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Context

Recently, the king of the long-isolationist and xenophobic Asimi has relaxed regulations surrounding other religions, leading to places of worship for Religion #2 (names are hard) popping up, particularly in the capital city of Ottero. As part of their worship, large horns are blown, horns that can be heard throughout the whole city.

You may be wondering, “Why does this matter?” Well, the official religion of Asimi reveres a long-dead prophet. He prophesied many things, but one of them was, “When foreign horns blow throughout Ottero, the conquest of Asimi will be sealed.” This was the prophecy that lead to Asimi’s centuries-long isolation.

So, the people of Asimi got really mad and really scared. Xenophobia soared to record levels. A large portion of the populace voiced support for the king’s replacement by his more traditionalist sister. The king tried to appease the people, showing them how opening up to the world could lead to new prosperity for Asimi. But tensions rose, and, one day, all hell broke loose.

In Ottero, an angry mob stormed through the streets. They assaulted followers of the new religion, burned down their places of worship. They made effigies of foreigners and the king and ripped them to shreds. They chanted, “Down with the king! Down with the foreigners!” The king of Asimi fled the capital, and his sister sat on the throne.

(TL;DR: King made a lot of people angry and the capital is in revolt)

The Question

Now, the rest of Asimi is scared and angry, but not to such an extent that the critical mass required for a revolt has been reached. Furthermore, Ottero has the largest population of foreigners in the kingdom*, so people elsewhere wouldn’t have as much of a spark to get their xenophobia on. So how fast would the unrest spread?

(*Besides one city that served as the only international port in the kingdom for centuries, but it probably wouldn’t revolt anyways.)

(P.S. The tech level is c.1200)

Edit: Two points of clarification. First, the prophecy is very well known by all denizens of Asimi. Second, this is a people’s revolt. The only person who might have some control over the riots is the de facto queen, but she is more of a pawn of the crowd than someone who has power over them.

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    $\begingroup$ How well and widely known is this prophecy? Until we know that, we can't know if 'it's just a thing in the capital' or not. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Commented Jun 23 at 23:23
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    $\begingroup$ Not sure I understand the exact objective. When you say "spread" - how far? Are there established trade-routes, what's the weather like (snowstorms all around or pleasant weather), what is the terrain like etc.. Presumably it can't spread to somewhere as yet undiscovered until it is. Are you asking about the speed of horses over unspecified distances? Can you clarify. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 23 at 23:34
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    $\begingroup$ @RHF That doesn't really tell me if it took the priests of Asimi digging up obscure passages in the religious texts that most people can't read, or if it's a commonly cited article of the faith that everybody would know. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Commented Jun 23 at 23:36
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    $\begingroup$ I think it can not happen. They were rational in their own world view. Until that is what the people believes, and also that is what the ruler believe, foreigners won't be ever allowed to enter the country and horns will be banned. There is no place for a "new religion" without some strong social shift. If there is a social shift, the likely result is a genocide, see the first century of the protestantism in Europe. $\endgroup$
    – Gray Sheep
    Commented Jun 24 at 3:10
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    $\begingroup$ (1) How large is this kingdom? (2) What is the social and political structure of this kingdom? Without knowing these pieces of data no answer is possible. VTC as completely unclear. And no, saying that "tech level is c.1200" is not enough. Around 1200 the social and political structure of France were extremely different from those of China, Persia, the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, the Golden Horde or the Kingdom of Hungary. Oh, and around 1200 there were very few kingdoms on Earth where the king could have even thought about issuing an edict allowing the free practice of a foreign religion. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jun 24 at 7:21

10 Answers 10

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About as fast as a person on a horse(+/- a few days)

In your time period, a person on a horse was pretty much the fastest way for information to travel. This doesn't mean that everything will travel at that speed, but it is the maximum speed information can travel. However, the king possibly dooming the entire country and doing something against the only religion in the country, as well as the capital being in revolt and deposing the king is pretty big news. People will also likely leave the capital during(and after) the revolt, including messengers and people who are just trying to escape the revolt. It may take a few days for conflicting reports to be pieced together and verified, but this is the kind of news that will spread fast.

