I stumbled across a conversation on a message board in which a guy was curious about a typical medieval kingdom’s resources—specifically, how many villages and towns a kingdom might encompass, and how big its army might be. Worldbuilding is a topic of fascination for me, both as a writer and a gamer, and this is a subject about which there are a lot of misconceptions that, at least for me, undermine the veracity many stories and games I’d otherwise enjoy.
The question isn’t simple: When you look across an entire continent, over half a millennium, there really isn’t a “typical” typical medieval kingdom. But we all have a sort of image in our head of what that term means (based I think, mostly on northwestern Europe in the period spanning the age of the Crusades through to about Chaucer and the Black Death), so we can work to that.
Here’s how it more or less was: Virtually all of northern/western Europe was settled. There were no vast expanses of wilderness or areas unruled by a recognized authority. “No land without a lord” was a Norman motto about the time of their conquest of England.
The feudal system was the way things were done. Local peasants toiled for a knight, the knight owed service to a higher lord. That higher lord might owe service up the chain to someone even higher, and at the top was the king.
This division was really from the bottom up, not the top down. The king didn’t sit down and divide up the map into duchies, then divide those up into counties, and then into manors and so on. Rather, the countryside was dotted with manors, and the county or regional authority was defined by how many of those manors a given lord was able to amass under his control. The duchy (or other next step up) was defined by how many counties and manors that lord was able to subsume, and the kingdom was defined by how many duchies and counties and manors the king was able to bring under control. (Obviously, these lands weren’t reconquered with every generation; the borders became somewhat traditional. But unlike modern national borders, they did change frequently through conquest and diplomacy. Land was the big-ticket currency of the medieval world.)
So, how many villages in a kingdom? Depends on the size and terrain. Given a productive agricultural region (like most of northern Europe), the manors are typically spread across the countryside about 2 or 3 miles apart. About an hour’s walk. So that’s 4 to 9 square miles per village. Call it 6 square miles on average, if you want a quick rule of thumb. (In a less productive area—say, an arid region like Spain—they might be somewhat farther apart.) Each village is typically ruled by a knight, though there are exceptions: Villages held by the church or the local monastery, or cases where a given knight holds more than one village and has a seneschal of some description running things at one or more of them.
The area controlled by a mid-level lord (count or margrave) can vary widely, but 10-30 miles on a side is pretty reasonable. About the distance that can be covered in one day, which makes this administrative level manageable without requiring subdivision. That’s 100 to 900 square miles, or 15 to 150 villages. 100ish, as a very vague rule of thumb.
These mid-level lords might answer directly to a king, or be part of another level of hierarchy, like a duchy. A given duchy might contain part or all of, say, half a dozen counties.
(Towns and cities are a different deal. They’re usually outside the feudal system. They’re created by an agreement with the lord that usually lets them rule themselves in exchange for a cut of the commerce. A town is definitely not just a large village—the latter is an agricultural settlement with no real commerce, while the former is a commercial center where the folk of the local villages all come to trade and buy non-local goods. Towns are usually about 5 to 10 miles apart (no more than half a day’s journey from the villages they support), which puts maybe 10ish in a middle-of-the-road county.)
So, you’re writing your story or building your campaign world. How many villages does that give us in a kingdom? Choose your kingdom size, and go with the above. A kingdom could be huge, but some were little more than a region the size of a small county. The defining factor isn’t the size, but the independence—a king does’t owe feudal allegiance to a higher secular authority.
The question of villages goes hand-in-hand with the size of the country’s army. Standing armies were very rare in the middle ages. Those scenes in the movies where a bunch of guys show up in matching armor and uniforms—forget about that.
When the king needed a force, he called up those who served beneath him. Basically, one knight for every village, usually along with a dozen or a few dozen foot soldiers (peasants with spears or bows) per village. Remember, though, that the king probably didn’t call everyone up at once; that would leave a lot of land undefended. Plus there were limits on how much service a lord could extract. If nobody’s working the farm, nobody (maybe all the way up to the king) gets to eat come winter time. . . .
The knight was a warrior by trade. The villagers might include a couple of yeomen who were trained to some degree in arms. The rest were amateurs—although in some cases, every peasant was required to have a bit of martial training. (Most famously the English longbowmen: In the late Middle Ages, every English male commoner was required to practice at the longbow, and this gave the English the ability to call up a large force of foot soldiers who were more than cannon fodder. Er, knight fodder. And thus you get your Crecys and Agincourts.)
But the trained peasant warrior is the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of medieval combatants weren’t trained soldiers. And they weren’t paid (except sometimes in booty), didn’t wear uniforms, and served only as needed.
So the king might have some retainers and perhaps a personal guard, but frankly those forces were usually pretty small. In fact, many castles were largely unmanned, or held by a caretaker, when the country wasn’t at war.
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