My world includes a medieval city which contained a castle, a cathedral, university developed from a former monastery, a guild hall, a market place and number of houses and small farming families - all bounded by a city wall.

My questions are, how big would that kind of city be? Would the street layout be circular or a grid? And roughly how many people would live there?

I've just bought Marc Morris's book 'Castle', but if anyone could provide me with a good resources on the topic that would be helpful.

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    $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_urban_community_sizes $\endgroup$
    – Fl.pf.
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 14:11
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    $\begingroup$ (1) The Middle Ages span one thousand years. That's a long time, and lots of things changed between the 5th and the 15th century. (2) Universities never developed from monasteries. A university is essentially an anti-monastery. (3) Street layout? What street layout? Medieval cities developed organically, streets happened where they happened. Planned cities are to be found in the classical civilization or in the modern world. Look at a plan of the old parts of London or Prague. (4) Farming families don't live in cities. (5) A large medieval western European citiy had a few thousand inhabitants. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ As a resource question (which I just added as a tag) I think this works fine...maybe? $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Of course universities developed out of monasteries. In fact, the first thing most universities taught was theology. $\endgroup$
    – Raditz_35
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 15:09
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    $\begingroup$ @alexP Most old schools and universities in Europe developed or were paid for by the church. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 15:32

4 Answers 4


While there were some really big cities at the time, I've just looked up Aachen (Germany), which had a population of 15'000 in the year 1500 A.D.

I seem to remember reading that as little as 5000 citicens was already considered quite a city in the epoch you have in mind.

About the layout: you may want to look up a few cities with cathedrals, like Aachen, Köln (Cologne), Reims, Paris, London, ... and you'll find their maps from the timeperiod in question easily enough.

But generally it can be said that the road grid will most likely be more or less irregular. Completely planned cities were rare, and while there may be a core, or a section, of a city that had some regular street pattern, be it rectangular or radial/circular, you will at least have some parts of the roads winding more organically. Parts will follow the river (because there will be a river: no way to build a city with a cathedral without navigable waterways), some parts will follow the topography, and some roughly circular roads will mark the former locations of city walls, where maybe parts of them are still intact and serve as walls to buildings. Some parts of your city will have burned over time, others have grown, parts will have been built outside the original palisades and later walls, and with the kind of infrastructure you describe, your city has already existed for a few hundred years, and thus having seen growth and changes. So if you want, you can have some patterns in the city, particularly in the closer vicinity of the cathedral, but that is optional.

If you have planned parts on a rectangular grid, most likely most roads will still not move in a straight line through the whole city, but at some points break the flow deliberately, both as windbreakers, and to reduce visibility for would-be attackers.

So, to sum it up: To design a credible medieval city, read up a bit about life in the epoch, then think how your city came to be, think up a bit of history, and how it changed the looks of the place, and that will give you a pretty good idea what your city will look like.

And as has been mentioned in comments: Farmers live on farms, not in cities. They only go there to sell their produce on the market and buy necesary commodities. The rest of the time they tend to their farms, from sunrise to sunset.

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    $\begingroup$ /read up a bit about life at the epoch, then think how your city became to be one/. I say once you have picked it out, steal the medieval city you are modeling your city on in its entirety: layout, streets, everything. Rename stuff that is obvious, like the river & cathedral. It makes it easy for you. The 1 in 10,000 who recognizes the city you are copying will be amused. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 15:25
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    $\begingroup$ I would add Prague to the list, as it has a very interesting Cathedral that was built and expanded over time so that it has at least two very distinct architectures. Also, one of the stain glass windows has a little guy with a pretzel. cabledsheep.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/p1100561a.jpg $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 18:05

You said Medieval, but that's a bit of a wide range.

As to these types of schools, they tended to be established from about 1000-1300, with the most growth in the 1200s. If you lean towards the late 1300s, your school might have been around for a hundred years or more in one form or another.

Although monasteries, for a long time, were the bastion of education for many communities--in Medieval times most monasteries were not converted into honest-to-goodness universities. (This did happen, in England, oh, round about the 1500s, which is Renaissance territory. Other conversions in other places happened much later, but the conversion wasn't a Medieval thing).

Many universities actually developed on their own, fiercely independent of the church, mainly because they thought credentials in academia were more important than church credentials. That's not to say that monasteries didn't have an influence, and it isn't to say that the church wasn't influenced by the creation of these institutions. You can start with the wikipedia entry and look at the Establishment section. Who paid for the uni, varied from community to community. And yes, who paid for it was, indeed, often the church.

But for neigh-sayers that speak as though there were NO connection between the church and universities, that doesn't add up, as students and teachers often had the same sort of privileges extended to them as clergy (like not being tried in regular court but Ecclesiastical). Also, many a pope issued papal bulls regarding the education/university system, so it wasn't as though the church had no say--and often, after uni education, one would go into the church.

For town sizes and distance from each other, see my answer here, where I list city sizes about 1337. London, which was one of Medieval times "mega cities" at least in England, anyway, had about 20,000 people there in 1337. This answer also kind of covers the co-dependence nearby settlements and towns could have on each other.

