Friday, December 26, 2014

Sheriffs and Deputies

One of the things I often wonder about when I’m filling in the blank spots between cities is, “At what point does a village merit a law enforcement agent of its own?” This may not seem important, but I think this is one of the main points that separates tiny villages from towns.
So what’s the threshold? There must be some magical point at which it makes sense for the “king” to assign a guy to the town. First - I am going to make an assumption: I believe that the king’s sheriff is also either the tax collector or actively helps the tax collector(s) when he comes to town. So I assume that the sheriff is actually the guy who generates the revenue for the king. This also makes him not the favorite person of the rest of the folks in town, though he is most likely feared.

OK, so let’s pretend that a sheriff makes about 150% of the farmers. Since farmers don’t really count their salaries in coins, this isn’t really easy to see, but you’ll follow. Here’s the math: I usually assign 20% taxes from the government. Compared to the peasants of Merry Old England, only “working one day in five” for the king seems reasonably fair. There is also a “tax” that is paid to the church, but that is different. So if all things were equal - five families of farmers could support one family of the sheriff. But then the king gets nothing, so does he split the taxes with the sheriff? 50/50? Ten families can support one sheriff? I cannot see the king being that fair, so let’s go to 33/67 - that seems more royal. So now, it takes 15 families to support a sheriff. But as you might have noticed - I said the sheriff makes 1.5x what a farmer does, so it isn’t 15, it’s 22.5 families required to support one sheriff. Let’s walk it backwards so you can see it from a different angle: There are 22.5 families in a town. Each gives 1/5 of their product to the king through his tax collector the sheriff. So the sheriff collects proceeds that equal the entire output of four and a half families (22.5x20%). The sheriff then sends 2/3rds of that to the king and keeps 1/3rd of it for himself. So the sheriff’s family is now living off the product of one and a half average families in the village.

But I usually put a “family” as two parents and six children. So that’s 180 folks in the town, not counting the sheriff’s family. Does it take a guy an entire day every day to protect and monitor less than 200 people? Nope! So what does that mean? It means if the sheriff wants, he can probably spend most of his mornings fishing. That’s more money that doesn’t have to come out of his own pocket if he can put meat on the table in this fashion. His wife has less to do than the farmers too. She can maintain an herb garden or other food producing plans that will make their “salary” go farther too. So when it comes down to it, the sheriff’s family is probably generating more than double the “income” of the farmers and not working as hard to do it. That’s another reason not to like him.

But what does he do for them? Well, if bandits come to town, he’s the point guy in the big fight. Same if it’s wolves. Same if it’s an enemy army. He also has to put up with an enormous pile of bullshit that is the king’s bureaucracy, but the villagers won’t see any of that and won’t give him the benefit of the doubt. Is he taking more from the villagers then he should? Probably. Is he sending less to the king? Probably. Sounds like a pretty good job, huh? Well, yes, but it is one of those 99% bored to death - 1% in danger of death kind of jobs. Risking your life does deserve a bit of a salary boost, just ask all those adventurers.

Last point - I am not suggesting that every village of 200 will have a sheriff. Depends on the king. He might put a young, inexperienced deputy at each town of 200-300 people. He might put a skilled sheriff in charge of four villages of 150-200. He might put a sheriff and two deputies in charge of a town of 500 and the three villages of 150 that surround it. Kings live well and want the most taxes they can get for the least expense. They see the sheriffs as an expense. Is this an incredibly safe region or are there real threats of wolves, orcs and bandits? How few “troops” can they get away with before they start risking their farms and villages?

This is sort of an abbreviated version of Urban Developments. If you're looking for more like this, check out the supplement!


  1. A minor quibble, but the 5 day work week is a modern innovation. During the time period you're trying for the poor worked 6 days a week (the seventh holy day work was banned) except for religious holidays, which, granted, there were many but not enough to make every week have a two day week end. It may not seem like a lot but that one extra day of work puts a major change in your numbers. If say the peasants worked six days a week for only half the year that's 26 extra days a year. That's more than a modern month of modern work days- or more than 1/12th of a year of labor. When multiplied by all the peasants in the village/manor you start to see some real money.

    1. It was a time of struggle between church and state. The state demanded a day or two a week, so the church countered by mandating Holy Days, days in which a particular Saint was glorified, often a trade saint as well; up to 150 of these saint days a year in late medieval France. That cut a huge swath throughout the peasant work week, and led to peasants eventually having very few days to fact, a perfect combination for peasant revolts, which were many.
      Great idea for a campaign setting, where anyone dressed in armour may be looked on as either a sheriff / reeve (tax collector) or a King's Man-at-arms. Everybody was in the peasant's pocket back then, sort of like Banks and Government are today. We give 40% of earnings to the Canadian government and Provincial governments, pay a 15% sales taxes split between the two, and pay half of our earnings on average for house and car and student loans, credit, etc.
      Often, in medieval western europe, the seventh day holy day was owed worked to the church, which could be by-passed for a fee by tradesmen or the gentry, but was worked by peasants. They had no "days-off" per se, until the peasant revolts post - black plague, 1348-9 and on.
      And don't worry about quibbles, they generate discussion! Cheers Jason!

  2. Maybe I made my point poorly, because I was trying to compare what I was taught in school - 1/3rd of a serf's time spent in service to his lord - to my use of 20% tax or 1/5th. In Fletnern (my world), there are ten days in the week. Most employers only give their employees one day off a week, though some give 3 every 2 weeks. Since I was comparing farmers, I assume they work every day. I keep thinking about the dairy farmers; they have to milk the cows every day or the cows get sick.
    Sorry if you thought I was following a Euro-centric model.