I'm wondering what type of society humans (with a Renaissance level of technology) would develop in an area with no arable land (soils too poor), but with a monopoly on various metal resources (iron, copper, lead, tin) that they could trade to people living in other areas with richer soils.

The trade routes would span at least 1000-3000km, and, depending on the destination, would involve either a boat journey through a narrow strait (where whoever controlled it could impose a tax), or a land journey across a desert (where oasis owners could also collect a cut of the trade).

My guess is that the following type of society would evolve:

  • Mercentile / Outward looking - If the population is going to grow past a low level, they will need to import food from other countries.

  • Stratified - Power will be concentrated in the hands of a small elite who own the mines and the smelters, plus those with good trade connections. These peoole will be able to hoard food to get through any disruptions in trade, when others will go hungry.

  • Militaristic - Survival will depend on protecting trade routes against pirates and bandits. This will require people to fight.

  • Low Position of Women - The most important occupations are going to be miners, metalworkers and warriors, all jobs which require great physical strength and will favour men. So it is likely that the culture that develops here will be stereotypically masculine. Combined with the high level of social stratification, and there's a good chance this society might have polygamy among the upper classes.

What details have I overlooked, and what do other people have to add?

  • $\begingroup$ ownership will largely depend on the society nothing about mining says ownership has to be individual and not communal. Mines and large equipment could be owned communally just like pasture and plows in farming communities of the time. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Mar 27, 2018 at 13:42
  • $\begingroup$ Smelting requires fuel so you might want to add in large coal deposits, otherwise they are not smelting anything in desert. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Mar 27, 2018 at 13:47
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    $\begingroup$ The body of the question disappointed me, I was expecting dwarfs. $\endgroup$
    – JAB
    Mar 27, 2018 at 15:21
  • $\begingroup$ What lies in 1000-3000 km along the trade routes? Another countries which are not important as trade partners (but can supply food), or it's all wasteland? Such a travel distance across desert is hardly possible. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Mar 27, 2018 at 16:59
  • $\begingroup$ @JAB: or Welshmen... :-) (FWIW: my middle name is "Powell") $\endgroup$ Mar 28, 2018 at 0:07

6 Answers 6


The Ore Mountains

As luck would have it, there actually was an area in Europe during the Renaissance which had a mining based economy and a near monopoly on various metal resources, mostly silver, but also gold and tin: the fabled Ore Mountains of Bohemia, which at that time were called the Erzgebirge (in German) and today are called the Krušné hory (in Czech). Copper was also mined there, and zinc.

(Note that their monopoly was on European production of silver. The Spaniards, who had conquered the Americas, brought huge amounts of silver from the New World.)

So how did the civilization look like? It looked just fine, thank you. It was actually indistinguishable from other regions in the Holy Roman Empire. The major urban center was St. Joachimsthal (meaning Saint Joachim's Valley), which is called today Jáchymov.

St. Joachimsthal was so rich in silver, that around the middle of the 15th century "the Counts von Schlick, whose possessions included the town, had coins minted, which were called Joachimsthalers". The coins spread far and wide in Europe, and numerous cities began minting coins on their model; the name was soon shortened to simply Thaler, which became daalder in Dutch and dollar in English.

Historic depiction of mining in the Ore Mountains, from the Annaberg Altar

Historic depiction of mining on the Annaberg mining altar (1522). Picture from Wikipedia. Public domain.

Simply having the richest mines in Europe made the Ore Mountains region well off economically, but in no way exceptionally rich. Mines need capital, and capital came from elsewhere. During the 30 Years' War the region changed hands from the Catholic/Imperials to the Protestant/Swedes and back; repeated military occupation dampened the economic development, but growth resumed as soon as the war was over.

Stein Castle on the Zwickauer Mulde

Stein Castle on the Zwickauer Mulde. Photograph by Caulobacter subvibrioides, available on Wikimedia under the CC-BY-SA-3.0 license.

The situation of women was the exact same as everywhere else in the Empire; that is, considerably better than in Anglo-Saxon lands, but of course worse than today. Women could own property in the their own name, could make wills and inherit, could engage in trade in their own name, could stand in justice in their own name, and could work outside the home. Low-class men and women had no political rights, obviously; middle class men had some political rights, which middle class women lacked; noble men and women were Important People and had full rights, yet their rights were legally different from the rights of commoners.