Now, that's just England. Paris, which founded its Uni round 1150ish, had an estimated population about 100,000 by 1200--and double that at least by 1328.

Cailloumax's answer includes some lovely maps, so I'll leave the specific street layout alone, except in general terms. City streets varied from community to community, but tended to be crooked affairs for the most part, with a few main straightaways.

As to farms in the city, well, if your population is high, they won't be enough to feed your city. Most of the farming is going to be beyond the walls. Farms inside the walls is actually something more likely to happen AFTER Medieval times, strangely. That isn't to say that there might not be orchards and gardens on the grounds of the monastery, your school, or the castle.

And then...there's the matter of the walls.

Ok, so most "walled Medieval towns" were actually little more than extensive CASTLE GROUNDS. They were where people went when they were attacked. When a city became important, they might wall more of it, beyond the grounds, but building a wall is expensive, so many times it still didn't encompass the WHOLE of the city. That doesn't mean that there aren't small walled Medieval cities, which encompassed the whole of the city, it just means that it's unlikely that there aren't suburbs spilling out of it. Bits of old walls before the city expands will often still be standing WITHIN the city, with an outer wall to protect from attack.

London outgrew its walls, and by 1300, the walls just separated the city center from the rest of it. If you're looking to make a really large city, the walls might be there, but they are mainly neighborhood barriers. So you may have slang as to that.

Before a Uni is physically built, understand that the community of scholars will already exist, and classes are held where ever there is room. Sometimes that will be at the local monastery, or castle grounds, or people's homes--for years. Then, they gain patronage, often from a person taught by the University's scholars (which, while it might not have a physical location, is recognized, sometimes by the local lord, sometimes by the church, or both). Lords like it because they might be scholars themselves, and because drawing students to a city can increase commerce.

That's not to say the locals will like the change. University students were a tad..rowdy, even back then--and they get special privileges when in comes to crimes committed, so there's that.

This link is great one that outlines the relationship between cities and universities, and the monastic communities that served at proto-universities in the city of Paris. It also talks about hall rental within a particular district, which then became the University of Paris. Seriously, check out the link, because basically--the University of Paris was founded because of a bar brawl, which escalated into assault, theft, and what amounted to state-sanctioned murder.

You might notice on the map that the uni district is separated by the river, with its own bridge over, somewhat isolating it, though it is technically within the city walls. paris That's why it was easy to barricade when the local authorities started trying to kill them--there just weren't that many ways in and out of the district. This point of design may be something you want to look at.

A private institution of learning might want room to build, and it might not have been built inside the city proper--it can feature its own walls and gates, of course, and then around that stuff and people will naturally be set to cater to the students. Indeed, even when located within a city, building walls around Universities happened pretty frequently (often because the city might impose a curfew on the students, who had to be within their "quarter" of the city after a certain time--this varied from place to place and time to time).

Where the abbeys/monasteries are located in and around Paris might also be of interest to you. Only ONE of the abbeys was located within the city walls, and that one wasn't always within the bounds of the city. See this wiki link on all the walls built as the city expanded. While the Abbey of St Genevieve was founded in the 500s, it wasn't inside the city walls until 5 or 600 years later. Most Abbeys weren't inside a city to start with, particularly if they relied on their own agriculture to keep the monks and clergy fed. They can still have a farm once incorporated inside a city, but they could also sell or donate the land to city interests for the building of roads, infrastructure and other things. But often they kept some land for that purpose, sometimes for more decorative contemplative purposes, but often for a more practical purpose, such as making a product to sell to the public (preserves, beer, wine, that kind of thing).

Cambridge or Oxford might be a better model if you're looking to go smaller--their population was about 2,000 each. Cambridge University is interesting because it was founded by Oxford scholars who didn't like the way students and teachers were treated--so they moved to a community where they could set themselves better terms.

EDIT: I could go on at length regarding guildhall customs and layout (sometimes the guild hall wasn't separate from the marketplace, which can actually be inside it on particular days, and broken down at days end or not, depending on the type of city, how large it was, & this could depend on the mercantile fair culture of an area).


Look at London or Paris around the 12th century. You are probably looking at around 100 - 200 thousand people at the most. I don't think there would be any discernible layout, ancient and medieval cities mostly grew organically. Some Roman cities were built on a grid but those were planned cities, not existing settlements. Since the early middle ages were very chaotic most settlements just not planned.

From the Wikipedia article on London:

Medieval London was made up of narrow and twisting streets, and most of the buildings were made from combustible materials such as wood and straw, which made fire a constant threat. Sanitation in London was poor.


Example of Hennebont, a medieval city

I'll give you an example which features almost all your requirements (except university and castle) (and the cathedral is only build in 1514). It's a mid size city, one of the stroghold of the duke of Brittany. It got a particular strategic interest cause it was one of the only bridge on the Blavet. You can find (in French) the story of the city here. This is the map of the city today with a scale, and some of the medieval building highlight:

Map of the city

You see the city within the wall is like 4 hectare large.

You could compare with maps of the medieval city, and a printing:

Map of the city in the wall:

Medieval city

Map of the abbey (in its post-medieval state):


Printing of the city

I hope it will help you to figure out how a medieval city look like.


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