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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 I don't know that it matters 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
  • $\begingroup$ @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. $\endgroup$ – ColonelPanic 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 of meadow (unplowed land) Nearby woodlands for wood and hunting is also essential. Note some 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 reason they were considered poor people 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. $\endgroup$ – ColonelPanic 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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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. $\endgroup$ – Garret Gang 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
  • $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$ – ColonelPanic Sep 19 '18 at 15:00

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