(Interesting small bit of history: German women of that time did not change their name when they married. The habit of women to take the name of their husbands originated in Anglo-Saxon lands, where a married woman had no legal personality of her own.)

As for the supposed prestigious jobs of miner and warrior, hmm. There were no "warriors" in Renaissance Europe. There were soldiers, usually mercenaries -- during the 30 Years' War only Sweden had a national army. The job of miner or soldier was not particularly prestigious; miners and soldiers were lower-class people. Middle class people were either merchants (the most common kind of middle class person); or professionals, that is, medical doctors, professors, lawyers or architects; or master tradesmen. (This is a difference from England, where tradesmen were never considered gentlemen.)

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    $\begingroup$ Who ever said that the jobs of miner or warrior were "prestigious"? OP simply claimed that, as the predominant (male-dominated) professions in the area, men may be more respected as the "breadwinners", especially in the larger lower classes. $\endgroup$
    – Doktor J
    Mar 27, 2018 at 15:04
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    $\begingroup$ @DoktorJ Then that's not any different from any other era where there are low-skill low tech jobs, all of which tend to be physical in nature. Prestige is implied as more than the standard because it seems to lower the status of those with less physical prowess. $\endgroup$ Mar 27, 2018 at 16:32
  • $\begingroup$ Really good and comprehensive answer - just in an area with no arable land does not quite fit so I presume in OP´s scenario there could be differences. $\endgroup$
    – Daniel
    Mar 27, 2018 at 16:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Daniel: The Ore Mountains are, well, mountains. Old and eroded mountains, but still mountains. Arable land is quite scarce. "The harsh climate and short growing seasons hindered the cultivation of agricultural products" says Wikipedia. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 27, 2018 at 16:56
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP: Just look at some of the Pictures, arable land is not scarce, it´s just longer and colder winters. (And not so much plain surfaces as modern agriculture prefers) It is also quite accessible and has certainly been self-sufficient even before mining has developed. $\endgroup$
    – Daniel
    Mar 27, 2018 at 17:37

If you take a look at the history San Francisco, you might get a good perspective of how such a colony once worked.

Yes, miners are valuable. But equally, maybe even more, valuable are the merchants that swarm to service them. You can sell a good home-cooked meal at a premium to the well paid miners, who will pay for it. You can sell entertainment: both legitimate and illegitimate. You can also make a lot of money selling mining supplies at a premium.

As to the role of women, it would depend on whether your culture is sufficiently high tech that the heavy labor is being done by machine, or not. If the mining demographic does favor one gender, the entertainment demographic will adjust. But as to whether the highest authorities are successful businessmen or successful busineswomen is a toss up. It goes to the most astute.

As to stratification - the first and maybe second generation leaders will work tirelessly to be seen as just another one of the people. Either also picking up a pick and doing a shift, or tending the bar, and so on. Being perceived as an elite alienates customers, and owning a mine or business is one irritated (or bribed) magistarate away from change. In short - such an attitude is bad for business. Its much later generations (see "shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves") that don't get it and have enough momentum behind them to take a long time coming back down.

Also militarization is less a problem than security. Most claim owners, and most businesses will want the ability to protect their property right now. Safes, gun free zones, red light districts (and personal weapons in the same), and private security all work. If piracy is bad for everyone, and not being propped up by fueding governments or chaos, the pirates have no place to call home.

  • $\begingroup$ Just did a bit of reading on San Francisco during the gold rush. I had avoided using it as a model because I hadn't realise California wasn't self-sufficient in food during that time. Also the first and second generations of leaders might want to maintain an image as "just another one of the people", but what about after that? Also thanks for clarifying that, instead of warriors (to fight another army), what people will really want is police (to fend off bandits and pirates). $\endgroup$ Mar 27, 2018 at 14:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Worldbuilder_Wannabe: guards are not the same as police. Police protect the populace from each other, and are the front line of law enforcement. Guards protect the people and their property from outsiders to whom the town laws don't necessarily even apply. $\endgroup$ Mar 28, 2018 at 2:44

I take umbrage with this:

Low Position of Women - The most important occupations are going to be miners, metalworkers and warriors, all jobs which require great physical strength and will favour men. So it is likely that the culture that develops here will be stereotypically masculine. Combined with the high level of social stratification, and there's a good chance this society might have polygamy among the upper classes.

