A note on urban population thresholds

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Salmoneus
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A note on urban population thresholds

Post by Salmoneus »

So, over in the Tembo thread, I was talking about the problems of settlement size for a species that requires vastly more food than humans do. That got me looking for facts about historical human city sizes, and I found an interesting paper on the history of ancient Greek urbanisation (and a couple of other sources too). I started adding some of what I've learnt from it as a footnote in that thread, but it became much too large. And in any case, it seems to me that it might have a wider interest for people here, beyond the case of the elephant people.

So, here's some possibly useful information, in two parts: first, the history of Greek city sizes; and secondly, what I take from that (and other sources) in terms of general human urbanisation patterns.



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GREEK CITIES:

Bronze Age: cities probably had populations lower than 10,000. They were physically small: ten to thirty hectares. Knossos may have had 15,000 inhabitants.

Dark Age: civilisation collapsed; most people lived in hamlets of a dozen or two dozen people; many may have reverted to nomadism. The largest cities had populations up to 5,000 people. However, they were very physically large for their size - Athens grew to 200 hectares. However, this was less a city in the modern sense and more a network of villages huddled together for protection. Cities almost entirely supported themselves, but limited trade existed to supply food in case of local crop failures; Hesiod talks of trade as a last recourse for people in debt. Descriptions in Homer seem to match this general scale: it's been estimated from Homer's descriptions that Odysseus' home city, Ithaca, had around 600 people, while the larger cities in his poems, particularly Troy, had up to 4,000.

Archaic Greece (750-480): an insane revolution occured between 750 and 700 (approximately). Athens itself only doubled in size, to 10,000, but half a dozen more cities reached 5,000 and dozens more reached 1,000. Eretria grew from a dozen wooden huts into a city of 5,000 people. This is the era of what the Greeks called the great synoeicism - the gathering of villages into cities - but in fact the villages grew just as rapidly as the towns. In total, the population grew by about 600% in two generations - 4% per annum, one of the fastest rates of growth in human history - which must have been driven by a birth rate of around 7 live births per woman (death rates remained similar). Growth was so rapid that it led to emigration: 10,000 Greeks emigrated to new colonies around the Mediterranean in just 50 years... and these colonies, originally villages of a few hundred people, in turn grew into cities.This was also the era in which writing was adopted, and one of political change: the old Homeric monarchies were replaced by semi-egalitarian farmer-republics (in the case of Corinth, this is traditionally ascribed to a specific revolution in the year 747). For instance, before 750, only the richest 30% or so of Athenians were allowed, or were able, to be ritually buried in the Athenian cemetary, but after 750 the cemetary was open to everybody (although power remained in the hands of an elite). Houses also changed from round huts to rectangular stone buildings, and many temples were built.

Between 700 and 600 weird things happened. Some cities flourished (like Corinth), some seem to have suffered (a large percentage of the Athenian wells were blocked up in this century), while others disappeared, like Eretria. People have suggested natural disasters (drought), overpopulation, warfare between the new city-states, or internal political disputes within cities.

After 600, things get back on track. By 500, Athens and Corinth are up to around 20,000 people - Attica as a whole may have had 150,000 people. At this point, they can sustain themselves in good years, but most years probably have to import some food. In this era, merchant ships were invented - previously, the same boats were used for warring, raiding and trading as required - indicating the great expansion in the volume of trade. Anecdotally, by 480 Greece was importing grain from as far away as the Black Sea, though this may only have been an exceptional period of stockpiling before the Persian invasion. Similarly, this period saw regular exports begin - Athens exported olive oil and ceramics (though in small quantities), and large-scale mining began. This era saw the beginning of systematic coercive force by city leaders in the interest of urban development: the Cypselids in Corinth, and Solon and the Peisistratids in Athens ovethrow the aristocratic republics to take personal control, building water pipes and public fountains. Standing navies developed. Most cities developed a formal public space for religion and trade and politics (the agora), surrounded by temples and public buildings. Aristocrats stopped carrying weapons in the city, and in many cities doing so in the agora was punishable by death.

Meanwhile, Sparta followed a different track, opting for imperialism and the massive use of violence to gain its food, rather than trade - it was able to conquer a large agricultural hinterland that it enslaved - its wars lasted from the 9th century to the 560s, after which they switched to diplomacy powered by the threat of war. Its size is controversial. There were 20-35,000 Spartans and another, say, 10,000 'hangers on', who are described as living closely together. This suggests a city of over 40,000 people, twice the size of Athens (which seems not illogical, given that Sparta was far more dominant in its region than Athens was in its). However, this apparently would push the limits of how much food could be bought to one city in the era, particularly as Spartans themselves were forbidden from doing any manual labour (women kept the books, while men were expected to lie around most of the day and comb one another's hair, between occasional random murders of slaves for fun). So it may be that 'Sparta' was really a cluster of smaller cities around the central ceremonial city (because they all had to engage in communal rituals). It's unclear.



Classical Greece (480-323): most cities probably had populations of a few thousand people, at the centre of a 'city state' of up to 6,000 people. Attica, however, had between 150,000 and 350,000 people. Athens itself probably had 35-40k in 430, and neighbouring Piraeus, the port, a further 25,000. Most Attican food had to be imported, from as far as the Black Sea and Sicily; Athens had become effectively an imperial city dominating Greece and surrounding areas. It 'taxed' over 250 other communities across Greece; the fee it charged to support the navy alone would have supported 10k people, while the taxes it levied on trade across Greece perhaps supported a further 20k. Its interests were founded on the grain supply, and its power derived from its navy. After the loss of its navy to the Spartans, it was constantly on the verge of crisis. War, famine and plague reduced Athens to perhaps only 25,000 by 400, and although it attempted to transition into a producing (mining!) and trading city, rather than an imperial capital, it never really recovered, and was repeatedly in financial crisis, with constant anxiety about the food supply.

Meanwhile, Syracuse under the tyrant Gelon decided to artificially become a megalopolis: it kidnapped everyone nearby and forced them to live in Syracuse. The city grew rapidly to around 40k, with its total territory having 250k; fortunately, Sicily is a rich agricultural area. It fed its poor through massive public works projects, and constructed a vast fleet, which defeated that of Athens. Like Athens, it was an empire, ruling Sicily: it maintained a network of smaller cities - some free but ruled by puppets, others enslaved.

Only Athens and Syracuse, as imperial cities, could come close to the 40k barrier. Even a prosperous city like Thebes could only muster 15-20k. It's unknown what Sparta was like: continued tyranny and consolidation of power and wealth dramatically reduced the number of Spartan citizens (the military, based on free men, crashed from 5000 to 1000 over the course of a century), but whether this meant that Sparta shrank as a whole or just became less free is unknown.

In this era, the agricultural hinterlands actuall grew faster than cities themselves, other than the imperial cities. Presumably this is because cities were able to project their power and markets into the countryside more effectively, making the countryside safer and more hospitable.



Later Greece and Elsewhere: when Greece conquered Persia, it led to dramatic decline in Greece, as there was mass emigration. This, combined with war and famine, and in particular a low birth rate (people spoke of women having only 1 or 2 children), which usually suggests overpopulation, led cities to shrink, and the hinterlands to become deserted - wealthy men spoke of owning large farming tracts, but being unable to find anyone to farm them. Thebes shrank to under 5,000 people; by the time the Romans arrived in 150, Athens was down to under 10,000. Only when Augustus decided to build Greece back up again did Corinth reemerge as a great city - Strabo says it had 80k inhabitants, though this is probably an exaggeration. If we imagine 40-50k, it would effectively mean it had replaced classical Athens as the 'capital' of Greece.

