We are in a medieval setting (think 16th-17th Century, Western Europe), in a country of a size equivalent to modern Switzerland, and reasonably populated for the time.

A new King gets on the throne. He has a passion for Arts, and decides that he should put all the Kingdom's resources towards producing and spreading artistic realisations. For that, he does the following

  • limits agriculture,
  • disband the army,
  • creates schools for different Arts,
  • promote cultural events, including international ones,
  • create some re-distribution system for the more successful artists to help the (as of yet) less sucessful ones,
  • etc.

His idea is that with paintings, scuptures, revolutional architectural design, tourism, etc. the country could get enough income to actually pay for the food and other commodities import.

He manages to convince some of the religious leaders that artistic creation helps the Faith and Church, and they agreed to be supportive of his goal.

Considering the views of Arts at that time, can that King achieve to convert his country to an essentially mono-industrial country, namely Art-driven?

Note that "Science" and Knowledge are also acceptable for him, so he could also build universities, etc.

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    $\begingroup$ This isn't enough for a full answer, but in the 1500s and 1600s, in Europe, long-distance transport took a long time. Compare How quickly and accurately should news travel in a rural medieval setting? -- a piece of paper with a statement from the King is a lot easier to carry than even supplies for a small village for a short period of time. Unless this is a tiny country surrounded by friendly neighbors, a country in the stated time period would seem likely to have serious trouble feeding its population mainly by importing food. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Jan 25, 2016 at 10:45
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    $\begingroup$ Not only will this country likely starve, but it will be invaded and dominated by a different kingdom. So there goes the whole, "our nation will now be artists" thing. $\endgroup$ Jan 25, 2016 at 13:51
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    $\begingroup$ Are you at all concerned with the state retaining its sovereignty? It'd be quite a challenge to maintain it after you pull all of your teeth out. It'd be quite the challenge indeed. Why would a nearby country pay for their arts and tourism when they could just take over the Artsy country and make it their own? $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Jan 25, 2016 at 17:33
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    $\begingroup$ It's funny you want to set this in a medieval time, because I assumed from the title this was addressing a post-scarcity world where creating necessary resources was no longer a concern. I feel like even in modern times attempting this is shaky as art is not a profitable enterprise due to how undervalued it is. $\endgroup$ Jan 25, 2016 at 17:36
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    $\begingroup$ I would ask instead, were any medieval countries not nations of artisans? Your concept of "Art" here, I think, is very foreign to the medieval period, and more appropriate to a dreary, modern world of factories and office drones. This is the real reason it would never work. But every household had their handicrafts, every village their festivals, every peasant his or her locally woven and gaudily dyed clothes. If the King instead tried to emphasize that homegrown artistry (which went hand in hand with their other labours), he mind find more success. $\endgroup$
    – Wlerin
    Jan 26, 2016 at 11:35

6 Answers 6


A big problem that I can see with this arrangement is that while people back then did purchase and appreciate art, they usually needed the artist to be nearby. For instance, portraits were (and are) popular, but before the invention of cameras you actually needed to go to the artist, or have them come to you, to get your portrait done. Since you're rich, you're probably going to invite the artist over; thus, while you may want to hire a painter from this artist nation, if people all over the world hire all the nation's painters, your nation is going to be empty of painters for most of the year.

The same goes for sculptors, architects, musicians, actors, etc; they're going to need to physically go to wherever they're creating this art, otherwise things will become needlessly difficult. And since travel time was pretty long back then, people are going to have to wait a long time for their mail-order artists to arrive, and the artists themselves are going to have limited incomes because so much of their time will be spent travelling.

Thus, not only will your nation of artists get fed up with this terrible lifestyle of moving all over the world simply to pay enough taxes to support a country they hardly get to visit, but other nations are also just going to opt to use local artists for most of their work. And if you think about it, there's really no reason to keep artists in your nation; they might as well emigrate.

The best way to support artists in your nation is to be a nation that can pay for artists. Fill your cities with rich people, and art will follow, not the other way around. For instance, look at the rich Italian families such as the Medicis: these people gained wealth and power through business, and they used that wealth to foster the arts and make Italy the center of the Renaissance. The more rich families and businesses your country has, the more artists it can afford to employ.


No, it is not.

From the way you're approaching the situation I think you're not considering that the world in the 1500's had a radically different view on life and inter-nation relationships.

In this day and age borders in Europe are pretty stable (as in European nations no longer go to war with one another over land in Europe), but that was not the case going back as recently as the Second World War. (The whole Crimean situation is not being taken under consideration right now).

Political Landscape

Europe was divided into many states, and city states, some of which held their allegiance to a monarch only by a very frayed string. The concept of a "nation" did not really exist as it does today.

