Re: How long should it take to cross a medieval town?

It depends. 

I'll use Stockholms old town as a reference since I've been there. It takes about 10-15 minutes to walk through it along its longest road. Today it's home to around 3,000 people, so if you are writing a fantasy with good living conditions or an area with a lot of nobles who'd have larger residents, then it could maybe take an hour? IDK. During the medieval age, though, I think the most it housed was about 15,000. So, around that time if you want to use that kind of population density. 

That said, the Stockholm old town just refers to the island that used to be protected by walls. People lived outside the walls too and it was mostly a residential area that was easily defendable. It has a castle and some plazas and some large churches and stuff like that, but I'm not counting the harbors or the other large work areas outside of the town borders. But if you're just talking about the town, about 10 minutes is reasonable. 

Re: How long should it take to cross a medieval town?

Oh, and I suggest looking up medieval towns that still exist today, and check them out on google street view! It's a total cheat tool for stuff like this, ofc some stuff would've been rebuilt and such but google maps street view is a total cheat for stuff like this. Just look for towns with an historical density similar to what you know, and take a virtual tour of its main streets! Perfect for getting an idea of how bigg stuff was. 

Re: How long should it take to cross a medieval town?

A good rule is the average person commutes half an hour each way every day.  Walking, riding a horse, driving a car, or whatever your magical transport is in story: may go a different distance in that half an hour; but no matter the transport system, the time is always the same across all human cultures of all time.

So to your village.  If this is a village of farmers who walk implies very crowed living conditions, and the fields have to be smaller and more productive than a rice paddy.  If your village is instead a place for the born rich to play they need to be within half an hour of whatever the entertainment is by magic transport, but the slaves (not servants) live in back of the mansions and will find just walking two mansions over (if they even get a free day visit) will cost them their entire half an hour.  These two villages are both extremes, but notice how the culture, jobs, and transit all work together.

You are probably better off being vague about the exact size and just work with the half an hour to get to work (even if people live above their shops they still hire help who travel that half an hour).  There is a reason most books just say exploring the east end or west end.  Most of the time more detail isn't important and it avoids putting in an impossible situation latter if the plot needs something.

If that doesn't work then you really need to figure out the culture of your city.  Traffic slows things down. How wide are the streets (a trade off - can hold more people walking faster, but everything is farther apart).  How large are the lots (2d) , and how tall are the houses/apartments on the lots (3d).  Map out exactly where every building/shop is and the size. Figure out the traffic levels (remember someone in the streets isn't in their shop working!).  Get all the details right, and refer to them carefully so that you don't end up with an impossible situation to have to explain away later.

Re: How long should it take to cross a medieval town?

Good answers thus far. Here are my grains of wisdom.

1. It depends on your protagonist's physical condition. Is he old, a child, a woman, a cripple, sick, dying from hunger? Then it takes longer than for a healthy, well-trained/travelled person.

2. A fit 30-ish woman with good footwear can walk 2.5km in about 30 min. at a leisurely pace in a more or less perfectly straight line (information from personal experience).

3. Are the roads straight and well maintained? I had this experience in Venice, it was like I was struggling through a very beautiful but confusing labyrinth. If there is one main street that is perfectly straight, then it is easier.

4. Are you crossing on foot or horse/carriage? Contrary to expectations, using transportation in a medieval town can take longer than running on foot. Most of the streets are too narrow and if you have a bustling town, you can't just plough through the passersby. Especially if it is a market day.

5. Are you crossing at day or at night? During the night hours, there is... less traffic. But many medieval cities had curfews so the city gates were closed after sunset.

6. Oh, and what is the shape of your town? Unless it is a perfect circle, the time it takes to cross from point A to B varies greatly.

My subjective and uneducated guess would be between 1 and 2 hours, depending on the conditions.

Re: How long should it take to cross a medieval town?

Before anything else, you have to understand that in Western Europe (usually what medieval fantasy is based on) and I think Japan as well (I'm just not as familiar with medieval Japanese peasants as I'd like to be), the town was a very different beast from a village. 

