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Technical

Notes on Medieval Agriculture

Okay . . . so, a long-term maybe-goal of mine would be to build and enjoy playing a massively-multiplayer online “God Game” . . . somewhere, I think, between SimCity and Civilization, with a bit of Trade Wars / Railroad Tycoon thrown in. I have been thinking that if I ever were to pull this off, it would need to be focused, quite a bit, on something simpler than modern times . . . and I’ve been thinking a good place to go would be the medieval period. Feudalism especially could be an important part of the game play . . . you develop small regions, that trade together, you can build a modest army and send them off to attack things, and a lot of the time you’d probably be swearing allegiance to the greater lord / king, sending in, or receiving tributes to keep the peace. Feudalism had its run from 1066, with the Norman Conquest of England, until 1789, when it was formally abolished. The stretch in there was fairly static, up until about the enlightenment, which followed the printing press about halfway through. Figure about 500 years of fairly “stable” technology, a great place to have a long-running, persistent, online god game!

Anyway, what interests me is, collaborative / combative politics, supply-chain and market aspects of economy, trade, and, well, the whole enchantment of maps, and moving things around . . . assigning lands to vassals, I suppose, sinking wells, founding / razing towns . . . feedback loops . . . noticing patterns and anticipating changes, and dealing with disasters like bad harvests, invasion, and plague.

Now, I’m not sure that this crazy fantasy game of mine will ever see the light of day. In fact, I have for years been assuming that it will not. But, I keep thinking, and tonight it has gotten far enough that I want to take some notes, and since I don’t have a wiki, well, I guess a blog will do. :) (I’m not organized enough yet for a wiki, and wikis are great for not being organized.)

Here’s a great resource: http://www.hyw.com/books/history/Agricult.htm

Anyway, things I have figured out / learned.
(Also note that just because I think something is worth noting doesn’t mean I necessarily think it should go in my fantasy god game. :)

Distance

– A healthy person can walk 5km/hour, no problem.

– 1 square mile = 640 acres
– 1/4 square mile = 40 acres
– peasant farm family could typically lease 10 acres, up to . . .
– . . . ideally, 24-30 acres (a yardland)
– subsistence family minimum: 5 acres (Does this account for Fallow?)
– so . . . 1/4 square mile supports 1-4 peaseant families, up to 8
– 1 square kilometer = 247 acres (call it 250?) = 10 families @25 acres or 25 familes @10 acres or 50 familes @5 acres

(I kind of like multiples of 5 . . .)

Per-Acre Farming Yields

Crop Seed Yield
Wheat 72 liters 25-300
Barley 144 liters 700-720
Oats 108 liters 360-400
Peas 108 liters 300-340
Flax Used for rope / linen
Hemp
Fruit Orchards
Vegetable Gardens
Beekeeping?

Fallow

Tradeoff:
1/3 fallow decreases nitrogen / yields
1/2 fallow increases nitrogen / yields

Some Basic Conversions

Barley converts to Ale
Orchard Fruit converts to Cider
Ale, Cider, Fruit, Vegetables, Honey are “luxury” goods
Peasants are happy to consume luxuries . . . but they have to pay taxes

Structural Overview

Need to work out proportions . . . but feudal system was:
– King
– Vassal Lords — “Counties” possibly with castles
– Manors — Estates run by Knights
– Peasants

I’d like to think that the players could start out as Princes and if they can get a few other players to swear loyalty, they work their way up to Kings . . . but if the economy is sufficiently complex / interesting people might take a crack at running Manors or even managing peasant families. (There could be a pricing model . . . start play as a peasant for free, a Knight for very cheap, and so on . . . :)

Economics: Peasants

So, a “peasant family” could be a basic economic “cell” that evolves over time:
– how much land?
– family makeup?
– available seed?
– quality of land . . . nitrogen content
– increase acreage when advantageous
– increase acreage when family size grows
– decrease acreage when family size shrinks
– livestock

A peasant family can have its own (genetic) “formula” for successful farming . . . maybe talents . . . bee-keeping versus shepherding . . . families will be seen to “reproduce” when successful and die off when not-so-successful . . .

