This week and next, we’re going to look at an issue not of battles, but of settings: pre-modern cities – particularly the trope of the city, town or castle set out all alone in the middle of empty spaces. Why does the city or castle-town set amidst a sea of grass feel so off? And what should that terrain look like – especially in how it is shaped by the human activity taking place in a town’s hinterland. This is less of a military history topic (though we’ll see that factors in), and more of an economic history one. If that’s your jam – stay tuned, there will be more. If it’s not – don’t worry, we won’t abandon military topics either.
I find myself interested in pre-modern economies and militaries in roughly equal measure (in part because both are such crucial elements of state or societal success or failure). One of the reasons is that they are so interconnected: how military force is raised, supplied, maintained and projected is deeply dependent on how the underlying economy (which supplies the men, food, weapons and money) is structured and organized. And military institution and activities often play an important role in shaping economic structures in turn. So even if you are just here for the clashing of swords, remember: every sword must be forged, and every swordsman must be fed.
(Additional aside: I am assuming a west-of-the-Indus set of cereals: grain, barley and millet chiefly. Specifically, I am not going to bring in rice cultivation – the irrigation demands and density of rice farming changes a lot (the same is also true, in the opposite direction, to agriculture based around sorghum or yams). Most (western) fantasy and historic dramas are not set in rice-planting regions (and many East Asian works seem to have a much better grasp on where rice fields go and need no correction), so I’m going to leave rice out for now. I’m honestly not qualified to speak on it anyway – it is too different from my own area of research focus, which is on a Mediterranean agricultural mix (wheat, barely, olives, grapes), and I haven’t had the chance to read up on it sufficiently).
There’s a certain look that castles and cities in either historical dramas or fantasy settings set in the ancient or medieval world seem to have: the great walls of the city or castle rise up, majestically, from a vast, empty sea of grassland. You can see it in the North of Westeros:
And in Gondor:
And in Tamriel:
And even historical England:
I could give more examples, both historical and fantasy. These ‘lonely cities’ are everywhere in fantasy and historical drama. I think we all know something is off here: cities and other large population centers do not simply pop up in the middle of open fields of grass, generally speaking. So if this shouldn’t all be grassland, what should be here? Who should be here?
What is a City For?
I think we need to start by thinking about why pre-modern towns and cities exist and what their economic role is. I’ll keep this relatively brief for now, because this is a topic I’m sure we’ll return to in the future. As modern people, we are used to the main roles cities play in the modern world, some of which are shared by pre-modern cities, and some of which are not. Modern cities are huge production centers, containing in them both the majority of the labor and the majority of the productive power of a society; this is very much not true of pre-modern cities – most people and most production still takes place in the countryside, because most people are farmers and most production is agricultural. Production happens in pre-modern cities, but it comes nowhere close to dominating the economy.
The role of infrastructure is also different. We are also used to cities as the center-point lynch-pins of infrastructure networks – roads, rail, sea routes, fiber-optic cable, etc. That isn’t false when applied to pre-modern cities, but it is much less true, if just because modern infrastructure is so much more powerful than its pre-modern precursors. Modern infrastructure is also a lot more exclusive: a man with a cart might visit a village where the road does not go, but a train or a truck cannot. The Phoenician traders of the early iron age could pull their trade ships up on the beach in places where there was no port; do not try this with a modern container-ship. Infrastructure is largely a result of cities, not their original purpose or cause.
So what are the core functions of a pre-modern city? I see five key functions:
- Administrative Center. This is probably the oldest purpose cities have served: as a focal point for political and religious authorities. With limited communications technology, it makes sense to keep that leadership in one place, creating a hub of people who control a disproportionate amount of resources, which leads to
- Defensive/Military Center. Once you have all of those important people and resources (read: stockpiled food) in one place, it makes sense to focus defenses on that point. It also makes sense to keep – or form up – the army where most of the resources and leaders are. People, in turn, tend to want to live close to the defenses, which leads to
- Market Center. Putting a lot of people and resources in one place makes the city a natural point for trade – the more buyers and sellers in one place, the more likely you are to find the buyer or seller you want. As a market, the city experiences ‘network’ effects: each person living there makes the city more attractive for others. Still, it is important to note: the town is a market hub for the countryside, where most people still live. Which only now leads to
- Production Center. But not big industrial production like modern cities. Instead it is the small, niche production – the sort of things you only buy once-and-a-while or only the rich buy – that get focused into cities. Blacksmiths making tools, producers of fine-ware and goods for export, that sort of thing. These products and producers need big markets or deep pockets to make end meet. The majority of the core needs of most people (things like food, shelter and clothes) are still produced by the peasants, for the peasants, where they live, in the country. Still, you want to produce goods made for sale rather than personal use near the market, and maybe sell them abroad, which leads to
- Infrastructure Center. With so much goods and communications moving to and from the city, it starts making sense for the state to build dedicated transit infrastructure (roads, ports, artificial harbors). This infrastructure almost always begins as administrative/military infrastructure, but still gets used to economic ends. Nevertheless, this comes relatively late – things like the Persian Royal Road (6th/5th century BC) and the earliest Roman roads (late 4th century BC) come late in most urban development.
