I'm running a premodern setting where the characters will be involved in local administration. Assuming no magic, how many farmers does it take to support one non-farmer? Any statistics/estimates are welcome, from neolithic to renaissance (but preferably between Roman and medieval). A perfect answer would be something like this:

In the Vth century, W farmers could farm X acres of land, growing enough of crop Y for themselves and Z other people.

Perfect accuracy isn't my goal here, I'd just like to get the result close-ish. It's like when you have a soldier or a mining engineer playing your setting -- you don't have to get the combat or the mining correct, just not so awful that it gets laughed at.

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    You may want to check out the Lords of Men supplement for Ars Magica. It covers this sort of thing extremely well and can be ported to other games with no effort. I strongly recommend it. – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Sep 22 '11 at 23:03
  • A Magical Medieval Society is what you want. It has exactly what you're looking for, plus as a bonus, rules for running manors and other medieval industries. – cr0m Oct 26 '11 at 5:52
  • The historians Frances and Joseph Gies (a husband and wife team) wrote a number of very readable books researching daily life in the medieval era. Life in a Medieval Village, Life in a Medieval City, and Life in a Medieval Castle are especially helpful for fleshing out what PCs would see in a medieval era setting in the city or rural areas, and in different seasons. – RobertF Dec 14 '15 at 16:20
up vote 37 down vote accepted

From the ever-essential Medieval Demographics Made Easy, I find that:

A square mile of settled land (including requisite roads, villages and towns, as well as crops and pastureland) will support 180 people. This takes into account normal blights, rats, drought, and theft, all of which are common in most worlds.

From Medieval Manors I learn that a single peasant farmer worked 20-40 acres of land, so let's settle on 30 acres.

From Google, I learn that 1 square mile is 640 acres, so that square mile that could support 180 people means about 21 peasant farmers worth of land in a square mile.

Now, it has to be understood that these farmers weren't just lone bachelors, tirelessly working the land. So let's say that each peasant farmer is assisted by and supports a family of what...4? 5? So that means that this square mile of land is supporting 84-105 people just to get its production out. That leaves roughly 80 - 100 other people this land was capable of supporting.

So to answer your question in round terms:

In the 14th century, 21 farmers could work 640 acres of land, growing enough I dunno, let's say barley for themselves and their families, with enough left over for about 80 other people.

Obviously, not every inch of land will be arable, and there's a sort of hierarchy of non-agrarian types between the farmer and a wealthy noble or city dweller. But this should

A) Get you close and

B) Give you some good resources to consult for more details.

Also check out some of the other answers in .

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    To be fair, the energy density of crops varies wildly. But yeah, +1 for awesomely researched answer. – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Sep 22 '11 at 23:02
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    Actually the family would more likely be 6+, average family size was significantly larger due to the average life expectancy being significantly smaller. – zzzzBov Sep 23 '11 at 2:54
  • Also remember that, in much of human history, famine was very common. It's why we're so darn good at putting on pounds, and why it's damn near impossible to get rid of them. Given high unemployment rates, you'd probably be able to assume that there are 10% more under-nourished unemployed individuals, so it's likely that there would be 190 individuals living off of land that can support 180. – zzzzBov Sep 23 '11 at 2:58
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    @zzzzBov - I was unable to find a reference to average family size in the middle ages in the time frame I had available for this answer. So I guessed, based on my extensive training, which consists of a few dozen games of Agricola. Do you have any substantiation for that figure? – gomad Sep 23 '11 at 15:27
  • ted.com/talks/… is what i thought of, but you'd have to check census data from that era to know. – zzzzBov Sep 23 '11 at 15:38

I imagine that renaissance and medieval RPGs will be somewhat different. That said, a quick search turned up an essay on pre-industrial economics in RPGs, which may help you with some rough numbers:

The major limiting factor in a Medieval/pre-industrial society is the extreme fragility of the urban concentrations that provide what limited amounts of manufactured goods there are - as well as providing the basis for future developement into an industrialising society. As I have noted above, 85% or more of a county's population will be involved in more or less subsistence agriculture. In fact, some conservative estimates show that it required at least 10 farmers to support every urban dweller.

  • Thanks for the link, I imagine it will be helpful to anyone reading this post. – Joe Sep 22 '11 at 23:21

The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815 by Tim Blanning has a mine of information about renaissance society from travel, sex life, marriage, industry, agriculture and many more. While it is a scholar book, it is accessible and a must read if you are interested in the time period. Depending on when you pre-modern setting is, I would get a copy and read it. It has a whole chapter on agriculture and what needed to happen before it could move from supporting a small population to the powerhouse that it is today.

The rule of thumb I've absorbed from my history readings has been 90%: nine farmers for every noblemen, nine for every priest, nine for every knight, nine for every merchant. And that's generous; in marginal land the fraction of specialists in the population could be 1% or even less.

According to this site, the U.S. population was still 90% farming as late as 1790. The U.S. was only just starting to industrialize at that time, but had a substantial fraction of the population trading and engaged in light industry: it wasn't a rural backwater. And this was with near-virgin land, plentiful water power, and abundant fisheries, too, an above-average case.

This site gives 80 to 90% farmers for medieval Europe.

I can't find a figure on Wikipedia, but I'm sure it's in there somewhere.

Except in the high 1200s, population density was always much, much, lower than carrying capacity. Medieval agriculture was generally highly inefficient for technological, social and cultural reasons. The economy is going to be driven by: a) The form of primary land tenure of the peasantry b) The form of primary land tenure of the nobility c) The level of social stability since the last social (i.e.: military) or natural crisis

I strongly doubt the ability to compute prices and times to produce goods from existent medieval wages. Wage labour was concentrated in abnormal economic entities: monasteries.

