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Kind of a theoretical question, but if a small country in a late medieval-ish era sought to discourage large, crowded, dirty, and poor cities by encouraging more towns of a smaller size, how much would this affect their growth as a country? Would trade be more difficult? Would poverty decrease and quality of life increase?

Of course it would be very difficult to entirely abolish all large cities, but I'm thinking something along the lines of when a town becomes unable to manage its population well, the government intervenes to prevent more people from moving into the town and encouraging citizens to move to smaller towns in another part of the country. Would people be unhappy and feel "pushed out" of their homes? Or would they be okay leaving the city for a better quality of life, especially if the government gives them some sort of support?

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    $\begingroup$ I think it would be more likely that poverty would increase, and quality-of-life would decrease - though it might make it more likely that the poor would simply die, rather than being able to live by panhandling or via in-city services like churches and poorhouses. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Feb 11 at 19:59
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    $\begingroup$ Isn't this exactly what medieval-ish civilization was like? $\endgroup$ – rek Feb 11 at 20:45
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    $\begingroup$ This is a really bizarre question. How large is a small country? How large is a large city? Leaving aside the difference between what an American and an European may call a small country, there remains the problem of total lack of research. For example, let's take late medieval England. Pretty small. There was exactly one large city (London), and one medium-size city (York). (They would both be considered "small cities" today.) There were lots of small cities and towns, and lots and lots of tiny villages, where actually most people lived. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 11 at 23:48
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    $\begingroup$ In short, a late medieval country doesn't have to do anything to discourage large cities and encourage small cities and towns, because this is how things actually were. You can count the late medieval large cities of Europe on your fingers: Constantinople, London, Paris, maybe Rome, maaaybe Florence and Milan, and that's about it. To give you an example: today Hamburg is a large city. In the late Middle Ages it was an important city, a rich city, a powerful city but definitely not all that large -- it had some 10.000 to 15.000 inhabitants. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 11 at 23:54
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    $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi: Yes, there were laws restricting the movement of some categories of people -- serfs, Jews etc. What is your point? $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 12 at 2:06
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Well, it depends. On a lot of different factors.

Cities grow because they are (at least theoretically) more efficient in their use of resources. While there are many factors, a city can support many more specialists while a town cannot. The more advanced the technology, the more pronounced the effect.

You do not say what the optimum size of your towns might be. You also do not say what the nature of the transportation and communication systems are. Plus there is the question of the homogeneity of the population with respect to language, religion, culture, and so on. Small towns embedded in a tightly integrated set of infrastructures with minimum barriers because of culture and geography could come close to the same efficiencies as a large city. And the average quality of life might be even better. The problem is that there are so many possible answers to your question that it is difficult to select the ones that work.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I'm aware that having less cities and more small towns would reduce efficiencies, but how exactly, or to what extent, would that affect the country as a whole? (economy, society, etc) $\endgroup$ – cassadia.68 Feb 11 at 20:01
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    $\begingroup$ The difficulty in making such a projection is that dozens of assumptions would have to be made. I am not an economist or a sociologist, but my experience with similar models is that small changes in any of those assumptions could and would result in massive changes in the outputs of the model. Thus, I do not place must trust in such projections. $\endgroup$ – JonStonecash Feb 12 at 11:01
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In a late-medieval-ish era (and indeed, most eras before 1880), cities were the place you shipped your surplus population to.

The death rate in cities tended to be higher than the birth rate. Most folks were born in rural areas, and the segment that was particularly ambitious or disinclined to farm work eventually migrated to a town or a city to learn some other trade.

Towns and cities were (and are) centers of learning, government, and trade. They provide essential services to their market area. Wealthy and powerful families lived there. But that doesn't mean they were fun to live in.

Large cities were extremely rare before railways were invented. In the era you are talking about, the urban population was generally distributed among many towns...just as you want.