Of course, all of these functions depend, in part, on the city as a concentration of people. but what I want to stress – before we move on to our main topic – is that in all of these functions the pre-modern city effectively serves the countryside, because that is still where most people are and where most production (and the most important production – food) is. The administration in the city is administering the countryside – usually by gathering and redistributing surplus agricultural production (from the countryside!). The defenses in the city are meant to defend the production of the countryside and the people of the countryside (when they flee to it). The people using the market – at least until the city grows very large – are mostly coming in from the country (this is why most medieval and ancient markets are only open on certain days – for the Romans, this was the ‘ninth day,’ the Nundinae – customers have to transit into town, so you want everyone there on the same day).
(An aside: I have framed this as the city serving the economic needs of the countryside, but it is equally valid to see the city as the exploiter of the countryside. The narrative above can easily be read as one in which the religious, political and military elite use their power to violently extract surplus agricultural production, which in turn gives rise to a city that is essentially a parasite (this is Max Weber’s model for a ‘consumer city’) that contributes little but siphons off the production of the countryside. The study of ancient and medieval cities is still very much embroiled in a debate between those who see cities as filling a valuable economic function and those who see them as fundamentally exploitative and rent-seeking; I fall among the former, but the latter do have some very valid points about how harshly and exploitatively cities (and city elites) could treat their hinterlands.)
Consequently, the place and role of almost every kind of population center (city, town or castle-town) is dictated by how it relates to the countryside around it (the city’s hinterland; the Greeks called this the city’s khora (χώρα)).
The Isolated State
When it comes to shaping the landscape outside of the city – our main point of investigation – the key element of the pre-modern city that matters is the intense demand it creates for agricultural products that the non-farmers who live in the city cannot produce themselves, chiefly (but not exclusively!) food. The intensity of that demand scales with the size of the city. A small town might only really shape land-use and farming patterns out a few miles; a huge mega-city like first century Rome (c. 1m people) re-shapes land patterns for hundreds of miles, its economic influence intruding into the territory of other, smaller cities.
Every town or city, of course, will be different. For agricultural societies especially, local terrain sharply constrains possible land uses. Some land is simply too wet or dry or rough or rocky or infertile for this or that purpose. In a modern city, apartments or factories or offices can be built almost anywhere; the sort of land suitable for intensive farming is more limited. This is even more true for pre-modern societies working without modern fertilizer, without electric-powered irrigation and without the industrial technology to massively reshape terrain (draining swamps, filling ravines, flattening hills, irrigating the desert, etc – some of these can be done with hand tools, but not to the extent we can today).
Still, we want to begin thinking about how cities impact the land around them without all of these difficult and confusing variables. We want to image a city, isolated and alone in the middle of an endless, flat and featureless plain. This is exactly what J. H. von Thünen did in The Isolated State (Der isolierte Staat). This kind of exercise can give us a baseline of what the landscape around a decent sized city might look like, which we can then modify to respond to different terrain, technology and social organization.
(Note: I would be remiss if I didn’t note that my discussion of these ideas owes heavily to Neville Morley’s Metropolis and Hinterland (1996), where he applied this very method to the city of Rome and its hinterland (and also first introduced me to von Thünen’s ideas). That book and also his Trade in Classical Antiquity are both great books to give a read if you want to begin building a sense of how pre-modern economies work).
The key factor von Thünen looks at is transportation costs. For a society without trains or trucks, moving bulk materials of any kind over long distances is extraordinarily expensive. Moving grain overland, for instance, would cause its cost to double after 100 miles. Thus land close to our theoretical city is extremely valuable for production, while land far away is substantially less valuable (because the end goal is transporting the agricultural production of that land to the city). As a result, transit costs – and thus distance – dominates how cities influence land-use patterns (along with population, which determines the intensity of the city’s influence).