However, Greek civilisation outside Greece was fucking enormous.

Mesopotamia had had cities of tens of thousands of people for thousands of years by the time Alexander arrived. Nineveh may have had between 75k and 350k. Babylon was bigger, and definitely had at least 100k. When Cyrus conquered Babylon, it took three days for news of the conquest to reach all the neighbourhoods of the city (it was 890 hectares in size).

Under Alexander and his successors, the populations of Antioch, Alexandria and Seleucia soared. In each case, it involved depletion elsewhere: Alexander created Alexandria by depopulating nearby cities; Seleucia was created by forcibly moving much of the population of Babylon; Antioch grew more naturally, but only because constant war gradually destroyed all the other cities in Syria, forcing everyone to settle in Antioch for mutual protection.

Alexandria possibly grew rapidly to 300k by 230, and then more slowly to 400k, and by the turn of the millennium it may have had 500k. Seleucia was probably even larger - Pliny says 600k, and the site is known to be vast, but it's not excavated enough to know. Antioch was a little smaller, but still in the hundreds of thousands; even Apamea, a smaller Syrian city, had 117,000 in 7AD.

These numbers were supported by vast imperial populations. Alexandria was the capital of an Egypt with a population between 4 and 8 million, with 18,000 settlements. By law, all grain exported from Egypt had to go through (and much of it ended up going to the population of) Alexandria.



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URBANISATION IN GENERAL:

There seem to be a distinct series of transitions in urbanisation, across a series of thresholds:

- hamlets and small villages can range from a few dozen people to (in a fertile and safe area) a few hundred. These are hard to eradicate even in bad times. They can survive entirely on their own produce, assuming no great crop failures, and require very little organization.

- towns/proto-cities can grow up to, say, 5k. They can form by one village outgrowing the others, or they can form from clusters of villages merging. They are self-sufficient, but they require the invention of new political and organisational structures - marketplaces, judges, temples (or equivalent). However, they don't require much actual state coercion (there's not a lot that needs done). Note that proto-cities didn't pass the 1k threshold until around 7,000BC! It's difficult! [FWIW, early Sumerian cities were this sort of size as well]

- local cities can grow up to around 30k or so, though most will be more like 10-20k. They aren't self-sufficient, although once the hinterland of villages they control/support is taken into account they may be almost self-sufficient if well-situated. However, they need trade networks to make up the shortfall in their food supply. Export industries may develop in exchange, based on local resources or simply trade specialties. Cities this size will probably have systematic state coercion, armies, public works and so forth, and need more dynamic political systems.

- regional cities can grow up to around, say, 60k. These cannot remotely feed themselves (although they still try, and remain closely tied to their hinterlands), and they only get to this size by dominating a significant region (eg 'Sicily'), which requires a lot of political effort (they're going to need a big standing army or navy, for a start). These cities in their heyday can be pretty great places - all the benefits of urban living, but still relatively few downsides (they tend to be clean and low-crime). And although they dominate their region, the region can thrive under their rule (if they're not too tyrannical). Their political systems are likely to start getting complicated.

- national cities can grow up to perhaps 200k. These need to dominate large regions (not necessarily officially!), and they also probably need a really big, centralised state - in mediaeval Europe, these cities only emerged again once kings (or at least princes) centralised power and created large 'court' systems settled in capital cities. They also need their region to be well-developed in general: they need to dominate cities, not villages. Later pharaonic capitals also grew to this size, and the capitals of mesopotamian petty empires. Such cities can also probably be regional capitals within a much larger imperial trade network (that is, while they probably can't survive just on their own regional dominance, the combination of controlling a small region AND being connected to a much larger empire allows them to grow further). Cities this size often get a reputation for being dirty and disorganised, and become alienated from their hinterlands. They start to suck population out of the region. Disease becomes more of a worry (though regional cities aren't immune either).

- imperial megacities can grow rapidly up to 1M, but this requires total domination of a large province, within the context of a gigantic empire and global trade - even the biggest empires won't have more than a handful of these. [Rome had Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and eventually Constantinople]. These cities are less pleasant places to live - political/legal authorities tend to break down in at least some parts of the city, and you get extreme overcrowding - these cities develop a reputation as hives of scum and villainy (though there may of course still be nice neighbourhoods). Nonetheless, they can attract population so intensely that rural areas become depopulated.

- 1M appears to be a hard limit. History had many cities approaching or at 1M, starting probably around 1AD, but, while there have been claims for cities a bit bigge than this, it wasn't until the 19th century that any city definitely brokes past this and (soon after) reached 2M. Populations over 2M appear to require modernity - industrialisation, global empires, sophisticated agriculture, hi-tech transport and so on. But once this occurred, it took only slightly more than a century to go from a city of 2M to a city of 20M.



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The other thing that strikes me is to emphasise that this isn't just a matter of a continuous growth. It seems as though you could maybe group together what I've called 'regional' and 'national' cities - it looks like maybe you can grow organically from one to the other - but the other steps seem to be highly quantised: either you're over the threshold or you're not.

What that means is that once you cross a threshold, growth can be extremely rapid (a generation or two); and if you cross the other way, decline can be extremely rapid too; but within a tier, it seems long-term stability is possible. Athens, for example grew from a prosperous local city into a regional city - more than doubling its population - and then collapsed back into being a local city, all in about a century or so, based on the success/failure of its hegemony over the Aegean. Likewise, even megacities can arise out of the desert (or neaby regional/national cities) in just a few generations, but can disappear even more quickly once the preconditions of their size are lost (the empire falls, or the emperor moves their court).


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Anyway, I know this is unsolicited and greatly oversimplified, but I hope it might be of interest to somebody!
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Re: A note on urban population thresholds

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I like it [:)]
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Re: A note on urban population thresholds

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It was informative and thought-provoking. I especially like the typology of cities, and I'll use it. I've lately been marinating an idea regarding this very thing. I don't swear by it, but this is it: What if it's not about agricultural productivity, but political effectiveness that drives this?

The naive history, the one they teach you in first year sociology, is that forever ago, in what evopsych likes to call the EEA humans lived in bands. then some groups came up with agriculture, this made town and then cities, and those cities were the first civilizations (defined as groups whose social live involves writing, laws, monumental architecture and distinct social classes). These civilizations become better and better at farming, they expand, their populations increase, and grow more and more complex: this has some ebb and flow, like after the fall of the roman empire in which society "regressed" to being mostly towns and villages and large cities were abandoned, but the overall trend of civilization, complexity, population density and productivity increases until eventually there's this discontinuity around the 16~18th century where something called modernity emeres: this modernity is a way of life that's much better at the production of knowledge, tangible goods and even intangible goods like liberty and whatnot. Human history, then, is the history of this increasing of civilization and the challenges it poses, and how those challenges are overcome through various means.