However, that only applies mostly to the big cities, and any places along travel/trade routes. More isolated and rural communities won't be on the list of high-priority places to go/flee to. In these communities, they will probably know the next time someone stops by to trade/collect taces/do stuff, which in the middle of a revolt may take a while. They may not even know until after the revolt is over. Anywhere people are likely to stop at or go to however will hear the news quickly.

EDIT: I realized that ships exist too. So all this applies to ships as well, not just horses, along the coastlines.

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    $\begingroup$ In times of unrest, people tend to flee to remote places for safety. So, while the rural peoples might take longer to get word, there could be enough diaspora that even small towns hear about it pretty quickly. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Jun 24 at 18:53
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As suggested by others, unrest travels as fast as news that causes it. News travels as fast as information which before the age of electronic communication was often at the walking or running pace of man or mount. However there is along history of faster than foot communication.

Travel by horse at a steady pace is little faster than walking. About 4 miles an hour. Or for a good horse with water breaks say 50 miles in a day. At each stopping point you can spread a little unrest and new riders can carry out messages in new directions.

At various points in history the need for as fast as possible communication has been recognised and implemented. Armies and merchants have used flags and bells to signal those close by. Beacons could be lit to signal pre-determined events, such as "help" or "someone else's ships are at our shore". These might let you almost instantly transmit something over tens of miles on a clear day or night. However probably not useful for detailed messages unless some kind of semaphore, ideally with telescopic optics is available. Telescope was circa 1600 but if you have glass or crystal working it could be sooner.

For more detailed messages there were for example in South America relay runners covering miles of mountains terrain on foot. We have a more recent example of post coaches and pony express, both which could run a horse very fast for a short distance and get a new horse and rider. All of that is well within the technology of c.1200 if it is within the budget of someone to move messages that fast routinely.

One cheaper and long running message system is the homing or carrier pigeons. This has been used for thousands of years to move short messages quickly to a given point. Trained pigeons can travel between 50 and 500 miles a day. Suddenly your bad news can travel ten times faster.

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Pretty quickly, if you have a coastline

A ship sailing at 4-5 knots (a rough average of ships of 1200s tech-level) takes 14-17 days to go from New York, NY to Charleston, South Carolina. Approximately 1,666 nautical miles (3,085km). One ship with a loudmouth crew could take the news pretty far. From there you're looking at 20-100 miles a day inland (20mi being a high end for a traveler with a pack, 100 miles being the high end for horses with relay stations). Rivers would bring you back to the "A week or two for as big a nation as Asimi is likely to be" for inland speed. I would treat this as the upper limit of transmission, as there are all sorts of reasons for the news to travel slower.

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Without modern instantaneous communication and social media, unrest travels at the speed of taxation, military burden, and hunger

Today the whole world is angry — at almost everything. A good chunk of that anger can be blamed on modern communication and social media where bad news quite literally travels at the speed of light and is helped along by a global literacy rate averaging about 89%. Consequently, unrest today spreads really, really fast.

Now step back 800+ years to a time when communication couldn't travel faster than a horse and usually travel led much slower than that. It was often word-of-mouth as the global literacy rate was maybe 10% (much higher among merchants/nobles, but "much higher" was still 20%-30%). In other words, not only did information travel really slowly, but the quantity and quality of information was by today's standards deplorable.

To be fair, what this really means is that unrest travels at different rates depending on the class you're talking about. Civilian revolts ca. 1200 weren't as common as political revolts, such as barons telling the local nobility to stick it. (Keep in mind that civilian revolts today are really, really rare. We look at things like the U.S. revolution and civil war, the Russian February and Boshevik revolutions, and the French revolution stand out in history and in literature... but there has been a great many more wars that don't involve the citizenry directly. Thus, as a worldbuilder, we can simplify things a bit.