Italy, for example, was not one nation, but composed of many city states, each of which was populated with Italians, and each of which slaughtered the other at the slightest opportunity for gain.

Furthermore, a lot of ruling families were related by marriage, and/or had long-lasting feuds with one another.

The reason that you'll find so many castles in Europe is because they were needed, and badly. War, at the local or continental level, was constant, with nobles trying to capture neighboring city states, maneuvering politically and militarily to annex the lands of a rival, or simply avenging an insult.

It was 100% normal for a city state to change leadership several times in a decade. The show "The Borgia" (the European one, not the North-American one) really gives great insight into how fluid alliances, borders, and motivations were at that time.

It was all quite chaotic, with monarchs fighting one another, then ganging up on a third rival only to fight each other once more.


The value of human life is always relative. In the West we like to think that each and every one of us is a precious individual with the right to live a free and happy life. Our hypocrisy is easily exposed when we cause thousands of civilian casualties in countries like Iraq, and find that we don't really care that those people die. It's in the media, we ooh and aah for a few days, then get sucked into choosing our next smart-phone, etc.

Well, in the 1500's the value of a peasant's life was somewhere in the negatives, and the peasant knew it. You look at a noble the wrong way and he WILL skewer you, with little to no consequences for doing so.

In that day and age personal insults were a perfectly legitimate reason to kill someone (in a duel, for example). However, power structures were also very much based on family relationships. If you duel and kill the wrong youngster in the local tavern, you may soon find out that he was the cousin of some high-lord in a neighboring city-state, who will now use this incident as an excuse to launch a campaign against your own city.

Standing Army

First of all, any country with no standing army is inviting invasion. Some diplomatic maneuvering may save you for a while, but sooner or later (with my bet being on sooner) your neighbors are going to start stripping pieces of land away from you.

Furthermore, at that time nations did not necessarily have a national army in the sense that we do today. Individual lords and other nobles would be entitled (or even required by law) to have a certain number of infantry and cavalry under their command. Having too few, or too many was seen either as a weakness, or as a provocation respectively.


The fact is that at that point in history a rivalry between two local noblemen over who's workers gets to cut logs in which forest could easily result in an armed clash before the matter ends up being settled in front of the king. In fact, by the time the officials are informed, the king summons both nobles over, they arrive, a decision is made, and they both go home and implement the ruling (or not), months or even a year may have passed.

Example: A forest straddles the territory between two baron's lands. Some very fine trees grow in that forest, which are perfect for construction projects which both lords are heavily invested in.

Barron A's woodcutters venture deep into said forest, close to Barron B's land in order to cut down the finest trees (into "contested" territory). They commence operations and are at it for a few days before Barron B's woodcutters run into them. The two groups come to blows over who has the right to cut down those trees.

Barron B is outraged & sends his captain and several men-at-arms to evict the "invading" woodcutters. In the mean time, Barron A sends his own troops to protect his operation. The two groups meet in the clearing and face off. Barron A's troops claim that the other group is trespassing, and vice-versa. Heavy words are spoken, and both captains back off, but only just. Barron B's captain, however, launches a surprise attack in the night. Archers, with fire-arrows kill several of Barron A's troops and woodcutters, and they destroy much of their equipment.

Barron A now sends a complaint to the King, as does Barron B. However, not wanting to be judged as weak, he also sends troops to torch some of Barron B's watch-towers, as well as seizing cattle and sheep worth "the price of what we lost".

The conflict keeps escalating, to the point that when the King finally steps in some weeks later one Barron's castle may already be besieged by the other.

Agriculture & Food

You're dealing with a time in history when food shortages, and starvation were not unusual. In the winter, with lots of snow on the ground (the Earth was experiencing a global cooling event in the 1400-1600's), some communities could be isolated until the snow melted. It was not entirely unusual for most of a village to have (mostly) starved to death during the winter months, and only have this be discovered in the spring.

Here's some facts:

There were no fridges, no canning, and no great ways of storing food.

If you slaughter an animal, you have to either salt it, smoke it, or just plain eat it. Even if you do try to preserve the meat it will still most likely go bad in the summer, or simply get eaten/spoiled by rodents, or other pests.

Transporting food is not a trivial task

Transporting food in the summer months is not a good ideas as it is almost guaranteed to go bad on the road. Conversely, in the winter it's very difficult to move around, and freezing to death on the road was not unheard of.

Not having food on hand is a huge vulnerability

Anyone wishing to invade your land would first cut off your food supply. By relying on imports (which is insanely unrealistic for that time period anyway) you're simply making it incredibly easy for them to starve you into surrender.

Art & Culture

Having a standing army, feeding your population, attracting artists, and pursuing scientific knowledge are not mutually exclusive in the least.

