I know the obvious answer to this question is "for protection"! But I would imagine that for a wall to be justifiable in terms of costs, attacks must have been fairly frequent.

If the attacks were so frequent, what was there to protect farmers who would be working (and living?) outside the city walls? Surely their job was of paramount importance, or their wouldn't be any food for the city... So how would this work?

Here's a photo of Conwy in Wales, showing the walls surrounding the city, as well as the fields surrounding it.

enter image description here

  • 4
    Erm, what? Farmers would simply get into the city if they spotted enemies approaching. Also: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_walls & en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege
    – yannis
    Dec 2, 2012 at 2:56
  • @YannisRizos So does that mean that farming was a high-risk career in those days? Especially given that you would likely have to travel some distance to reach the walled town! It's not like they'd be ploughing fields near the town entrance, after all. Dec 2, 2012 at 11:42
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    @Django: All careers were high-risk those days, except perhaps the Church (and even that not always). Dec 2, 2012 at 12:08
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    Note that in many cases the gates were shut only at night.
    – j riv
    Dec 27, 2012 at 13:38

4 Answers 4


In the case of Conway (and most other places on borders) - it's more a castle than a town.

There is no point in having a well fortified castle, if around it you have an undefended town to give your attackers a base to live in while they attack you. The walled part of the city is really just the first line of castle defence for a siege.

Conway s part of the English king Edward's attempt to subdue the Welsh and was regularly, and occasionally successfully, attacked.

Other walled towns in France and Italy are there because there wasn't a strong central government and each town was either constantly at war with the others, or was at risk from wandering bands of mercenary armies.

At the first sign of a serious attack you round up all the animals and food into the town (and the farmers if you are feeling generous) burn all the fields and farms and wait for the attacking army to die of exposure,starvation and dysentry.

  • Wow, they'd burn the fields on the farms?? That sounds nuts. Being a farmer in those days sounds pretty dangerous. Plus if you had no farms or farmers after an attack, you would have no food. Did they really do that? Dec 2, 2012 at 11:45
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    Remember (before c1500)the person that owns the farm is the lord in the castle. The peasants working them are little more than slaves - you can always import new peasants after the attackers left.
    – none
    Dec 2, 2012 at 17:46
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    @DjangoReinhardt As mgb stated, one would round up the food and burn the fields, not burn the food and fields. Furthermore, farming is mostly manual labor. There is some technique to it, but the bulk of it is just toil. Furthermore, knowledge of "how to farm" wasn't really something the common people lacked. Dec 3, 2012 at 0:04
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    @DjangoReinhardt - you would harvest what crops you could and burn everything else - especially anything that could feed horses. A medieval army has 1000s of valuable horse requiring tons of fodder, if the knight can't feed his horse (his own valuable property) he isn't going to stay.
    – none
    Dec 3, 2012 at 2:09
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    Still, you burn your fields only as a last resort, and as a consequence that was really exceptional. It was usually the invading army who burnt the fields if it could in order to weaken their ennemy.
    – Shautieh
    Feb 27, 2017 at 14:24

To answer your first question, yes attacks were frequent.

This is what prompted many of the earliest 'settlements' to build a surrounding and protective wall in the first place, to stop constant raids from stronger 'warrior' nomadic tribes killing, enslaving people and stealing food.

To answer your second question, the farmers and dry grain/food supplies would have been brought inside the walled city and stockpiled in the event of a lengthy siege or the threat of starvation by blockading the walled city.

Many of the earliest walled settlements that were most resilient to this kind of 'siege' or blockade were deliberately cited close to water, usually a river so that in the event of land blockade, supplies could still be brought in by water.

It needs to be remembered I think, that walled fortresses are much easier to defend by smaller armed forces against much larger attacking forces. In other words, smaller cities or villages that don't possess many 'warrior' class would still be able to defend a city or village against a much stronger and larger attacking force by simply possessing a strong defensive wall.

The author Sam Barone in his Akkad series of books detailing the rise of the worlds first walled cities of Akkad and Sumeria in Mesopotamia (which many historians cite as the worlds first empires) talks about this very subject.

The fact they became empires is very much down to the fact that they were the earliest civilisations to utilise the 'walled' city philosophy as a defence against attack.

I highly recommend Sam Barone's books as not only an entertaining read but a very useful historical one.

  • This. Also, during periods of strong central governments the walls and fortresses become a problem as walled cities won't fear their king so much and will bargain for semi-independance. That's why by the end of the Middle Ages for example most walled cities lost their walls, by order of the king and his armies. Rulers kept walled cities mainly on their frontiers in order to better defend against enemies.
    – Shautieh
    Feb 27, 2017 at 14:30
  • With the invention or artillery old-fashioned city walls became redundant. Once this was so they were demolished to make way for town expansion. Walls need maintenance just like any other building, they block traffic and house vermin. So many towns were glad and proud to get rid of them.
    – RedSonja
    Jan 24, 2023 at 13:40

It's a simple (or not) optimization problem.

Is the cost of the wall to protect the surrounding farms + cost of defending that wall (marginal cost compared to just the wall around the city) more or less than the cost of losing and rebuilding the farms (land improvements, buildings, stocks that can't be moved to the city and possibly farmers)?

Judging by the fact that most cities follow the "only protect the city" approach, it's clear that the answer is "protecting farms is more expensive than not", otherwise those nations/cities that chose to do that would dominate and thrive at the expense of those that did not.


City walls were for more than defense from attackers. Walls would help a city control immigration and trade, keeping out undesirables would be vital to a city remaining healthy especially preventing epidemics that could devastate a city. Walls Can also help with fighting crime to a degree by making entry/escape more challenging for criminals.

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