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I am currently building a world based in a medieval fantasy setup. View it as if the world got a soft reset and cannot (I say cannot) go further than electricity, and I imagined a village where people would live their lives by contributing in the city, without money at stake but rather helping and being helped in exchange. I found this question which was unanswered and way too broad, so I'll try to put more elements and ask an actual question.

What would prevent such a village from existing ? What benefits may hold it together ? Pieces of information:

  • The world's magic is based upon "scrolls" that vary in rarity and capabilities. The most common ones are about elemental manipulation and physical enhancement, which may have an influence
  • No scroll is "too powerful": one cannot wipe a city out, for instance
  • Only rule about scrolls: none of them can heal wounds or revive the dead. Consider there is no sickness in-universe
  • The rest of the world uses money, it would be only one village that differ
  • Everyone has an use in this village, being educating people, providing food, furnitures, clothes, defending the village from outside threat, maintaining order inside the village ...
  • Essential goods are not lacking (food, wood, fibers for clothes, etc)
  • Population density is about 500 people in this village

I am open to any suggestions about this concept, and willing to provide details about the magic system or the village itself. Thank you !


Edit 1: Thank you AlexP for the suggestions and pointing out that money was way more recent than cities. People there are not slaves, of course. People living there are willingly working in their field of expertise (let's say, hunting for food) in order to provide the community meat. In exchange, they expect to be able to get for themselves other goods, provided by the other members of the community. What would be considered a powerful institution would be the college, which learns magic and such to young folks from the village.


Edit 2: Loving the exchange so far ! There are no bombs, if I was to pinpoint the "technological time", it would be around the late 19th century ? Planes MIGHT be something in the early stage of discovering (helped by elemental scrolls ?), but nothing near bombs (at most, dynamite). Gunpowder is already in use, but why wouldn't you use scrolls ? (Because they have a cost to one self, of course). Stone and wood is still largely used to build things (because you can manipulate stone, iron and steel is expensive and hard to make and hard to manipulate).

On the other hand, this city would have no purpose other than having a aknowledged college and living its own life in peace and isolation. That's a question I did not dig up to be honest ... (AlexP, you're a great brainstormer)

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Nov 3 '20 at 9:44
  • $\begingroup$ check this answer on history.SE. TL;DR medieval economies worked with far less cash than is common now, or depicted in fantasy. $\endgroup$
    – mart
    Nov 4 '20 at 7:33
  • $\begingroup$ Your link did not show up :( $\endgroup$ Nov 4 '20 at 8:31
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This could be a feudal society with a benevolent leader

  • Some royalty or upper class owns the land, or has some providence to the land that is recognized.
  • Everyone lives on that land under the blessing of their lord / king / etc in return for that work.
  • the lord is patient and fair, he doesnt expect the youth to to work, or the elderly, or the sick. They will work later, or have already worked for many years. From the disabled he expects less.
  • he expects each to work within their talents and as needed by the population.
  • food, shelter, and other goods made from the land are the property of the lord, but he shares fairly with his people.
  • people can take what they need from the communal store at any time, but its supervised by the lord / his deputies. Any stockpiling or gluttony is a crime.
  • the lord doesnt live in gratuitous luxury; This could be:
    • fear of judgement by a higher power (higher lord, or god),
    • perhaps theres a "destroy the 1%" spell that hes afraid of someone using so he lives modestly.
    • I think this aspect is really important, as "I want to be a good guy" isnt going to keep the royals modest for more than a generation.
    • Perhaps when the lords grandfather overthrew the corrupt and greedy lord that used to rule this land, he cursed the land so that anyone living in luxury would die a painful death. So his descendants live modestly to avoid the curse.
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  • $\begingroup$ That's a formula for people down-playing their talents and so their potential for work. In slave-holding cultures, it was commonplace to give slaves material rewards -- up to and including simply paying them -- because that is a much easier way to get people to reveal their talents than punishment. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Dec 30 '20 at 15:28
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A City With No Master Needs No Money

As others have pointed out, cities existed before money. Money, to paint with a broad brush, was installed in many places to help with taxation. Barter and favor-trading work for almost everything in a pre-industrial human's life, but that doesn't cut it for getting a Master's due. A king might tax 10% of a farmer's harvest, but that king doesn't need ALL of 10% of 1,000 farmer's harvests. He needs to transmute that grain into something he DOES need, like high-quality swords, or a new castle, or a dowry for his daughter to make a good alliance. Hence money. (For more details go HERE ) If your city is a democracy on the Greek model (Every Free male votes on major decisions) then you'd be able to live life without money. Especially if there's a clause that support of the town (maintaining the road, or a house of worship or whatever) is "paid" in labor.

