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I've been twiddling values in the donjon Medieval Demographics Calculator and The Domesday Book, both based on Medieval Demographics Made Easy by S. John Ross (sorry, links I've found to this document are either dead or a password locked PDF). I'm after starting a human-centric fantasy RPG campaign initially set in "Nowhere" -- a place so off the beaten path that they might not notice for a year or two if the rest of the world just vanished one night. My actual tech level will be late 15th to early 16th century equivalent -- guns exist, but are still pretty primitive, armor is still worn if fighting is expected, swords haven't become largely fencing weapons (because they still need to deal with armor) -- long range transportation and a few other things are largely irrelevant, because the adventuring center is inland with only a single road passing through and a single small river.

To meet that criterion, I need a place that will be self-sufficient over a period of at least a human lifetime -- call it a century, for ease of handling. That means there can be jobs unfilled, for things that can either be taken over by other workers or aren't genuinely necessary ("hay merchant", for instance -- any farmer can sell his own hay, or some other merchant can handle hay as a sideline). On the other hand, I'll obviously need some jobs that the calculators above say aren't found in small populations, like a blacksmith (someone has to make nails and horse/ox shoes, repair the iron bits of things, and so forth); it seems it takes a larger population than I want to support one of those.

Conversely, at least with the medieval tech level those calculators are based on, even a large enough population to support a single smith is too small to have an actual town of a few hundred souls; instead, there will be roughly a dozen and a half villages barely an hour's walk apart -- which means if Farmer Blue wants new shoes for his ox, on average he'll have to walk (or drive the farm oxcart, at about the same speed) for three or four hours to get to the smithy, wait (possibly hours, even overnight, if the smith is already busy with a "more important" job), then walk or drive the same half day back to his farm.

So -- how small can a ca. 1500 CE town be, agriculturally supported by villages and hamlets and the like, in the absence of a parasitic upper class, and still be self sufficient over a period of at least a century? What are the limiting minima (assume resources -- iron sands or bog iron for the smith, etc. are available)?

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    $\begingroup$ I think if your town started with a smith, and had the equipment, the smith could be a part-time worker. For a mere century, scrap metal recycling would be sufficient, and nails are generally NOT essential for most functions. Many things we imagine you need a smith for today would be done with wood and solid carpentry, rope, etc. Also, with isolation, who needs weapons? Gunsmith, armorer, swordsmith; theses would be irrelevant and highly specialized skills. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Oct 10, 2020 at 16:09
  • $\begingroup$ is it need to be in europe or other place or climate is fine? $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Oct 10, 2020 at 16:43
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    $\begingroup$ "Farmer Blue wants new shoes for his ox": I don't think they used ox shoes in medieval times. And what's wrong with looking at easy examples? Take the island of Gotland; it was always rather isolated; it preserved its own language well into modern-ish times; and even today it has than 60,000 inhabitants. As for the original question, you can compute backwards, starting with the question what does that town do? What are its functions? Then make some assumptions how many users of those functions are needed. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 10, 2020 at 18:30
  • $\begingroup$ Thou shalt add both those links to our list of Worldbuilding Resources. Thankest thou. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Oct 11, 2020 at 5:32
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH I have added the links, and seen that It Is Good. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Oct 11, 2020 at 11:32

4 Answers 4

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Villages tended to do local trade to fulfill rarer needs.

While an average village of 100 or so people wouldn't have a smith, if you have five villages of 100 people, one is bound to have a smith. See Everyday Life in Medieval Europe which shows Cuxham, in south Oxfordshire had a smith despite having just 125 people. People from other nearby villages would come to get the services of their smith, despite them not having enough work for one village. So if you have a town supported by several villages, even if the town doesn't have a smith, a sufficiently skilled smith or several in the villages could supply the town.

Technology can adapt for bad iron sources

You need iron sand or iron ore of course, but there are a variety of technologies to adapt to either that were commonly available at this tech level. You can wash the sand to separate the heavier iron oxide from the silicate sand, and then make it into iron or steel. This reduces your need for mining since you can just collect some sand and make it into horse shoes and nails and such.

A variety of other jobs are needed to be self sufficient.

Ælfric's Colloquy, a tenth century latin textbook about someone walking through a village, explaining why each profession was important, and then getting drunk is a good resource on what you'd need.

In chronological order, you need a ploughman, a shepherd, an oxherd, a hunter of deer, boar and hares, a fisherman, a birdcatcher and hawker, a merchant, a tanner, a salter, a cook, a lawyer, a blacksmith and a carpenter.

You also need wool spinners and weavers, typically the domain of the disabled and women and children, farm workers, a priest, and a doctor/ midwife. Some of the rarer jobs might be distributed across several of the villages or towns. Just as the blacksmith serves several villages, a tanner or salter or carpenter might serve several villages. A local merchant would travel from local town to village to village delivering resources, and on occasion someone might visit a nearby village for services or have a fair where local producers can sell something.