Technology, however, doesn't map that well with these discontinuities in complexity: the roman empire didn't fall because they lost the ability to produce steel, and it didn't rise -as far as we know- because they had some astonishing way to produce linen or something: imperial france, another one of these great modernizing civilizations by all accounts even if one dislikes bonaparte, also didn't come about as a result of some technological innovation. Rather, it seems as if at least in the short timescales it's technology that follows political power: this is trivially explained by the fact that technology is expensive, and can be observed in the present. a counterexample of this is writing and other informatics, which do seem to cause, within short historical timeframes, increases in complexity. so what if it's the ability and methods of humans to coordinate and coalition-build that drives increasing complexity? as forms of political coalition-building become available for this or that reason (and information technology is one of those, but so is contact with other groups or any number of things).

this idea is likely to flatter the anarcho-primitivist, that complain that civilization is one big pyramid scheme that's destroying the planet, and entail various antiauthoritarian ethics, but also conservatism. regardless, it suggests a model of urbanization as a semi-permanent result of these processes of explosion in political centralization, these things which a slovenian sociologist called Burja would call 'social innovations'. A new method of making humans cooperate towards a certain goal -a new 'pyramid scheme', as it were, emerges, and shortly the new coalition absorbs more and more humans, and makes them participate in the new society: this can be nice, sometimes towns outright ask nearby bigger polities to absorb them, or it can horrific, as in slavery: it can also be neutral, as in the tendency of empires, at least the stable ones, to increase agricultural productivity in order for there to be more surplus to capture from more population. The thing is, pyramid schemes don't work the same over large ranges of people: you can't have a multinational corporation comprising seven people, and conversely you can't have a band of brothers made of a thousand. schemes work best at a certain size, and can't work outside that sweet spot. the whole picture ends up looking a bit -but only a bit- like the evolution of other living organisms, and that's what we ultimately are. It seems appropriate to suggest that schema have functional and non-functional bits. Socialist republics need bureaucracy and an army, but wouldn't be changed much if they liked green instead of red.

So, these levels of urbanization would correspond with dominant forms of social organization, and one would expect the overall curve of complexity and population to follow a pattern of emergence > spread > stagnation > emergence of the next big thing, probably with false starts and eventual dips (it is common in history for agricultural productivity to fall as a result of a collapse in a civilization, but not universal, so this would explain why population follows complexity downwards). I think this is what we see in history. This model would also explain the many historical instances of when populations of very different complexity collide, amongst the weaker guys it's the ones that adopt the social organization of their invaders that end up getting invaded the least, and continue to exist.

hamlets and small villages seem to run on community rural living: you know, bunch of families live together, decision-making and influence are informal, and a lot of stuff is just shared on tally sticks and long-term agreements of mutual cooperation. this is not 'natural', the family, religion, tally marks and all sorts of stuff that helps regulate interactions are present.

town seem to follow what anthropologists used to call chiefdoms: more central authority, but still running on mostly biological forms of social control -loyalty, affection, violence and mutualism- enhanced by some social innovations like organized religion, or private property: you can have a company town, but company cities are, I think, unstable. towns sometimes run states, as in old sumeria.

cities up to imperial mega seem to run on states: states are a diverse family of schema, but all share some characteristics that seem to map the social organization of a city: a bureaucracy, which requires writing, laws with burly dudes whose job it is to enforce them, classes, etcetera. This may be the 'stage of development', as it were, the world has been during recorded history.

I feel tempted to name the next stage, the stage we're in, 'global megacities'. the discontinuity of early modernity, in terms of social schema, seems to have been the ability to establish global trade networks. not even the chinese, likely the most powerful state in premodern history, had cities of tens of millions before modernity, and the novel thing that happened before europe took over the world is that the iberians began to establish tributary economic relationships with very far-flung populations. before this, international trade was very limited, and even the really big empire only established tributary relationships with their neighbours. To my knowledge there had been no other instances of a state incorporating into its economic and political systems a territory that was not its neighbours, i.e. a very discontinuous civilization, until the spaniards took the americas: and shortfly after they did everyone else followed suit.
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Re: A note on urban population thresholds

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Torco wrote: 09 Jul 2021 05:23 It was informative and thought-provoking.
Thank you.

I especially like the typology of cities, and I'll use it. I've lately been marinating an idea regarding this very thing. I don't swear by it, but this is it: What if it's not about agricultural productivity, but political effectiveness that drives this?
I think you're arguing against a bit of a straw man - of course it's political effectiveness (in a broad sense) that drives this. At least, what they taught me in my first-year sociology (well, my sociological theory module) is that the wealth of a community (whether it's a corporate culture or a tribal society) is determined not only by financial capital, but also by human capital (skills and knowledge) and above all by social capital - trust and organisation. Human history is defined not only by mechanical technological progress, but also by progress in political and economic technologies.
Technology, however, doesn't map that well with these discontinuities in complexity: the roman empire didn't fall because they lost the ability to produce steel, and it didn't rise -as far as we know- because they had some astonishing way to produce linen or something
Rome primarily rose because it had a technological superiority over its neighbours. Some of that technology was scientific - geometry, physics, concrete, waterwheels, roads, aqueducts, sewers, crop rotation - while some of it was political. This all gave Rome a great advantage economically, demographically, and militarily.

Rome fell because its technology was never adequate to sustain it in the face of its obstacles*: problems mounted, until they could no longer be overcome. Attempts to sustain the system arguably resulted in the decay of some political technology (the shift to a more dictatorial, centralised empire temporarily slowed collapse, but at the cost of creating a more volatile system even more reliant on the personal virtues of the emperor, already the weak point of the system).
so what if it's the ability and methods of humans to coordinate and coalition-build that drives increasing complexity?
Yes, of course.
this idea is likely to flatter the anarcho-primitivist,
Surely the opposite! A model that holds that civilisation rests on social capital (including institutions) suggests that we cannot simply eradicate the institutions of social capital (governments, cities, etc) and still retain the clear benefits of civilisation (like the 'not dying so much' thing). Or, conversely, that if the benefits of civilisation were present in a primitivist society - peace, plenty, etc - then it would be extremely difficult to prevent the re-emergence of the civilisation that that capital permits.
A new method of making humans cooperate towards a certain goal -a new 'pyramid scheme'
I'm not sure what's gained by using loaded (and factually inaccurate) terms like 'pyramid scheme' to describe social capital.
hamlets and small villages seem to run on community rural living: you know, bunch of families live together, decision-making and influence are informal, and a lot of stuff is just shared on tally sticks and long-term agreements of mutual cooperation. this is not 'natural', the family, religion, tally marks and all sorts of stuff that helps regulate interactions are present.
Small communities are usually controlled by families (clans); however, there's often a specific monarch (king, chieftain, headman, etc), either hereditary or elected from eligible aristocrats. Many small communities are specifically dyadic, with two rival clans, often balancing power in some way (alternation of kingship, dual kingship, etc), although AIUI early Greek communities tended to be ruled by a single clan.

town seem to follow what anthropologists used to call chiefdoms: more central authority, but still running on mostly biological forms of social control -loyalty, affection, violence and mutualism- enhanced by some social innovations like organized religion, or private property: you can have a company town, but company cities are, I think, unstable. towns sometimes run states, as in old sumeria.
I don't think it's helpful to divide "biological" culture from non-biological culture, as though humans were animals up to a certain point in history and then suddenly became something different. The same mechanisms have been at play in all of human history.