A town of 500 people knows everybody, and likely has such a low overall surplus which lets two things happen:

1: Favors for favors work, because if Villager A stiffs villager B, EVERYONE ELSE WILL KNOW. This sort of cultural pressure works amazingly well with humans. That will allow your village to work out barter trades over extended periods (I will give you a chicken now because you need one, and since I don't need your wool right now I'll wait and ask you a favor later.)

2: Stops oversupply. You'll never really find yourself needing to sell more goods than any one person needs. Medieval/ancient villages of that size had REAL low margins, so you won't find your blacksmith is hosed because everyone has all the metal tools/nails they'll ever need, or your farmers likewise unable to barter their grain because everyone already has too much.

The only real problem your little self-sustaining village has when it comes to coin use is that almost NO 500-person village as we conceive of them (one with a blacksmith, for instance) can exist in a vacuum. For example, your blacksmith needs iron, almost certainly not mined on-site. If it IS mined on-site, you either need a ton of slaves in addition to your 500 people, or you won't have enough farmers to feed everybody. So they're having to trade with SOMEBODY. Can that trade get by without money if the surrounding villages use it? Maybe. Especially if your village does something the surrounding area doesn't/can't do. If your village provides grain to a local mine that'd be a neat way to handle it. Their grain for some of the mine's iron/copper/whatever once or twice a year would handle the town's iron needs and be easy to do in barter. If the town did something more "interesting" (like being a mining town) you run into the problem of Some King Somewhere wanting to tax them, and then money comes back into it eventually.

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  • $\begingroup$ I am not so sure in (1) - I think a possible outcome will be a group of masters keeping the rest of the population as slaves. It depends on the circumstances. I see no reason to believe in the human nature more as you believe in God. $\endgroup$
    – Gray Sheep
    Nov 2 '20 at 22:52
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    $\begingroup$ Coin is not the same thing as money, money predates coins by several thousand years. Commodity money basically gets invented as soon as people specialize, as soon as there are people who don't make food. In your example grain is money. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Nov 3 '20 at 4:28
  • $\begingroup$ I feel like humanity's nature will always overcome collective efforts ... Must aknowledge that ! $\endgroup$ Nov 3 '20 at 9:33
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    $\begingroup$ The standardization of currency was usually largely to help with taxation, but my understanding is that there were plenty of prehistoric forms of currency created simply because a barter system really isn’t practical on a larger scale. Say I make clay pots. Yeah, I can trade them, but there’s a problem when I want cloth from the weaver who has plenty already, meanwhile the guy breeding horses needs urns and yet I’ve got no need for a horse. I know a lot of ancient cultures used grain as currency, and I recall some archeological evidence of clam shells used a few prehistoric villages. $\endgroup$
    – InTheEther
    Nov 5 '20 at 8:45
  • $\begingroup$ Bronze age civilizations needed to always import either thier tin or thier copper because you almost never find both in the same place, but usable iron ore is VERY common. Most places on Earth have some source of local iron, but lower grades of iron ore can be much harder to refine. 19th century tech means they can produce a small blast furnace; so, they can produce relatively large amounts of steel from pretty low grade ores. Iron ore typically does not require extensive mining operations since it can often be found at or near the surface. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Dec 30 '20 at 15:46
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Could it be possible sure humanity has lived without money before on a trade and barter based economy, however if the rest of the world is using money I can't see the Any medieval city Not adopting money as currency.

  1. Cities don't grow food, or topically raise cattle. They are dependent trade from the countryside . Unless the lands Lords in country side Also don't use money then Your city would have a choice between using money or starving.

  2. Foreign trade and luxuries. Even if your city is perfectly self sufficient With a local countryside going to provide it with all the bare necessities it needs in a barter base system without the use of money It would still need some form of currency when trading with outside countries who also use money. Your nobles and merchant class of the city would want spices, silk, Exotic foods, jewelry and so on. Unless All outside trade is prohibited the noble and merchant class would at the very least need Currency to trade in. So you'd end up with a peasant class that mainly uses a barter system and at merchant and noble class that use currency which is basically the regular middle ages.

To put it simply In order for this to work the world has to be set up and set in such a way that majority of the rest of world dose not use money either.

