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I’m writing a D&D campaign. The closest period of time in the real world that the setting of my story comes to is medieval Europe. (I don't know exactly where or when, but it doesn't matter since it isn't historical fiction.)

The campaign involves the player characters spending time in several small villages and towns inhabited by commoners. The common people are independent and are not owned by land or other people, like serfs were in medieval Europe. There is no slavery (in most places), and the people make their livings by acting as farmers, merchants, artisans, or business owners (e.g. innkeeper). In one particular region, most of the commoners are farmers, and each family (of 4–6 individuals) owns their own small farm. I’m wondering... how big (by acreage and volume) were such farms in the middle ages?

  • How many acres of crops could a family be expected to maintain with the tools available at that time period? Is it different for orchards?
  • For animal farms, how many animals could a single family realistically maintain, again when limited by the primitive tools available in that period?
  • How many acres per animal were necessary to support each of the following animals?
    • Cow
    • Horse
    • Sheep
    • Pig
    • Goat
    • Chicken
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn History.SE sent me here. history.stackexchange.com/q/48174/33353 $\endgroup$
    – KSchank
    Sep 18 '18 at 21:51
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    $\begingroup$ KShank, when on WB, ask a WB question. When on History, ask a History question. That means to scrap all of the first paragraph except "How big (by acreage ) were farms in the middle ages?" Then, it's (probably) a perfectly valid history question, while still telling you what you need to know for your fantasy. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Sep 19 '18 at 2:39
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    $\begingroup$ To repeat. REAL WORLD QUESTION ARE ON TOPIC FOR WORLDBUILDING. See: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/help/on-topic $\endgroup$
    – James
    Sep 19 '18 at 5:23
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn This has been discussed and I think I have mentioned it to you specifically before. worldbuilding.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/6161/… $\endgroup$
    – James
    Sep 19 '18 at 5:26
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    $\begingroup$ @ColonelPanic It is good SE practice to delete comments that are no longer needed. The delete could be for many different reasons; you could just assume you convinced AlexP if you'd like. The correct response would be to delete your comments as well if they are now obsolete. $\endgroup$
    – Loduwijk
    Sep 19 '18 at 18:11
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This is a fundamental misunderstanding of agriculture in Medieval Europe

Individual and family ownership of land was not a strongly developed concept in the Middle Ages. Instead of land ownership, the dominant concept was "right to use." A noble had "right to use" of his demesne, use meaning claiming much of the excess produce and taxing the inhabitants.

A peasant's "right to use" was generally held at the community level. A community would have the right to use certain sets of lands, while other lands were the properly of the local lord. In return for labor on the lord's lands, the lord ensured that the peasant's right to use their own lands were not violated.

This is a simplification, the systems were myriad. Land use could be deeded to kings, urban magnates, abbots, whoever. Land use changed much over time, as well.

For the 'classical' manorial system of Merrie England stereotypes, see the open field system for more descriptions of how this worked. Also, check out serfdom to get an idea about whether peasants might be free or not. Finally, look at the overview in Agriculture in the Middle Ages to see alternative systems.

To try to answer your question more directly, a study of Elton, England the Gies' Life in a Medieval Village showed that between 500-600 people in the village farmed 758 ha (1872 acres) of land. 182 ha (451 acres) belonged to the lord of the manor, an abbot, and the rest fed the peasants. The village had 113 'tenants' working the entire area; so the remainder of the ~400 people were women, children, and the aged.

This works out to about 12.5 acres per family.

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    $\begingroup$ this is all true, but does not contradict the setting: a family working a dedicated field. I know of settings where lord would grant land use rights to individual families rather than entire villages. OP got the legal framework wrong, but I do not think it matters for what he is doing. $\endgroup$
    – Bald Bear
    Sep 18 '18 at 20:27
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    $\begingroup$ The legal status of land ownership varied greatly. The specifically English system where nobody actually owned land (I don't even know if in modern times English people can own land) is specifically English. Elsewhere there was a mixture of communal ownership, feudal rights-of-use, private ownership, and crown (aka public) ownership. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 18 '18 at 20:34
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    $\begingroup$ @BaldBear Then I gave some numbers, there $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Sep 18 '18 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ This is a very good overview. Wise choice to not delve into every culture's weird corner cases. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Sep 18 '18 at 22:34
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A document drafted by the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension has a table listing "Suggested Space and Housing Guidelines for Fully Mature Farm Animals". It applies to small, family-sized farms. For the use of others who may be interested, I'll list some of the information below (information is listed per animal):