But be realistic about the people you're dealing with at that time in history. The vast majority of people (even today) have little to no culture, never go to an art gallery, don't listen to classical music, etc. They come home, crack open a bottle of beer, and sit down to watch their favorite sport or show for the rest of the night.

The common peasant back then was no different: they didn't care about the latest, flashiest painting hanging up in the King's parlor, they just wanted to make a living and survive the next winter. A drought impacts them. A new tax impacts them. The latest poem that the King enjoyed over drinks with his buddies is of no relevance to them.

However, try telling them that they can't farm anymore, because they are now expected to write poetry themselves. Food will be provided, in varying quantities, as available, and their only concern is lounging around and creating "Art". That's a great way to sink a nation if I've ever heard one.


There's a reason why the Renaissance took place in the city-states of Italy. Because the political landscape allowed rich cities to focus spend money on artists and other "frivolous" pursuits while having enough gold on hand to hire as many mercenaries as necessary to keep them safe. Even then the many nobles still had their own armies and fought not only neighboring cities, but also each other on a regular basis.

However, since the scope of each monarch was more limited, and their coffers quite full, they were able to much more easily allow a passion for arts and the pursuit of knowledge to grow.

Gearing an entire kingdom (the size of Switzerland no less) to do the same is not possible at that point in time. People need to be fed, and protected, not only from outside threats, but each other as well.

Furthermore, at this point in time it's quite common for a noble to pursue a higher title by murdering his betters, and monarchs were constantly being deposed. A king would be quite foolish to disband his own troops and trust purely in the obedience of his nobles, and the generosity of his neighbors, not only to not invade him, but feed his people.

  • $\begingroup$ Not medieval in the classical sense but Bali has a very art / religion soaked culture because of its geography. $\endgroup$
    – King-Ink
    Jan 25, 2016 at 18:02

It would be risky for a country to focus on one industry alone generally.

  • As pointed out in Micheal's comment, importing food would be difficult since the time period you are talking about is even before the invention of the automobile, so no quick method to move stuff around. Another problem would be food preservation - refrigeration was not available during that time, either, so most foods would spoil fast. Of course some would withstand the journey, wheat, rice, grain, potatoes maybe, but your nation would have a very limited selection of foods - they might intuitively focus more on getting more or better food instead of indulging in artistic endeavours.

  • Nations with no armies are certainly possible. There are such examples today, but it would have been far more difficult 500 years ago when communications were not fancy. The conflicting parties might have an easier time sending in the army to deal with the problem instead of sending in the leaders to resolve the issue. In addition, if the pieces of art really do become valuable enough to be bought by neighbouring countries, they will certainly be valuable enough to steal.

  • The lack of an army I would guess would also mean lack of servicemen like police, firefighters, medics since everyone is involved in arts. It would be unfeasible for a country to expect foreign aid in terms of human resources in cases of natural disasters.

  • The redistribution system would likely face the same end communism has - a successful artist will sooner or later refuse to support a non-successful one, especially having in mind some will never be successful - not everyone is cut out to be an artist.

  • An economy based on arts would fluctuate a lot. A piece of art does not have a static price, it is extremely subjective. The other nations, if they are in times of peril, would likely no longer import the product. Even in times of prosper, an entire nation of artist might saturate the market quickly so the demand would flatten.

  • Other nations will likely also have their own artist. They might prefer their own people instead of yours, their art will reflect their culture, their trends, they relate to it more easily.

  • Organizing an international event during these times would have been near impossible. It is hard enough today. Even local events would have been hard to organize with no fast communication line.

In essence, having such a country is not realistic. It might work in a fantasy setting, but there are many issues if going for realism.


Yes it is, if you are willing to define 'country' a certain way.

The nation will have to be:

  • Small. It would have to be a city state
  • Exists in a heavily populated region
  • Powerful in a non-traditional manner
  • Variable understanding of the "Arts"

Some depth.

Bullets 1 and 2 go together. For a geo-political entity to be this specialized it first needs to be small, particularly in a medieval setting where surpluses of essentials were not the norm. To realize this group of specialists the surrounding nations will need to support Artlandia with food, raw materials, protection...basically everything. This means the surrounding lands need to be fairly wealthy because no one purchases art if they are struggling to eat.

By non-traditional power I mean non-military power. The city could be a banking hub, religious center or perhaps they have technology that keeps potential attackers at bay. The most obvious real world example that comes to mind is Vatican City...now its not an exact parallel because the pope had his own army for a good portion of the middle ages, but it is close. Essentially with this line item I am telling you there needs to be a reason that surrounding nations do not just annex the city since it is poorly protected.