You're missing something vital. Trade. It's nice that there's mining and the mining is important. It's nice that fighting is important. (although if it's a narrow straight like you say, archers would likely be as valued as on the ground fighters and women can certainly do that.)

But if all the men are fighting and mining, who is left to do the dealing? And with as much trade as they will have to do, I'd guess that's the women. Doesn't take physical strength, just shrewdness and the ability to talk.

So I would argue that a female merchant class is definitely in the cards here. Stretch this even further and the effect might actually be the OPPOSITE of what you think it will be. Women end up owning and ruling because they don't have to do the physical labor. Send your daughter or wife to make your deals because you have to be there at the mines managing your men.

That you've chosen the Renaissance as your model is especially interesting because this is the era of the rise of the merchant class. And there were certainly a lot of women who took advantage of this.

When you say "polygamy" I assume you mean one man and several women in a marriage. It can work the other way as well. But let's look at the way you likely are--one man, many women.

Polygamy works best if instability is introduced into the system. As in, for instance, there are much fewer men than women, or not enough men. In this case polygamy can help keep population numbers up. Polygamists/polygamous societies have a high mortality rate. THERE'S A REASON FOR THE CORRELATION. It's not that polygamy CAUSES a high mortality rate. It's that it's advantageous for humans to be polygamous when there's already a high mortality rate, thus the correlation. Pretty much if things are out of balance ratio-wise, or your death rate spikes, guess what, monogamy loses many of its advantages.

So, if there are, say, a lot mining accidents, and dead men, this could work. But that would be a lower class job. You're specifically tying monogamy to the upper classes. It would help things if the men did die with frequency even in the upper classes. This would mean women survived them, and if they remarried, they would likely come with $$ from the previous marriage (divided amongst the wives and children though it may be). Lines of succession and power, problematically can become really really muddied when everyone in the upper class practices polygamy. Civil war can be more likely because of this. A household full of wives and their children all of whom want a piece of the pie? You've got plenty of plot to work with! Even if the ladies are low status, you can bet they will work for their kids. (Whatever rules you have in place, forget about them. In this situation many dynasties have fallen because of competing wives.)

However, socially, if your ratio is more balanced, there are problems that develop, some of which might be advantages in your model. (Less births means less people to feed).

  • A large household can result in older siblings being responsible for younger ones, and the older siblings might be expected to earn for the family, resulting in later marriage and less kids overall in the population.
  • The birthrate, overall, can also be lower, not higher than with monogamous models for other reasons as well. Studies of polygamy and birthrates have found that the more wives a husband has, the less children PER wife. It seems like they have more kids because, well...they are all in one place and from one dude. Some are prolific no matter how many wives they have, but the numbers overall seem to indicate that each woman has less children compared to a mono model
  • Some men have bad genes. And if they have a defect, and then go on to have a dozen kids, that defect is spread far and wide.
  • Lots of men without wives, or they have to compete more in order to get any women at all because a few men are hogging all the women. Men, in this case will not settle down because they don't actually have the option to. One powerful man marrying a dozen wives means that, if the gender population is equal, that a dozen men won't be able to marry those women.
  • Less genetic diversity, more birth defects, eventually.

Mercentile / Outward looking - If the population is going to grow past a low level, they will need to import food from other countries.

The effect of this is going to create a really diverse place. Your society is going to be much more than just the natives, there's going to be imports from far and wide, not just of goods but of people. And those people will import customs as well. Since they are outward looking, your natives are going to have to be tolerant of most outsiders, and welcome them in. After all, the well-being of the community depends on those imports. (They'll become markedly LESS tolerant of any of these immigrants take mining jobs, which, if a wealthy mine owner has a labor shortage, well...they just might hire/import workers). There will be wealthy foreign merchants, some of whom might stay enough generations to be seen as natives, but still have connections to outside trade.