Urban subsistence should be viewed primarily through the relationship between urban communities and the local aristocracy. If cities have free burgage and low taxation then expect the bearing population to be restricted by the burghers themselves in order to concentrate accumulation. (Also, expect the nobility to raid the town in the next war.)

Logistics mean that towns—i.e. villages that run a yearly agricultural fair—will be no more than about two weeks walk from each other in settled areas. Riverine and sea-going transport will locate such towns. Cities, as in "possessing a cathedral" will only really form at the nexus of multiple trade routes OR at the central transport concentration of multiple depths of town based trading networks.

Accumulation in the hands of the burghers is already set: it is primarily in the form of housing, hoards of food (possibly collective, i.e. town hoards), and petty commodities. It gets wiped out every 50 years by warfare or civil warfare.

Accumulation in the hands of the church[es] will generally take the form of hoards, periodically used to glorify the structure of their worship, i.e.: buildings, magnificence. Churches are a damn good thing to loot. Expect the bishop equivalent to peregrinate with the loot at any sign of trouble. I figure this model is the best model to use for accumulation by magic users.

Accumulation in the hands of devotional communities is going to be in the form of productive apparatus, fixed in place. Manured fields. Heads of cattle. Centralised domestic production apparatus (spinning, weaving, dying, brewing, distilling). Good to loot, but not much of it is saleable.

Accumulation in the hands of the nobility is a mixture of less efficient devotional communities primarily geared towards producing luxury goods and weaponry, combined with the social ostentation of the church.

In any case, if you want something made, or to purchase an item, your best bet is to find someone powerful who already owns such an object and will give it to you as a boon in exchange for fealty or duty; or, to own a person who can make such a thing for you; or, to loot either of the two preceding. I recommend looting the bourgeoisie—they aren't organised as a community fit for war, and you don't get excommunicated for burning down their productive apparatus.

If you really must purchase something, then objects will be available at a yearly basis at a fair. If you feel generous, run a couple of suitably large fairs in distant towns.

I just realised I had better answer the question posed in the first place:

Between 99% and 95% of the population should be directly involved in agriculture (Table 5, Malanima, Pre-modern European economy) While Malanima's table shows rates up to 15% in cities over 10,000; these centres were in the South, and do not consider urban agricultural occupations. Remember also, that these urbanisation concentrations will be in the equivalent of London, and that smaller cities and towns will have significant populations whose primary occupation is agricultural.

That depends very much on the agricultural region you are in: A population in northern Europe took far more people then those on the coast of the Mediterranean, which is why civilization blossomed in that region far before the rest of Europe.

Also 'Premodern' is quite vague. The agricultural technology available to the Babylonian Empire was very different then an early Germanic or Celtic tribe compared to the Roman Empire compared to 15th century France.

In any case, up to the 18th century the vast, vast majority of people were farmers or at least lived in farming communities. At least if you are looking at an agrarian society- A group like Attila the Hun's hoard would do almost no farming, instead living off of whomever they had conquered that year, which would be related to why they had to keep moving.

I can try to get you numbers out of my textbooks if you are interested in one of the specific periods I have studied (Fall of Rome to 1100 AD Europe).

In “Warfare and Society in Europe, 1792-1914” by Geoffrey Wawro, I'm reading the following: In 1854 1/10 people lived in cities in Russia and Austria, 3/10 in France and Germany and 5/10 in Britain- which had been in the midst of the Industrial revolution for the last 50 years or so. Russia is just entering the industrial revolution at this point. Therefore we can generally conclude that over 90% of people will live in agricultural areas at this point in time, though I don't know what percentage of those would be directly involved in agriculture.

An interesting idea would be to model your world not on how things actually happened, but on how contemporary people viewed things as happening. For example, Taticus's Germania has a description of early Germanic tribes agricultural practices, that was heavily slanted towards the Roman's view of them as primitive people, but would feel very fitting to your players.

  • The vagueness of "premodern" is actually deliberate in my question. My goal was to elicit information from whichever era people might have the most knowledge of. Our game is probably going to be set in the Iron Age, somewhere from (let's say) 400 to 100 BC. – Joe Sep 22 '11 at 23:20
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    If you want a biased, but interesting perspective on that period among the Germanic tribes have a look at Taticus's Germania. It was a Roman historian's views of the culture and he includes bits on their farming abilities, though not numbers. – Canageek Sep 22 '11 at 23:36
  • Yeah, I'd recommend Tacitus to pretty much anyone interested in that era. Sure, he's very pro-Roman (no surprise), but his writing is straightforward, and a glimpse into a long-dead world. – Joe Sep 22 '11 at 23:49
  • @Canageek Can you edit that into your answer? It's good, and would only make the answer better. – SevenSidedDie Sep 23 '11 at 15:34

The designers of the Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS) offer some interesting blog posts on this very topic. In fact, three of them were instrumental in my decision to purchase the core PDF:

  • Starting From the Ground Up (I) - details the economic production of peasants
  • Starting From the Ground Up (II) - extends this to population density and the support of paid fighters. The book extends it to the cost of hirelings and equipment.
  • The Secret Ratio - details the return on investment found in the world, which helps answer - How rich is a lord? An emperor? How much will that dragon's hoard buy?

I highly recommend taking a look at ACKS if you are interested in RPG economies and in general.

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    I was sold on the system for much the same reasons (and now happily running a romping game of it as a result). – SevenSidedDie May 1 '12 at 6:51

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