In Greek history, AIUI, there's actually usually two distinct phases:

- the restrictive, semi-ritualistic clan structure is overthrown, replaced by a more republican structure based on membership of the city, not the clan (this allows immigrants to take part, for a start). To deal with larger populations and less restrictive control, more consensual systems of organisation are developed; you get no-weapons rules, public spaces and buildings, professional judges, and limited forms of explicit voting (whole-city or whole-aristocracy assemblies), and so on. This usually goes along with the transition from the village to the small town. You also start getting armies - though usually just militias - but you don't get much coercive power within the town.

- this more republican structure is then added to by creating more coercive, centralised power, often involving a dictator of some kind. This tends to be the transition from the small town (a few thousand people) to the large town or small city (5,000 or more).

cities up to imperial mega seem to run on states: states are a diverse family of schema, but all share some characteristics that seem to map the social organization of a city: a bureaucracy, which requires writing, laws with burly dudes whose job it is to enforce them, classes, etcetera. This may be the 'stage of development', as it were, the world has been during recorded history.
Classes definitely predate cities. Writing, on the other hand, is an optional extra. [cf Mexico, Peru]
I feel tempted to name the next stage, the stage we're in, 'global megacities'. the discontinuity of early modernity, in terms of social schema, seems to have been the ability to establish global trade networks. not even the chinese, likely the most powerful state in premodern history, had cities of tens of millions before modernity, and the novel thing that happened before europe took over the world is that the iberians began to establish tributary economic relationships with very far-flung populations. before this, international trade was very limited
Not at all - international trade has been substantial as far back in time as we can study. Certainly empires like Rome or China had plenty of international trade. As did Europe before 1800!

The discontinuity of late modernity can be broadly ascribed to improved agriculture, the factory system, and the development of heavy industry powered by fossil fuels. Also canals and trains. [of course, various other technological advances were required to get to that point, like central banking, joint stock corporations, underwriting, parliamentary democracy and so forth]
, and even the really big empire only established tributary relationships with their neighbours. To my knowledge there had been no other instances of a state incorporating into its economic and political systems a territory that was not its neighbours
Well, this is a little sophistical, because in some sense all empires are contiguous. Your distinction comes down to whether transport within the empire can be by land or must be by sea - otherwise, what's the real difference between an empire in morocco that conquers senegal by land (annexing a neighbour) and one that conquers senegal by sea without first controlling the sahara?

In the ancient world, Greece controlled land from the Crimea to Sicily, without controlling land in between. Carthage controlled land in Spain, and at least had regular trade with Britain (though we've not found any permanent settlements yet). The Egyptian Middle Kingdom is believed by many to have established a vassal colony in Punt. Omanis controlled ports along the entire African seaboard. Romans at least exerted considerable control in ports from southern Africa to Vietnam, though we don't know exactly how much they dominated them. It's believed that Malayan empires annexed Madagascar, at least temporarily. Byzantium temporarily conquered Tunisia and parts of Italy. Western Europeans created colonies in the Levant - they weren't specifically colonies of any one European state, but they were a part of the economic and political system of feudal Christendom. The Norse colonised the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, and parts of North America, subjugated the Hebrides and Ireland and parts of England, and parts of northern France, and Sicily and parts of Italy, and exerted power through the river systems of Russia as far as the Black Sea. Venice controlled Cyprus. And of course the feudal territories of much of mediaeval Europe could be wildly discontinuous! René of Anjou, for example, ruled Bar, Lorraine, Anjou, Provence, and Naples...
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Re: A note on urban population thresholds

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Sorry, I realise I forgot my footnote on the fall of Rome...

...obviously, Rome had a lot of problems to overcome, and we don't have enough information to reliably assess them. But (from something I read recently) it seems as though a lot of them can be summed up as: labour shortages.

It appears, from what we can tell, that wages, at least in Italy, were very high. In other words, citizens generally enjoyed a high standard of living (they generally appear to have been extremely healthy, for example), generally had easy access to employment, and needed a lot of money to convince them to work. More money than anybody had. Among citizens, labour was a seller's market, which restricted growth.

As a result, Rome was extremely dependent upon non-citizen immigrants who could be employed more cheaply - primarily this meant millions and millions of imported slaves, although later on it also meant immigrant Germans (and Celts, Sarmatians, etc) brought in to fight and farm. Particularly striking in this respect was that it appears as though much of the Empire - outside of Italy, Egypt, Palestine and Syria - remained underpopulated, resulting in very long borders and very large areas of land to defend, but relatively few defenders.

The reliance on imported slaves made Rome vulnerable, as it became increasingly difficult to acquire so many slaves, particularly once military expansion was halted.

But labour shortages also created specific problems in the military. Military wages, like all wages, were high - so armies were increasingly expensive. Because funds available for the army were limited, wages were restricted, so soldiers increasingly came from poorer and more marginalised backgrounds. An amazing stat I didn't know about: under Augustus/Tiberius/Caligula, on average 62% of Roman soldiers were Italians; under Claudius and Nero, only 37% were Italians; under the Flavians, Nerva and Trajan, only 22% were Italians; but after the death of Trajan, only 2% of soldiers were Italians.

What this means is that, on the one hand, the army that defended Rome (and increasingly chose its emperors) were alienated from the region in which wealth and power and indeed Roman culture (i.e. social capital) lay. On the other hand, Roman elites were in turn increasingly alienated from the army (whereas once, service in the army was an essential part of any political career). The result of this was that Roman soldiers had less and less inherent reason to be loyal to Rome, at the same time that Roman elites had less and less interest in the doings of Roman soldiers - and, in particular, less interest in actually paying them their increasingly inflated wages. Stories of soldier's unpaid back wages, and the anger/greed/desparation this caused for armies, are a huge part of the narrative of the near-constant military insurrections of later years...
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Re: A note on urban population thresholds

Post by Salmoneus »

Oh, and another interesting note from that source, that might be useful to worldbuilders...

The Roman Republic, during brief periods of crisis, was able to press between 6% and 13% of its entire (free) population into the military (depending on whether you subscribe to high or low theories of Republican population). Such rates of mobilisation are extremely rare in history, although they are matched (I think bettered) by Greek city-states. This figure translates to either 25% or 50% of its adult male population; the latter would translate to 75% of men between 17 and 45 (the eligibility years). The high point was during the existential crises of the Second Punic War; during the Social War and again in the Civil War, mobilisation was between half and two thirds of this level.

The author of the paper finds only four post-classical comparable mobilisations before the modern era: Sweden (8%) in the Great Northern War; Prussia in the Seven Year's War and the Napoleonic Wars (6-7%); and the Confederate States in the American Civil War (an astonishing 11% mobilisation of the free population - both Rome and the CSA benefited from having slaves to help maintain production despite such huge mobilisations).

[by comparison, during WWII, Britain also mobilised around 12% of its population. The USSR mobilised around 20%, and Germany slightly more.]

The rest of the time, the high estimate for mobilisation (ie the 13%-in-the-punic-war figure) calculates a 'peacetime' (or at least non-crisis) mobilisation rate of 4-5%. Apparently this is approximately equal to all unmarried men under 30.
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Re: A note on urban population thresholds

Post by Torco »

Apparently this is approximately equal to all unmarried men under 30.
lmao makes sense tbh

I have a feeling that the famed roman superiority in engineering (roads and so on) came after its consolidation as a large power. the first aqueduct is in -300, after the defeat of the samnites, and baths and sewers were an etruscan thing before they were a roman thing, which suggests the social capital first notion. the first fancy roman bridge is from -150 or so, and the roads are from -300 onwards too! amphitheaters are late, and it was augustus who famously found rome made of brick and left it made of marble. wiki says the first horrea were built in Rome towards the end of the 2nd century BC, as were the fancy canals they built, so sure, the romans had a significant technological advantage by the start of the empire, but by that time they were big and rich and powerful, and those things -coupled with competent management- cause technological advantage.