Stratified - Power will be concentrated in the hands of a small elite who own the mines and the smelters, plus those with good trade connections. These peoole will be able to hoard food to get through any disruptions in trade, when others will go hungry.

Yes and no, because of your first point about the mercantile/outward looking aspect. Concentration of power in the hands of an elite--this has always been the case in most societies. But Renaissance? That's when things shifted. There were princes, elites, uber merchants and bankers who had the most power, but there was also a new society emerging. A definite middle class of merchants. Power can still be stratified, the elites can still hoard, but don't underestimate the middle class in this scenario. Plenty of entrepreneurs will be working. Also don't underestimate the lower classes...Medieval and Renaissance times has had plenty of peasant's revolts. If it's obvious that the elites are hoarding food, you WILL have a riot on your hands, guaranteed. This will be especially true if you stick with having NO middle class at all--(no shopkeepers and the like) because the lower strata will have NOTHING TO LOSE.

Militaristic - Survival will depend on protecting trade routes against pirates and bandits. This will require people to fight.

You really won't need that many people to do this. And I don't think it will be military/government oriented in nature. Instead it will likely be mercenary oriented, or specific to merchants-- you hire people to protect your wagon train. And maybe you pay a percentage to use a particular road and there's general soldiers patrolling. I would expect that a very powerful merchant would have their own forces. Perhaps each one would. Maybe each would reach an agreement about what part of the trade route they protect. My point is that it won't be organized as one government assigning guards to trade routes. Take a look at Renaissance Italy--the Medici, the Borgia--they had their own forces.

ROLE OF MINERS AND SOLDIERS A soldier/mercenary would be probably lower middle class, if not lower class. They'd be provided for by the merchants and get money besides, but they work for the elite. It doesn't make them elite to be one. An occupation can be important without it being high paying. Miners can be important, but if there's a lot of them--if you were a mine owner you would you want to pay them any more than you had to? Nope. You'd want to maximize profits. Just because their society is dependant on these folks doesn't mean they have prestige. There are plenty of jobs currently that society depends on which don't, and the same was true in the Renaissance.

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    $\begingroup$ This is about what I was thinking and goes into more depth that I would have given the answer. One modification is that soldiers would probably be of higher status than miners. If the military is strong enough, they may import or capture slaves to work the mines. Smelting may also be a low class job but would be a step up from miners. That leaves the actual ruling class gender a coin flip. It could go either way depending on other factors. $\endgroup$
    – ShadoCat
    Mar 27, 2018 at 22:39
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    $\begingroup$ I really like your reference to the rise of the merchant class. In Renaissance Europe, as I understand it, there was a lot of conflict between the wealthy but "low-class" merchants, and the old aristocracy who inherited their power but were no longer the wealthiest people. In this story, where the merchants are primarily women, this conflict could manifest along gender lines. Look to the history of Jewish people in Europe, or of Chinese people in Indonesia, for examples of cases where a marginalized group of people were pushed into low-status jobs that ended up being very important. $\endgroup$
    – Josh
    Mar 28, 2018 at 18:55

The assumption of no arable land is false

There is no way a society with Rennaisance technology could survive at the end of a 1000 km trade route without growing its own food. To transport bulky goods (like food) you need wagon trains and beasts of burden. What are they going to eat? You'd need to bring not just grain and legumes, but also drive in livestock as a food source, bring fiber or cloth for clothes. Finally, if you don't grow something locally with vitamin C (some sort of fruit or vegetable), you people are all doing to die of scurvy. There aren't many good vitamin C sources that would survive a 1000 km trip in 1500.

They will have to grow at least some food. Perhaps it is supplemented with imports, perhaps they mostly graze livestock locally, but there will have to be some locally developed food (and fodder) sources.

The assumption of low value for women is false

There is no real association between the types of economy a place has and the value of women therein. The social and political status of women is driven by culture and not economy. Fundamentally, women can do anything that a man can. There are some professions where a man's upper body strength gives them a competitive advantage (hand to hand combat, and mining come to mind), but keep in mind that even in a mining focused region, relatively few people are going to be doing mining.

