Kingdom Size and Armies

A badly designed fantasy campaign typically includes completely off-the-cuff sprawling empires and holdings of the local king.  "Well, this here kingdom is 500 miles by 500 miles, about, and like it’s divided into 250-square mile quarters which are governed by dukes…"  Unless the army rides around on motorcycles and Lear jets, this is not going to be the case.

In the preindustrial community, the area that a "monarch" can claim is effectively about 15 or 20 miles from the capital, or wherever the primary military base is.  This is about as far as his soldiers, tax collectors, sherriffs, and what have you can maintain his authority, yet still be under his control.  This is because of two factors:  one, how far his men can ride comfortably on a daily basis, and two, the size of the army he can support with his excess food production.

Another consideration is how far the peasants have to travel to get their goods to market.  This is considerably less, since the peasantry don’t have access to stables full of high quality horses and changing stations, and must often carry their goods in by foot, or ox/draft horse wagon.  Markets should be no further than one-third of a day’s travel from the furthermost farmer to be practical (this concept is known as the "rural edge").  This depends on the quality of roads and how convoluted the terrain is, but assuming you have reasonable terrain and metalled (paved) roads, figure that farmers would not be functional further than 5 miles or so from the market.  Wagons are slow.  There also has to be a provision for getting required food into the urban center, which is typically in the middle of a county.  Considering that you don’t have good refrigeration or preservatives, the food should ideally get to the city as fast as possible.  Therefore, if you look at markets as an extension of a kingdom’s central power, you cannot have a gigantic metropolis supported by dozens of layers of markets.  The food would rot by the time it made it through the gates.

Getting back to the consideration about soldiers for land defense and control, one has to discard immediately the nonsense about armies of 100,000 men clashing in huge slaughterfests on the battlefield.  You simply cannot support an army that is larger than your peasant population.  If you assume that your society is heavily militaristic, with a need for a big deterrent to invasion, maybe 4% of your total population might be members of a standing army (40% of nonfarmers), with the possibility of raising 6% of your total population as peasant levies (7% of total peasants, or about 20% of working peasants) in times of crisis.  It should be noted that if your kingdom enters a full-scale conflict, most of the front line is going to consist of these peasant levies; the standing army will be spread to a number of positions in case of surprise attack, and to function as reserves.  This is a good reason to avoid war, as you can only lose so much of your peasant population before you start running the risk of starvation.

Using the supercorn example and supplementary nutrition like fishing from the preceding section about food, the entire size of a king’s holdings can be compacted even further.  This gives the military a great defensive advantage, since they have less farmland to defend.  This could be a very important consideration in a fantasy campaign, where the supercorn farms are occasionally raided by giants, requiring a more concentrated defense force to drive them away.  In addition, if supercorn is less labor-intensive than wheat as well as less land-intensive, you free up more of your population, and thus your standing army can be larger.  You also have more people with free time to think up interesting ideas like calendars, a church, arts and sciences, and magic.

One Response to “Kingdom Size and Armies”
  1. Also realize that feudal societies are not based on strict hierarchies wherin the king is absolute ruler by virtue of divine decree. Despite historic attempts by monarchs to promote this idea, the difference between a king and a Duke is primarily one of military might. A Duke with a big enough army and sufficient support from other nobles will quickly become a king at the expense of his predecessor. A typical medevial kingdom is really a lot of small kindgoms paying tribute to single king who is a little more powerfull than the rest.

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