There is a video about why certain cities are a specific distance apart and how it has to do with travel capabilities of the time and other economic reasons.

I was wondering how this applied to medieval settings, considering that food production was less than what it was right before the industrial revelation took hold (which is the time that many of the cities mentioned in the video were founded).

I read somewhere that using data from the Domesday Book historians were able to calculate that the average village size was ~150, but that doesn't really explain how far apart they were. Given how much food could reliably be produced per acre, is there a formula for how many cities, towns, and other settlements an area of land could support?


closed as off-topic by Mołot, Giter, L.Dutch, Ash, Mark Olson Jun 19 '18 at 17:08

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  • $\begingroup$ Do you mean how far apart would they be if food was the only factor? $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Jun 19 '18 at 13:13
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, anarchistjudge! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. You may also find Worldbuilding Meta and The Sandbox (both of which require 5 rep to post on) useful. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – FoxElemental Jun 19 '18 at 13:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Ash, Domesday book is British, 100% of the population lives with 100miles of the coastline. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Jun 19 '18 at 13:37
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    $\begingroup$ Please, consider asking this on History stack exchange, or adding your worldbuilding context. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Jun 19 '18 at 13:38
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    $\begingroup$ There are whole books of Economic Geography (and not a few PhDs granted) on this topic. Food production defined only the maximum population of an area. Other factors (historical, political, economic, cultural, technological, etc) determined how that population was arranged or structured. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Jun 19 '18 at 14:51

Back in the Middle Ages, travel was all on foot, be they your own, or a horse's. Thus it would all be about the same speed (3-4mph typically). Travellers would want somewhere safe to sleep at night, and villages could only really lay claim to land somewhat less than half a day's walk of it (less than half a day there, do some work, less than half a day back home), meaning that the nearest settlements were all approximately one day's walk away from each other.

At 3.5mph, walking for 8 hours, that would mean you'd come across a village every 28 miles. The original definition of a town was a settlement that had a weekly market. Thus most villagers would go to town to trade for what ever they can't produce at home. Thus towns would have to be close enough that villagers weren't travelling too far. Typically, this would mean that towns would be about three days away from one another (with the two intervening nights being at villages), with the nearest villages each coming to the town for trade.

Cities, being one step up from towns, would be the source of products that were unavailable in your local town. They would typically be just over a week travel from one another, with two towns and six villages between them.

This is all very subjective to geography however. Highly fertile lands means that settlements could be closer together, infertile lands, means they are further apart. Rivers were a faster means of travel and a source of water, so settlements tend to grow around them.

This fact can actually be observed when comparing the United Kingdom, which is riddled with tiny villages, and the United States, which has settlements much further apart, due to a day's travel being a much longer distance when you have access to cars and trains.

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    $\begingroup$ Somewhat less than half a day's walk for a village. It's walk out, work the field, walk back. Each village would be no more than your day's travel from the nearest market town. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Jun 19 '18 at 14:22
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    $\begingroup$ I'd love to see a citation for that "original definition". $\endgroup$ – mattdm Jun 19 '18 at 15:25
  • $\begingroup$ It's wikipedia, but here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Market_town I'll add it into the answer shortly. $\endgroup$ – Kyyshak Jun 19 '18 at 15:33

Short answer no, there is no quick and easy formula to do more than very vaguely estimate the spacing you're asking about, because there are far too many variables to consider in the real world:

  • traditionally rivers were used as the primary highway for moving livestock and goods so towns and villages cluster on their banks. Rivers also provided water power for mills etc... so this effect is amplified as time goes on and technology advances, to a point. Later the road network becomes important as well.

  • farms are generally worked by people who live on them, so it's transportation of surpluses to sale at market not the production of basic foodstuffs that has an effect on where towns are even within a flat, idealised farming landscape with perfectly "efficient spacing".

  • fuel be it wood or coal is rarely evenly distributed within the landscape so the location of it's sources and the logistics of it's transportation will have a marked effect on where people can live within any landscape. This effect is amplified in accordance with the population density so towns have to have, on average, better access to fuel than isolated farms.

  • the availability of other raw materials like building stone, metal ore, and/or construction grade timber will have a sharp influence on how much a settlement in a given place can prosper.

  • coastlines also tend to attract populations because of the relative ease of gathering calories from the sea versus the land so that's a factor in the development and distribution of population centres.

The above is not an exhaustive list but I believe it covers the most important factors that you need to look at when starting to place the population centres in your world regardless of the era you wish to emulate.

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    $\begingroup$ Also, not all the land is equal. Populations would establish themselves near the best farmland, while forests and deserts would be left uninhabited. Politics would come into play, too (fronteir lands would be way riskier). $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Jun 19 '18 at 15:17
  • $\begingroup$ @SJuan76 Actually, the forests weren't left uninhabited, most farmland in Europe is former forest. $\endgroup$ – Ross Ridge Jun 19 '18 at 16:58

Many towns and villages in Europe date back to the Middle Ages. I spent some time in Germany walking from village to village and there was usually some other village within couple hours of walking. Most of those villages are many centuries old, so just looking at the current villages and towns on Google Maps in a rural area should give you a rough idea. Areas around industrial cities are probably a lot different than they used to be, but rural areas haven't changed tremendously.

Occasionally, the towns and villages were destroyed in war, but were rarely abandoned completely. Likewise, new villages and towns were rarely established in later centuries unless nearby industry spurred those changes. Towns and villages waxed and waned in importance, but usually didn't disappear completely.

Farmers still migrate from their villages to their fields and back again. They do it now by tractor instead of walking, but the village spacing hasn't changed because of modern mechanization.

As mentioned in previous posts, different land areas will have different village spacing, depending on land fertility. Village spacing in rural southern Germany is probably different than spacing in rural northern Germany (southern Germany has more hills), which probably differs from some area of rural England. The village spacing in some area of rural Sweden or Norway would be different from the aforementioned areas because of the geography and climate of the region. It's hard to achieve great population density with a lot of forests, rocky mountains, and short summers.

So I would recommend finding some rural areas in Google Maps that aren't near any major industrial centers and look at the spacing of the towns and villages there. They may be bigger or smaller than 500 years ago, but the chances are that the spacing is similar.


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