What we’ll do for the rest of this post is lay out how our ideal, isolated city would organize its countryside. Next week, we’ll start adding complications: rivers, coastlines, roads, city walls and so on. But this week, we’re going to build out the ‘ideal’ city so we have a baseline to adjust for terrain, etc.
The Inner Zone: Trees, Gardens and Pigs
We’ll start at the inside, right next to the city and move outward. Imagine each ‘zone’ as a wider concentric circle, moving outward from the city (see the image above). Because transportation costs (especially overland) are so high, distance from the city plays a dominant role in how the land is used and thus consequently what the countryside around the city looks like. As you move further and further away, transportation costs interact with the structure of agriculture to make different activities make more sense, creating somewhat predictable patterns.
Land very close to the city is valuable because its produce can reach the market with much lower transportation costs (and pretty much always in a single day’s walk). As a result, if the land can support any kind of productive use, it will not be left empty. Instead, the land is going to be put to the most productive use possible. Improvements that – because of cost or labor – might not be attempted on less valuable land further out will likely be done in close proximity to the city. Stepping out of our ideal model for a moment: this is especially true of irrigation, since cities tend to be on waterways (especially rivers) anyway, making irrigation both more valuable due to low transport costs and easier to accomplish.
Thus land in this innermost zone is likely to be heavily improved (irrigation, terracing to get maximum space out of hills, etc). Labor use will also be intensive, both because it is readily available (you are right next to the major population center) and because labor costs are small compared to the high value of the land. If you have managed to get some farmland right outside the city gates, it is very much worth your time to hire whatever labor you need to get the most out of it, so as to recoup the cost of buying or holding such valuable land.
The other improvement one is likely to do in this zone, at least for growing crops, is make extensive use of fertilizer, which in this case generally means manure. The good news is that this zone is directly next to the city, with its intense concentration of animals and people producing manure, making manure cheaper (yes, people did pay for it). Extensive use of manure lets the fields stay under cultivation more often – being fallowed less frequently. At greater distance, the cost of the manure for this begins to outweigh the value of the extra crops, but so close to the city, land this valuable ought to be kept producing as much as possible.
So what kinds of land use does this lead to? The two key activities that von Thünen identifies are horticulture and dairying, to which I’ll add trough-fed animals like pigs (not quite dairy, but as we’ll see, similar from an economic perspective). Why? Horticulture – the intensive growing of fruits and vegetables, often in small ‘market gardens’ – is labor intensive and offers a high economic yield for the space. Land used for horticulture can be kept under almost continual cultivation (if manured, but see above), but gardens can be fussy and demand quite a lot of labor, compared to hardier plants (like maize corn or wheat). Likewise, dairy animals (which, up close to a large city, will be stall-fed rather than grazed or else transported in ‘on the hoof’ and grazed much further out) and pigs (fed by trough) don’t require much space and offer a high economic yield. Both also produce manure which is in demand near the city for the reasons described above.
The other reason to keep these activities so close to the city is access to the market, for two related reasons. First, fresh dairy products, meats and vegetables spoil rapidly, so they must be gotten to market quickly. Remember that this is a world without refrigeration, so as soon as the plant is picked, the cow is milked or the pig is killed, the clock is ticking on spoilage (yes, there are ways to preserve meat, of course – but we’re talking fresh animal products). Precisely because these foods don’t travel or keep well, they tend to be luxury products as well – something produced for the market and bought by rich non-farmers who live in the city.
So what kind of terrain should we see here? Not open grassland or nice wide open fields. Instead, expect small plots, with clustered buildings, typically clinging to the roads leading into the city. Now – especially in the post-gunpowder age – there might be laws forbidding certain kinds of structures close to the city walls (if the city is walled), which might create some open space (but typically not vast). Likewise, when looking at historical city maps (I’ve scattered several in this post), also be wary: this innermost land-use zone was often contained within the city walls of smaller cities (a point we’ll return to next week!).
The next zone – also quite close to the city in von Thünen’s model is – perhaps somewhat surprisingly – a forest zone. That’s not to say that this is generally wild, uncontrolled forest. The reason for a forest zone at such close distance to the city is to provide wood, particularly firewood for heating. Trees might be arranged intentionally along field separations or on spots of agriculturally marginal land close to the city. Forests like these in the Middle Ages would often have been coppiced or pollarded – that is, the trees would have been intentionally cut to produce lots of long, thin straight branches which can be easily harvested to produce nice, evenly sized bits of wood.
