Land required for cultivation


in my saga we are thinking of taking farmers to make the covenant self-sufficient in food, something to be taken into account however is the limited space we have available.

Well, the covenant book specifies the amount of laborers and craftsmen needed to save on provisions but says nothing about the amount of land required for cultivation.

What you think of 1 acre for every 10 points of inhabitants as rule of thumb? Is too much? Too little?

Too little. A typical yeoman or freeman owned a yardland / virgate, which varied between 10 and 40 acres, with 30 being typical in England (the area was a measure of quality rather than area per se), whereas a villein might have 1-2 acres for his own use. Those acres would be what the villein needs to feed himself and his family. The yeoman doesn't make much of a profit either, but he eats better, wears better clothes, and generally has a higher cost of living.

Thus, I would say that at least 1 acre is needed per inhabitant point, as a simple metric. You might need less than this when you take into account a person's family; but then, the covenant is not necessarily obliged to support them. Usually, a man leaves service to a household when he marries, to form is own household; but this might not be the same for covenfolk. for simplicity, you could assume that the wives of your grogs constitute the servants of the covenant; then 1 acre per inhabitant point bears up again.


Today, with modern machinery, crops, chemicals (blech), weather prediction and agricultural techniques, it seems that, at best, an acre can feed 4-8 people, depending on what's grown and other variables.

So 1 medieval acre = 1 person doesn't sound like a bad rule. (But a LOT more once magic gets involved.)

Yup, though not to forget that most of the time modern agriculture involves a stupendously large amount of energy spent as well for each person fed(fuel, the machinery technicians, making of fertilisers and chemicals, fuel for transporting the raw materials for those and the finished product, making, and transporting the machinery and so on and so on).

OTOH, trials with closed ecosystems trying to optimise for future off-earth use(but currently looks more likely to end up as part of future skyscrapers much sooner than anywhere it was originally intended) with minimal energy, machinery and human work hours input required have still managed to reach past the production levels of "normal modern agriculture".

Adding a lot of magic attention to it, i expect it should easily surpass modern farming ability.
Even modest attention should have a huge effect ( even that surpassing modern farming perhaps? ).

I did some research on this issue for a long standing project I was working on in another game. My general conclusions regarding typical medieval farm yields is below. For game purposes these numbers are often averages, or best guesses that allowed easier calculation, while remaining within a realistic framework.

To support one person takes around 500 L of grain, per year. One acre yields 300L wheat, 700L barley, 400L oats or 300L legumes (peas, beans, and lentils). A mix of crops is needed for health, for making beer, and for feeding animals.

Grain e is measured in bushels, quarters and tuns:
1 bushel = 36 liters
8 bushels = 1 quarter
4 quarters = 1 tun

Each year some of the produce would need to be set aside for seed. As a rule, medieval farming yielded about 4 times the seed sown. I used the following figures to take into account barley's slight superiority in yield.
Wheat 2 bushels seed per acre
Barley 4 bushels seed per acre
Oats 3 bushels seed per acre
Legumes 3 bushels seed per acre

As farming is something in which "God gives the increase" there is a tithe of 10% of the harvest. Taxes and rent may eat up another significant portion.

A typical farm had three fields -- one to be planted with wheat or rye in the fall (for human consumption); a second to be used in the spring to raise peas, beans, and lentils (for human use) and oats and barley (for the horses). The third field lay fallow. Each year this use was rotated among the three fields.

So for each acre about 25% of the yield went to seedstock, 33% lay fallow, 25+% were given away as tithes and taxes, and <17% was profit. A person needs about 2-3 full acres of "profit" to feed themselves and animals. So the minimum size for a farm per person looks to be about 12 acres. This seems in line with the idea that a typical peasant farmer would have to support his family, and thus need even more space. The historical average for peasant farmers was, according to what I found, between 25 and 40 acres.

If we make assume the covenant pays no rent then it should only take about 8 acres to raise the food for one person per year. i would say that each inhabitant point takes 10 acres, just for the round number and to feel confident that the "acre of Enumerus" is accounted for.

And not going stark raving bonkers from eating the same stuff every flippin' day - that too. :wink:

So 100 weight/volume (either) of seed would produce 400 of food? When you consider the weight/volume of a seed, that seems an extremely low success rate.

I thought that field rotation, both with fallow fields and with legumes (for nitrogen replenishment, tho' they didn't know that at the time) didn't show up til much later - no?

Well, "an acre" is supposed to be what 1 man can plow in 1 day with 1 mule, so I guess that about works time-wise, more or less.

