layouts of a village in the middle ages

Who is this post for?

This article is for game masters of tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons. I want to give you an idea of how a village in the post-Roman Manorialism looked on a map,so you can draw and describe such settlements in a way that makes sense. If your world does not know serfdom and feudalism as western Europe had it, this information will probably not apply to your game.

This article focuses on the late Middle Ages.

Layouts

The Middle Ages cover a very long period, ranging from about 500 AD to 1500 AD, depending on who you ask. Over that timespan, progress was made in the realm of farming and housing during the medieval times, albeit slowly. Thus the location and layout of towns may vary based on the time period and location.

Fields

a framer plowing a field, source: wikimedia commons

In western Europe, the dominant feature of the medieval hamlet and village were the fields surrounding it. The farmland was divided into rectangular patches because turning the plow was cumbersome. This also led fields to feature a „ridge and furrow“ pattern- small dams building up to the left and right of the plow. 

How much land a farmer had varied greatly. Most farms and houses had a small garden and a small plot of land for the livestock to dwell. Often there was a shared meadow or „common land“ that the villager’s animal could use for grazing- thus the name “commoner”. The farmland was worked in an open field system with 3 field crop rotation. The village’s fields were divided into 3 blocks: Fallow land that is left unused so it can replenish nutrients; spring planting; and autumn planting. Each farmer owned part of the land in each block. (See image Plan of a Medieval Manor) If your World has a different number or order of seasons, I recommend you invent your own crop rotation, or otherwise decide how much and how often one could yield crops from the ground until it needs to be left fallow. The open field system is thought to have been quite inefficient. It forced everyone to farm in the same way at the same time in what was called „flurzwang“ (lit. translation „field constraint“), which hindered innovation. Under an open field system, each farmer owns land dividing it into small non-adjacent patches that shrink each time the land is divided up between the sons (assuming such a system of inheritance). If your village has private ownership of land, the fields will probably be consolidated into blocks, like today.

image 2: a medieval manor with a row or street village and the surrounding lands , public domain from wikimedia commons

Estate- „Einzelhof“

Just an single estate. To support a person, at least 18 acres of field is needed. Those Just a single estate. To support a single adult person, a minimum of 18 acres of land is needed. These acres are divided among the 3-field system, so only 6 acres need to be tended to at any given time. This can go up to 12 or more acres depending on the climate and fertility of the soil. (see history.stackexchange.com)

a map of a estate with fields around it

„Einzelhof“-settlements as their field are usually in blocks, and not strips, as the other types of villages. An „Einzelhof“ or Gutshof, consits of the Lords Villa and a few farmers (2-5) houses to support the estate.

hamlet – „Weiler“

A Weiler consists of 3-20 farms, most commonly in random shapes. They occur as planned as well as random settlements. They were more common in western Germany. They sometimes grows into a „heap-village“, or in German „haufendorf“.

Heap – „Haufendorf“

image 1: Wiese = Maddow, Acker= farmland, Garten= garden – source: own work

The most common layout of a village is the „heap village“. The settlement has not been planned or ordered by a lord. Typically the shape is uneven and the placement of houses is random. Heap villages mostly occur when a Weiler or Einzelhof grows larger.

Row – „Reihendorf“

Wiese = Maddow, Acker= farmland, Garten= garden – source: own work
linear settlement map of the German town Trebnitz

Linear settlements are orderly, like beads on a chain. The houses are lined up along a geographical marker, like a road, dam or river. These villages often were built by order of a landowner- the church, a lord, etc.. This mostly happened between the 12th and 18th centuries in Germany.

Depending on the density of the settlement and whether or not houses occur on both sides of the line, the terms Reihendorf, Zeilendorf, Straßendorf („street village“), Waldhufendorf (for timbering), or Marschhufendorf (next to a channel) may be used. They all are linear settlements with very similar layouts.

Circular – „Rundling“

a Rundling also called a circular village

The Rundling also belongs to the category of planned settlements. They can be found at the border of Slavic and Germanic culture. A common theory is that this setup was chosen because the structure can be defended more easily.

Angerdorf

The Angerdorf is a planned settlement as well that is built around an oval center. This The Angerdorf is also a planned settlement, built around an oval center. This central area usually has a water source for the livestock to drink. The lake also could be used to extinguish fires quickly. Sometimes a church is seen at the village center. This style of village was built by Germanic Tribes colonizing the eastern part of Germany and beyond according to a article on zeit.de.(includes a Map of were what type of village has been found)

Buildings

Farm houses

In Europe. most farms were in the shape of the longhouse- a single room divided into several functional areas. In the later middle ages, richer farmers, often owning their land, could afford to erect several buildings and started to use fundaments set in stone. The walls were typically timber-framed. „Wattle and daub“ construction was also common. Both constructions have the advantage of using less timber than other styles. They construct a frame which is then filled with straw, mud and clay. The roof was mostly thatched because tiles were very expensive. Only in the late middle ages did tile come back into popular use, mostly in cities to prevent fires.

Blueprint or floor plan of a farm house,
a Hall 
b Kitchen with stove and oven
c Living chamber with d oven and e niche for light
f Sleeping chamber
g Maiden chamber. Below, a cellar
h Chamber
i Hall to stall
l Horse stall
k Hayloft where farmhand sleeps, below feed box
m Cow stall
n Stall for temporary workers and feed storagee

All buildings were surrounded by a fence to keep the livestock close and wildlife out, and to protect the garden from the stock.

A woven wattle gate keeps animals out of the 15th century cabbage patch – public domain image from wikipeda

Sources

Even though focused on the farming and settlements of the turn of the 20th century, the images from the 1895 Book series by Meitzen has a lot of valuable illustrations, that are still helpful as inspiration if you don’t speak German. I recommend and link Volume 3, which contains most illustrations. There are a lot of farms and agricultural buildings with floorplans and blueprints. I uploaded a selection of the illustrations to flickr. They are all public domain.

further reading

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