Of taxes, soldiers, and food

Even today, most people just want to be left alone to live their lives. Oh, they'll cheat a little, bend a law here and there, and sometimes ignore consequences... but for the most part, they really don't want to be involved in national politics or intra-regional affairs. That would be true in spades in ca. 1200 where your average farmer/serf/peon really just wanted to raise their family, drink some mead, dance occasionally, and hope God and King would just leave them be. So, what get's them riled up?

Immediate problems that are, real or perceived, the fault of the powers that be.

We can list things like crime, but it would take a lot of crime to create serious civil unrest as the idea of criminals having rights took a long time to evolve. Thus, I don't consider crime an immediate force for civil unrest save in big cities where crime would be deemed to be the duty of the polity. That leaves us with taxes, soldiers, and food.

  • Taxes are always seen as "the fault" of the politicians. It doesn't matter how necessary or how fairly they're applied, they're always a burden and always seen in a negative light. Thus, the faster politicians raise taxes (and the more brutally they're collected), the faster unrest increases.

  • Soldiers are a similar problem. In 1200 rural communities the presence of soldiers would almost always be seen as a negative. Soldiers require feeding and modern logistics didn't exist, meaning some or all of the burden of feeding them would fall on the local civilians. Back then soldiers and police were all too often the same thing, thus soldiers could be simplified as the brutal consequence of a permissive government, men who felt that due to their association with the State and their skills at arms they could pretty much do what they wanted, just or not. Consequently, the unrestrained presence of soldiers (the worse if the enemy's, but bad enough if your own) would raise unrest.

  • Finally, and more complex, is food. In rural areas it's an issue of food being taken away to support the military or to quell food riots in bigger cities. Or the unfair (real or perceived!) pricing of food at the markets. Few things honk off farmers faster than not getting a fair price at market or, worse, having to pay "taxes" (both legitimate and under the table) to sell at the market. Those consequences lead to rural starvation. In the big cities the issue is quantity and quality, leading to unrelievable hunger and disease, or cost (see "taxes," above). All in all, a hungry person loses their temper fairly quickly.

Conclusion

So, how fast? As with all questions of this type, the answer is "as fast as your story requires." You simply need to establish the condition that rationalize that speed. Tax rural citizens in both money and food, garrison soldiers everywhere, make sure there are more pitchforks than swords laying around and (having lit the match) stand back and watch the fireworks.

It's not how fast it can happen, it's how fast you can rationalize it can happen. I suspect you can find examples of slow simmering problems that led to unrest as well as quick firebursts of unrest throughout history. You just need the right kind of government (either inept or evil, kinda hard to tell the difference sometimes).

Finally, you may want to look at French history

However, you might want to consider researching French history from about 950 until 1800 as the country experiences a lot of civil unrest during that period and it would give you a better idea of the specific realities surrounding civil unrest.

Note that @AlexP is correct in his comments, below. There may be (and likely isn't) an example of nation-wide civil unrest during the medieval period. From my perspective, by the time the outer limits of the nation hear about the issues that might give them cause to revolt, the revolt is already long over and its leaders (or the opposing leadership) long dead. And that assumes that any significant number of communities cared about the issues causing the revolt.

