less likely to have baroque luxury trades, and much more likely to be near or on the seacoast and have the nautical trades Paris lacked.

For a second thing, the Gieses heavily truncated that list.  The real list didn’t have 51 entries; it had several hundred.  (As to that, the Gieses made some errors.  The list didn't cite 58 “scabbardmakers,” there were 52.) 

For a third thing, what they were working with was itself an edited list: one a mid-19th century historian named Hercule Géraud edited from the original manuscript.

For a fourth thing, the accuracy of the list is in dispute.  Géraud lists 116 goldsmiths, more than the combined number of inn- and tavernkeepers, half again as many as there were coopers ... indeed more than any other profession except for barbers, cobblers and leatherworkers.  In the words of medievalist Norman Pound, "it is difficult to explain [their] presence, unless we can assume that their market covered much of France."  It's far from the only inexplicable result: only two lawyers?  Two lacemakers?  ONE roofer?  ONE fletcher?  Huh?

Most importantly, it wasn’t what the Gieses thought it was.  Géraud wasn’t attempting to present a comprehensive occupational list.  He was presenting a list of occupations with matching surnames – the French equivalent of “Joe Smith the blacksmith,” “Karen Cooper the cooper,” and suchlike.  If you went by (say) “Bob Traynor the notary,” then Géraud didn’t include you.  If you were a Jew that went by a patronymic rather than an occupational surname – a large percentage of them – then Géraud didn’t include you.

(If that sounds like the 19th-century equivalent of a Wikipedia-style "List of African-American jazz players from Texas," I don't blame you.  The guy researched what he wanted to research, and I'm sure there must have been some good reason why he put it together that way.  One wonders whether late 13th century Parisian goldsmiths just were in the habit of going by patronymics, and contemporary lawyers, lacemakers and fletchers didn't.)

You can see why I wouldn’t trust that list even if I hadn’t stared at it and immediately gawked at the notion that there are twice as many scabbardmakers as blacksmiths (the fundamental business of the medieval world, and which was underestimated on Ross’ list by a factor of six).  Certain businesses are omitted entirely; potters, for instance, and most of the nautical trades.  (These do appear on Géraud's original, but in startlingly low numbers.  12 sailors?  Seriously?)

Relying on a single source – never mind a single source far out of context – is poor scholarship. For example, I own a 1945 telephone directory for the city of my birth.  It has listings for only five barbers; by contrast, it has four pages of listings for beauty salons.  Now I'm sure there are those who'd swallow that factoid whole and infer that in a city of 75,000 men wore their hair to their ankles ... or – in an era of close cropped haircuts – it might have been that neighborhood barbers had plenty of walk-up business, didn't do appointments and didn't feel the need for the expense of telephones.  (Or, for that matter, that a telephone directory wasn't any more intended to be a complete record of every business in the city of Quincy, MA, than Géraud's list of occupational surnames was intended to be a complete record of every business in Paris.  Go figure.)

My own take on the numbers comes from a basket of sources: Medieval Southampton by Colin Platt, Medieval Trade In The Mediterranean World by Lopez and Raymond, the renowned 14th century The Practice of Commerce by Francesco Pegolotti (Evans' translation), Streider's translation of the 14th century Palaelogus by Georgios Pachymeres, the Milanese and Genoese 12th century reductions published some years ago in the Journal of Economic and Business History,  the 13th century Florentine business list I copied from a lovely text in the BPL, The Merchants of Cahors by Denholm-Young, The Medieval City by Norman Pounds (part of the superb Greenwood Guides to Historic Events of the Medieval World edited by Dr. Jane Chance and published by Greenwood Press, which I strongly recommend) and the magnificent corpus of work of Fernand Braudel.  And since this is rambling on a bit, I’ll save the actual chart for the next post.


  1. Ive been using a companion to Britain in the late middles ages and life in a medieval barony to try and come up with a more realsitic demographics and economy.
    The bit they did on Castles is WAY OFF as well, a country of 1.4 million would have 35 fortified dwellings of which 22 were in occupation ???

    there 1,400 known castes in England. Towers houses and castles are common enough sight in my part of Ireland that they don't elicit much notice.

    they must have used the number for fortified places around Paris , Densely populated and extrapolated by the rest of the population ?

  2. A few too many gamers who put out alleged "guides" are more interested with getting something into print than in getting it *right*.

  3. it doesn't have to be spot on accurate , just not so glaringly wrong.
    There are so many games which the core economics just seem to be made up on a whim, but also include massive inconsistency.

    One example which springs to mind is AD&D birthright world, where given characters were supposed to be running a domain youd think some thought would go in to how a kingdom would be run.

    A kingdom would generate 20-40 Gold bars a year in tax, a gold bar was worth 2,000 gold pieces , so 40,000- to 80,000 gold pieces a year to rule a kingdom, doesnt seem like much for a vast kingdom.

    seems even less when it costs 4 gold bars (8,000 gp) to raise , train and equip a unit of 200 soldiers, thats 40gp each, and the suit of half plate they are supposedly equipped with cost 300 gp. Now unless your players are a complete bunch of morons they will notice this.

    Dáithí (cant remember how to log back in :) )

    1. Well ... D&D doesn't -- and never actually has, their propaganda notwithstanding -- seek to be an accurate emulation of low-tech life. It seeks to make things fun for PCs. What D&D players seem to find fun is to have goods-on-demand, to have instant buyers (and at least fair market value) for their loot, and for these things to hold true no matter how small the community is.

      And that's fine, of course. Where my hackles go up is when they pretend this is anything more than a game fiat.

  4. The easy accumulation of items takes away from the game, being able to buy a plate mail just off the rack, which fits takes away from the achievement of having earned the ability to buy it.

    I know Gurps seemed to have a better stab at how things relate to each other is cost, but is there any system which had a decent go at it.

    it really detracts from the game if youre player loot another 80,000 GP from a dungeon, and use it to hire 1,000 guards etc. it takes a lot more work on the DM's behalf to rewrite a system. We couldnt have been the only players out there who asked these questions and wanted to do other things except clear out another Dungeon and add more loot to the pile.

  5. Thank you for this post and for demographics deux. I enjoyed Ross's work, if only for the list of occupations. But his numbers never worked for my campaign, so I used it as a source. I appreciate your better set of researched numbers, along with the academic critique of the Paris list.

    1. Thank you kindly! I admit my own numbers aren't a be-all and end-all either, however much better researched ... and I think I'll amend the second MD post to say why!