Edit: Missed the part about population density of 300 I think you need to re write your question 300 isnt a city even by dark ages standards. What you describing is a large village may be a township. That's a lot different then a city.

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A city no

You have to solve the coincidence of wants problem before you can have a city. You can solve it with debt but only by formalizing it, but once debt is formalized and recorded you have representative money. This need for formalized debt might be arguable for a very small city with only barter. BUT your city also has a service sector (university), meaning goods are not traded for goods but services, which means you absolutely need to trade goods with people who don't want your service, (how many times will the only tailor need to go to the university) which means you need at least commodity money for exchange.

Keep in mind money is not the same thing a coinage or currency. Cowry shells or fistfuls of grain are money if they are traded multiple times before being consumed or if they are used as a measure of debt.

500 people sure, but 500 people are not supporting a university

First 500 people is not a city. It is more than small enough for informal debt to be the major system of exchange, this is what many tribal societies use. But a population that small is not supporting a university, it will be lucky to support a single full time blacksmith. 500 people produce very little food surplus, only enough to support a handful of people not making food. Under ideal conditions it can support about 50 people, if you have a few the craftsmen and their families for basic goods, or just a few guards, you have nothing left to support a university. There is a reason in medieval society 80-90% of the populations was farmers.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like the farmer's ratio and formalization arguments, those are things I'd have to take into account, indeed. Thank you ! $\endgroup$ Nov 3 '20 at 9:17
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    $\begingroup$ @YassineBadache If you want an example of a single city look at Urbino under the rule of Federico da Montefeltro, a single city state managed to support one of the greatest universities of its time, by being the best mercenaries on the planet. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Nov 3 '20 at 14:04
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, interesting concept ! I think the purpose is what clearly missing to my worldbuilding: this city COULD live by itself by inner trading if the outside world was interacting with it for something that defines it ! $\endgroup$ Nov 3 '20 at 14:19
  • $\begingroup$ @YassineBadache the story of Urbino is well worth the read, many people credit it with being instrumental in the creating the renaissance. Here is a great little video that can get you started. youtube.com/watch?v=kAfNQ_XiPjQ $\endgroup$
    – John
    Nov 3 '20 at 15:08
  • $\begingroup$ More accurately, 80-90% of the men were "farmers", but much less than half of the actual work done was farming. Many jobs including weaving, milling, baking, tending the livestock, and child care were normally done by the women of the village who's contributions are often excluded from this statistic, and the men who were farmers were also expected to be capable craftsmen often building their own homes, fences, and storehouses and they gathered and chopped their own firewood, and would often hunt, fish, or participate in public works projects in the off-season to supplement their farming. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Dec 30 '20 at 16:04
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Socialism

What you're describing is a type of socialism, so what you need is a strong political socialist movement in order to make this work. I don't think that this is the correct forum to address the benefits and drawbacks of socialism, but I'm sure you can find many references on that subject. Or perhaps a question on politics SE.

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I will try to add my own reasoning behind the pros and cons of such a city/village. I've read and thought about your answers and comments, and that brought even more food to the table. I'll try to add all the current answers to the process in order to provide viewers (and people who want to set up this kind of city/village) with the most complete answer possible.


How it holds together

Short network with no master

First of all, dario quint's answer depicts one detail that would make the system work. With a small scale village, everyone knows each other, so you would be "peer pressured" to work together in harmony. As he points out, if you know and trust other villagers about your needs (e.g. I need clothing from the tailor, and the tailor needs my fruits to cook for his family), your goods turns out to be needed by everyone else, thus letting you with a low oversupply and an ability to trade with everyone about what you need personaly. We'll come back in the second section about the drawbacks of such approach (human nature and/or living in autarky being quirky).

Benevolent leader

The second positive answer comes from Ash and sheds light on a fair amount of possibilites about how could this city/village may survive. The benevolent nature of the leader solves a lot of problem, especially the one about money being needed as a trade: if you live under a fair leader which provides you with everything you need, then money is of no concern because you work purposefully for the community under your lord's lead (not ownership, they are not slaves). The lord itself may have his reason to act so (ancient family curse, special spell he fears, fear of a judgment by a higher power).

Why it cannot be (without adjustments)

My fair share of lazyness and ignorance

A lot of comments pointed out incoherences, plotholes and/or straight missing points about the whole setup. A medieval fantasy setting means a 500-ish village clearly cannot supply itself in food, and if it can, it cannot support a college/university as planned. Money came way later than cities, which means we already have live examples of such places. Gunpowder is a threat even with the magic system, because it got found way before and could still be as destructive, if not more. I did not search the whole array of possibilites before asking the question. That one's on me.