Wood is obviously at no risk of spoiling, but it is heavy and bulky, making a close supply valuable. Moreover, the city will need quite a lot of it, for cooking and heating. That said, trees can often be grown either on very marginal (for agriculture) land or else between fields and farms outside of the city, so these patches of forest might often go on land that is a touch too rough or poor for intensive agriculture, or otherwise be squeezed in between land used for other purposes. Still, it is quite common to find spots of forest next to cities and villages alike.
(To answer a quibble in advance: of course this assumes wood is a key heating element. Societies in more arid climates often lack sufficient wood and might use dung, while wet enough areas may use peat. Historically, London shifted over to using mineral coal earlier than most places. All of these choices will impact the role and importance of forest near the city.)
The Outer Zones: Farming and Pastoralism
Once out of the innermost zone of very high intensity usage, we reach the middle zones of von Thünen’s model, which are devoted primarily to agriculture, falling in degrees of intensity as we move away from the city. This is where you should expect to see rolling seas of wheat and barley, as well as large scale cultivation of things like olives and grapes, as the climate permits. This seems to be what, for instance, Tolkien has in mind when he describes the Pelennor as fair and fertile townlands running down to the Anduin.
(I should note this this zone is subdivided into three groups: intensive agriculture, long-lay agriculture and three-field agriculture. We might discuss those terms further if future posts bring us to discussing how pre-modern farms work, but for now, I don’t want to get too – pardon the pun – deep in the weeds.)
Now, I noted before that for small cities, the horticultural zone might be entirely contained inside the city walls (as in the picture above). The reserve is true as well – the larger the city, the further out these zones can get pushed – and this is especially true of the middle zone. As it extends, it tends to create miniature population centers within it (villages) – usually along roads (we’ll get to them).
But for very large cities, the area of grain cultivation can be truly massive. As I’ve noted in an earlier post, a city of around 500,000 would need to pull cereal production from an area of arable land close to the size of the state of Massachusetts. Rome – at nearly a million – imported grain from up and down the entire Italian coast, North Africa and even Egypt. A middle zone that large could contain not merely villages, but other towns and even large cities, whose own land-use patterns would be substantially distorted by the ‘pull’ of the mega-city at the center. We’ll look at Rome specifically more next week – but as a rule of thumb, if the cereal cultivation zone extends more than 20 miles out from the center, you should expect to see smaller market towns within it (because people want a market within a day’s walk).
What does this kind of zone look like? That actually depends a lot on terrain – expect villages surrounded by fields on areas of good, arable land. In a fairly wet environment (like Northern Europe), those villages might radiate out from the city. In arid environments like Egypt or Mesopotamia, the farmland (and thus the peasant population) is densely concentrated along the rivers, because water availability becomes a strong determinant of arability.
One thing Americans specifically tend to get a bit off here is that the farms are not likely to be evenly spaced over the terrain. We are very used to the agricultural landscape created by things like the Homestead Acts (1862-1930), which offered very large chunks of land (often as many as 640 acres) for purchase, creating a lot of very spaced out farms. Peasant agriculture in the pre-modern period doesn’t tend to organize like this.
Instead, peasant agriculture tends to cluster in villages, with fields radiating out from the villages (which in turn, often have their own micro-garden zone and local forests for wood). Part of the reason for this is that farmland within the village is typically not held as big, standalone farmsteads. Instead, it is either held communally, or else each family owns several small plots spread over different ecological zones (the better to be protected from the risk of a year being wet or dry or cold or whatever – if you have a little land everywhere, then probably something will grow somewhere every year. I’ll talk more about subsistence survival strategies in a future post).
In some societies, these peasant villages may also be mixed in with large elite-held (often slave worked) estates, but there’s an important caveat here. The grand estates – like Roman villas and latifundia – generally do not completely displace the local peasantry (in part because they rely on that peasantry to supply surplus labor). The role of the ‘big man’ and these sorts of large market-oriented estates is complex and worth its own post. But in terms of land-use patterns, such estates generally exist within a landscape of smaller farmers, not in a vast sea of other large estates.
The outermost zone in the model is dedicated to pastoralism (‘ranching’ technically, but I’d like to be a bit more broad). Pastoralism can take the form of enclosed ranching, but can also be mobile in various ways. I won’t describe ranching too much – this human terrain is still much in evidence and well documented. But mobile forms of pastoralism are more foreign, I suspect, to most of my readers. Transhumance – the moving of livestock between seasonal summer and winter pastures (often up the mountain in summer and down the mountain in winter, for instance – this is ‘vertical’ transhumance) is a common form of limited pastoral mobility.
