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I'm working in a low-fantasy setting of roughly mid-Renaissance development. Basically Earth-like with some mildly out-there plants and animals, but nothing overtly magical. I see a lot of questions about how huge cities work under these conditions and how big they can get, but not much information about midsize ones.

The specific setting is a smallish city run by an oligarchy of rich tradesmen/guilders. It has a lot of mines and its primary industries are related: iron working, silver working, etc.; it imports most of its food in return for these products. It has a supply of water along a good-sized river. The climate is on the cold side of temperate; to the south (this is in the southern hemisphere) there are some serious mountains that get very inhospitable, but it's not that bad where the town is located.

Historically, it was never a major administrative center like a provincial capital; it also doesn't have any religious/cultural significance (yet). It's connected to a very important trade route (where all the weapons and jewelry and such go) but it isn't a hub - there's basically nothing south of it.

Essentially, it's important in its region, but not in terms of the wider world.

So the question is twofold - how many people would live in and around the city (or town or whatever), and how many soldiers could it raise for long-term campaigning? I know there's a lot of factors that go into something like this, so an order-of-magnitude estimate is fine. I mostly just want to know if I'm going to end up with the kind of army where fifty or a hundred guys is a noteworthy force, or if I need to start drawing up regimental heraldry.


marked as duplicate by James May 25 '18 at 5:34

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to worldbuilding.SE! When you have a moment, please take our tour and visit our help center to learn more about us. As stated, this question will be closed as either too broad or primraily opnion-based because there isn't enough information about it. We know nothing of the geography of the region, nothing of the raw materials available to it, nothing about the quantity of trade that passes through it, etc. People will live almost everywhere, but growth is a function of desirability. What is desirable about this city? What is not? Thanks! $\endgroup$ – JBH May 24 '18 at 14:35
  • $\begingroup$ You should have the city able to survive on a subsistence diet of grain and/or root crops. As Mark Olsen said, transporting food in the medieval age was difficult. Having enough food to survive, they'll still want to import different food from nearby regions, but won't starve if there's a bad storm or a caravan is delayed. $\endgroup$ – Dan Clarke May 24 '18 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH I was afraid of that. What sort of details would be most vital to nail down? And would I be better served by establishing a size I want and working backwards from that? I suppose my ultimate problem is I don't have a good feel for where different sizes fit in terms of big or small towns in that period. $\endgroup$ – Cadence May 24 '18 at 15:05
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    $\begingroup$ Except for the geographic details, you've basically described Pittsburgh or Manchester (UK). $\endgroup$ – Anthony May 24 '18 at 17:44

Maybe the easiest way to answer this question is to look at our own past. Are there any cities in Europe or perhaps China in a similar situation? Perhaps in the Harz Mountains in Germany? If you can identify a similar situation, you'll have a pretty good and pretty realistic example to work from.

I would note that importing most of their food in a medieval environment isn't likely to be very stable, and would tend to limit the population. Long-distance transport of food on a regular basis and over many years needs a pretty well-settled and policed countryside in between. The Medieval world was not at all good at supplying that! So I'd not expect your city to be huge.

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    $\begingroup$ Regarding food supply - my thinking was that the main source wasn't that far distant, along the route the metal traders are already using (which is why I wasn't worried about robbers - why rob a merchant going up with wheat when you could rob one going down with silver?). I suppose in that case the city would just set itself up further downriver and have the ore barged in rather than the grain, which would work for the story. $\endgroup$ – Cadence May 24 '18 at 15:01
  • $\begingroup$ How's the wheat being paid for? Silver? That would be stolen, also. Long-distance transport of significant quantities of food over land requires a stable infrastructure of roads, payments, and commerce. It needs to be in a country where things like civil war don't wipe out the peasantry too often, also. And where the merchants are allowed to buy and sell and transport. (This is all for a distant food source; if the food source is nearby, it would normally be ruled by the city which would provide the security.) $\endgroup$ – Mark Olson May 24 '18 at 15:12
  • $\begingroup$ I think I'll just move the city further down towards the plains, leaving some settlements behind to deal with all the really noxious parts of metalworking you don't want in your city anyway. And I'll definitely look into places in e.g. Germany that would provide a good template. With that it shouldn't be hard to come up with a reasonable range. $\endgroup$ – Cadence May 24 '18 at 15:52
  • $\begingroup$ Manchester. A city crucial to Great Britain but insignificant to the world. Also Pittsburgh, Detroit, Birmingham, and I'm sure something found in any other nation throughout history. And they generally rely on the rich city for military protection in exchange for men (the poor always fight the front line) and raw materials (that iron is essential during wartime). $\endgroup$ – Anthony May 24 '18 at 17:59

Standing Armies are Very Rare in European History

Historically European military forces were actually pretty small during peace time. The rank of private today comes from the renaissance period where "private soldiers" were hired on for the duration of a military campaign. Nation's tended to rapidly build large armies as needed using a combination of conscription and mercenary hiring and just as rapidly get rid of them once the conflict was over. In the interim they tended to maintain small part time militias that were essentially just for keeping town watch, deterring riots, and collecting taxes. Feeding, paying, and housing an army is incredibly expensive so once they weren't needed a nation got rid of them as quickly as they could, standing armies didn't really become a thing until the industrial revolution made it affordable to equip and feed them.