Today, particularly in North America, we refer to hamlets, villages, towns, and cities as different degrees of population. Sometimes there are quirks, such as in the Commonwealth of Virginia (where a city is a chartered entity in a more English style, independent of, and equal in status to, a county) or in Texas (where any municipal body is called a city, regardless of size, though there's a different status called "home rule" cities); and there are quirks with individual US cities, such as with Washington, DC (which used to be just one city inside the District of Columbia, but eventually grew to absorb all the others such as Georgetown and Takoma Park) or New York City (which is one city that exists across five counties of New York State); but most of the time it's all based on population. 

Not so in a medieval society; or rather, not so in a society without access to easy and fast transportation. That transportation in our world is provided by cars, trucks, trains, planes, and ships; in a fantasy world, it could be provided by other means, but that means will change how the society runs. 

Do me a favor. Consider where you go on a regular basis. Look at the travel distance involved. Now consider that the average human walking speed is about 3-4 miles per hour, while the average human traveling speed over a day is about 2-3 miles per hour. Humans are great endurance animals -- in fact, a human in decent shape can walk a horse into the grave in just one day; but humans have to rest, too, and we don't normally push ourselves to our limits without good reason. So even if you're in awesome shape, imagine having to walk everywhere. Horses were much more common, and there were specific breeds (almost all of which are gone now) for farm and draft use, but the horse's primary utility for transportation was its strength and carrying capacity, not its endurance. They're sprinters, not marathon animals. If you wanted to get somewhere on land, you generally did so at the speed of an average human. 

What does this have to do with the size of a town? Well, if you look two posts above mine, Hank is correct about normal travel distance. Some people don't mind a longer commute (I used to have an hour and a half commute, but I mostly worked from home and went in for meetings), but most people balk at anything more than an hour. Prior to cars and public transport (lots of sitting), the standard commute was much shorter. If you're working for twelve hours a day, that only leaves four hours for what you need to do outside of work. If you have to walk an hour each way, that only leaves two hours with your family. 

This means towns were actually very small. The village was where most people lived and worked. Villages were wherever the land was good, but towns were always where you found crossroads. This is because if you lived in a village and needed to bring your goods to market, you had to travel. Sure, you can trade with your fellow villagers, but as societies grow more complex, they find they need more specialization. Good areas for raising cattle are not the same as for raising sheep; and you may not find yourself growing textile plants in the same spot as you grow wheat or barley (and certainly not rice, though rice is useful for more than just food). So you need to travel, and that means going to a central market: the town. 

Ever wonder why the phrase "go to town" means spending money? Now you do, because only a town had a market. In medieval England, every chartered town had a designated market day when people from the surrounding villages would descend on the place and try to buy, sell, and trade. In the 14th century or so, there were very few places in England that were not within twenty miles of a town, and they were all poor places to put a farming community. Some of this would continue into the modern period, too; my wife likes the British show Larkrise to Candleford, and I've seen enough of that while passing through the living room to recognize remnants of the village-to-town relationship in that setting. 

So, long story short, the answer to your question depends on whether it's a market day or not. :) It also depends on what the level of transportation is; if you've got trains running, or any kind of equivalent thereto (such as the lightning rail in D&D's Eberron setting), then you'll see a lot of difference between villages close to a train stop and those too far away to take advantage of it. My great-grandparents settled in an area of Idaho because a rail line was supposed to go through it; when it got changed to over fifteen miles away, they had to make other plans. Perhaps it's not a train; perhaps it's a portal network that uses relay stations, meaning that you have to wait an hour for the next portal in line to charge up. Or perhaps someone dug a great central river, which can cause some really epic territorial fights (look up trade on the Rhine in medieval Germany sometime for some good city-level soap opera fodder). 

It's always important to study real history when you're going to try to bring in realistic details. Once you know how things work without magic (and of course, once you know whether something happened for universal human reasons or if it's just a cultural quirk), then you can start figuring out how magic changes things. If you're going for low-magic fantasy, however, it's very difficult to go wrong with The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England. It's probably the best single-volume resource for medieval fantasy writers out there. If you want to go into more detail, then I can also recommend Life in a Medieval Village, though I only just started reading it myself (and obviously it concentrates on villages, but you'll get a lot of what you need out of it). 