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    $\begingroup$ French history from about 950 to exactly 1789 show about the same amount of civil unrest as English history in the same time period; and before their famous Revolutions (both of which ended with the Kings losing their heads), neither England nor France experienced anything even remotely similar to the German Peasants' War. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jun 24 at 7:09
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP small correction: you're thinking of the 1st English Civil War, not the Glorious Revolution, which was surprisingly regicide-free. $\endgroup$
    – aantia
    Commented Jun 25 at 9:27
  • $\begingroup$ @aantia: Within the overall English Revolution the period called the Glorious Revolution corresponds to the Consulate in the French Revolution; except that instead of a demigod like Napoleon the English got the decidedly unheroic and yet very effective William-and-Mary. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jun 25 at 12:15
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP :-) OK, and? I was merely pointing out a period of history with which I had a passing familiarity. That any other European (or, frankly, any other national) history would do is fine... but unless that particular nation's history is better suited to help the OP with his/her studies, it's kinda irrelevant. All mine was, was a point of reference. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jun 25 at 21:22
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH: The point is that widespread civilian riots were very rare in the Middle Ages, in France, in England, or truly anywhere. So rare that off the top of my head I cannot think of any example of a civilian uprising covering a sizeable part of a kingdom. Even the famous Nika riots which almost toppled Justinian and Theodora were limited to Constantinople, with zero effect in the rest of the empire. Sure, there were riots in a city, or maybe two, or the occasional pogrom, but a sizeable part of a decent-sized kingdom going up in flames? I would welcome an example. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jun 25 at 21:38
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If you need the unrest to spread faster...

The other Answers have neatly described the most likely speed (horseback messengers, and/or "rural areas won't know until it affects them"). But if you need the unrest to spread more quickly, here's a way it would be possible

Optical Telegraph / Semaphore

In our world, this was only popular starting in the late 18th century - but there's nothing preventing it from being invented and used (much) earlier.

The basic idea is to have towers, each close enough to see the previous and next one but far enough to not have to build and man too many, with two (or more) movable "arms" on them. Distances used in our world were 5–20 miles (8–32 km)

Whether those arms are raised or not would be read as signals, which could be used to transmit information much more quickly than by horseback - and was cheaper too (just gotta feed a dude living at the tower, not riders and horses and blacksmiths for horseshoes and and and...).

So if you need your unrest spread quickly, it could probably reach the whole kingdom within a day or two if you just tell us that one of the previous kings was wise (and wealthy) and installed such a system, which the rioters now use to spread the news.

Assuming the weather plays along, of course. heavy rain or mist might delay a horse rider a bit, but will completely stop this kind of signal.

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    $\begingroup$ I am certain the so-called châteaux cathares, actually early- to mid-13th C. castles in the Corbières and Pyrénées mountains, doubled as a telegraphic network: they are typically built on lines of sight of their nearest neighbors. Signaling could be by way of flags or torches. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 24 at 11:46
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    $\begingroup$ Oh, and the most obvious telegraphic system would be audio: church and townhall bells, with conventional chimes to encode predefined messages. We all know hours, call to prayers and fire alarms: why not add an alphabetic code? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 24 at 11:57
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    $\begingroup$ the Gondorian hills looked suspiciously foggy in the documentary. You want clear skies for the system to work. Bells perform better the lighter the wind; on the whole they're less sensitive to weather. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 24 at 12:04
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    $\begingroup$ @FrançoisJurain Church bells don't get heard all that far away. Wind in the trees and other plants will drown them out after a few miles. Have any hills in the way and that distance is less. Only on still quiet times can we hear a train whistle far off. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Commented Jun 24 at 14:41
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    $\begingroup$ Using beacons for passing messages is very ancient, but the drawback is generally a very limited vocabulary (down to "there's trouble" vs "everything's fine" as the only two options). Warning people that something is going on can certainly be done, but "the capital is in revolt" isn't going to be very communicable that way. $\endgroup$
    – Bobson
    Commented Jun 25 at 9:11
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The unrest would spread as fast as the rabble-rousers could rouse the rabble.

So, we have a C1200s society. That means at best messengers carrying messages by foot or on riding animals. We have to allow for travel times from the capital to the furthest outlying regions. How long this will take depends upon the quality of the messenger system and the size and terrain of the nation.

If this unrest had been instigated by the clergy in a deliberate and coordinated manner, the unrest would spread as quickly as the mail can travel. Of course, there would be a degree of lag during which the clergy roused the rabble, but that would begin almost as soon as the mail reached each preacher. So, if we were just looking at the actual unrest, it would seem to spread about as quickly as the mail... slower in some areas where the clergy weren't as enthusiastic about the crusade or aren't that convincing, and faster where the clergy was particularly enthusiastic and convincing.