Still... if that's the case, that's quite the paradigm shift from the assumptions above.

We are assuming Magic is used, right? First thing I'm going to do is a tablecloth CrIm, to give me a different feast each day. I'm thinking three magnitudes to allow the item to "learn meals". Taste, smell, texture, looks, CrIm covers it all!

That is the ratio the sources I found suggested. I did find mentions that, in some area such as abbeys where some level of "experimentation" was ongoing, crop yields may have reached as high as 8 times the seed sown, but apparently the techniques did not spread. Modern yield, if I recall, was supposed to be around 20x the seed sown.

A quick Google search turns this up:

Using these numbers we get a family of four needing 12 acres. But they are consuming about 60% of the 500L of grains my earlier research turned up. So I guess there is an open question as to how much grain do the covenant folk consume (and feed to animals, etc...), per person, per year.

Simple crop rotation was known from Roman times and there was a fairly large corpus of lore concerning farming that was preserved into the Dark Ages. I believe that in the very early middle ages farming was generally on the two-field system, but by 1220 three fields was the norm across Europe. I may be wrong about the date range that the two field system gave way to three fields, but the three field system held sway into the 1500s.

Very good point.

I'm avoiding this because it's in a project over which I have signed an NDA, but 1:4 is the average for the period. There are many areas in Britain, for example, which crop at 1:3, particularly places where they grow oats, which yield lower, but grow where nothing else grows.

I've heard ox, not mule, and the original poster has an economy based on horse-labour, which is a little later than our period (which uses oxen, mostly) but his field fertility seems very similar to that reported by Coulton in "The Medieval Village", for example.

That seems remarkably high, although I do not have my sources with me. True, it accords with the number I quoted above; but that's for a yeoman farmer. Villeins got by on a lot less; and they could be seen as being the bare minimum requirements for a person.

I could get on board with a family needing 12 acres, peasant families being typcially large (man + wife, several children, plus surviving grandparents). I'll have to check sources, but I'm sure that villeins got 1-2 acres; and if this wasn't enough to feed them, then there wouldn't have been any more villeins!


The average virgater has a holding the size he notes (less that 40 acres) and so it clearly -can't- take 12 acres per mouth, because there's no way for those numbers to work.

The way I'd cut the numbers down are these:

He's feeding animals from his crop, rather than from pasture, which only happens once you start using horses as your draft animals. It also means he's feeding his animals from crop, rather than on his fallow field, which swells out the amount of land required. It's not an error, but its not the average way to farm in 1220. Also, his assumption that the barley's for horses seems false: it's for beer, mostly.

Virgaters pay taxes in part via service, rather than from their crops.

That aside, if you have enough waste and green, you can knock the amount of land down further. Animals like pigs and goats, for example, graze on waste, and so they are pure bonus to the numbers above.

The number he quotes at the end, though, are about right for virgaters, provided they have land that's relatively fertile, but not excellent.

Opps! I was working with a different game system when I gathered this info, one that involved a more high-fantasy feel with horses being the common beast of burden. There is no way it was a game about big lizards and underground prisons. Nope. :mrgreen:

But I didn't take that in to account when I posted. Yes, since our 13th century beasts of burden are not horses, we can reduce the amount of land a bit by not supporting horses. The horse is a remarkable animal, but it is so darn picky about food. Which reminds me, I did a poor cut and paste job- the oats are for horses. Barley is, as you said, the stuff from which happiness was brewed

I am such a geek about “game realism,” so I've been googling this am and the results (admittedly from early 20th late 19th century sources) suggest that a smallest villeinages were around 5 acres, but may have owed lighter service that a virgate holding villein or free farmer. The poorest of the poor were cotters who held no land and worked for their lord in exchange for a roof and maybe a garden. So I think a person can survive on less than the land areas suggested above. See

But let's tie this back into the OP's actual question of how much land does it take to support a covenant member.

Since magi tend to demand higher quality food (i.e. wheat and the resulting white bread, meat, wine) I think its justified to lean toward the higher figure for "acres per inhabitant point."

To my mind the realism of the setting is not upset if one goes as low as 5 acres per inhabitant point. The covenfolk are simply eating poorer than average, and may over time begin to resent the Gifted "scholars" who do no work. I'd say 10 or 15 is an average “manorial” covenant, with the magi living like mundane lords. I would not worry about how many of those acres are in virgates, half-virgates, smaller holdings, etc... I think much above that represent a covenant that is growing a lot of luxury foods, or is trading agricultural products to support itself e.g., wine. (Historically, there was little trade in such products and the majority of a manor's produce would be consumed by the inhabitants.)