Oh, and if you are going for realism . . . do me another favor and don't mix up your inns and taverns. :) D&D did that and now everyone thinks inns should also be restaurants.  

Re: How long should it take to cross a medieval town?

Thank you all for the great answers!
I was a bit lost originally because I couldn't visualise how large my Town should be, nor why it should be however large it would be.
I wanted the travel time in order to be accurate and my original half hour seemed too short for a Town built to house 10.000 people; I was planning to adapt from there, but having a baseline was my main problem because I couldn't find any and search results varied widely.

Needless to say I did not expect such great answers and now it seems like a waste to not expand on how the city looks a bit more.

Thank you.

Re: How long should it take to cross a medieval town?

I forgot to mention the loose definition of what counted as a city in medieval Europe. The simplest definition is that it had a cathedral; if it was the seat of a bishop, it was important and connected. However, this was not a universal metric, so historians often toss in something like "international weight" as a fudge factor.

While I'm not an authority on the exact line being drawn, we're only looking at real history to draw conclusions for fictional worlds, and a definition that only works for medieval Europe and nowhere else is next to useless for any fantasy except one that actually uses Catholic bishops. (Mind you, I can think of three alternate history fantasy settings off the top of my head that do just that, so forgive me if you really wanted some bishops.) But we'll get back to that on a moment, because the bishops are still somewhat relevant. 

I find, looking at how China, Japan, and pre-Christian Rome were organized, that a structured fantasy culture not shaped by a hierarchical centralized religion will still have regional sears of government. England is an odd duck compared to France or even Germany in how its nobles factored into local rule, so it's not always advisable to look at the English for a model even if they're the most familiar in literature. Rome in particular is interesting to look at, since you have a clear concept of neighboring regions getting organized into one central block, with a city roughly at the center that served as a regional capital. You can still see Italy divided up this way today, despite two thousand years and a lot of fracturing. That Roman stamp is hard to shake.

In China, things waver a lot throughout the centuries, especially during wars. However, the same places keep popping up, and we can see that as the imperial bureaucracy grew, it centralized around certain cities that were ruled by what get translated into English as dukes. In Japan, you get the same with the daimyo, who ruled over groups of clans; this isn't as neat and tidy as Rome or China, but it is an interesting guide nonetheless, showing how constricted terrain and an emphasis on kinship might shake the same principle. (Mind you, a counterexample is the Irish, who did not develop much centralization until the English forced it on them, even though their kingroup dynamics possibly surpassed Japan.)

One factor that holds pretty well across the world, as far as I've been able to determine, is that the distance between one regional capital and another is equal to about 7-10 days' travel. It makes sense; if it takes more than about four or five days for a grievance to get to the capital, then people stop feeling connected to the local ruler and stop respecting the system. It's also harder for the ruler's officers to reach trouble spots, or their armies to march to the border to handle a dispute (not at all uncommon across cultures, especially if local maps are shown to be inaccurate, such as when a river shifts course).

Now, I promised that bishops would still be relevant. Well, there are two words for the area controlled by a bishop. It's either bishopric or diocese. Diocese is older, and actually predates Christian Rome. When Christianity was legalized, the bishops divided their territories by civil borders, using the Roman Empire's diocese system (subdividing provinces) to do so. As the population grew and more bishops were required, the ecclesiastical diocese split, but still followed civil borders where possible for easy layout. (You can see this very well in a map of Catholic dioceses in the United States, in case you're interested.) Eventually, most bishops were about 7-10 days from another bishop. 

So while the definition of a city shouldn't be based on religious organization for our purposes, we can see that there's something we can learn from the map of medieval bishops. Rather than a city being a city because of a bishop (or duke or daimyo), the bishop winds up in the city because it's a central spot from which information can flow and still stay reasonably current. It's a hub for towns, but primarily a source of administration. 

In other words, the city is where the power is, and therefore where the powerful live. They can't afford to be out of the loop. They need information as fast as possible in order to maintain, grow, and consolidate their power. After a certain point, the economics are merely incidental. Information is the true commodity of a city, and what makes it a city in the first place. 

So the simplest way to demonstrate the importance of a city is to show how many nobles live there, even if they're supposed to rule elsewhere. If a house there is worth being away from a large estate, then you've got a genuine city going on. 

