Many fantasy worlds use a “Medieval Stasis”trope. What resources could we expect to become depleted during a stasis? Surely, since technology is stagnant, the people would mine all the materials they could reach and exploit whatever they could. Smelting and recycling isn’t a perfect process with medieval technology. There is often wasted/ruined material.

What resources can we expect will be depleted and on what timescales? Let’s base this off of a 200AD Roman Empire for our technology basis.

  • $\begingroup$ Unfortunately the only way to find out is to go through such an stasis. $\endgroup$ Dec 15, 2018 at 3:04
  • $\begingroup$ There is nowhere near enough data ot answer this question. What geographic area are we talking about? What is the population? Over what range should the resource depletion be analyzed? Note that if we take 200AD Rome as the focal point in all aspects, the answer is "practically infinite." There wasn't enough people or industry to deplete anything other than forests. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Dec 15, 2018 at 4:09
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    $\begingroup$ Stasis implies infinite years. Many fantasy worlds have “histories” that span hundreds of thousands of years. $\endgroup$ Dec 15, 2018 at 7:44
  • $\begingroup$ The medieval period was one of continual advancement, largely driven by depletion of ready to access resources, in particular energy. The discovery of an effective way to burn coal marks the transition between medieval and Renaissance periods. $\endgroup$
    – pojo-guy
    Dec 15, 2018 at 9:25

2 Answers 2

  • Soil
    Depending on the agricultural methods (lack of crop rotation, etc.) the quality of over-used fields might go down. Especially if the population density is too high to give them time to recover. Slopes are getting farmed, grass cover is plowed under, rain causes gullies, the topsoil erodes.

  • Wood
    The use of firewood, building timber, and charcoal exceeds the regeneration capacity of the forests. There was significant deforestation during Roman times. Some time later, the Royal Navy had problems to find timber.

  • Fish
    Probably not on the high seas, but overfishing can be an issue in lakes or rivers.

  • Circus Animals
    Not a critical resource, but Europe ran out of lions during historical ages. It is unclear how much that was the use of lions for entertainment purposes or the extermination of lions for livestock protection.

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    $\begingroup$ Good answer. The drive for resources was what led to the innovations that mark the boundary with the Renaissance. $\endgroup$
    – pojo-guy
    Dec 15, 2018 at 9:21
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps a section on metals might be relevant? Medieval technology would only allow the exploitation of relatively easy deposits. Once these deposits are mined the only sources will be recycling. Due to slag waste of medieval smelting I’d imagine that on a long enough timescale many metals could grow scarce $\endgroup$ Dec 15, 2018 at 10:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Hippeus_Lancer Yeah. Iron is extremely plentiful but running out of the most dense concentrations of it would require innovation (in feudal Japan they used iron sands and ingots were very precious). Running out of either copper or tin would make bronze production impossible, for what that's worth. Mining and then running out or gold or silver could force an economic readjustment. $\endgroup$
    – Eikre
    Dec 15, 2018 at 22:29
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    $\begingroup$ Also: It's sort of covered by "circus animals" but certain practical beasts like Elephants might end up extinct in the wild/in general. Much like fish, game such as boars, stag, and aurauchs can only handle so much hunting. You would also most certainly see social depletions where slave economies run out of dominions, land holdings get split up too many times among heirs, or wealth consolidation becomes too great to sustain the particular organization of your society. $\endgroup$
    – Eikre
    Dec 15, 2018 at 22:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Hippeus_Lancer, I wonder how long that can be overcome by digging just a little bit deeper, without a fundamental change in technologies (like steam pumps). $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Dec 16, 2018 at 5:01

There is something paradoxical about the idea of a stasis with resource depletion, because the pre-depleted stages of the "stasis" must be quite different from the post-depleted stages. Here are some things that would run out quite fast: copper, tin, silver and gold deposits that could be exploited with medieval technology. Recycling of these metals would be feasible, but there would always be losses, which would over time exceed newly smelted replacements. I would think that in late-stasis, non-ferrous metals would be much more rare and valuable than early on. Also, deposits of unusual stone - like the white marble worked by Michelangelo - would become depleted. Also, even primitive humans were responsible for the extinction of many animals, and it's quite believable that a continent like Europe could be entirely without predators like wolves and bears if it got stuck in a long medieval phase.

The fact that even the Romans could achieve significant deforestation and overfishing tells me that this would be a serious concern. This means that any believable stasis would include periods of environmental recovery. In Europe, plagues and barbarian victories allowed some of this recovery, and we might think of other means of periodic massive human dieoffs that allow for environmental resets. Each phase of recovery would be a bit harder than the last, because of the resource depletion.

A less obvious enemy of stasis is the domestication of wild species, which wouldn't backslide in crises, and would produce increasingly useful crops and farm animals. This would gradually increase the efficiency of agriculture and allow for greater population density over time.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE! We're glad you could join us! When you have a moment, please click here to learn more about our culture and take our tour. This was a good first answer. Cheers! $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Dec 16, 2018 at 23:27

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