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I'm working on a setting that in some ways looks like medieval Europe without domestic, or in general agriculturally significant, animals, and I'm trying to figure out what the implications would be.

No dairy products, or meat except for hunting. But I think wheat+legumes provides adequate protein?

No horses pulling plows. Need to use hoes instead. Agriculture becomes more labor-intensive.

No horses pulling carts. Land transport becomes more difficult. Maybe that means civilization needs to be more decentralized? Fewer big cities, more small villages? That might be a hindrance to the progress of science and technology?

No horses means no cavalry, so warfare looks different.

I'm not looking for 'without cats, mice eat all the grain', so either cats stay, or mice are also abolished, whichever is simpler.

What other effects am I missing?

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    $\begingroup$ To answer the 'What other effects am I missing?' Bit. CLIMATE! Depending on latitude the ability of humans to survive the harsh winters of Northern and Central Europe would be severely restricted - at least in large numbers. This is because cured animal protein was an important part of Medieval European diets. Some estimates put the amount of meat consumed as high as almost 300 pounds (136 kilos) of meat per person per year. $\endgroup$
    – Mon
    Oct 31, 2023 at 2:38
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    $\begingroup$ As a result while Southern and Coastal Europe might be able to sustain reasonably high population densities via fishing etc most inland regions of the continent could not. The far north (think Lapland etc) would probably be largely uninhabitable away from large bodies of open water save for small almost neolithic bands of hunters/gatherers. There would be no grand European cities or civilizations because the population would never rise high enough to sustain them. Even along the Mediterranean coast the cities would never reach the size and complexity they achieved in real historical terms. $\endgroup$
    – Mon
    Oct 31, 2023 at 2:42
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    $\begingroup$ Medieval agriculture was already extremely labor-intensive. With animal power, medieval agriculture could sustain maybe 10% of the population not directly involved in growing food. Without animal power, even in those areas where agriculture would be even possible, you could have maybe 1% percent of the population not directly involved in growing food. (And without animal power agriculture would be essentially impossible in most of Europe north of the 40th parallel.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 31, 2023 at 8:28
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    $\begingroup$ This is an open-ended/rolling list question, without clear parameters for what constitutes a best answer, and so not a good fit for Worldbuilding. $\endgroup$
    – Joachim
    Oct 31, 2023 at 10:45

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Since you can't effectively work the big fields without animal power, you need to turn to the next best source of food - the forest.

The concept is called Forest Farming (or in recent years, Food Forest) and was practiced for centuries in the Americas and many other places outside of Europe. To be fair, it was mostly in hotter climates where the shade provided by the canopy was seen as a bonus. In most European contexts, it would be seen as a hindrance. Other pros apply. Forests, even when heavily managed, have huge potential for soil regeneration. They hold water in the environment and even out the adverse effects of the climate, like strong winds or cold snaps, that can destroy crops in open fields.

In a European context, you would want to maximize the "Edge of the forest" biomes, as it benefits fat-rich nuts like hazelnuts and sugar-rich berries, and attracts animals for hunting.

Also, predominantly oak, beech, and elm forests would gradually be replaced with food-bearing trees like walnuts, chestnuts, and various fruits.

European cultures would therefore rely on heavily managed forests, completely made up of edible plants complemented with patches of easily manageable grains, legumes, and vegetables. Since you don't need pastures and can't manage big fields, every free place where something can sprout would be forested to take advantage of less energy-dense food options.

Lower Population Density:

Population numbers would be lower, yet significant civilization centers would still emerge. Especially in places where other food sources are present, like seashores and major waterways Their size would be smaller than we are used to imagine and their character would be more akin to Celtic 'Oppidum' or early Slavic 'Hradisko'. People feeding those centers would be much more dispersed. This means that rural organization would be based more often on the family or clan as a base unit (as opposed to villages), and the difference between city folk and rural people (already significant in the Middle Ages) would be even more pronounced. Control of such a dispersed rural population would also limit the usefulness of the feudal system, since the lowest tier fealty (serf->lord) would be significantly harder to enforce.

Less Castles, More Brambles:

Organizational centers would be in cities. To remain relevant, cities would need to be centers of non-food production. It is possible they would be more specialized in certain industries than they were in our history they would be fortified and double as refuges. Since all open plains were taken up by planting trees, traditional armies and open field battles have no place in warfare. Instead, smaller units would infiltrate enemy territory, targeting everyone they encounter to avoid guerrilla responses. The home population would then rapidly move to the "cleansed" land. Additionally, forests contribute to defenses. In medieval times, lines of forests near borders were sometimes clear-cut, and clearances were left to overgrow with brambles and other hard-to-trespass vegetation. Wild apple trees were often planted near roads because when cut down, their branches provided an effective barricade.

