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  1. - Top - End - #1
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    Default Medieval Demographics

    So I was looking at the article from which the Donjon medieval demographics calculator draws its figures, and I noticed that one of the figures estimates that within a city, there will be a noble household for every 200 people, and that seems dubious to me. 1 noble per 200 individuals would seem about right, depending on the country and the definition of "noble," but a whole household (title holder, spouse, children, dowagers, plus the multitude of retainers and servants necessary for such a household) per 200 individuals?

    Does anyone recognize this figure or estimate or have insight on what it's talking about (indeed, what sort of definition of "noble" is applied here)?

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    Default Re: Medieval Demographics

    It sounds about right to me, if we count anything from a simple knight up as nobility.

    Thanks to the Real armor, weapons and tactics thread I've just bingeread the overly long and detailed brutal tear-down of Sparta on A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry. In part 2, which I linked there, the author figures the free citizens made up about 6% of the population in that society (dwindling to much, much less over time, while in a place like Athens the free citizens make up closer to 40% of the population). This is cause for him to compare the Spartiate class to samurai or knights, nobility. This fits their role in society too, they contribute nothing of value except brutal violence to enforce the status quo of the system, similar to how medieval nobility would typically be expected to not have a proper day job. (But with more murder, oppression and slaves. It's not a happy happy joy joy series of articles, is what I'm saying.) He even brings up that in today's America millionairs make up roughly 6% of the population as well, as a comparison for roughly how much better than average this top social class would be off.

    So taking 6% figure as well as the 1 noble household per 200 people one this would mean there are roughly 12 people of nobility for each one of these households. Given that some of these households are bound to be newly married couples and even a lonely questing knight or two, if anything we need to lower are 6% figure to get to the 1 household for every 200 citizens. (Or we need to account for something with the way children are counted or something in either of these figures?) So it seems a reasonable figure. It's just that most of these nobles will have some lowly title, enough land that 2 or 3 farmer families can work it and some sort of a business on the side to support their minimal noble lifestyle and afford that one fancy dress they have to go to the local lord's parties in. Throw in a few Jane Austen type families just barely holding on to their title by virtue of having a large house and friends in high places for good measure too.




    I also see the 1 noble household per 200 people either comes from or is supported by Medieval Demographics Made Easy, which I've seen used and discussed and generally agreed to be a good source on these boards before. It's probably pretty realistic, though still pretty variable between cities, countries, ages and so on. You can have a historical or fictional place with a bit more nobles, or one with a lot less (and possibly a stronger rich merchant class partially taking their place).
    Last edited by Lvl 2 Expert; 2021-03-14 at 06:19 AM.
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    Default Re: Medieval Demographics

    Quote Originally Posted by VoxRationis View Post
    So I was looking at the article from which the Donjon medieval demographics calculator draws its figures, and I noticed that one of the figures estimates that within a city, there will be a noble household for every 200 people, and that seems dubious to me. 1 noble per 200 individuals would seem about right, depending on the country and the definition of "noble," but a whole household (title holder, spouse, children, dowagers, plus the multitude of retainers and servants necessary for such a household) per 200 individuals?

    Does anyone recognize this figure or estimate or have insight on what it's talking about (indeed, what sort of definition of "noble" is applied here)?
    Not looked anything up yet. But practically every village here has it's big house or two (the smaller ones have the really massive ones), and similarly there's a story relating two a murder between Lord (Local Village) and Lord (other local village). So i wouldn't be surprised if it's high.

    On the other hand they clearly take a lot of resources (not least because the top 100 or so have about 5 of these massive houses each, London, Shires, Actual Seat, New build, Hunting Lodge).

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    Default Re: Medieval Demographics

    Quote Originally Posted by Lvl 2 Expert View Post
    So taking 6% figure as well as the 1 noble household per 200 people one this would mean there are roughly 12 people of nobility for each one of these households. Given that some of these households are bound to be newly married couples and even a lonely questing knight or two, if anything we need to lower are 6% figure to get to the 1 household for every 200 citizens. (Or we need to account for something with the way children are counted or something in either of these figures?) So it seems a reasonable figure. It's just that most of these nobles will have some lowly title, enough land that 2 or 3 farmer families can work it and some sort of a business on the side to support their minimal noble lifestyle and afford that one fancy dress they have to go to the local lord's parties in. Throw in a few Jane Austen type families just barely holding on to their title by virtue of having a large house and friends in high places for good measure too.
    6% is probably too high, an may be due to the peculiarities of Sparta. Also, Sparta was unable to sustain such a high number of 'nobles' over time.