The subject of magic on the fields is one that I haven't thought to much about. Off the cuff, I would suggest that as Creo magic perfects the field toward its ideal, it would increase yields to those that approximate the "best case" without relying on modern technology. I think it would increase yields to something more like those found in the turn of the 19th century times. Maybe a 10-15x yield per seed sown? This would probably enable one acre to support one person, maybe two. Of course the covenant will attract attention for such vast yields. If they tithe the required amount, the Church will likely become interested in why the magi are able to grow so much food, and could they not also do the same for the bishops lands.... Likewise, in an economy based on agriculture the local lords will be interested in this magical crop. More yields means the ability to support more troops, horses, even reducing the size of a knight's fee..

Much less.

Thats a very high figure unless im mistaken.

It has been as low as 180 L, and is what is expected to feed one person for a year. Even the higher measure is not far above 300 L ( ~330 ).
Its not 100% comparable of course but its not drastically different.

I dont have books at hand but i would say slightly more to be "on average", not quite 5 for 1.
Optimal conditions gave 8+ for 1 (and thats not something restricted to "abbeys" or "experimentation" but also to places with good combinations of soil and weather as well as good farming practises).
Assuming 4 for 1 is still fine though, but can then be assumed to include effects from occasional minor troubles.

Mmm, you´re mixing up your numbers here. That which is fallow doesnt yield anything at all and must be discounted before accounting what happens with the yield. Otherwise you get odd results.
Because of your above mistake, you practically halved the total yield available as "profit".
You get 50% out of 2/3, ie around 33%.

So, all your further calculations are low by half and together with the high estimate for amount needed per person, the final result gets severely skewed.

That depends alot on what kind of animals, and trying to include this into "feed themselves" gets very troublesome because some animals require a simply HUGE amount of land for feeding ok.

That was usually enough to feed an extended family. Possibly as much as 8 adults and as many kids.

This gives you a far more realistic 315 L per person per year. Its still far higher than "needed" but should OTOH be enough to avoid problems of onesided diet and similar.

Not the books for it around but IIRC the 3-field system appeared in 7th or 8th century and had become the norm by 11th century. Dont quote me on these though as i cant guarantee i recall it properly(may be some other farming improvement i mix up with, quite a lot of them happened and became common in medieval times).

Meaning that with fairly good feed, each person needs 2.5 to 4 acres to live on, and thats with tax, tithe and seed grain included.

Thats probably still quite high as population points and population isnt quite the same and once a "farming entity" gets large enough there are a bunch of scale bonuses that means you can increase average food quality for not much extra land or work.

10-15 acres supporting each point of inhabitants??? Thats a lavish, extremely luxurious amount of food.

At the very least. Dont limit yourself to just CrHe. Weather adjusting alone means you can grow more and faster with never too little or too much of anything. Add to that getting rid of anything from rodents to mold affecting the crop. Go even further and provide "semiautomatic" plow( aside from a big reduction in effort and time needed, also allows deeper and far more even plowing), harvester(getting maximum yield at much reduced effort and time is not something to despise, careful harvesting could increase yield from a field a lot, but it was so time consuming it was only done in years with exceptionally poor harvests), maybe seed drills(greatly improving seeding depth and spacing eveness) etc etc...

Just CrHe combined with weather control could very well mean getting 2 full harvests per year.
And the other improvements above and more still could probably mean an end result per each harvest well beyond whats possible with modern farming.
Just about all modern tools and ideas can be fairly easily replicated by magic or magic items, and adding the magical bonus to growth itself means the total should easily outproduce "modern farming".
And modern farming is more about spending huge amounts of energy instead of human work hours to reduce the part of the population working with farming than it is about improving the "basics" (how much does a piece of land potentially yield at best).

A bit over 1:4 and when it went as bad as below 1:3 it just wasnt worth the effort to farm the area.

Fortunately we don't need to bandy opinions, we have data. Cropyields is the most detailled cataloguing of medieval demsnes yields we have avaialable. The graph of wheat, barley and oat yields is here: ... aph_39.png

The graph is net of seed, gross of tithe, so I'm adding 1 to each average to make it gross of tithe, gross of seed. The average yield in demenses lands in as much of England as data us thus far collated for is

Wheat 3.355 seeds per seed
Barley 2.645
Oats 2.708

I'm sorry, Direwolf, but your idea that people don't farm at below 3:1 is not supported by the record. Your idea that on good land people regularly farmed at 8:1 is something I've seen in various writings about the period, but its very difficult to demonstrate from period accounts. In the Winchester rolls, for example, between 1270 and 1329, wheat is bang on 4.0 YPS, which is where I took my number above from. And remember these are demsnse averages, and the demense is generally the most fertile and best tended part of the manor. ... ddle-Ages/ on page 3 has a list of the sorts of food sources people often forget to factor in when looking at these numbers and goind "That's too low..."