  • Horse
    • Housing: 5' x 9' tie stall or 10' x 10' box stall in an enclosed or open-front 3-sided barn (50 ft. setback)
    • Yard: 200 sq. ft.
    • Pasture: 1–2 acres
    • Quantity: 1 horse per family member
  • Cow (Beef)
    • Housing: 75–100 sq. ft. in open-front 3-sided barn (50 ft. setback)
    • Yard: 100–125 sq. ft.
    • Pasture: 1–2 acres
    • Quantity: ½–1 beef cow per year; raise 2 per year for continuous supply
  • Cow (Dairy)
    • Housing: 75–100 sq. ft. in enclosed or open-front 3-sided barn (50 ft. setback)
    • Yard: 100–125 sq. ft.
    • Pasture: 1–2 acres
    • Quantity: 1–2 cows
  • Goat
    • Housing: 20–25 sq. ft. in enclosed barn (50 ft. setback)
    • Yard: 50 sq. ft.
    • Pasture: 0.2–0.3 acres
    • Quantity: 2–3 goats
  • Pig
    • Housing: 48 sq. ft. with exercise yard (100 sq. ft. without exercise yard) in enclosed shelter (50 ft. setback)
    • Yard: 200 sq. ft.
    • Pasture: 12–14 sows per acre
    • Quantity: 2 pigs per year
  • Sheep
    • Housing: 20–25 sq. ft. in open-front 3-sided shed (50 ft. setback)
    • Yard: 50 sq. ft.
    • Pasture: 0.2–0.3 acres
    • Quantity: 6 sheep
  • Chicken (Eggs)
    • Housing: 3–4 sq. ft. in enclosed barn (50 ft. setback)
    • Yard: 10 sq. ft.
    • Pasture: —
    • Quantity: 6 hens
  • Chicken (Meat)
    • Housing: 3–4 sq. ft. in enclosed barn (50 ft. setback)
    • Yard: —
    • Pasture: —
    • Quantity: 24 chickens
  • Turkey
    • Housing: 6 sq. ft. in enclosed barn (50 ft. setback)
    • Yard: 20 sq. ft.
    • Pasture: 100 sq. ft.
    • Quantity: 12 turkeys
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    $\begingroup$ is that modern or medieval yields and animal weight? $\endgroup$
    – John
    Sep 19 '18 at 5:16
  • $\begingroup$ @John, the information is relevant for modern times, but I assume that while species of animals and domestication techniques are significantly different a thousand years apart, this information is close enough for the intended purpose. $\endgroup$
    – KSchank
    Sep 19 '18 at 5:52
  • $\begingroup$ No medieval farmer will keep 24 chickens in 3-4sq ft alive for very long. Due to things like disease, caloric density in the foods, parasites, etc the modern numbers, especially for poultry, are going to be considerably off of what happened in medieval times. A lot of these numbers appear to be from commercial ventures which wouldn't have been an order of magnitude of what happened 700 years ago. And not to mention, one meat or diary animal now produces much more usable product, so even a one-to-one comparison of animal count wouldn't make much sense. $\endgroup$ Sep 19 '18 at 14:53
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The Doomsday survey is your friend here. This article puts it at 30 acres per household during the late medieval period, mostly because medieval farming techniques are poor. Note, of course, not all of this is actually farmed at once (rotation), and it is only an average.

This question from the history stack indicates 12-22 acres just to feed the family, so 30 to get enough farm for plow animal feed is not bad. Most animals are fed on meadow (unplowed land) Nearby woodlands for wood and hunting are also essential. Note some of your animals will be fed partially on farm by-product.

You need a way to plow the land unless they are part of a large village with common shared oxen. Oxen were often the most important animal on a farm. As per above medieval farm land produced about 5 (4-6)bushels of grain per acre (~10 produced 5 used for seed using the above sources)

According to this question the weight of said animals is

A]round the year 1000, an adult pig weighed around 70-80 kg, a sheep 20 to 30 kg, and a cow or ox 200 to 250 kg . . . In comparison, at the beginning of the twentieth century, an ox weighed in the region of 650 kg, a sheep from 50-150 kg, and a pig from 100-200 kg.

Comet, Georges. "Technology and agricultural expansion in the middle ages: the example of France north of the Loire." Astill, Grenville G., and John Langdon, eds. Medieval farming and technology: The impact of agricultural change in Northwest Europe. Brill, 1997.

Grazing animals need about 4% of their body weight per day in forage, or 1460% of their weight per year.

How rich the meadowland is for grazing matters a lot. For good forage a good average is ~10,000 lbs per acre per year is a good average for good on tended pasture land (kansas ryegrass).

Barley, the best animals feed available at the time, yields about 250 lbs per acre per year, accounting for lower yields (pigs*, chickens). Hay and other farmed forage yields about 4-5000lbs per acre per year.(cows, oxen, sheep, goats) Note pigs will also eat a lot of garbage reducing their needs, one of the reasons they were considered poor people's food. Chickens will eat a lot of pests off crops also reducing their needs.

How much land each animal needs will depend on how long your winters are and thus how much farmland they need as compared to meadow. This varies quite a lot across europe.