    In France under the Ancien Regime, the total proportion of the 1st and 2nd estates (the nobles and the clergy) was only around 2-3% of the population, so 3% might be a more reasonable number (though power in medieval France might have been unusually concentrated). That gives an average 'noble household' 6 members, which is 2 per generation if there are three living generations. That's probably a reasonable average.

    Also, this population was rarely stable. The demographics of the nobility of any specific state were quite vulnerable to major shocks due to battle in addition to all the usual medieval issues. The French nobility repeatedly lost a huge percentage of male nobles age 20-50 in battle during the Hundred Years War at battles such as Crecy, Pontiers, and Agincourt.
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    Default Re: Medieval Demographics

    I don't know about Sparta, but boy do I know about medieval demographics. Brace yourselves, long post is coming.

    First, a disclaimer. There is no such thing as a medieval demographic, because middle ages lasted a thousand years and were very varied. How an oppidum of a Great Moravian chieftain looked like and how a late medieval free imperial city worked are two entirely different things, to a point where the people from one would find the other utterly alien. Since there are some 700 years separating them, that should not be a surprise.

    Since most "medieval" TTRPG settings are, in fact, renaissance, I'll limit this post to late medieval era, which is approximately 1300-1500, although definitions vary.

    How about those nobles

    First thing you need to realize is that this isn't Game of Thrones where all the nobles are either supremely rich or much richer than their paesants. Even ignoring intermediate classes that made a sort of medieval middle class (iobagiones, conditional nobles, merchants, burghers and so on) and limiting ourselves to the countryside where you were either a noble farmer or a merchant, you had some very poor nobles.

    Thing is, all nobility really guarantees you is a set of privileges and obligations, that mostly goes along the lines of "the land you own is yours and you pay no taxes from it, and for that you have to fight in the king's armies", with caveats and exceptions and general chaos. There is nothing there about how much land, exactly, you own. Sure, kings and dukes own a massive amounts, but those are very, very few in numbers, the bulk of a kingdom's nobility is made up of knights that own a few villages, and that's about it.

    As time goes on, those few village nobles are more prone to loose money when a natural disaster strikes (a rich duke can handle that loss much better), so they have to borrow money or even sell their land outright, bit by bit. There are ways to earn more land, mostly in service to those dukes or kkings who can sometimes give you more of it, but since there are few of them, it's kinda hard to catch their eye.

    This issue is compounded by the fact that, most of the time, noble titles are not tied to the land, but to the family line, so even if you loose all your land, or most of it, you remain a noble. That way, you can literally get nobles that have to beg for cash at the local town square. Well, theoretically, in practice, they would be effectively "hired" by other nobles, or would marry into rich merchant families, but you get the idea here.

    So, with this in mind, how many nobles can a kingdom have? Well, in real life, the absolute record is one in three people in Hungarian part of Austria-Hungary, but you need some very extenuating circumstances for that. A more reasonable estimation is perhaps from Teutonic Knights numbers at the battle of Grunwald, which gives us one knight per 20 soldiers - but these are soldiers, which means a certain age bracket and even then, not straight scaling. Still, it serves as the absolute maximum of nobles for us.

    Another estimation is that a pre-industrial society can only have about 5% of its total population in jobs that don't produce things. That means you get 50 000 priests, soldiers, artists, scholars and nobles per one million inhabitants. If there is overlap between these, all of them may well be nobles in your world (e.g. aristocracy that is also a priesthood). You can have more nobles than this number, but then you get to a point where Hungary was - the so-called nobles need jobs to, well, not starve.

    Nobles in cities

    Here's a thing about that one in 200, that's not the total number of nobles, those are just nobles that are rich enough to afford a house in a city. Those are kind fo expensive, so you can expect a single family there to be a noble, his wife, 0-5 children, possibly grandparents and at least two servants (one man, one woman). Most of them will not have an entire retinue, and those that do will usually not keep the retinue in their town house, they are kind of needed to discourage wolves and bandits from pillaging their lands.