Transhumant pastoralists do tend to have permanent homes at one end of the route (typically the lower winter pastures for vertical transhumance). These may cluster in villages and are likely to plug into the infrastructure network spreading out from the city. I bring this up mostly because this is how you do get the ‘rolling hills of empty grassland’ terrain so common in depictions of fantasy cities: these areas aren’t empty at all, but merely transhumant pastures not currently in use.
(Side note: This fact about pastoralism is especially worth noting: pastures which are regrowing in the ‘off’ season often might look empty and unused to an outsider, but trespassing on such grounds can bring lethal retaliation. Because these pastures are not unused, but in fact engaged in the vital task of regrowing to support the herd in the following season. This is also the case for true nomads as well, by the by. The reason, of course, is that if those pastures are not grown when the herds are migrated back, the pastoralist’s entire pattern of subsistence is disrupted, endangering his survival. This is a not infrequent cause of friction between pastoralists and agricultural peoples who neighbor each other).
Pastoralism exists on the outer edge of the model for two reasons. First, it is very low density. While the goods it produces (wool, milk, meat) are important, it produces them at a very low density. Agriculture can support massively greater population densities than pastoralism, so high population density tends to push the pastoralists out. There’s a political/military dimension to this as well: the concerns of the farmers tend to dominate political thinking in the city (where, you will recall, the political and military elite are), and the farmer’s greater population density tends to allow them to ‘push’ the pastoralists further from the city and onto marginal lands – either economically (buy the land) or militarily (fight the pastoralists and shove them off).
Second, pastoralism has very low transportation costs. This is because the goods produced by pastoralists can, by and large, walk themselves to market. This is called transporting them ‘on the hoof,’ a phrase my students continue to find funny and are surprised to learn is a real term. Major cattle and animal markets are often still located within city centers, but a shepherd can simply walk his animals to market for sale. That greatly reduces transportation costs, which also tends to push pastoralism out to the edges of the economic network.
Conclusions: Seeing our Ideal City
So what does our ideal city look like?
In the middle, we have the city center or castle-town, with a wall around it. Either just inside or just outside of the wall, we have a zone of horticultural activity: lots of small garden plots growing vegetables, flowers, etc. The houses here are still set close-together; often they can connect to each other, with the smaller garden spaces (or pens for pigs or stall-fed dairy animals) out back. They also tend to cling to the roads.
Areas set further away from the city and the roads have small patches of forest, for firewood. This may be wild forest, but you are also likely to see rows of trees (possibily dividing fields) which might be pollarded or coppiced and thus quite intentionally shaped for use (‘arboriculture’).
As we move out a bit further – probably still well within sight of the city – we start seeing fields with cereal crops. These fields are much larger than the gardens of the horticulture zone. Close to the city, these may lack attached houses (because the farmers can still live in town and walk out to their fields), but as we move further away, we’ll start to see villages with fields radiating out of them (and thus smaller pathways, more humble than roads, connecting those fields to the village center and the village center to the road to the market). The population density here is much lower – the fields are large and the villages small. The further away we move, the more true this will become, as the farming methods become less intensive, using fewer draft-animals, less manure and allowing more fallowing time on the fields (all of which leads to less dense settlement with even larger (but less productive) fields producing smaller surpluses). This zone may stretch beyond the c. 20 mile radius of a day’s walk to the city, but if it does, we’ll likely see smaller satellite towns.
Finally, in the far distance, we’ll see villages surrounded by pastures where the chief thing being raised is not grain but animals. Americans tend to think in terms of cows, but cows are really a luxury product for these societies, so expect more sheep and goats. These pastoralists may be ranchers, but it’s more likely that they move their herds up into marginal hill country or just further away from population centers at least some of the time. It’s in this zone that we’ll finally see open grassland. The grass height will be a bit uneven – it isn’t being mowed, after all, but eaten down by the animals.
It’s worth thinking about this landscape outside of the city, because it is where most people lived. Historical and fantasy drama tends to ignore this place, because the sort of people who wrote in the past – the ‘important nobles and elites – also tended to ignore these places and these people. But this is where most of the economic activity happened and where most of the people lived.
As I tell my students: there is no reason our view of the past must be as limited as the view of contemporary aristocrats.
Next Week: We’ll continue this exercise, by beginning to add terrain into the mix. Both natural terrain (rivers, hills and seas) and human terrain (roads). These too, will reshape not only the landscape and land-use patterns, but living patterns within the city’s economic reach.