One strategic problem would be to set tax rates high enough to fund an ambituous government, but not too high such that new pesant families considered re-settling in “cheaper” (competing) provinces (or, you would manipulate tax policy to favor migration for strategic reasons)

Medieval farmers did more than just grow grain and peas. Most farmers had one or more horses and oxen, two or more milk cows, a few pigs, several dozen sheep or goats, beehives and some chickens. Many farmers kept geese as well. The horses and/or oxen pulled the plow and did other heavy work. The cows supplied milk, most of which was turned into cheese. The pigs were fattened to supply the main course for major feasts. The sheep supplied wool, which was spun into cloth for the families clothes. The chickens supplied eggs and meat to liven up the diet of peas and porridge.

I tend to think of the peasant family as something the player would not control directly, but could maybe click on to get a “feel” for how their territory was being run.

Economics: Manors

This is where you get into SimCity territory . . . the terrain is broken up into, say, square kilometers, around a central village. So many peasant families per square . . . paying taxes, to the Knight . . . but the size of the territory is constrained . . . you could set it widely, but basically “productivity” will fall off with distance from center? (Peasants spend so much time walking to the field, or walking into town . . .?)

Availability of fresh or not-so-fresh water?

Stores or economic resources.

Artisans (millers, for example)

Merchants . . . economic resources from peasant families go to the local market . . . I’d love if the price could fluctuate some based on supply / demand (or player could SET prices . . . :> ) Anyway, merchants grab this stuff and drag them off to other Manors . . .

There could be some relationship with the local priest / church:

The farmer also had to deal with the church and he usually had to pay a title (ten percent) of all produce to the cleric (abbot or bishop) who presided over the manor, plus the usual land rents. The tithing was generally not resented, because the church tended to maintain reserves of grain. In times of need, the faithful to called on the church for relief and, if it was available, it was generally forthcoming. The church preached charity and, in times of need, tended to practice what it preached.

This is sort of comparable to a Civilization “city” . . . it’s the base unit of territory that most players are going to concern themselves with, but I like the idea that you could break these up / divide / regroup these things to go with changing conditions (one strategic concern might be that you can only have so many Knights based on whatever contraints . . . )

Arrr, well, there’s some notes, for now, it is past bed time and I’m a married man.

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  • This sounds strikingly similar to Age of Empires.

    Love your blog. I had read it a long time ago, forgotten about it, and then remembered it again. Now I’m catching up.

  • danny here . . . this page was referenced in an RPG forum, and that led me to two more resources:

    http://www.butser.org.uk/ — A project to test iron-age farming techniques.

    Also:

    A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe from Expeditous Retreat Press — a book that explains the economy (farming / manors / cities) of medieval Europe, with an emphasis on generating settings for Role-Playing Games.

    -danny

  • Oberon

    How are going your project? I have interest in a sistem of rules to manage the little things of RPG worlds (like farms, mines, churchs, etc). My intent is to create coherence within the large variety of elements of medieval world games.
    Maybe we can exchange ideas… if you agree contact me by mail.

    OBS: Sorry by my poor English. My country (Brasil) speak portuguese.

  • Rob Lowes

    Very good but a couple of misses, fallow with basic crop rotation of grain (wheat, barley, oats) followed by peas/beans, followed by fallow should be nitrate neutral or slightly plus on nitrate.
    That 5 basic acres for a peasant family would be 5 acres crop 5 acres fallow plus house and garden between 1/2 and 1 acre , also a a quarter square mile is not 40 acres but 160 a quarter square mile is not a square with 1/4 mile sides. It is just .25 of total. Out of a 1/2 square mile (320 acres) I think you can guage 280 acres productive (farmable) and at least 40 non farmable ( stream, meadows, roads etc). This could go up depending on how much wood lots / common gracing etc there is.

    Rob Lowes
    Comments welcome to email lowesrl@gmail.com