    For that matter, the noble and his family will not live in that house all the time, or possibly only some of the family will. The permanent inhabitants are those 2+ servants who will be there all the time and will have a pretty significant freedom of acting when it comes to maintaining it - a budget, ability to get craftsmen to repair stuff that breaks, that kind of thing. Human nature being what it is, some of them will definitely skim some silver off that budget for personal use.

    This does not look very noble

    It doesn't, does it? Which is why exact definition of a noble tended to be very much in flux. I don't know details for other places, because we're talking about things that go into a PhD thesis, but for Hungary, the various social classes, noble or otherwise, changed several times. If we take the time house of Arpad ruled, about 900-1300, we have approximately 4 distinct phases of social class strata, and there were minor changes inside of those 4 to make it more complicated.

    To give you an example of how that looked, classes that we would call nobles in phase 3 of four were: servientes regis, nobiles, condicionales, iobagiones castri, cives and castrenses. All of these had different exact privileges and freedoms, but they all are what we colloquially call nobles - required to fight when the call comes, and owning land in some fashion as a compensation. (Phase 4 saw them merging, ending with just nobiles and castrenses, and some bleeding out to other classes, but that's a hell of an aside)

    So even though not all nobles are equal, even among those that are, some are more equal tha others. Because remember, all these noble subclasses are only about legal standing, so to speak, not about how rich they are. You can have a cives (pretty low) who owns several successful vineyards and wineries being much richer than a nobiles who owns a village that used to prosper because it was near a mine - a mine which ran out 50 years ago and since then, the village is steadily shrinking.

    Granted, great imbalances in wealth tend to not last more than a few generations, mostly because a rich cives will be able to marry his children up one or two steps, and impoverished dukes either get married into rich families or die out.

    Conclusion

    So, what to take from this?

    1) Not all nobles are rich, in fact, most of them are not.

    2) Medieval demographics are useful quick and dirty tool, but the details behind them go very deep indeed

    3) Don't be afraid to drastically change demographics numbers if you have a good reason and thought it through
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    Default Re: Medieval Demographics

    Quote Originally Posted by VoxRationis View Post
    So I was looking at the article from which the Donjon medieval demographics calculator draws its figures, and I noticed that one of the figures estimates that within a city, there will be a noble household for every 200 people, and that seems dubious to me. 1 noble per 200 individuals would seem about right, depending on the country and the definition of "noble," but a whole household (title holder, spouse, children, dowagers, plus the multitude of retainers and servants necessary for such a household) per 200 individuals?

    Does anyone recognize this figure or estimate or have insight on what it's talking about (indeed, what sort of definition of "noble" is applied here)?
    That actually does make sense in a city. Remember that somewhere around 80-90% of the medieval population was rural farmers. Cities would have a lot fewer people overall but more nobility because of the concentration of wealth and power. I think that number checks out.

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    Default Re: Medieval Demographics

    Quote Originally Posted by VoxRationis View Post
    1 noble per 200 individuals would seem about right, depending on the country and the definition of "noble," but a whole household (title holder, spouse, children, dowagers, plus the multitude of retainers and servants necessary for such a household) per 200 individuals?
    I don't see how these are two different things. It isn't "1 noble + 200 other people" vs "1 noble and his household staff + 200 other people". It's 200 people total. The noble is one of those 200. That 200 also includes the noble's household staff.

    Both descriptions are "1 noble +199 other people" but the second one just describes who some of those 199 are.
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    Default Re: Medieval Demographics

    Quote Originally Posted by Xuc Xac View Post
    I don't see how these are two different things. It isn't "1 noble + 200 other people" vs "1 noble and his household staff + 200 other people". It's 200 people total. The noble is one of those 200. That 200 also includes the noble's household staff.

    Both descriptions are "1 noble +199 other people" but the second one just describes who some of those 199 are.
    When I outlined those two things, I was running under the logic that a noble household usually has more than one noble in it, unless one gets really finicky about what counts as "noble," and the cited bases for the article are not, to my understanding, so discriminating. With that usage, the difference becomes 1 noble within each population base of 200 vs. 2-6, plus staff, within each 200.

