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Imagine a town that is on the road between two large cities. However, it is within one day's worth of travel of one of those cities. How would this affect the overall growth of the town? I can imagine travel would be a boon to the town's economy, but I can't imagine people staying in the town for longer than a day or taking up permanent residence, meaning that the town would stay somewhat rural.

For reference, the timeperiod is roughly analogous to the 1600's in Europe.

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  • $\begingroup$ I would reckon that a lot depends on what else the town has to offer apart from a night's rest for travellers between two towns. Do they make something? Do they have resources not found in the large cities, like good timber or game for rich people to hunt? But even if there was a crossroads there, suddenly the picture would change radically. Or if it has a bridge, which is the only viable crossing for a river. $\endgroup$
    – biziclop
    Apr 29, 2023 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ Just so you know, you generally shouldn't give someone the green checkmark until after a week or so (although I do appreciate it) ─ an accepted answer draws attention away from the question, and you might miss a potentially better answer. $\endgroup$ Apr 29, 2023 at 19:10
  • $\begingroup$ In Europe, a "rural town" is called a village... If it is a town is it not rural. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 29, 2023 at 23:53
  • $\begingroup$ while i don't really have a proper answer this series of posts might be helpful to you on how cities affect surrounding land use acoup.blog/category/collections/lonely-cities $\endgroup$
    – OT-64 SKOT
    Apr 30, 2023 at 22:54

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Expect a lot of taverns and inns

Needless to say, the economy of the town will be greatly affected by the great volume of traders and travelers going between the cities. You'd probably get a small permanent population (maybe in the hundreds) and a lot of taverns and inns lining the roads.

A lot depends on the geography

The whole picture is different depending on the geography of the area. If there's a river with a bridge, or a similar chokepoint, suddenly you have a tollbooth operator getting rich off of the travel. If the area around the town is forested, maybe people would hunt there and make money. If it's in the mountains, maybe there are mines, and the town starts to grow as well.

In general, the town might not stay just a town

If life in the cities gets worse but the town remains okay, people would flock to the town, and even if the town suffers the same fate afterwards, the residents would probably stay.

Consider a plague spreading in one of the cities. Lots of people in that city would leave, and with the town being closer than the other city (and with many people likely having fond memories of a tavern in the town), there would be a huge increase in people moving from that city to the town. Needless to say, the town would soon be afflicted by the plague as well, but its population will have increased (at least relative to the cities; maybe the plague lowers it again).

In general, people will always move to a new place if their life could be improved enough, and with the town being a day away from both cities, it would be a prime candidate.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nice answer. Not sure I understand your third paragraph, though - I think it might have a typo. Are you talking about town->city migration (flock to the city / the town might not stay a town), or city->town migration (If life in the cities gets worse)? $\endgroup$ Apr 30, 2023 at 11:40
  • $\begingroup$ @PaulWhittaker yep, definitely a typo. sorry! $\endgroup$ Apr 30, 2023 at 13:06
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I live in such a place. Redbourn is just beyond St Albans from London. This high street (now bypassed) is part of Watling Street - a pre-Roman drover's way. This was a coaching stop. In the late 1940's there were seventeen pubs. There were three when I moved here in the sixties. There is now one. This was the place where the horse-drawn coaches stopped because St Albans was too expensive. Passengers were warned to stay in the inns, and not wander off, as the backstreets were rough.

If you go back to the Middle Ages, there was a monastery and a market (you can see this in 'Lamb Street', 'Fish Street" and other typical names). Watling Street would have been 2000 years old even then, but London did not yet dominate the local economy. Later developments are often 'linear': they grow along the road, in contrast to roundish, natural developments like Redbourn, that also have a coaching element.

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  • $\begingroup$ Coaching roads before Thomas Telford may have been a hundred yards across outside the towns. There were no Roman engineers, so the surface would turn to mud in the winter. The coaches would progressively avoid the really boggy bits, particularly where the wheel ruts froze, so the road spread sideways. $\endgroup$ Apr 29, 2023 at 19:03
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Big cities attract people, and those people will travel.

Big cities need resources, and those resources come from the surroundings.

