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Agent-based modelling to explore the combined effects of social and demographic changes on rural settlement patterns in North-Western Europe during the Middle Ages (800 CE to 1200 CE)

The agent-based model SimFeodal simulates the emergence of enduring population clusters located around the castles and the churches in a rural region during the Middle Ages. In the course of time, population clusters (hamlets, villages, small towns) become more numerous; many of them grow (i. e. their number of peasant households increases) but some clusters grow more than others.

Historical context

Around 800 CE, the Carolingian Empire achieved its greatest territorial extent: it covered a large part of Europe, from the Ebro to the Elbe. At a regional scale, settlement patterns mixed small dispersed villages (which corresponded to a loose gathering of few houses) and isolated farms (i. e. agricultural holdings). Villages and farms were not permanent: their location often changed (every one or two centuries) from about tens meters to several hundred meters. At this time period, towns were inherited from the Antiquity. They had a central function as episcopal see but their economic and administrative role was not really important.

Around 1200 CE, the piecemeal dismantling of the Carolingian Empire is accomplished. Regional settlement patterns are composed of enduring population clusters located around the castles and the churches. Population clusters (hamlets, villages, towns) are much more numerous than in 800 CE. Towns that were existing in 800 CE are much larger since they have created productive and commercial activities; new nuclei have been created around suburban monasteries. Many small towns have emerged; they are most often associated to priories having their own outer wall.

Thus regional settlements patterns that were dispersed in 800 CE became much more concentrated and hierarchical in 1200 CE. This phenomenon occurred in all regions in North-Western Europe but the intensity of the concentration and the hierarchisation of the settlement pattern differed notably among the regions.

Several processes jointly explain this major transition.

Modelled entities

Name Description Level
Peasant households Most of them can move locally and at long distances but others are so highly dependent on their lord that they can not leave his grounds Micro-geographic
Lords Overlords (counts) and smaller lords (castellans, landless knights…) do not have the same behaviour rules Micro-geographic
Taxing areas Each taxing area refers to one type of rights: rents, high justice rights, other rights (low justice rights, usage rights) Micro-geographic
Attractive points Parish churches, castles, villager communities Micro-geographic
Population clusters Aggregation of neighbouring peasant households and attractive points Meso-geographic
Attraction centres Aggregation of neighbouring attractive points Meso-geographic

Relocation process of a peasant household in SimFeodal

Relocation process of a peasant household


SimFeodal has been created as part of both the research projet TransMonDyn (2011-2014) and the PhD thesis of Robin Cura.