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    Default Re: Medieval Demographics

    Quote Originally Posted by Martin Greywolf View Post
    1) Not all nobles are rich, in fact, most of them are not.
    Yeah, in a lot of places nobility means:

    You have some legal privileges (such as the right to carry a weapon) and maybe some fiscal ones (like not paying certain taxes and certain jobs may only be open to you (like military officers) but apart from that you are otherwise indistinguishable from the family next door and you have to farm your land yourself just like they do

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    Default Re: Medieval Demographics

    Quote Originally Posted by VoxRationis View Post
    When I outlined those two things, I was running under the logic that a noble household usually has more than one noble in it, unless one gets really finicky about what counts as "noble," and the cited bases for the article are not, to my understanding, so discriminating. With that usage, the difference becomes 1 noble within each population base of 200 vs. 2-6, plus staff, within each 200.
    Well, a noble household usually has more than one person in it who is part of the noble class, but it may only have one person who has a noble title. This is especially likely to be true at the lower levels of nobility. A landed knight may have a title, but his wife likely does not, nor do any children. An heir will inherit a title, but not necessarily hold one until the relevant parent dies.

    This sort of thing matters depending on how a given society is setup and what privileges are associated with holding a title versus being a member of a class.
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    Default Re: Medieval Demographics

    I've been doing some reading on Wikipedia since I saw this thread.

    So the first obvious thing is that the typical medieval person does not live in a city. You're looking at like 1 to 3% of the population living in cities. Take a look at England in 1086. For comparison: towns start getting McDonalds at about 5,000 people.

    Also, I imagine your expectations are particularly shaped by England, and especially by later periods where England's population had grown considerably while their nobility had not.

    The English were also much more restrictive with actual Nobile titles than the rest of Europe. Compare the English "Gentleman" with the Spanish "Hidalgo". The qualifications were basically the same, be the son of a gentleman/hidalgo or better. However, hidalgos was an actual title with privilege (exempted from taxes) and duty (eligible to be coscripted). "gentleman" also acquired a huge number of soft requirements (education, only certain occupations, code of conduct) that allowed that category to be pruned down.

    What the OP was probably thinking of with "multitude of retainers and servants necessary for such a household" is probably best approximated by the English peerage: Barons, Viscounts, Earls, and Dukes that could vote in the house of lords. They were all big deals. They would have had troops during the medieval period, and by the early modern period would have had a variety of domestic servants Downton Abbey style.
    Last edited by Quizatzhaderac; 2021-05-28 at 11:26 AM.

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    Default Re: Medieval Demographics

    Quote Originally Posted by Quizatzhaderac View Post
    Also, I imagine your expectations are particularly shaped by England, and especially by later periods where England's population had grown considerably whole their nobility had not.

    The English were also much more restrictive with actual Nobile titles than the rest of Europe. Compare the English "Gentleman" with the Spanish "Hidalgo". The qualifications were basically the same, be the son of a gentleman/hidalgo or better. However, hidalgos was an actual title with privilege (exempted from taxes) and duty (eligible to be coscripted). "gentleman" also acquired a huge number of soft requirements (education, only certain occupations, code of conduct) that allowed that category to be pruned down.
    This is a good point.

    To give an idea of the numbers in England, in 1641 there were approximately 150 peers in England. That date hasn't been chosen by accident: it was right on the cusp of the civil war and so represents a fairly true picture of the state of England's nobility at the end of the "ancien regime" While things are not quite so straightforward in terms of England's constitutional development, the civil war and the Restoration also saw a deluge of appointments to the peerage for various reasons - not least to reward service during the war and interregnum - which distorts the picture. 1641 also falls at the end of a long period of relative stability which hasn't seen large numbers of creations or acts of attainder for some time (unlike the 15th and early 16th century) which could skew things, and it's reliably documented.

    That's 150 peers out of a total population of about 5 million: around 0.002% of the population. This might represent a low ebb, but probably not. From the point at which the peerage was established (as opposed to manorial lordship, which I will come back to) in the 13th century, England's population had only grown by about 25% to 1640, thanks to the Black Death, so even if the number of peers had remained static the whole time it wouldn't change the overall figures that much. And in fact the number of peers in 1264 was significantly lower than in 1641.

    So if you take this as your benchmark, of course a figure of one noble household per 200 people is going to look ridiculous.

    But you shouldn't.

    Firstly, of course, most of those peers will probably have relatives who are also nobles (siblings, children, etc.) and may maintain separate households. Most of those peers will probably also maintain more than one "household": their country seat and their house in London, at minimum, and very possibly other properties (townhouses in other cities, hunting lodges and the like) which require at least part-time year-round staffing. So that figure can probably be bumped up - but even if bumped up by a factor of ten we're a long way off the 1/200 we need.


    Secondly, and more importantly, as Quizatzhaderac says above, England is unusual in the way that it handles its nobility. Compare the 150 figure there to France on the cusp of the Revolution 150 years later: the number of nobles is debated, but was probably somewhere around the 100,000 mark, out of a population of around 28 million: 0.4% of the population and not that far off the 1/200 mark in terms of raw numbers. That's - obviously - not a small difference. Relative to population, France has at the end of its ancien regime period more nobles than England does by a factor of hundreds.

    (We are of course talking about the later medieval period into the early modern era here. From 1066 to about 1265 England looked a lot more like France in this respect - and before 1066 it was so different that it's outside the parameters of this discussion).

    The reasons for the difference are various, but in broad terms, the original idea of a "lord" in a "feudal" system was essentially manorial and really just meant freeholder of a portion of land.* In England, the custom was for lords to pass on their titles entire to their firstborn heir, whereas in France, Germany and Spain (and consequently in much of Italy) it was common to divide the estate among all the sons of the lord. So in those countries, the number of "lords" kept pace with general population growth even as the relative status of the average lord declined because their portions of land got smaller and smaller. You could be as poor as a church mouse but so long as your bloodline was right, you were still a noble.

    In England, powerful nobles arrogated holdings to themselves and then kept them in their direct line, leading to a smaller cadre of peers, while the junior branches of the family dropped out of the aristocracy into the middle class.

    (There's of course a real irony in this in that the French aristocracy found themselves on the receiving end of a violent revolution while the English aristocracy was essentially left alone, even though the average English noble was much richer and more powerful than his French counterpart.)


    There's also a reason I talk about peers above and not lords. The institution of Parliament created a class within a class of lords: those entitled to attend Parliament (known as peers essentially since in Parliament their voices nominally all counted equally). Creation of these peerages was initially controlled by the senior nobility themselves (as Parliament was created at their instigation) and major expansions of the peerage would always meet with some resistance from entrenched interests. So the senior nobles - the peers - interposed a glass ceiling between themselves and the minor nobility (i.e. the freeholders) who might be "barons" legally speaking but beyond the title itself had no real privileges or power beyond what their money could buy them. These feudal baronies still existed in 1641 (but not for much longer beyond that) but their significance had evaporated entirely by that point.

    On the (western) continent, where constitutional developments happened differently, there was never quite the same stark division imposed. The Estates in France and Germany tended to be representative institutions of the entire nobility, rather than individual summonses with each peer speaking for themselves, as in England, and the noble classes remained correspondingly much larger, both in absolute and in relative terms.


    So England is a bad example demographically for this. In fact, it's a pretty bad example demographically generally, because it has a few features (not least of which is the existence of a monster primate city) which make it quite unusual by western European standards. Part of its strangeness here is because it presents the tip of the iceberg as the entire institution even from quite an early date, but also because its inheritance method inevitably leads to consolidation and relative contraction over time.


    After that long ramble, then, I think one noble household per 200 head of population doesn't sound too far out of whack so long as you're talking about any country in western Europe except England**. Two caveats, of course: firstly, that 1/200 figure is a guideline not a rule carved in stone. It's going to vary from place to place. Secondly, the average "noble household" is probably much less lavish than the term might suggest. In most cases it will just be the biggest house in the village, rather than a massive estate with large grounds.


    *This is the basis on which scammers will sell you a "Scottish noble title" which amounts to a square foot of land and the associated "title" of "laird", which, as they will tell you, is analogous to "lord" and therefore a noble title. It's not.
    **OK, this ignores Scotland and Ireland, but they come with complications I don't want to get into now.
    Last edited by Aedilred; 2021-05-17 at 06:24 AM.
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