There Will Be No 'Medieval Europe':

Now, let's address the elephant in the room. 'Medieval Europe,' however vague and uncertain that term is, didn't just emerge out of nowhere. To get 'Medieval Europe,' you need the Mongol invasion, Umayyads in Spain and their struggle against the Frankish empire, Scandinavians going on Viking raids, Germanic tribes dismantling the Roman empire, and Avars and Magyars entering the Danubian basin. You need the migrations that pushed Germanic people into Celtic Europe to happen, and you need the Celts to come and form their culture. You need Mycenaeans and Minoans to emerge and be replaced by Greeks. You need Indo-Europeans to rise and come to Europe, replacing whatever pre-Bronze Age cultures were there at the time.

All of those events and civilizations were also shaped by the existence of animal husbandry. Without it, the world would be completely different.

How do you even arrive at Medieval Europe without domesticated animals? Did they all die at one point? Then an era of famine and chaos would follow such an event.

Did it never occur to people to domesticate? Then you need to start reshaping the world long before the medieval era.

Were there never animals convenient for domestication? Well, aurochs, ibexes, or horses were often the prey for our ancestors. Without them around, maybe our primate predecessors would never have considered jumping down from the trees to hunt them and become, you know, human.

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    $\begingroup$ Upvoted. But please see about those Mongols. They didn't reach central Europe until the 13th century, when the medieval world was already about 700 years old, and they never reached western Europe at all; so that they were very obviously in no way necessary for the formation of the western European medieval world. You may have them confused with the Huns (who were only a very short-term nuisance for the Western Empire) or with the various Germanic barbarians (who were actually the ones who were essential in the formation of the western European medieval world). $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 31, 2023 at 17:36
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Even if you leave out Kyivan Rus from 'Europe' in the context of 'medieval,' the latest year of invasion is 1241 (battles of Legnica and Mohi), which leaves a good couple of centuries of the 'Medieval' period. The invasion had as significant an influence on kingdoms in Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, and the Balkans as the Vikings had on Western Europe. For example, in Hungary, there were very few stone castles before the invasion, while hundreds were built in response to it. Some areas were completely depopulated, prompting what we call 'medieval colonization'... $\endgroup$ Nov 2, 2023 at 7:46
  • $\begingroup$ ...where different groups of peoples, usually Germans, were invited to settle the desolated areas. This, among other things, led to the introduction of Gothic style to the east, ultimately making it as international as the Romanesque style was in the preceding period. The internalization of these styles is one of the signature 'visible' signs of medieval Europe. The invasion may not have directly "formed" medieval society, but it certainly reshaped it considerably, especially in central Europe. $\endgroup$ Nov 2, 2023 at 7:49
  • $\begingroup$ While the Huns might be considered a minor political nuisance (which I personally don’t wholeheartedly agree with), they had a tremendous cultural influence, even in Western Europe, (like the name Atilla becoming synonymous with the devil) Additionally, medieval Hungarians utilized their apparent kinship with the Huns (and Avars) to legitimize their presence in the Pannonian basin. $\endgroup$ Nov 2, 2023 at 7:52
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, but you cannot say that stuff that happened 700 years after the beginning of the Middle Ages is somehow needed to get medieval Europe. The western European medieval world was already past its highest point when the Mongols came. If anything, the battle of Legnica marked the beginning of the end for the medieval idea of heavy cavalry reigning supreme on the battlefield. (I am not from western Europe. It is just that people who ask questions about the Middle Ages most usually think of the western European Middle Ages, with knights in armor, hereditary ranks of nobility, etc.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Nov 2, 2023 at 11:14
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A medieval Europe without farm animals would be largely empty because the agricultural yields would plummet. Its fields relied heavily on manure for fertiliser; no domesticated animals, no manure. Significant human populations may well only exist along sea coasts and major rivers, which both provide an additional food source in the form of fish and also serve as ready-made trade routes. There could be some villages living off slash-and-burn agriculture on the margins of these prime locations, which will gradually give way to vast tracts of primeval forest essentially untouched by human presence.

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    $\begingroup$ Hmm! Manure was certainly used as fertilizer, but every atom of nutrient thus returned to the fields, must have come from the fields through the plants used to feed the animals, so it seems to me that, by conservation of mass, if you don't have the manure, but also don't have to feed the animals, you must end up doing at least equally well. What am I missing? $\endgroup$
    – rwallace
    Oct 31, 2023 at 1:29
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    $\begingroup$ @rwallace: What you are missing is that the fertilized fields are used to make food for humans. The animals eat grass. Humans cannot eat grass. No, medieval oxen were not fed corn; they were sent to graze on pasture lands. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 31, 2023 at 8:23
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    $\begingroup$ @rwallace, thank you. AlexP above beat me to one thing, but there is another: bioavailability. Per ever so trusted Wikipedia, it is 'the measure by which various substances in the environment may enter into living organisms'. Basically, nutrients tied up in living matter do plants no good, because they cannot access it; but animals kindly decompose the plants they eat into their constituent nutrients, which can then be readily absorbed by your growing crops. You effectively use animals to take some nutrients from pastureland and transfer it to your fields. $\endgroup$
    – ihaveideas
    Oct 31, 2023 at 8:30

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