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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget for grains a large percentage of the crop would be held back for planting the next season's crop. This could easily reach 30% of the harvest. And storage losses were considerably higher back in this time period, meaning even further drops in efficiencies which most people don't think about. $\endgroup$ Sep 19 '18 at 15:03
  • $\begingroup$ That is included in both calculations, i will make it clearer. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Sep 19 '18 at 15:09
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Mathaddict's answer is completely out of touch with reality. First let us start with the fact that a human being requires 3 pounds of food per day and that a peasant is going to eat a one pound loaf of bread eat day. Let us wrongly assume a pound of grain yield a pound of flour and that yield a pound of bread. Ok, even if we look at wheat tortilla of 30 bushels per acre from the 1920's or 30's and a bushel weighs 60 pounds, then even if we don't hold back a couple bushels of grain per acre for seeds that is only 1800 pounds of grain per acre. At a pound of grain per day that is only 600 days. Add in beer and it is closer to the hundred days. Given an acre is 4 rods by 40 rods (66 ft x 660 ft, equivalent to 72.6x600 or 145.2x300) to suggest sufficient grain could be had from from 3000 sq.ft. (aka about 1/14-1/15th of an acre) is massive to say the least and completely wrong.

Then their is milling kids, the miller's fee for grinding, the baker's fee for baking, and the fact that towels were usually under 12 bushels per acre (typical 6-12) and this holding back seed was as another started could be up to a third of the yield. So figure 3x-5x that one acre and you have a rough estimate, and 2.5 access or so of tilted field in active use would be much closer to correct just to get the 400+ pounds of grain to get their daily bread. Given advanced three field rotation they might get peas or beans as well, or animal feed on the second field, and the third fallow, and thus need about 8 access in the field per person. Meadows, grazing land, and woods as more.

Where he is almost right is that fruits and vegetables will add more, and that is largely "farmed" on the toft and croft.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome D.M. Could you add units for your equivalents and check for typos too. Making your maths a bit clearer might also help as there seem to be "oddities". We don't use answers for making a critique of other's answers, so please edit that out. Please take our tour and refer to the help center for guidance as to our ways. Enjoy the site. $\endgroup$ Nov 1 at 13:02
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The tools of farming have only made farming less labor intensive, not really decreasing the amount of land needed to produce a crop. Modern knowledge (crop rotating and fertilization etc.) have decreased the amount of land needed. In a D&D campaign it would depend on whether your peasants have a skill, profession, or knowledge of farming techniques or not. If at least one member of the family have the knowledge or skill they could probably match today's crop yield/acre given fertile soils. However if they do not have the skill I'd say that two to three times the acreage would be needed.

Today's subsistence farming on a per person basis:

1 year of wheat = 3,000 ft^2 (plus what is needed for livestock)

1 year of vegetables and fruits (assuming a full vegetarian diet) = 19,000 ft^2 (depending on what types are used)

1 year of meat (pigs, cows, etc) = 50 ft^2

1 year of Dairy = 25 ft^2

1 year of eggs = 20 ft^2

1 year of corn = 650 ft^2

All of this comes to a little more than 1/2 acre per person. So 2.1 acres for a family of 4 or 3.2 acres for a family of 6.

It should also be noted that this is just to subsist, not to get ahead, make profit, produce goods for barter, or have food storage for bad years. For that you would want 25%-100% more land.

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    $\begingroup$ This is incorrect, because modern farming techniques/gmos/hybrid cultivars are far more productive then older strains. You also don't take into account waste due to rats, lack of water, pests.... but your number serves as a good minimum. $\endgroup$ Sep 19 '18 at 1:05
  • $\begingroup$ Please note that those are not tools, and my estimates don't include any of those advantages. $\endgroup$
    – Mathaddict
    Sep 19 '18 at 14:31
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    $\begingroup$ Using modern tools, we've massively increased the size of fields, increased irrigation, seed density, seed germination rates, planting and harvesting rates, the list goes on. Every single one of these has decreased the amount of land needed to produce a crop. $\endgroup$ Sep 19 '18 at 15:00
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It varied a lot

You will get a lot of different answers because soil conditions, crop types, and weather are going to be so different from one place to the next. The most common farm layout would be the 3-crop rotation farm. Following this model, you divide your land into 3 equal sections. 1 section is for grain (like wheat or rye), the next is for lignums (peas, lentils, or beans), and the last field is fallow which you would let your livestock graze on. And you rotate your crops each year to keep the soil fertile.

In general, a single acre of wheat in the medieval period could yield anywhere from 0.5-1.5 million calories of grain per year, lignums would yield about half of that, then your livestock's yield could be anywhere from nothing edible (just feeding your draft animals) to producing similar yields to your lignums. This means that the average acre could be producing anywhere from 0.25-1.0 million calories of food per year. The average 5 person household consumes about 3.65 million calories per year; so, a fertile plot in an ideal climate zone could be as small as ~4 acres, but in less ideal areas, a minimal farm could be closer to 16 acres to support a family that size. That said, the improvements in agriculture you see in the medieval period meant that in some regions, a single household could work an area as large as 100 acres producing not just enough to feed their own family, but a generous excess.

So to answer your question, it could realistically be anywhere from 4-100 acres per household. It just depends on how good the climate is and how wealthy you want your farmers to be.

But this is for D&D:

Since this is for a setting where magic exists, farms may actually get much smaller (or larger). If your farmers possess magic, they may be able to to back-to-back planting by magically fixing the soil. They may be able to ward their crops against pests and natural disasters. They could maybe even accelerate plant growth. So if this is the case, your farmers could possibly meet or beat any modern farming techniques to get field sizes down to however arbitrarily small or large you like.

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