The above means that big cities boost the growth of their surroundings, because of the flow of people, money and resources they produce.

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NOTE: It's important that you go read In a medieval setting, how far apart should towns be?, especially Erin Thursby's excellent answer, and Travel time in Medieval times with AlexP's excellent answer. In a very real sense, what you're suggesting isn't reasonable. What you mean by "large city" matters A LOT. It's more likely that the travel time between two "large cities" was a week or more on mainland Europe. I'm proceeding with your question as-asked, but your specifics can change this answer.

The rules of today don't apply to the 1600s

A day's worth of travel on horseback or by carriage stinks. Yes, people did it, but only when they had a reason to do it. People didn't travel for any old holiday or a bit of time off like they do today. They would travel for business and very specific events — if at all.

Consequently, your quiet little town snuggled a day's ride between two large cities would hardly grow at all save by births. Oh, if it was exactly right it might host a villa or two for the insanely wealthy who wanted to enjoy the smell of nature for a week or two, but that's it. Because the amenities of cities in the medieval era were addicting. More jobs, services, goods, entertainment, education (to a degree)... not to mention court intrigue, society gossip, and someone else to clean the street than yourself... None of which is available in said small town.

There might be a pub or two depending on size. It's more likely to be the center of a small region of agriculture, hunting, or fishing. That means stables and barns (I hesitate to call them warehouses).

The boon to economy wouldn't be due to travel, but due to demand for the products harvested, gathered, mined, or created by the townsfolk. There's actually more reason for the townsfolk to visit the cities than there is reason for the residents of the cities to visit the town (with the exception of tax collectors). If the demand for goods increased, that would create a demand for laborers. Of course, there's always the possibility of a local abbey, shrine, holy ground, etc. that brings people in terms of pilgrimage, but I'm ignoring special cases like that.

Remember... horses, wagons, and carriages... for a day. If you've never done it, you need to experience it. Sore rear bumper, let's leave it at that.

As I said, the rules and behaviors of today simply don't apply that far back in history. People didn't just live in the same region all their lives... or in the same town all their lives... they frequently lived in the same house all their lives. Why do I know this? I once was very involved in medieval genealogy. People didn't move around anywhere near as much as you might think. They'd move due to war or disease. They might move if the demand for goods dropped (unlikely as cities grew). But for the most part, people stayed put.

Which means the basic economy of a town in the 1600s was...

  • very small and
  • intensely local.

Exports were highly valued because they were the source of new money for the town's economy. Most small towns (BTW, you don't say how small, that's actually kinda important) exported "raw goods," meaning unprocessed grains and foodstuffs, smoked/salted meats, lumber and mined metals. Occasionally you'd find artisans, but most of the time the artisans are in the cities where the big money is.

Let me leave you with a resource that can give you a broad idea of where to start with this kind of development. It's distilled from historical information, but it's presented simplistically in the form of a game reference. I find it's quite useful for quickly setting up the situation. Use it to give you an idea of what kinds of businesses, etc., you might find in a town of the size you're interested in — and remember, people from the big cities won't travel to use any of those services, because they all exist in the big city already.

Medieval Demographics Made Easy

And don't forget to read those two questions I linked to at the beginning.

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In the medieval era, most towns exist because they are market towns. They are a place where nearby villages bring produce for trade and sale. The presence of a city nearby is likely to boost the growth of these towns because it creates a larger market for onwards trade thus bringing in goods from further flung villages and supporting the growth of supplier villages. The city will also bring in through traffic that will use inns and taverns, as well as local farriers to replace lost horseshoes and wheelwrights to repair broken wagons and carriages.

However, cities also stunt the growth of nearby towns as their gravity pulls money and power towards them. No well-to-do noble is going to want to build their grand townhouse is boring Wickingham-on-the-Wold when they can build it in thriving Londinium nearby. The most wealthy individuals, and the many goods and services that support them, and jobs all this creates are going to the city rather than the town.

So small towns near cities grow into medium, maybe even large, towns but larger towns in the vicinity of cities find that their growth stalls and they don't continue to swell into cities of their own.

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