We have some berry bushes and a few fruit trees in our back yard. Every spring I plant a few vegetables in a couple of small patches (some years they produce; other years they just wither under the care of my brown thumb). It’s nice to be able to go out back and pick a cucumber or a handful of raspberries, but it doesn’t sustain us. If we had to feed ourselves on what we can produce, we’d be dead in a matter of weeks.
The same is true for most of us in the industrialized world. In the modern west, only about 3% of the population is engaged in primary food production, which is to say: actually producing edible things from nature. Farmers, ranchers, and fishermen (along with some more niche specialists like bee-keepers and salt miners) are in a very small minority today. That 3% manages to feed all the rest of us, but only because of a host of modern technologies: mechanized farming, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, antibiotics, refrigeration and canning, cheap long-distance transport, and so on. Pre-modern societies had to feed themselves with none of these advantages, which means that food production required a huge amount of labor.
In any pre-industrial society, primary food production was the work of at least 90% and up to 99% of the population. Any less and people would starve. Even in places that produced phenomenal amounts of agricultural output, like the Nile valley, no society could afford to have more than 10% of its population engaged in anything other than farming, fishing, herding, etc. Everyone else in history that we know about, all the kings and queens, artists and philosophers, warriors and poets, were members of a very small elite. Most people in most places and times were food producers. They were the original 99%.
The only arguable exceptions are societies like the Spartans or the Aztecs that were able to focus their own people’s lives on war because they were supported by a large subject population. If we count that subject population into the mix, however, then the same pattern appears. The warrior elite only accounts for a small percentage of the total.
This leaves us with the question of how all those kings and queens and artists and warriors and so on got fed if they weren’t producing food for themselves. There are many ways in which the non-food-producing got food and every society has had a combination of methods. One was simple exchange, where those with specialized skills traded their wares and services for food (or for money, with which they could then buy food). Another way to get food was to take it by force or extort it with the threat of force. In many cases, this extortion was disguised with layers of political, cultural, and/or religious ideology, but in the end if the expected quantity of barley did not show up on the chief’s doorstep, heads were going to get knocked.
Food producers and non-producers were often connected to each other by networks of social obligation and mutual benefit: a village of farmers might pool their grain and pay a portion to a local warlord, who would in turn protect the village from outside attackers, or to a priest who served the religious needs of the community. When these kinds of relationships were formalized between the rulers of a society and their subjects, we refer to them as tribute or taxation.
The need to ensure food supplies helps us understand why land, especially good farmland, was the key component of wealth in most pre-modern societies. The ruling elites of many societies defined their status through the control of land, and it is only in recent history that landownership has become an economic burden rather than a source of wealth.
Thoughts for writers
Getting fed in a world that works anything like pre-industrial Earth is a lot more complicated than walking into a tavern and ordering a plate of stew.
In any pre-industrial society, there are at least nine people producing food for every one person who isn’t. For every bold warrior, wise wizard, or dashing rogue there are nine or more farmers, shepherds, fishermen, etc. You may be telling the story of the warrior, wizard, and rogue, but they live in a world in which they are necessarily a small minority. That minority, as many minorities do, is likely to have a sense of itself as different and to be perceived that way by people who aren’t a part of it.
If your characters don’t spend their time raising their own food, then one of two things is true: either they have people who do that for them (and land to do it on), or they have a useful skill which they practice in exchange for food (whether directly with the producers or with someone who controls the producers). Maintaining those relationships and skills would be as important to them as getting and keeping a job is to us.
This is also a handy rule of thumb for estimating populations. If there are ten warriors/wizards/rogues etc. hanging out in the local tavern of an evening, then there have to be at least ninety farmers/shepherds/fishermen in or around town.
Image: Tomb of Nakht, detail of copy by Norman de Garis Davies and Nina Davies Egypt via Wikimedia (18th Dynasty; wall painting)
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.