From what I remember of roman history, during the times of the republic what made them exceptional amongst italian cities was their ability to mobilize population: you'd beat them in one large battle and they'd send another big army, and if you beat that one they'd just send another: the bastards just kept coming.
I don't think it's helpful to divide "biological" culture from non-biological culture
I don't think I'm doing that: rather, i'm saying that the first methods of social capital are, well, affection, kinship, a shared lebenswelt, and so on, and with time you start going towards laws and documents and blockchains: the former seem to me to be more related to the fact that humans are gregarious mammals, and the later to what Harari calls fictions, and Castoriadis calls the imaginary.
I'm not sure what's gained by using loaded (and factually inaccurate) terms like 'pyramid scheme' to describe social capital.
not a lot, other than being quite an evocative way of clarifying the sense in which I use 'schema'. but yeah, you're right that it's unnecesarily loaded.
Surely the opposite! A model that holds that civilisation rests on social capital (including institutions) suggests that we cannot simply eradicate the institutions of social capital (governments, cities, etc) and still retain the clear benefits of civilisation (like the 'not dying so much' thing).
well, that's kind of the point of anarcho-primitivism in the first place, innit? the notion is that we can't just clean civilization of its evils, we must also renounce its benefits. the non-AP who recognizes the evils of civilization, like inequality, social conflict and the rest of it, tends to think those are problems that can be managed and some of them eliminated (social democrats and marxists, respectively).

ultimately, the difference between plain old social capital and the model I'm trying out here is a) that social capital is not accumulated linearly but rather as somewhat discrete systems that either are in place or arent (i.e. you either have, say, written laws or you don't) and that therefore you expect concrete, violent processes of civilizatory (for lack of a better term) radiation rather than smooth curves of accumulation of capital. punctuated equilibria coming one after another rather than gradual accumulation of innovation, i guess. and b) that these processes are kind of random, or at least haphazards: the ancient romans weren't trying to lay the groundwork for the renaissance, but without their influence it's likely that renaissance wouldn't have happened. in Weberian terms christ wasn't trying to set up capitalism, but he did anyway.
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Re: A note on urban population thresholds

Post by Salmoneus »

It's just a few facts from wikipedia, so I won't bother with a long post, but I came across this and thought it complemented the above discussion by demonstrating both how unusual urban societies like Classical greece are, and also how rare large towns in general are:

- in the Dark Ages, Dál Riata (the Irish-speaking kingdom occupying the west of Scotland) had only 10,000 inhabitants. The more populated Pictish kingdom may have had 80k-100k.

- by the time of the Black Death, the population of Scotland as a whole was up to 1m. But the Black Death killed half the population, one way or another. The general population pattern in this era was - like Dark Ages Greece - of hamlets of between a handful of, and a few dozen, people.

- by the mid-16th century, 10% of Scots lived in towns, with an average size of around 2,000 inhabitants (though many much smaller). The largest city in the country was Edinburgh, overflowing with perhaps as many as 10,000 people living there. This was a relatively urbanised country by European standards (more so than eastern europe, scandinavia or switzerland).

- in 1750, Scotland had a population of 1.2m people, but still only four cities had populations over 10,000. Dundee and Aberdeen had less than 20k, Glasgow had 30k, and Edinburgh had 60k. This made Scotland one of the most urbanised regions in Europe (behind only England, the Low Countries and Italy).

- by 1900, Scotland had a population of 4.5m. Glasgow alone had a population of 750k, and the four cities combined accounted for 1/3 of the entire population.


This pattern seems to fit with my model above. You go from hamlets through to having Edinburgh as a small 'local city' (with a handful of towns) in the renaissance era, through to Edinburgh as a large 'regional city' in the early modern era. Then it cycles through the next stages very quickly, because modernisation occurs.
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Re: A note on urban population thresholds

Post by Pabappa »

Salmoneus wrote: 02 Oct 2021 14:16

- by the mid-16th century, 10% of Scots lived in towns, with an average size of around 2,000 inhabitants (though many much smaller).
just to clarify, when you say 10% lived in towns, does that include those living in Edinburgh and other cities as "towns"? In either case, in what type of community were the rest of the people living? I cant imagine they were all nomadic hunters .... were they living in castles as serfs, tilling the soil or whatever it is they actually did in those days?

it's probably easy enough to look up, but if it's no bother, i'd love to see it spelled out in a way that perhaps would be more useful than a simple statistic, especially for those of us whose writing involves similar settings.

Thanks,
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Re: A note on urban population thresholds

Post by Salmoneus »

Pabappa wrote: 06 Oct 2021 15:54
Salmoneus wrote: 02 Oct 2021 14:16

- by the mid-16th century, 10% of Scots lived in towns, with an average size of around 2,000 inhabitants (though many much smaller).
just to clarify, when you say 10% lived in towns, does that include those living in Edinburgh and other cities as "towns"? In either case, in what type of community were the rest of the people living? I cant imagine they were all nomadic hunters .... were they living in castles as serfs, tilling the soil or whatever it is they actually did in those days?

it's probably easy enough to look up, but if it's no bother, i'd love to see it spelled out in a way that perhaps would be more useful than a simple statistic, especially for those of us whose writing involves similar settings.

Thanks,
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I believe it does include the cities, yes.

I don't know the exact chronology, but throughout history the general Scottish habitation pattern has been the isolated farmhouse or small hamlet: settlements of a few people up to a few dozen people. Small enough that a town - of, say, 500-5,000 people - would seem like another world.

As I understand it, this was the general pre-modern settlement pattern for most fertile areas. In a sufficiently fertile area, such a pattern can actually sustain large populations: effectively, instead of modern highly-concentrated settlements surrounded by empty land, think of mediaeval settlement as being a continuous fabric of small (often one-family or a cluster of related families) farms (with some exceptions: I know a lot of Germany, for instance, was left completely uninhabited until quite late (the deep dark wood with the wolves and witches in it)).

However, at some point in the early modern era (or shortly before it) there was - it's my understanding - something of a concentration, with fewer hamlets and more villages and small towns. This happened at different times in different places, and I don't know (yet!) when that happened for Scotland. Generally, I think, it happened later in less civilised and less agriculturally productive areas. AIUI, Russia was famous for its relative lack of towns well into the modern era.
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Re: A note on urban population thresholds

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No castles then. Or at least not enough to account for a significant share of the population. Okay, thanks.

My impression had been at least since grade school that many, if not most, of the common people in medieval times lived within the walls of a castle, where they were protected from outside enemies, but required to work for the king, or in most cases, for an intermediary who worked for the king. And I remember a four-tiered society of lords, vassals, and serfs .... maybe the top layer was the king? Since we learned about this while also learning about castles, I'd always assumed the two were tied together.