The outside world does not need it

If your village/city is living on its own, without money, well, first of all that'd a huge city considering all the raw materials needed to survive in autarky. Second of all, what would be its purpose to the world ? Is your city/village bringing something to the outside world ? If not, think about it, because that's a key point. John pointed me out to a great resource about Urbino, which survived solely on the money of one man and brought to Italy the greatest mercenaries in Europe. He brought something to the world that allowed its city to live peacefully (and even expand). For my case, the university is definitely a point I'd want to rise in order to provide the surrounding city freedom.

The nature of men

By nature, humanity sounds encline to strive for more, or at least shows a distate for staleness and non-improvement. No sane human would want to live its all life doing one single task (let's say, wood chopper), without expecting any improvements or changes in its life. Or maybe only a few, in my opinion. What would drive people to work for others ? Can you really bring between 300 and 1000 people sharing the overwhelming passion for caring for each other in one city and expect it to live throught time without corruption and madness ? That's a second important point I've read and thought about: how is your city surviving through time, and how its inhabitants live the staleness ? And if they don't, how is your city improving ?

The world is huge

Bryan McClure highlights in his answer a point about foreign goods. Without money, what brings the rest of the world to your city ? Can your citizen taste/see goods from around the world ? Imagine your could never taste a dragon fruit or have a computer because you live in France and have no means to grow such fruits or mine the necessary materials to build a microprocessor ! In a medieval setup, if your region has no fruit, so no one could have fruit without a mean of interacting with the outside world. And if the outside world uses money, you have to bring something to the table for it (see point above).

History exists

300 people is nowhere near enough, in a medieval fantasy setting, to bring food AND supply to everyone in this city. As a lot of people pointed out, overproduction of food was not a thing with that scale of town. It may be if around 250+ people were farmers / hunters, and that is not the case (there's a college, after all). So maybe change the scale for something bigger, but in that case, how is a 3000-ish city/big village working without money or someone to govern them ? Read about food production in pre-modern world and you'll quickly see a lot of holes in a simple setup, simply because history showed us.


Final note

To conclude: I don't think a village of 300, or even 500 people, can survive considering the current setup (university, magic using scrolls, no money inside the city). To make it work, consider the following key points:

  • Your village/city have to bring something unique or valuable to the world, otherwise it will be conquered and/or wiped out easily by side lands (war is war, especially in medieval times).
  • If you plan on supporting a big entity (university, corporation, etc), change the scale. You need a way bigger city, or you need a mean to produce massively for less (food especially).
  • Think thoroughly about the relation between material goods (food, clothes, jewelry, furnitures ...) and services (protection, administration, justice ...). Even inside the Material group, think about the relation between essential and non-essential.
  • Don't forget that, eventually, men will try to take power and/or break the monotony at some point.

Thank you to everyone that participated in that exchange, that helped me a lot !

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Barter of physical goods and verbal agreements as debts of honor.

First to clarify the system I am a about describe would/might work in a village with a population of a few hundred people or less. (Like the 500 stipulated in this question.) It would not work in any society larger than a village because the number of daily 'trades' to be kept track of would be too complex. (Except perhaps one with constant 24/7 digital recording systems linked to personal ID numbers - and even then it probably wouldn't work.)

The idea would be that the village has an 'honor system' whereby every adult is bound by law to honor their promises. All trade is conducted at a central 'market'. If people wish to buy or sell goods and services they must attend the market, deals made elsewhere are not recognized. Physical goods can then be bartered on the spot, so many bags of grain for so many yards of cloth, a pair of new shoes for a hammer etc.

Once a trade is agreed upon it is announced in a loud voice and the deal is sealed.

With services the same rule applies, someone agrees to cook and clean for a villager for one week in exchange for a new cloak etc. Again they turn to the the center of the square and announce the details loudly in front of everyone else.

It is a matter of personal honor that all trades publicly declared at the market be honored. Deliberate failure to do so means public shaming and 'coventry'.

As an alternative or backup there could be village families /priests /clerks/headmen whose job it is to circulate around the square and record all deals that are not resolved on the spot - i.e. promises by one person to do something or provide something tomorrow in exchange for something else provided today. All such deals are tallied and kept until the date of the deal has passed. If honored the tally is then destroyed. No deal can be made more than say a month in advance. So if the deals are to continue the terms must be publicly renewed every month at the market.

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