Caelarch notes the extra fecundity of barley, but that's because you sow it thicker. Wheat is sown at 2 bushels per acre, barley is sown at 3-3.5 per acre, and so you get more of it per acre at cropping time.

Oats are 2.5 per acre, but in places which have acidic soils where wheat doesn't grow, or where you have cold weather, or what have you. You grow oats as a marginal crop, which is why in some places (Hungary for example) they just don't bother (the population doesn't pressure the land enough to force marginal land into arable, like it does in England and France during our period.)

(Per acre figures come from Dartmoor..they are the easiuest I have to hand.)

I searched out an answer to the same question a few years ago, for an Ars Magica 4th edition saga :slight_smile:

The numbers I got for yield had a lot of variability depending on the sources, and on the location. This is a plus if you are aiming for "realism", because it means that a fairly wide range of numbers is realistic. 4:1 for competent farming seemed to be about average: although some "tax reports" (like the ones Timothy Ferguson provides) seem to show a slightly lower yield, tax evasion is not a modern invention :slight_smile:, and occasionally land was not used as carefully as it should have (rich but careless landowners who left all the details to unfaithful minions). 4:1 is a nice number for game purposes because with 3 field rotation it means that accounting for seed and and rotation reduces an acre's yield to 3/4 of 2/3 = 1/2 of the "full" yield of that acre. Note that crop productivity is not the only element you have to account for: livestock is important too. You need oxen to till your fields, you can raise chicken and pigs on scraps etc. And a well tended vegetable garden can have a very high yield.

Ultimately, 5 acres (accounting for seed and rotation of crops, but not for tithes or other expenses like buying tools etc.) to feed 1 point of inhabitants seems about right to me. Excellent land, climate and farming techniques could probably halve that, poor land and climate double it. As a "sanity check", note that the peak population density of medieval France was about 100 people/square mile, i.e. about 1 person/7 acres. France has excellent cropland and good weather, but let's not forget that it also had to support nobles, clergy, artisans etc.

Not regularly! Optimal conditions i said! I very much doubt anyone at the time managed that well all the time.

Yes, i wasnt restricting myself to England however, as England IIRC has a slightly lower average.

Sorry my bad it seems. What i have read is that if land gave too little return, very roughly below the 3:1 level, it tended to get abandoned. Of course if you limit the area to England im sure that changes alot due to farmland crowding there. Compare to Scandinavia where this was never really an issue and i expect we will find the answer to this difference.

Yes but 1270 is after the end of the medieval warm period and this average also includes "average bad luck"(as its actual results from a statistically significant amount of sources rather than a theoretical "normal expectation"), as i wrote above:
Assuming 4 for 1 is still fine though, but can then be assumed to include effects from occasional minor troubles.

The simple fact is we´re not talking about the exact same thing, im using what yield can be expected without any real troubles, your´re using actual average yields which will always include some of those troubles. Combined with the other things i mention above, there´s the difference...

No kidding!
This seems to have been an extra problem especially in the more feudalistic areas...
Or perhaps its just northern Europe having less tax evasion even in medieval times. :mrgreen:

Very high indeed. This can be extremely visible if you look at food production in the USSR during different eras of rules(and strictness of upholding rules). The same is clearly visible if looking at estimates for smallscale food production during WWI and WWII.

What an amazingly in-depth discussion: thanks all for contributing, you crazy, lovely pedants, you.

I'm taking 5 acres per inhabitant point and never reading this thread again, for that way lies madness. :slight_smile:

I've just come across the following in a book I'm reading (Food and Feast in Medieval England, by PW Hammond):

I guess quality of land determines whether you need one or two acres per person.

So, when you have a grog at your covenant, are you supporting just him, or his family as well? If the former, then you need 1-2 acres per inhabitant point. If the latter, you need 5-10 acres per inhabitant point.


Yup, down as low as 1 acre per person and up to over 10 times that, sounds just about right.

Normally i will lean towards that his family, or at least part of it if its large, is included, ie. the "wage" for the grog should be enough without anything more to support a family.

Hmm, sounds like a rather good book that.