I already discussed that there needs to be at least some farmers. There also needs to be people milling the grain, baking the bread, brewing the beer, butchering the livestock, operating the inns that merchants stay in, taking care of the horses or whatever animal transportation is. There needs to be carpenters and cartwrights and smiths and thatchers and cobblers and coopers. Many if not most of these jobs will be done by men. But since so many people are doing these jobs, the same jobs that people all over the (Eurasian, at least) world were doing in 1500, the overall labor force just doesn't look that different.

If the labor force isn't that different in the different parts of the world in 1500, why was the status of women so much higher in Europe and lower in the Middle East and China? This is explained by cultural differences, often related to religion. You can give your nation any culture you like to drive its treatment of women.

  • $\begingroup$ Yes. I didn't even touch this, but they need to be able to grow SOMETHING. They might be dependent on the outside world for a lot of it, but during this era, it's just not tenable. There was so much else to unpack on the social end that I just let it go by. But you're right, the premise of no arable land at all doesn't actually work... $\endgroup$ Mar 28, 2018 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ Why couldn't Renaissance technology survive, if the civilisation had trade routes connecting them to areas that could support a larger population? And you said they would need wagon trains and beasts of burden, but what about using ships? At least one of the trade routes will be over water (though another another will be steppe for about half the way, when I said no arable land I meant the soil wouldn't be good enough for crops). $\endgroup$ Mar 28, 2018 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ Good point about Vitamin C though. I was planning to have them live in boreal forest so maybe they could make jams from seasonal berries (probably more promising than getting Vitamin C from the sea. Also, the point about whether economic factors affect the position of women (or whether it is just down to culture), probably deserves its own thread. $\endgroup$ Mar 28, 2018 at 13:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Worldbuilder_Wannabe Before modern times, you couldn't assure an imported food supply unless you had the merchant vessels to bring your food from wherever and the navy to enforce control of the sea. Examples would be Athens' thalassocracy, Rome of the late Republic and Empire, Constantinople, and Venice. If they get their food imported, then they aren't a mining backwater, they are a naval empire. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Mar 28, 2018 at 14:10
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    $\begingroup$ It's easy enough to change "no arable land" to "almost no arable land." Perhaps the amount of arable land is tiny compared to the number of people who could most efficiently exploit the local resources. Over the course of centuries, they might selectively breed, say, a citrus plant and a berry plant that are perfectly adapted to the harsh, mountainous conditions. They're eaten in trace quantities, but are ultra-high in a few essential vitamins to supplement the imported cereal grains and preserved meats that provide virtually all caloric intake and protein. $\endgroup$
    – Josh
    Mar 28, 2018 at 19:07

Maybe the role of women wouldn't be as you expect.

Since the men have to grow strong and focus on mining, metal working and fighting. The women could have the monopole over things that need less strength like jewelry crafting, trading and also on the science overall (teaching, learning and improving tech level) if they have a lot more of time to think (since they don't work on the "main" ressources of your peoples).

Like every civilisations, when the people starts to have free time, the tech improve. And since the men would be always training to improve their fighting skills, the women may be the social and cultural elite that could rule over them.

Of course polygamy can still be a thing for men if there's a lot of them dying in mines and fights.

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    $\begingroup$ Mining is a lot less high impact than people think, endurance is more important than strength, many minerals are fairly easy to break up. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Mar 27, 2018 at 13:35
  • $\begingroup$ @John Nice point, and moreover women may go into less accessible place in mines since they are more agile (if they don't use child labour for theses) $\endgroup$
    – Calaom
    Mar 28, 2018 at 6:26

In modern capitalist societies resource-rich regions tend to be colonized by powerful states and corporations to extract the wealth. The region itself often remains quite poor - think West Virginia or Wales - because the local people are exploited for their labor and the environment despoiled but the wealth is kept by the elites of the colonizing power. (Jane Jacobs discusses this but I can't recall in which book.) A related model is the Canadian tar sands, where migratory workers earn good money but return to their economically poor areas and spend much of it there, leaving the region culturally underdeveloped.

I can't say this would apply to every economic system but it's something to consider.


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