Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Ranking the towns: Medieval demography examined in spatial dimensions

This project incorporates spatiality into the discussion of medieval demography, allowing for a more nuanced view on medieval town populations. It establishes a maximum population count for towns for periods prior to 1400 and provides a means to compare the ranking of towns using size and density instead of population numbers.

2018  -   2018
Roos van Oosten
DANS-Small Data Project (KDP)

Project background

Demographic trends are an important indicator for socio-economic developments. Medieval historical records that can be used to estimate a town’s population are few and far between. For most towns census data do not exist prior to ca. 1800, and population estimations are deduced from the number of tax payers. Occasionally ‘intense debates’ (Nicholas 1987, 40) have arisen, for instance, whether Ghent counted around 50,000 or 60,000 inhabitants in the mid-14th century. Most historical figures have been used multiple times to estimate population numbers, but population density as a factor has not been taken into account.

‘Heat map’ of the Leiden’s population density in 1574 based on census data. The density varies from 75 inhabitants per hectare in the peripheral areas to nearly 200 inhabitants per hectare in the town’s centre.

Data and methods

This project combines spatial and demographic data. Eight towns have been selected as case studies: Amsterdam, Bruges, Den Bosch, Deventer, Ghent, Haarlem, Leiden, and Utrecht. The focus is on the medieval period from 1200–ca. 1575. The final year was determined by the publication of town maps made by cartographer Jacob van Deventer. These maps are the starting point in establishing the urban surface. In the project, town expansions and town districts are mapped in GIS in order to establish population densities.


This project has generated series of GIS shapefiles which has been deposited at DANS, the Netherlands institute for permanent access to digital research resources. Currently, the researchers involved are working on several publications using these data sets.

A spin-off of this project has been the second Map & data workshop (organized by Jaap Evert Abrahamse and Van Steensel). A second spin-off will be a workshop on censuses for the town of Leiden in 1574, 1581 and 1849 (Leiden January 2018).

Relation with other projects

This project builds upon the results from the project the Netherlands in 1575, run by the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands and Mapping Historical Leiden. The project is related to van Oosten’s Veni project Challenging the paradigm of filthy and unhealthy towns and IJsselstijn’s project Markets and ports in perspective.


Nicholas, D., 1987: The metamorphosis of a medieval city: Ghent in the age of the Arteveldes, 1302–1390, Leiden.

Connection with other research

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