Skip to main content

Towns (and villages): definitions and implications in a historical setting


The measurement of urbanization rates and other uses of statistical information, for example the use of historical town growth to measure long-term economic growth, are usually based on an ad hoc population threshold to define and practically classify settlements as towns. The method, however, trades off accuracy and precision for convenience and simplicity. This paper proposes a new threshold that uses the town size distribution together with agricultural data to derive an appropriate cutoff value. The relevance of agricultural income is integrated into the classification scheme through the differential effect of local agricultural endowments on settlement size. The threshold is chosen such that the size of towns above the cutoff is statistically not influenced by local agricultural endowments, while the size of villages, which is below the threshold, is indeed shaped by them. This new approach is practically demonstrated with an application to the urban system of the nineteenth century in the German region of Saxony. This setting is used to investigate the relevance of a different classification for the development of urbanization over time and Gibrat’s law. The results demonstrate that the underlying classification scheme matters strongly for the conclusions drawn from historical urban data. They also indicate that the use of a common population threshold for a comparative analysis or temporal comparisons in a historical context increases the misclassifications of settlements.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6


  1. Although the terms town and city have different connotations in certain contexts, I do not make this distinction here and will use the terms interchangeably.

  2. These data sets, especially Bairoch’s, contain some information about the population of included towns when these were below the 5000 threshold, which is used in some studies. Besides selection issues, there is also the problem of precision since Bairoch rounds the numbers to full thousands.

  3. Historically this seems to be similar in other fields, for example sociology (Martindale 1958).

  4. There exist more than that, for example Tilly (1976) develops another one. It focuses on concepts of market structure and relationships.

  5. See Cantoni and Yuchtman (2014) for some historical context on the development of these rights in Germany and Ploeckl (2012) for an application using such a concept.

  6. Such a classification has been used focusing on one country only, for example Ploeckl (2010a).

  7. They do attempt to provide the size of towns for the time before they reach the thresholds, which gives from some authors using these data the appearance of a lower threshold.

  8. The production of non-agricultural goods can include food processing just not the initial production of food inputs.

  9. The specific relevance of the two criteria that are not used in the classification process is discussed in online appendix Sect. 2.

  10. The set is based on data used in Ploeckl (2010a).

  11. See Ploeckl (2015) for a discussion of this entry.

  12. The revenue distribution scheme of the Zollverein was based on a state’s population; the states therefore agreed to consistent methods for population counts (Hahn 1984; Henderson 1984; Ploeckl 2010b).

  13. These are either official coordinates from the Saxon Landesvermessungsamt, from a historical place register or selected by the author by inspecting various maps (Blaschke and Baudisch 2006).

  14. Ruggedness is measured as the standard deviation of elevation within a 2-km radius.

  15. Data sources are described in online appendix Sect. 1.

  16. Studies have highlighted the special role of the largest town, often the capital (Ades and Glaeser 1995). Since this concerns only one specific town, the impact is limited and therefore negligible in this context.

  17. Table 1 establishes that endowments have an effect on the size of all villages.

  18. As a robustness test I also tested for values up to 10,000, the results did not change.

  19. Conducting the analysis without the additional geographic variables results in a somewhat lower threshold below 2000 inhabitants; the details are shown in online appendix as specification III.3.

  20. Clustering the observations according to modern parish boundaries leads to a range of threshold values between 3360 and 4580 for the different specifications, see figures A4 to A7 in online appendix. Due to the very large number of observations that are a single location in a modern parish, the regular estimation is the preferred one.

  21. Waechter (1901, p194) suggests that a number of smaller towns had specialized in some non-agricultural sectors but did lose that specialization over the course of the nineteenth century. This observation fits well with the proposed explanation.

  22. A number of studies, for example Rosen and Resnick (1980), do find an impact of a different size threshold on these statistical regularities, which implies that this section predominantly confirms results known to the literature.

  23. Applying a 10 % significance level the hypothesis of proportional growth can be rejected for a town size threshold below 3430.

  24. See online appendix for an alternative specification that has somewhat lower requirements but has fairly similar results.


  • Acemoglu D, Johnson S, Robinson J (2005) The rise of Europe: Atlantic trade, institutional change and growth. Am Econ Rev 95(3):546–579

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ades AF, Glaeser EL (1995) Trade and circuses: explaining urban giants. Q J Econ 110(1):195–227

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Allen RC (2000) Economic structure and agricultural productivity in Europe, 1300–1800. Eur Rev Econ Hist 4(01):1–25

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bairoch P (1988) Cities and conomic development: from the dawn of history to the present. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

    Google Scholar 

  • Bairoch P, Batou J, Chevre P (1988) Population des villes europeennes de 800 a 1850. Droz

  • Blaschke K (1967) Bevoelkerungsgeschichte von Sachsen bis zur industriellen revolution. Weimar, Boehlau

    Google Scholar 

  • Blaschke K, Baudisch S (2006) Historisches Ortsverzeichnis von Sachsen Leipziger Universitaetsverlag

  • Blaschke K, Klasse PH (1998) Atlas zur Geschichte und Landeskunde von Sachsen. Verlag der Saechsischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Leipzig

  • Bureau Statistisches (1854) Die Bevoelkerung des Koenigreichs nach Berufs- und Erwerbsclassen und Resultate der Gewerbs-Geographie und Gewerbs-Statistik von Sachsen. Statistische Mittheilungen aus dem Koenigreich Sachsen, 3

  • Cantoni D, Yuchtman N (2014) Medieval universities, legal institutions and the commercial revolution. Q J Econ 129(2):823–887

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • De Long JB, Shleifer A (1993) Princes and merchants: city growth before the industrial revolution. J Law Econ 36(2):671–702

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • DeVries J (1984) European urbanization, 1500–1800. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Dittmar JE (2011) Information technology and economic change: the impact of the printing press. Q J Econ 126(3):1133–1172

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Duranton G (1998) Labor specialization, transport costs, and city size. J Reg Sci 38(4):553–573

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Duranton G (1999) Distance, land, and proximity: economic analysis and the evolution of cities. Environ Plan A 31(12):2169–2188

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Eeckhout J (2004) Gibrat’s law for (all) cities. Am Econ Rev 94(5):1429–1451

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Eeckhout J (2009) Gibrat’s law for (all) cities: reply. Am Econ Rev 99(4):1676–1683

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Forberger R (1982) Die industrielle revolution in Sachsen 1800–1861. Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart

    Google Scholar 

  • Fujita M, Krugman PR, Venables A (1999) The spatial economy: cities, regions and international trade. MIT Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Gabaix X (1999) Zipf’s law and the growth of cities. Am Econ Rev 89(2):129–132

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gibrat R (1931) Les inegalites economiques. Librairie du Recueil Sirey, Paris

    Google Scholar 

  • Guerin-Pace F (1995) Rank-size distribution and the process of urban growth. Urban Stud 32(3):551–562

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hahn H-W (1984) Geschichte des Deutschen Zollvereins. Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, Goettingen

    Google Scholar 

  • Henderson WO (1984) The Zollverein, vol 3. F. Cass., London

    Google Scholar 

  • Henderson JV, Nijkamp P, Thisse JF (2004) Handbook of regional and urban economics: cities and geography. