New Worlds: Cities I – Where and Why and What

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Defining a “city” is easier said than done. Much ink has been spilled on that topic in fields ranging from archaeology (we can’t study the rise of urban settlements without first deciding what we’re looking at) to law (if specific codes apply to cities, then you have to decide which places fall under that header). I’m not going to attempt a formal definition here; for our purposes it’s enough to just say that a city is a large, dense, permanent settlement.

How large? Several of the fantasy games I play have attempted at various points to provide numerical answers to that question, and for the most part these numbers are hilariously wrong. The Pathfinder roleplaying game defines a small city as having 5-10,000 people, a large city as having 10-25,000, and a metropolis as anything with more than 25,000 people. The city of Korvosa, we are told, supports a royal court, three separate military organizations, several universities, a major criminal underworld, thriving international trade, and more . . . all with a population of about 28,000 people.

That’s less than one-seventh the size of late sixteenth-century London.

And Elizabethan London, while by far the largest city in England, was no kind of record-setting outlier. Tenochtitlan and Moscow had similar numbers; by the mid-fourteenth century, Beijing held nearly a million people. Even in ancient Mesopotamia, site of some of the world’s earliest cities, urban populations may have risen nearly to 100,000 at their peak. Nothing in the pre-modern world remotely compares to the sprawling metropolitan areas we have now, with multiple millions of people in what amounts to an agglomeration of smaller cities all smashed together, but even in the ancient past, cities can get big.

That doesn’t mean they’re all in the six figures, though. The vast majority of cities back then are going to be on the smaller end; call it 10,000 and up. The big examples I name are capitals and other major loci. But what number you should aim for depends on what kind of story you’re telling, and writers frequently want to tell stories set in places where there are lots of different amenities: the aforementioned royal courts and military groups and universities and criminal underworlds and thriving trade so forth. For that to be plausible, you need a lot of people to support it.

Which means you need a lot of other stuff to support the people. A blog post I read recently points out that the books and films of The Lord of the Rings present very different images of Minas Tirith and the surrounding region, the Pelennor: the sweeping, open grasslands that allow for enormous and precise military formations in the movies are, in the books, filled with farms and small villages the orcs have to tramp through and around and over. They’d have to be — because how else are the people in Minas Tirith going to eat? Transporting crops in that kind of society is expensive: the rule of thumb I’ve seen is that the price of grain doubles for every hundred miles it travels. To keep tens of thousands of people fed, you want to grow things nearby.

This post lays out what the environs of a historical city (especially a European city) will probably look like, in their ideal and isolated form. Right outside (or sometimes inside) the walls, you’ll have high-value and labor-intensive production like dairy or gardens of fruits and vegetables — things that will spoil if they have to be transported too far. Farther out, or on bad bits of land, you have managed forest. Then a vast sea of grain and other staples, studded with local villages, and beyond that, livestock of various kinds, especially sheep and goats.

But as that post goes on to explain in its sequel, water in particular can massively change the shape of the city’s surroundings. We’ve talked about this before, in the context of water supplies more generally, but it bears reiterating: settlements have to have a source of water in order to survive. Rivers are great, because then you get not only liquid but a trade route; a river mouth is even more desirable, because it gives you access to sea trade as well. And if transporting goods by road is better than overland, a river is better than a road, and the sea is better than a river.

The logistical hurdles of keeping everybody fed and watered are only one of the many problems with cities. Even with good sanitation — which they didn’t always have — they’re often much filthier than the countryside. There’s more crime, and more interpersonal violence. Crowding is often at levels unthinkable to the modern Westerner, because construction is expensive and without mechanized transportation, everything needs to be within walking distance. Economic inequality runs rampant, and so does disease.

Given all of that, why would anyone live in a city? Out of necessity, and because there are benefits. The precise cause-and-effect ordering of this is debated in the academic literature, but administration of a country or region, whether secular or religious, is easier when people know where the guys in charge are to be found. Fortification for defense comes hard on the heels of this, and so does economic activity, which also needs protection. And once you’ve got the government and military and market gathered together in one place, living alongside those things offers you influence, safety, and all kinds of opportunities. Want to buy specialized goods made by elite artisans? Want entertainment that isn’t a local farmer singing the same songs you’ve heard your entire life? A city can support those things in a way a village can’t.

And as I mentioned above, this is why so much of our fiction tends to focus on the cities rather than the countryside, at least after the initial few chapters in which the innocent farmboy gets jarred out of his humble life. We like the variety and excitement that a city contains; an agricultural village offers a more limited narrative palette. (Even untamed wilderness gets more page time than villages, I think.) But just because we read and write so often about urban settings doesn’t mean they get represented very well, so next week we’ll dig into more about how cities work once you get inside them.

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