Of course, if since the OP has said that the clergy aren't behind this crusade, the unrest will travel as fast as word of mouth, which will be considerably slower than the mail. There would be a cycle of hearing about the instigating event, communicating it to neighbours, rising to unrest and committing acts of religious violence, and word of the unrest spreading to more distant areas, where the cycle must repeat.

Edit:

Considering that the OP has edited the question to say that this is a popular revolt and not centrally orchestrated, we can expect the slower communication/unrest cycle, rather than a rapidly distributed message followed by organised recruitment of a mob.

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    $\begingroup$ "but the quantity and quality of information was by today's standards deplorable". Sure: today's standard is Facebook+Tiktok + YT +... Beat that, Middle Age! $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 24 at 11:37
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Half the speed of traveling on foot

Most other answers think that the unrest would spread as fast as the news can get from the capital to a local town. I disagree.

Consider a fairly populated country, comparable to medieval Europe. There are towns that are spaced in such a way that a traveler on foot (that is the vast majority) has a fair chance to reach a tavern in the next town before the sun goes down – maybe 15 to 30 kilometers away. (Look it up, that is the typical distance between towns in England, France or Germany.) To the understanding of the people, only the folks of that next town are their neighbours.

A rider on a horse may be able to travel double the distance of a person walking and reach the town after the next, for sensational news that are really important, relay riders may even get one further. But what would the townsfolk do with the news? For them, the capital is not a neighbouring town. Life there is different from their own, it does not concern them directly. Their point of reference is the next town, the one they are dealing with on a regular basis.

They may be electrified by the news of a revolt in the capital, but would that spark unrest immediately? My thesis is that they will wait for the reaction of the neighbouring town. What if they do not join, and there is a backlash from the government? If it sends soldiers, who will help us? Having our neighbours on our side, that can be there to help our defense within a day is a huge boost for the confidence to succeed.

Ikanna is a town directly neighbouring Ottero, and the news will reach it at some time during the day after the initial breakout – let's call it day one. If they feel this is a matter they should be involved in, unrest may spark on day two. Kalluni is a town neighbouring Ikanna, but not Ottero (in the sense of traveling on foot). They may hear about the revolt in Ottero on day one, but unrest in Kalluni is unlikely to start until they hear that Ikanna has joined in. That information can reach them only on day three, and it will really spark action on day four.

And so on, at the rhythm of one town joining the revolt the day after they hear about their neighbours, and one day for that news to reach the next town.

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Very slowly if at all.

People get upset for all kinds of reasons but being able to get other people to be upset about the same things is very difficult. The more culturally different two people are to begin with the more difficult it is.

In the middle ages towns and cities were quite isolated. They had their own customs and might only share those with a few other immediate neighbors. Just being in the same kingdom or even the same religion, wouldn't mean they are the same people. Being ruled by a king in a city miles away didn't necessarily matter in the lives of most people. It was common for towns only a few miles apart to have completely different languages. Even if they had the same base language, dialects were often very different just a few miles down the road.

People from large cities would also be very different culturally from people in small towns and villages. Since large cities would not normally exist close to each other spreading would require transiting through the countryside and these smaller communities. The values shared between these "city people" and the rural people would not be the same.

In the French revolution (so not even in the middle ages) the cities were the focal point of revolutionary activity. While the revolution spread to rural areas the revolts that took place in these areas were not motivated by the same underlying goals as in the urban areas. In fact the Vendee Rebellion, during the French revolution, was what we would now call a counter-revolution.

People were also very leery of travelers and people that were different. Contrary to modern fiction most people in the middle ages had very little contact (if any) with anyone outside of their local villages. There would be no basis for trust even if communication and cultural differences could be overcome. This was even more true after the spread of the plague when many towns would isolate or even forbid outsiders entrance into the town.