But if you're not writing intrigue, that's probably not interesting for you. 

Re: How long should it take to cross a medieval town?

One factor I forgot to mention, the only way to get enough food in to feed 10000 people before modern transport was water based. roads don't work because a cart can't haul enough food to feed the animals and still have room for any food. (Something exotic and nonperishable as an exception ). So either you have water transport to a large area of the country, or other magical transport.  that is the reason almost all  large cities today are also ports where it is easy to unload a ship, you couldn't get enough food in to feed the people. Thus you can assume there is some transport other than walking available for anything larger than a town. also markets will be on the transport system if possible (but most are not because the farms would be more than 20 miles, but where possible they take advantage of cheaper water shipping )

Re: How long should it take to cross a medieval town?


hank Wrote: One factor I forgot to mention, the only way to get enough food in to feed 10000 people before modern transport was water based. roads don't work because a cart can't haul enough food to feed the animals and still have room for any food.

This is a good point that I think few people are aware of (I only recently learned about it when reading a book on the logistics of Alexander the Great's army). It's also why control of the sea can be so important in war; if you can avoid the enemy receiving shipments of grain, you'll starve them out quite efficiently. The Peloponnesian War was won this way; the Spartan fleet took control of the straits at Dardanelles, blocking grain import to Athens from the Black Sea. The Athenian fleet failed to break the blockade, and they had to surrender.

Re: How long should it take to cross a medieval town?

So, nothing more on the OP, but some things on medieval life and villages, towns and cities.

It's been mentioned before that the difference between a town and a village is mainly the market. I do think there is another point to be made, that is the number of services available. A more specialized craftsman like a cooper, blacksmith or wheelwright wouldn't be able to make a living in a village. In a town, the different villages come together on market day and will provide enough work.

Many villagers would have picked up enough crafts to build a barn, but probably not enough to make a dresser or chest. Keep in mind that carpenters only used nails if there was no other way, most old furniture uses a bunch of different fittings like the swallowtail joint. Just because you know enough blacksmithing to make nails, doesn't mean you can make hinges.

Towns take shape wherever you have enough villages that need a service hub in a location that facilitates transport. Often this would be near a river where barges would load and unload. 

One issue I have is with people focusing so much on horse drawn carts. Horses were not common. The standard draft animals for heavy cargo were oxen, not horses. Oxen require less feed and, very importantly, a lower quality of feed, can pull heavier loads an have far better stamina than horses in that regard. Other common draft animals were donkeys, mules and, for lighter loads, dogs. All of these have a lower upkeep and better stamina than a horse. 

So why did people switch to horses and generally preferred horses for plowing? The answer is simple, speed. People used a horse for plowing because a horse could match the optimum speed for it better than an ox. You certainly could use an ox, and in some regions with difficult soil conditions that remained the standard, but in general horses were superior at plowing. As technology improved, the preferred ratio shifted ever more from strength to speed. Before that, most farmers didn't have a horse. When you needed a plow horse, you rented one from someone who did. This kept up for quite late, until tractors became the norm (my grandmother held a grudge against any and all horse owners due to this). However, almost everyone had an ox or two. As more and more work shifted from the ox to the horse, more people chose to keep horses instead of oxen. You couldn't afford to have both, so people chose the one that would be the most useful overall.

Next item, the difference between a town and a city. There wasn't one. Not if you looked at the people who lived and worked there at least. There were plenty of large towns, larger than nearby cities, that still were called a town. What was the difference in medieval Europe? Rights. A city had rights that a town didn't have. Just like a town had the right to hold a market, granted to it by the feudal lord (or bought from, more like), a city had additional rights over a town. Rights such as having its own judicial and law-enforcement officers, the right to collect taxes, the right to raise a militia, the right to ask a toll, the right to mint coins, the right to set standard weights, self governance and all such. No matter how large and prosperous a town, until it gained city rights it would remain a town. Not every city had the same rights either. So how to get city rights? Your feudal lord had to bestow them. Basically and most commonly, you paid the lord so he'd transfer some of his rights to you and that'd make you a city. Offering strong support during a war is one of the variations on this that I know of.