You'll need access to a local grain, some plant that can be weaved into clothes, animals to hunt and manage fields, fish to supply local needs along with a river for water, wood to make valued goods, a source of salt, along with appropriate ores for local needs.

A small cluster of villages and a town could be self sufficient.

While as you say, 100 people can't supply all the needs you need if you have several villages they can each have an expert and trade local goods for their needs. External goods would have a much higher quality, since a city of 10000 people plus can have much more skilled experts and guilds, but you can easily produce basic goods with just a few villages.

They'll have trouble producing any complicated weapons or war. Plate mail and guns and larger weapons often had entire industries dedicated to making them. With a fairly small community they'll have trouble getting the expertise to make these work.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! This answers the question completely. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Jan 9, 2023 at 12:27
  • $\begingroup$ Glad to help you. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Jan 9, 2023 at 13:45
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A single farm can be self sufficient. You'd have some serious inbreeding issues within a century though. That is your real limiter.

Farmers are experienced and clever people with a wide skillset. They could easily repair their own tools and have their own forge if one of the founding group had the knowledge. It doesn't need to run full time.

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    $\begingroup$ Genetically, it seems you need between a few hundred and a couple thousand population for long term viability (depending on hazard level and amount of breeding management), but over a mere 3-4 generations, inbreeding wouldn't likely become a major issue. Wear-out of tools would. A farm cart used daily during the growing season won't last even twenty years without significant repairs. Cultivation tools will wear out faster than that (soil is quite abrasive in most climates). And while a farmer in the 19th century might have been able to repair them, ca. 1500 not so much. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Oct 11, 2020 at 11:43
  • $\begingroup$ A single farm would hard pressed to even feed its own plow animals in the medieval era. medieval food production efficiency is crap. this is why you needed several farm to feed even one set of oxen. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 3, 2023 at 23:32
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It depends

Generally speaking, a small village can become self-sufficient in some aspects, such as growing enough food and have enough animals to sustain itself, but this all depends in the factors surrounding the town. Does it have all the possible resources it could need readily available?

Generally speaking, medieval manors were able to provide themselves with most of the important, basic things, when castles are built, usually a lot of people who are needed for different kinds of specializations were brought in to maintain (There's a great documentary about this by Timeline called "Secrets Of The Castle")

Relative versus Absolute Self-Suficiency

It is generally likely that a medieval village can become relatively self-sufficient, this is to say that it can maintain itself on the bare minimum through food and the basic necessities without outside help. Of course as stated prior, this depends on the environment around such a thing. If your town is in an environment where they can't reliably get food, access to clean water, arable land, etc.

It's worth noting that medieval villages were somewhat self-sufficient, that is one of the main aspects of villages in the middle ages. however...

Becoming entirely self-sufficient, this is to say that they require no outside help to do anything whatsoever, would likely be either a gargantuan, incredibly difficult task, as you'd need to somehow have access to every possible resource you will ever need, as well as the manpower, and knowledge to exploit such resources. For a town to never need any outside help, this is to even say imports and other things along those lines, every plausible resource the town ever needs should be available to it, which is very likely to not happen.

TLDR: Relative Self-Sufficiency? If given the right circumstances and access to the natural resources needed to sustain such a place? Yes. Absolute Self-Sufficiency? Very, Very unlikely, the sheer access to every resource imaginable needed would make it borderline impossible for that to happen, unless of course your world had some sort of way to allow for such.

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As many people have said, to get the qualities your looking for: having metal tools, house constructions that need proper expertise, good carts, good pottery, and so on, will not exist in your small, out-of-the-way village. However, it is entirely possible that the village may get access to some of this skilled labor through other means.

Building and basic life requirments - it is entirely possible that traveling craftsmen that specialize in construction would stop by the village on a semi-regular schedule to allow villagers to have higher quality homes than the population can support. This could easily extend to other professions like like carpenters (sort of fall into the builders but not entirely), basket weavers, tailors, potters, shoemakers, roofers, and more. These people would allow for the basic quality of life that your looking for to be achieved.

This practice may or may not cover blacksmiths depending on the quality of work your looking for. As has been mentioned in other comments, it is not to unreasonable for a farmer to have a small forge that will be used to repair tools and do some very minor smithing. Then when a traveling smith comes by they would agree to stay at the farmer's house and fix up all their stuff and make some new tools while selling the service to the rest of the village till they leave. similar set-ups could work for other professions that require more set-up to achieve quality.

for ideas to help in this see:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journeyman_years

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fiMsCO5i3Dg

They both set up two different styles by which these craftsmen would come, but they would achieve the same goal, though the journeyman would probably have a higher quality. It could be a mix as well.

For example, say there are 6 villages that are within a few weeks to maybe 1.5 months distance from the furthest points. the most central village could have one old blacksmith. Now his set-up can make very high-quality tools and equipment, but he's expensive and far. However, his apprentices will travel for a couple of years at a time as journeymen and will do the more minor tasks that don't need the high-quality setup of the more central village. Keep in mind, these villages can be pretty far so you can keep your isolation, they just need to be close enough that you can travel between them.

TLDR: Travling craftsman

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