Economic activity or individual wealth are poor measures of Quality of Life. My quality of life is superior to every Pharoah by any measures except wealth and stone architecture and army size.

If you want to improve quality of life, start with education, consistently-enforced laws, and tearing down gender boundaries: Make life a bit less nasty and brutish, a bit more fair, and unchain the cleverness of half the population. After that, people will figure out a lot of improvements for themselves, regardless of whether they are rural or urban.

If you want to improve the trading of goods and services (the economy), it's about politics first: The local duke/prince and assorted goons control the resources, and their wealth is on display in their palace to impress their friends instead of in the bank doing real work. If you want an efficient distribution of resources, it's not about towns vs. cities. It's about a merchant class that can trade without fear of (legalized) theft.

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All of u above commenters would love the book The Forest. In its 600+ pages of historical fiction I learned so much about this subject, oak trees, deer. Great bonuses to myself, someone who lives by the ocean amongst acres of woods & gardens.

Small communities are more communal in the sense tht as it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a community where people know one another to oversea the needs & behaviors of people & not be silent bystanders. The downside is that unfairness can be built into a small community easily. For instance, when I was teaching construction in Nunavut I read a lot about the culture of Inuite. It seems that if a man was a good hunter, he could get away with behaviors which others could not, including sexual assault of children, young teens, even wives of weaker men. This was due to a culture where things were shared, esp. food. The culture held circles where people who had broken community rules would be made fun of in 'songs' which were a type of rap really and thru this ostracization the person was supposed to be pressured to change. If not, while they slept the community would move...like they did with elderly or extremely ill people who would be a burden on all resources. So you can see where in a small group individuals could be mistreated or given special treatment & considerations.

Some people prefer anonymity, go about their business without a lot of input or pressure one way or another. such personalities would suffocate in tight knit communities. Perhaps fall in line. In that case we would end up with societies which have nothing to be exceptional at or world renowned for. Just look at the world we do know. For what famous buildings, artifacts, music, art or similar is Canada known for from say 700 yrs ago? In 13 countries I have been overwhelmed by things from that far back. And understood that the physical contributions or monetary supports of a large number of people were what backed such creations.

What about inbreeding? Small communities are more prone to that....so more mental illness? The declining genetic endowment of mankind would certainly also hold back future progress.

I have lived in tiny communities & large cities. I find wonderful things about both...but that is me. Not everyone is able to adjust and call on knowledge and skills to do well in all environments. Its a matter of education, will, flexibility to accept change, adventurous spirit, good health....lots of things. I had an acquaintance once who had the $ to go to these exotic resorts in amazing locations...her big bitch...that there were no facecloths in the bathrooms. Having lived in diverse places I would never even notice such a thing, never mind being so aggrieved. What kind of environment is best is so personal.

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Medieval society was already very much like this

With Feudalism came the idea of knightly fiefdoms: small districts of land each committed to the raising of a single knight. Each knight was given a parcel of land just big enough that he could produce for himself the the weapons, armor, horses, etc. he would need to be able to go to war for his lord. So, a single country like France or the Byzantine Empire would be divided into 10s of thousands of these fiefdoms, each ruled over by a knight who organized the economy, passed and enforced the laws, leveed taxes, etc.

Since their societies were broken down into such small units, it meant that tiny towns would tend to form at the core of each of these fiefdoms. Because of this system, only about 10% of Medieval Europeans lived in urban areas vs the 20-25% you saw in the earlier Roman Empire and the 50-80% like you often see in the modern day.

One of the big reasons for power becoming concentrated during the late medieval period was the shrinking number of nobility and growing number of commoners. Marriages and the extermination of nobel houses meant that knights became fewer in number and their estates larger as they merged. If a king wanted to maintain more of the old-medieval way of life, he would have to be good about preventing fiefdoms from merging. This would require naming new noble families whenever an old one would get wiped out, or the more likely scenario, awarding estates to 2nd and 3rd born sons.

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