Living wholly unprotected, as you say, doesnt sound very convenient. It isnt clear how people living in these tiny settlements would get their basic needs met, either, unless they had a reliable surplus of food that they were able to sell and then save money for when they'd need it later. From what I could read on Wikipedia, even these people living out in the hinterlands still were required to pay taxes, so maybe in return for the taxes they were able to get at least some sort of physical protection and the guarantee that if one of them needed medical help they would not simply be left to fend for themselves. If not, it seems that Scotland wasn't really a nation-state in the sense that we think of it today, and presumably that would also describe most of the other European countries at the time. Either way, living like that doesnt sound very safe.
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Re: A note on urban population thresholds

Post by Salmoneus »

OK, so, having read a few more things - this time about England - I can maybe fill in a few dots there.


Pre-industrial English rural settlement history can be broadly divided into four periods.

"Originally", the settlement pattern was "dispersed": Anglo-Saxon settlements were largely single farmhouses or small hamlets (clusters of a few family farmhouses, or a family farmhouse and some hangers-on). Farmhouses were typically large, open-hall living structures, accompanied by one or more barns. There were some (non-contiguous) particularly populated areas - lowlands near the coast or major rivers, mostly in the east - which had been completely deforested by the Norman era, and whose Old English names don't suggest nearby woodlands. But even these areas would have been mostly dispersed at first. Monasteries tended to be built outside, but near to, these core areas.

[an important feature of dispersed settlement is the 'grange' or 'sheiling' - structures for temporary, seasonal habitation by animal-herders, further from the main dwellings (particularly in fen or upland areas that couldn't support enough crops to allow permanent habitation). These could be anything from a single hut up to a substantial cluster of buildings]

-----------------------

Gradually - but mostly during the 8th and 9th centuries - a second pattern develops: "nucleated" settlement. Nucleated settlement is based around villages, which could have anywhere from a dozen houses up to three or four dozen (although the houses were often smaller than the dispersed farmhouses, I think). Nobody knows why this happened exactly. At least some of the time, it was driven by pressure from lords, as villages were more profitable than hamlets. It could also be a reorganisation after a disaster (it happened in the northeast a lot after William burned all the existing houses down in the Harrying of the North). It may also have had mutual defence implications. Often, though not always, these nucleated villages were planned: they often involved rows of houses on either side of a single main street, with houses and plots of similar size, with the village church and manor house at one end of the village. Other villages appear to have grown out of multiple nuclei that have merged together.

[these plots were divided into two parts: a hedged or walled private 'toft', containing the house and yard, by the road, and a long, narrow 'croft' perpendicular to the road, containing a vegetable garden and any personal industrial facilities. Widows, impoverished renters and other dependents could live in additional ramshackle buildings in the toft, while even more marginal residents might live on the roadside outside the village]

Right up to the modern era, there was a distinction between a 'Central Province' in England (broadly a triangle between Bristol, Cambridge and York, plus parts of the coastal northeast and a small area of the south coast south of Bristol), which had a nucleated settlement pattern, and the periphery of the country, where the settlement always remained dispersed (it was also dispersed throughout all of Scotland, at least for most of history).

The dispersed/nucleated distinction is often correlated to soil: areas with bad soils remained dispersed (so, rocky upland areas, or heavy, wooded clay lowlands), while areas with fertile soils became nucleated. In some areas this distinction appears accurate to the square mile, with clear and unambiguous distinction between nucleated 'Felden' and dispersed 'Arden' soils. However, in other areas the distribution is also based on historical path-dependency, and sheer random chance.

Outside the British Isles, Scandinavia and much of Eastern Europe and Russia always remained primarily dispersed (though apparently there were some nucleated clusters on the west coast of Norway).

One feature of dispersed settlement was that when nucleated villages WERE found in these areas, they were often LESS nucleated, being arranged around an empty 'village green'.

---------------------------------

A second transition occured in the 14th and 15th centuries - this didn't alter the nucleated/dispersed dichotomy, but it did alter both settlements. In dispersed areas, many farmhouses in lowland areas were encircled by moats, presumably for self-defence. More importantly, particularly in nucleated areas, large farms developed, with some distinctive structures (eg multiple houses arranged around a courtyard). In dispersed areas, many farmhouses were abandoned, either voluntarily or by force, as cereal agriculture was replaced by grazing. [this occured famously in the 18th century in Scotland - the Clearances - and not until the 19th century in Ireland]. Note that Clearance didn't necessarily reduce population - the Lowland Clearances did, but the Highland Clearances, contrary to mythology, actually resulted in population increases. It did, however, result in much less equal societies, and eventually (through lack of job opportunities) spurred mass migration.

The trend to large farms was then accelerated in a third transition in the 18th/19th century, through Enclosure: small farm strips were combined by force into larger farms, and large 'commons' (often used for grazing) were divided into private plots.


-----------------


Essentially, two driving social processes appear to be involved here.


Firstly, what we might call the 'sufficiancy bubble' had gradually grown.

In the dispersed model, each farmhouse or hamlet must be more or less self-sufficient. Everyone does everything. Sure, people might travel to have a really unusual task done, or later on some specialist workers might tour the area to fulfill these rare needs. Note that Travellers are historically associated with dispersed settlement patterns - in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the North, and, outside the British Isles, particular Eastern Europe and Scandinavia - because Travellers could provide specialised economic functions to the dispersed farmhouses (eg, Travellers were often responsible for annual knife-grinding, as it was wildly inefficient for everyone to have their own knife-grinding wheel). But by and large, a farmhouse would need to be able to meet all its basic needs itself.

In the nucleated model, however, it's now the village that is self-sufficient. In the nucleated model, each house would now typically have its own 'additional' speciality, beyond the universal profession of farming. This is where English 'profession' surnames come from: each village would have a Weaver, a Potter, a Thatcher, a Smith, a Cooper, a Sawyer, a Miller (most villages had watermills, although the mill would often be on a stream some distance outside the village, and hence the Miller could be regarded with some distrust by villagers), a Baker and so forth, who would conduct their craft on their croft, behind their toft. This meant you could have specialist experts, rather than everyone having to know how to do everything, so this was more efficient.

You then begin to expand the sufficiency bubble to a small region. This worked by having different villages develop additional specialties, usually on the initiative of the local lord: one village would have an orchard, another would have some fishponds, another would have a rabbit warren, and so on.

[there were also of course always some highly-specialised settlements. Mining towns, for instance, and monasteries. There were also some 'vaccaries' that specialised in cows, on particularly fertile land. But in general full specialisation was very rare]

Finally, you develop a national self-sufficiency: your trade system is now sophisticated enough to move goods all over the country, so each region can now specialise. In particular, in the British context, this means that prime sheep areas are now able to just graze sheep, and trade them for corn from the arable areas. This process often began by turning the sheilings into permanent settlements - their inability to produce enough corn was no longer a problem, as it could be brought in from elsewhere. This in turn means you don't need grazing in the arable areas, which is a big reason why the commons could then be enclosed and turned into more cereal farms.


Alongside this process, you also have the development of inequality - that is, of a sizeable middle class. As politics is hard, equality tends to mean disorganisation - each family looks after their own land, with minimal coordination with one another. The creation of Rich People assists the transition to more efficient agriculture, allowing larger farms, and allowing entire farms (with absentee owners) dedicated to particular products (sheep, apples, whatever).



--------------

The details of this will vary with the local culture, but similar processes are likely to be found in most cultures.
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Re: A note on urban population thresholds

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Pabappa wrote: 06 Oct 2021 18:43 No castles then. Or at least not enough to account for a significant share of the population. Okay, thanks.

