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
  • $\begingroup$ "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

1 Answer 1


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

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