Add on to that time. News takes time to spread but by the time it gets to someone on the other side of the kingdom it's old news. So would anyone care? Getting news that is weeks or more old about an uprising that happened what would that person do. Rebel against a local garrison or would it be more likely that the local garrison would pack up and head to the capital, or would the local garrison have more in common with the local population than the kingdom.

To most people uprising, rebellion, and revolution isn't a concern. This is true even today but especially in the middle ages. The world was a much bigger place back then.

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    $\begingroup$ You've got a point. I wonder what the OP wants in terms of spread. They cite a city, but don't give parameters. Yours is the ideal answer to fill the gaps the other answers have left in the OP's perspective of their world. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 25 at 0:26
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Around a mile per day.

The Peasants Revolt's trigger was on 30 May 1381 in Brentwood; 14 days later there were battles in London 20 miles away.

On 26 November 1380 Gisburn was deposed in York; 200 miles away and 185 days later.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peasants%27_Revolt

https://alastairjdunn.wordpress.com/2020/06/01/ringing-the-bells-aukeward-york-and-the-peasants-revolt-1380-1381/

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  • $\begingroup$ The Peasant's Revolt is an interesting example, because the underlying causes go back to the aftermath of the Black Death (which reached England in 1347), and the high taxes imposed to fund the Hundred Years War. I have seen a recent claim (I can't find the source), that the Peasant's Revolt was a failed coup, coordinated by ex-soldiers who had fought in the 100 Years War. I think the 1381 insurgency was unique in England, since most rebellions seem to have been led by disgruntled noblemen, each with a perceived claim to the throne. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 26 at 7:12
  • $\begingroup$ @SimonCrase Oh yes; it requires the tinder of decades of injustice piled high upon injustice -- but often there's a bright spark which serves as a source of ignition, and I think it's the speed of that flamefront which feels relevant here. It's possible that in the original question, that fuel isn't yet ready to burn. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 26 at 11:13
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Information VS Action

Knowledge of an uprising can spread quickly.

By 1200 AD, many European civilizations used trained Messager pigeons as a way of calling people to arms quickly in times of need. Messenger pigeons are able to travel up to 600 miles in 10 hours. So, in times of invasion, the king could release dozens of these pigeons to spread news of war to every county in his kingdom. With most counties being less than 100km across, the count could then dispatch messengers to all the local lords within a few more hours, and from there, the local lords would send thier own messengers into thier communities and start gathering men from thier homes.

So, even in a large medieval kingdom like France, everyone of importance could know about the uprising within less than a day, and from there it could be common knowledge among the people in 2-3 days as husbands, sons, and fathers across the kingdom are summoned to arms in cities, towns, and villages across the kingdom to respond to the king's summon. Only the most remote of people: farmers and such who live far outside of any towns, will remain oblivious of a royal call to arms for very long.

But an actionable uprising is far more complex than this.

Just knowing about the uprising could happen very quickly, but how long it takes to turn knowledge into action is extremely complex. First of all, uprisings rarely just come out of a vacuum of ignorance. Before the horns are even blown, there may have already been years or even decades of casual conversations, formal meetings, and back-room alliances being struck. A lot of people will already have plans in place and know where thier loyalty lies and they will be prepared to take action as soon as word of rebellion comes.

But far more people have flexible opinions, they will know about the tensions, maybe have strong sympathies for one side or the other, but not be committed to take any actions. These people will take time to convince into taking action, and more importantly, they need time to plan for how they will take part in things even if they are willing. Most people don't just start dragging thier neighbors from thier homes and start butchering them in the streets because they heard about some riots in the capitol. It will take weeks or even months of inspiring speeches, talking things out, figuring out how to arm yourself, making plans with your family, training, figuring out logistics, etc.

So, minor skirmishes may hit every corner of the kingdom almost immediately, but going from angry mobs harassing soldiers to rebel armies fighting pitched battles, should take a minimum of a few weeks, and several months to actually become organized into any sort of cohesive force.

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