My impression had been at least since grade school that many, if not most, of the common people in medieval times lived within the walls of a castle, where they were protected from outside enemies, but required to work for the king, or in most cases, for an intermediary who worked for the king. And I remember a four-tiered society of lords, vassals, and serfs .... maybe the top layer was the king? Since we learned about this while also learning about castles, I'd always assumed the two were tied together.
Nope!

Well...

A 'castle' is a vague term. Most castles are simply fortified houses, generally belonging to rich people. In some cases, they're literally just ordinary houses but fortified (Scotland in particular has a lot of these). In other cases, they're unusually large houses, with room for many hangers-on and servants. In a few cases they're basically palaces. But almost all castles are fundamentally small. You can see a great example of this in Pevensey, in Sussex, where there are two 'castles': one, a large mediaeval castle, occupies just one corner of the second, a vast Roman fort. [as the Roman walls are 4m thick, the castle was considered effectively tank-proof and used as a castle again during WWII, with machine gun posts carved into the walls. Roman fortifications really were on a different scale to mediaeval work...]. Similarly, several mediaeval castles were built inside much larger prehistoric Celtic hillforts - because the Celtic forts were for communities, whereas the castles were for families (and their flunkies).

In England, few castles were built after the end of the Wars of the Roses, and they were actively discouraged after the Civil War, so we now mostly have defenceless 'country houses', where the Germans, for example, have countless miniature 'castles'.


Some castles, on the other hand, are centrally-imposed military fortifications. These could be larger than the fortified houses, but also not designed for mass habitation.

You do often find towns near or next to castles - and as the town can be walled, the distinction is debateable. These could develop organically (people wanting to be near the powerful lord) or by force (particularly in Wales, or after the Norman Conquest, invaders sometimes moved everyone in an area to a town outside their castle, to keep an eye on them.

But most people did not live in castles. In peaceful areas, castles were relatively rare; where castles are common, they're usually very small.
Living wholly unprotected, as you say, doesnt sound very convenient. It isnt clear how people living in these tiny settlements would get their basic needs met, either, unless they had a reliable surplus of food that they were able to sell and then save money for when they'd need it later.
Well yes, the economy back then was largely capitalist. You grew stuff, ate it, and if you had anything left over you sold it for other stuff.

Mostly, of course, people starved to death. Good years where the ones where you lived long enough to have babies before starving to death. Many years were not good years. As late as the 1690s, 5-15% of the population of Scotland starved to death in a single bad decade - as much as 25% of Aberdeenshire.
From what I could read on Wikipedia, even these people living out in the hinterlands still were required to pay taxes, so maybe in return for the taxes they were able to get at least some sort of physical protection and the guarantee that if one of them needed medical help they would not simply be left to fend for themselves.
Oh good god no. If you needed medical help, you died. Because a) you couldn't afford medical help, and b) there was no medical help anyway.

You paid taxes so that the local lord PROBABLY wouldn't get drunk, rape your wife and murder you. This was not a very reliable safeguard. And if the lord and his knights didn't murder you, and you didn't starve to death or develop a horrible plague, you'd be stabbed to death by a neighbour in a drunken brawl.
If not, it seems that Scotland wasn't really a nation-state in the sense that we think of it today, and presumably that would also describe most of the other European countries at the time.
...well no, it wasn't. Nationalism was invented in the 19th century. During the mediaeval period, there was no state. There was a vague concept of a lord's domain, and a good lord would try to help their citizens prosper, by doing things like enforcing the laws, not taxing people to death, and facilitating trade. Most lords were not good lords. The state only really developed in the renaissance and eary modern periods - and even then, it was mostly a theory about how the king related to the lords, not about how the lords related to the peasantry. To be fair, we have to remember that the capabilities of the nascent state were incredibly limited: the state had almost no money, and limited power or authority - or indeed access to information. It was very difficult for the state (or a mediaeval lord) to actively intervene to better anyone's life, because they didn't know what was going on and had no resources to solve problems. So good governance was mostly what we might call 'infrastructural' - laws, roads, taxes (or the lack of them), wars (or the lack of them), perhaps a few targeted capital investments like warehouses or covered markets, maintaining a stable currency, that sort of thing.
Either way, living like that doesnt sound very safe.
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Re: A note on urban population thresholds

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Seems I missed this thread earlier, so first of all: thanks for making it! Highly interesting and informative. I was a bit curious about this, though:
Salmoneus wrote: 06 Oct 2021 21:49Mostly, of course, people starved to death. Good years where the ones where you lived long enough to have babies before starving to death.
My understanding was that modern scholars generally tend to prefer a slightly more nuanced view on the unrelenting bleakness of the Middle Ages (unless the paradigm has shifted again)? Wikipedia says this (relying on a single source, though):
Reasons for this expansion and colonization include an improving climate known as the Medieval warm period, which resulted in longer and more productive growing seasons; the end of the raids by Vikings, Arabs, and Magyars, resulting in greater political stability; advancements in medieval technology allowing more land to be farmed; 11th century reforms of the Church that further increased social stability; and the rise of Feudalism, which also brought a measure of social stability.[1] Towns and trade revived, and the rise of a money economy began to weaken the bonds of serfdom that tied peasants to the land.[1] Land was at first plentiful while labour to clear and work the land was scarce; lords who owned the land found new ways to attract and keep labour.[1] Urban centres were able to attract serfs with the promise of freedom.[1] As new regions were settled, both internally and externally, population naturally increased.[1]
The article on the Great Famine of 1315–1317 also refers to " the period of growth and prosperity from the 11th to the 13th centuries[2]" (which links back to the previously mentioned article, but at least the mentioned source is different).

One source I was able to find quickly on Google is H.O. Lancaster (2012), which (p. 8) summarizes some 19th-century sources suggesting that aristocrats in the late-ish Middle Ages generally didn't die of natural causes between the ages of about 20 and 60 - except in the 14th century, when the leading cause of death was the Black one. Somewhat surprisingly, there's also the suggestion that medieval peasants who reached the age of 30 might have had a slightly longer remaining life expectancy than aristocrats, due to "daily exercise in a pure atmosphere and with prudent and temperate habits". I guess that might kind of make sense, though; caloric restriction has been shown to increase longevity at least in mice, I believe. And it's not like the aristocrats were necessarily eating a healthy diet, either. Still, I'd expect the peasants to do most of the dying during actual famines, at least.

FWIW, here's a table (based on Guy 1845, apparently):
Spoiler:
Image
It'd be nice to have some source with newer research on this (assuming some has been done), but unfortunately, I don't really have time to look for one right now.
From what I could read on Wikipedia, even these people living out in the hinterlands still were required to pay taxes, so maybe in return for the taxes they were able to get at least some sort of physical protection and the guarantee that if one of them needed medical help they would not simply be left to fend for themselves.
Oh good god no. If you needed medical help, you died. Because a) you couldn't afford medical help, and b) there was no medical help anyway.
Well, there were various physicians, barber-surgeons, "cataract couchers, herniotomists, lithotomists, midwives, and pig gelders", but... I guess you're right in that the treatments they offered mostly didn't really qualify as medical in any meaningful sense. Nor, often, as help either, unless you count killing the patient quicker than the disease.
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Re: A note on urban population thresholds

Post by Salmoneus »

Xonen wrote: 08 Oct 2021 13:44 Seems I missed this thread earlier, so first of all: thanks for making it! Highly interesting and informative. I was a bit curious about this, though:
Salmoneus wrote: 06 Oct 2021 21:49Mostly, of course, people starved to death. Good years where the ones where you lived long enough to have babies before starving to death.
My understanding was that modern scholars generally tend to prefer a slightly more nuanced view on the unrelenting bleakness of the Middle Ages
Yes, that was obviously hyperbole for rhetorical (and comedic) effect. Not literally everyone starved to death.