I think the most realistic scenario is that the city is the center of a hierarchical world religion. That way you have a single religious figure that can help keep the surrounding nations at bay. At the same time making the city a center of learning may afford them some technological protection as well. Maybe they have some ridiculous weapons that the surrounding nations can't compete with. If you throw being a neutral banking hub on top of that it doesn't hurt either.

The last bullet simply reinforces a point you made about what is considered 'art'. If you include only the traditional arts, painting, sculpting etc then...no you are going to struggle. If you include religious, education and scientific institutions in your nation you bring much more variety and can bring money in from outside the country in the form of students, travelers, merchants etc.

During a time of relative prosperity for the region this seems like it should be a viable scenario, maybe not completely practical...by workable. If things go downhill though...it probably ends badly for the city's independence.

Keep in mind a city of artists can't actually function. You will still need all the basic services of a city met. That means you will have services workers, inns, street cleaners, gardeners, sanitation workers, basically all the stuff that makes a city function still has to be there.

It may be better to consider your city a Seat of Learning rather than a nation of artists and if the city is that well off it is going to be difficult to keep people with other specialties from moving in to enjoy in the prosperity...it takes a lot to run a city day to day and that would all have to be present even if you don't have city farms or a standing army.

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    $\begingroup$ The Vatican was attacked, and the Pope arrested, or fled many times in the course of history, so it's a pretty poor example for a special-status-city. The fact is that even a banking hub, etc. would still be a target if it couldn't defend itself. Furthermore, when you mention "basic services of a city " (services workers, inns, street cleaners, gardeners, sanitation workers) you're really envisioning a far more modern city than existed back then. Those things were not clearly defined "city/government services" which were provided for the people. People cleaned their street if they wanted, etc $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Jan 25, 2016 at 16:20
  • $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM I did mention it wasn't an exact parallel and also mentioned that it was plausible, not likely. Furthermore back at you I am not talking about the city providing those services but people would still need to be around to do the jobs regardless of who is paying them. You think the instructors at a university are cleaning their own chamber pots? I think not. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Jan 25, 2016 at 16:26
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    $\begingroup$ quite simply what I was pointing out is that religious and/or financial incentives to stay away are eventually (and typically pretty quickly) outweighed by a potential gain (such as choosing the next religious leader, or gaining that wealth for your own). The only thing which reliably keeps the enemies at bay is a powerful army (and by "at bay" I imply that sometimes you get attacked and fight them off, or on the contrary, you attack them first). Basically I can't envision any scenario (on 1500's Earth) where an army was not required. $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Jan 25, 2016 at 16:40
  • $\begingroup$ There is no historical precedent of traditional non-military city states staying safe for prolonged time. In the medieval setting, all across the world, historical trade and banking hubs, religious centers or seats of learning used significant armies (in some cases mostly consisting of mercenaries) and got periodically conquered - sometimes by the same mercenaries they used to protect themselves. E.g. the merchant republics like Venice and Genoa. If you can't defend yourself, then someone else defends you and thus de facto owns you. $\endgroup$
    – Peteris
    Jan 25, 2016 at 17:59
  • $\begingroup$ I feel like people don't read posts end to end... $\endgroup$
    – James
    Jan 25, 2016 at 19:38

If you replace Artist with Artisan (which is more fitting for the mediaeval) and not on the national level but on the civic it is not only possible but it happened. Even painting was considered a craft. The concept of Artist came with the early modern.

Milltowns, Jingdezhen, Dresden, Delft and college towns are all good models. The logistical systems for groceries just don't work for nation-sized mono-industry countries. Someone has to grow the perishables. I noticed you are allowing some agriculture so they would need wine and grain imports.

A city-state could work. One that trades china or miniature paintings for the food they don't grow with the neighboring villages.

Or Islands if you put in on an island in an archipelago you could ameliorate the defense and transport problems.

So Yes you could build a medieval [city] state built on the export of aesthetic goods. Your story could also have pirates.

Look at Bali they have a very intensive Art culture. Probably because of the excess calories from the rice production and their geography protects them from invasion.


Your country can import food and manufactured goods, but who will cut the artists' hair? Who will teach their children? Who will mend their clothes? Who will clean their houses? Who will give them medical attention and nursing care? Who will tend to their spiritual welfare? There are many, many services that can't be imported and have to be delivered on the spot, and so no country can be mono-industrial.

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    $\begingroup$ Their hair will be cut by stylists, obviously. $\endgroup$
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 25, 2016 at 17:12
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    $\begingroup$ @T.E.D. OMG you remind me of the awful hairstyles of the people in the Capitol in the Hunger Games movies. $\endgroup$ Jan 25, 2016 at 22:02
  • $\begingroup$ @steveverrill - Some people just have no appreciation for Art. ;-) $\endgroup$
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 28, 2016 at 15:30

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