To illustrate the history a bit, the term "soldier" comes from latin "solidus" into franko/germanic "soldner" or "soulde" which means "one who fights for wages." The word Soldier literally means "earns wages." The legendary Doppel Soldners of Germanic origin wielded giant zweihander swords and wore heavy armor, they were sent into the teeth of musket and pike formations to use their giant swords to hack apart the pikes so that cavalry and follow on forces would attack without being stuck full of spears or perforated with bullets. Doppel Soldner literally translates as "double wages" since they arrived equipped with the finest equipment and took on the most deadly jobs they got paid double.

So to specify, a renaissance era city state's army size is not dependent upon it's population, but its funds. The army does not have to come from your populace, a plethora of mercenaries roamed across Europe in that period willing to show up with their own equipment and fight whomever you want for the right price. They might even show up in pre-organized companies or regiments of men with their own officers and chain of command. Armies of the era typically were conglomerations of your own native conscripts, mercenary bands, and lead by your nobility and their own private forces. The mercenary aspect or renaissance combat means an army can be as big as you can afford to hire.

  • $\begingroup$ I seem to remember from my Russian history classes that the tsar was always meticulous about the army and its uniforms. Maybe this would be post medieval Europe, but weren't there some countries/states that maintained a standing military as a point of pride? Meaning the army (or navy) had value that went further than the immediate value of security and into a symbolic value? $\endgroup$ – Anthony May 24 '18 at 17:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Anthony most European royals maintained impressively decorative palace guards, but few did more. One purpose of the Feudal system was to replace the need for (Roman-style) standing armies. Remember that Renaissance-era armies were usually paid from the King's personal funds -State treasuries didn't exist most places- and that standing armies were (and are) tremendously expensive. $\endgroup$ – user535733 May 24 '18 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ Anthony, you are referring to the Victorian era of history up to about ww1. Industrialization made weapons and supplies cheap enough that massive standing armies were formed in Europe. Society became highly regimented (litally) and it was considered practically standard to spend at least an enlistment in the army as a point of national pride. From the 1850's to the 1900's war had become romanticized to the point that people really did see spiffy uniforms as a critical element of military buildup. A common element of the industrial period was how machinery had made manpower and thus life cheap. $\endgroup$ – TCAT117 May 24 '18 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ I hadn't intended for it to be a standing army; in my notes the only standing forces are some small household guards for the guilders, and the town watch and caravan guards if you want to count those. I was more curious when they do conscript and otherwise raise troops, how many they end up with. I wanted to avoid large-scale use of mercenaries for in-setting reasons (it would bring them to the attention of powers they really don't want the attention of). $\endgroup$ – Cadence May 24 '18 at 23:01
  • $\begingroup$ then it seems you answered your own question then. "not many." $\endgroup$ – TCAT117 May 24 '18 at 23:09

Example: Toulouse, France had an estimated population of about 30,000-35,000 between 1500 and 1600. The nearby region --miles of farms-- housed approximately 350,000 during the same period.

In a pre-industrial (high birth-rate, high death-rate) society, that means about 2/3 of the population are children, since about half won't survive to (rather short) adulthood.

Assuming also that your city excludes women from military service, that leaves about 5000 adult males in the city, and 50,000 adult males in the countryside.

Now subtract out the rich, the insane, the priests, the crippled, and the others incapable of any kind of useful service. That leaves about 45,000 males to defend the region, including 5,000 in the city.

Now subtract out the tradesmen and merchants and others upon whom the city's economy and essential services depend. They may defend the city, but cannot march away on a seasonal campaign. That leaves about 20,000 men (mostly farmers) for seasonal campaign service (they must be home for planting and harvest)...if the local leaders can afford to pay them!

But you didn't ask for seasonal campaign service. You asked for long-term campaign service, so subtract out the older farmers with families that will otherwise starve. Also remember that campaigns require sustainment (food), and distant campaigns will require long wagon trains operated by an increasing number of soldiers to keep everyone fed. So somewhere around 5,000-7,500 for a long campaign, and anther couple thousand for sustainment.

But wait, there's more.

An Army is more than just Soldiers. An Army is about money first and foremost. Soldiers without pay simply go home. Soldiers without food and equipment tend to desert and go home. The limiting factor of a small city's ability to wage war is NOT the number of available soldiers, it's the funds available to pay, equip, and feed them.

One small Renaissance-era city simply cannot generate enough wealth to sustain thousands of soldiers for more than a very brief period of time...that's why wars in Europe during this period tended to be short and seasonal.

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    $\begingroup$ You've got your demographics wrong. Men living to adulthood were very likely to survive into their 60s; women who survived their childbearing years had similarly long lifespans. The death rate for children wasn't 50%, but more typically 75%-80%, and most of those deaths occurred before the age of 5. $\endgroup$ – Mark May 24 '18 at 22:40
  • $\begingroup$ I think "long-term" is probably not what I meant - initially they'll do fine with seasonal soldiers (they're mostly throwing their weight around with other small players in the region), but I'll definitely keep the time and distance constraints in mind. Regarding manpower, one of the reasons I wanted a mining town was so the miners, foresters, and the like would be a source of troops - your miners not mining is bad for the economy, obviously, but it doesn't lead to (immediate) famine. $\endgroup$ – Cadence May 24 '18 at 22:55
  • $\begingroup$ Looking at these numbers it seems even more impressive how they managed to gather so many troops for the Crusades, where they would be away from home for years. $\endgroup$ – vsz May 25 '18 at 5:30

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