However, my point is that life was extremely precarious, there was no safety net, and one or two bad years would be enough to kill off a large percentage of the population through starvation (and the associated disease, conflict, etc).

You link to the article on the Great Famine. Well, let's highlight a few points it makes:

- France saw famines in 1304, 1305, 1310, 1315, 1316, 1317, 1330, 1331, 1332, 1333, 1334, 1349, 1350, 1351, 1358, 1359, 1360, 1371, 1374, 1375, and 1390.
- the Great Famine (1315-1317) caused crime, disease, mass death, cannibalism and infanticide
[it's worth saying: even small famines could cause catastrophic death in specific areas (see my mention of the Seven Ill Years and its effect on Aberdeenshire) - they just didn't tend to be as universal as the Great Famine]
- life expectancy in the GOOD part of the middle ages was 35; this dropped to 29 in the early years of the 14th century, and to 17 by the middle of it
- "For most people there was often not enough to eat, and life was a relatively short and brutal struggle to survive to old age"
- Even after a good harvest, the seed ratio was 7:1 (compared to 30:1 in modern agriculture); after a bad harvest, it was 2:1 (half of all seeds harvested had to be replanted to provide food for the next year)
- as a result, after the rains of 1315-1317, it wasn't until 1325 that the food supply returned to normal
The article on the Great Famine of 1315–1317 also refers to " the period of growth and prosperity from the 11th to the 13th centuries[2]" (which links back to the previously mentioned article, but at least the mentioned source is different).
Indeed, there was a period of massive population explosion, 1050-1300, which indicated some relative prosperity. This was no doubt due to many causes: warmer weather; the end of the migration period; the rise of feudalism; technological improvements; the rise of the nucleated settlement pattern; three-field rotation. Population in England actually tripled. Parts of England (East Anglia) are less populated today than they were in 1340.

But that shouldn't be mistake for security or comfort: the population was on a knife-edge, and any famine, disease, or political unrest could cause local (or continent-wide) catastrophe.

If you look at earnings in the UK, you see a pattern of extreme volatility. In 1268, average earnings reached nearly £1600 (in today's money), but by 1272 they had fallen to just over £800! Of course, volatility goes both ways. If you were lucky enough to survive the plague, then your earnings in 1348 (£1100) had nearly doubled by 1350 (£2100), thanks to labour shortages. But when you have no effective way to store wealth (no banks!), earnings volatility can be literally lethal.
Somewhat surprisingly, there's also the suggestion that medieval peasants who reached the age of 30 might have had a slightly longer remaining life expectancy than aristocrats, due to "daily exercise in a pure atmosphere and with prudent and temperate habits". I guess that might kind of make sense, though; caloric restriction has been shown to increase longevity at least in mice, I believe. And it's not like the aristocrats were necessarily eating a healthy diet, either. Still, I'd expect the peasants to do most of the dying during actual famines, at least.
I don't know about the late middle ages, but certainly by the early modern period aristocratic diet and exercise were appalling!

The other factor might be that there was an awful lot of war in the late middle ages. Most soldiers were peasants, of course, but the ruling classes were disproportionately killed in battle - certainly the Wars of the Roses had a catastrophic effect on the English ruling class. [hence the rise of the Tudors - descendents of the random Welsh bodyguard who seduced the mother of Henry VI - on account of all other Lancastrians having by then been killed off]
From what I could read on Wikipedia, even these people living out in the hinterlands still were required to pay taxes, so maybe in return for the taxes they were able to get at least some sort of physical protection and the guarantee that if one of them needed medical help they would not simply be left to fend for themselves.
Oh good god no. If you needed medical help, you died. Because a) you couldn't afford medical help, and b) there was no medical help anyway.
Well, there were various physicians, barber-surgeons, "cataract couchers, herniotomists, lithotomists, midwives, and pig gelders", but... I guess you're right in that the treatments they offered mostly didn't really qualify as medical in any meaningful sense. Nor, often, as help either, unless you count killing the patient quicker than the disease.
Mediaeval medicine was more advanced than we sometimes imagine, particularly in the area of surgery. There were actually a surprising number of conditions that could be successfully treated. The problem was that there were almost no conditions that could be relied upon to be successfully treated: even in surgeries where they knew what they were doing, the problem of sepsis made any intervention a lottery, with death a frequent outcome. And there were a huge number of conditions where they really didn't know what they were doing. In any case, for any condition more complicated than a barber setting a broken bone for you, most people would have had no access to an expert - there were very few of them and they were located in big cities.
We should bear in mind that even as late as the early 20th century, childbirth was the main cause of death for women, and wealthy men regularly died of idiotically trivial complaints (my go-to here is the composer Scriabin, who died of a sore lip in 1915).
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qwed117
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Re: A note on urban population thresholds

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If you look at earnings in the UK, you see a pattern of extreme volatility. In 1268, average earnings reached nearly £1600 (in today's money), but by 1272 they had fallen to just over £800! Of course, volatility goes both ways. If you were lucky enough to survive the plague, then your earnings in 1348 (£1100) had nearly doubled by 1350 (£2100), thanks to labour shortages. But when you have no effective way to store wealth (no banks!), earnings volatility can be literally lethal.
Just gonna butt in here and note that one of the things we learn is that generally extending any sort of economic data before the 1880s is generally sketchy estimates at best. You could try and estimate based off of state coffers and tithes, but I presume much records of such data is lacking.
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Re: A note on urban population thresholds

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qwed117 wrote: 20 Oct 2021 22:53
If you look at earnings in the UK, you see a pattern of extreme volatility. In 1268, average earnings reached nearly £1600 (in today's money), but by 1272 they had fallen to just over £800! Of course, volatility goes both ways. If you were lucky enough to survive the plague, then your earnings in 1348 (£1100) had nearly doubled by 1350 (£2100), thanks to labour shortages. But when you have no effective way to store wealth (no banks!), earnings volatility can be literally lethal.
Just gonna butt in here and note that one of the things we learn is that generally extending any sort of economic data before the 1880s is generally sketchy estimates at best. You could try and estimate based off of state coffers and tithes, but I presume much records of such data is lacking.
"We" being laypeople who look at the numbers, or "we" being economists/historians?

If the latter, you may have better information than me. But my understanding is that actually a lot of English economic data is known quite securely. In particular, the great majority of people worked in agriculture, and often they worked directly for a large institution - the church, the universities, the crown - that kept voluminous and detailed records, which have survived in reams (because the relative lack of wars and border changes in England since 1066 has meant that our records have avoided the levels of destruction found in many continental countries). Similarly, there's plenty of information about prices, because these institutions bought things. And there's information about population levels from tax records.

[looking at it, though, it does seem as though the 13th century data can't be trusted in too much detail, due to paucity of sources; but by the time of Black Death it seems much more robust]
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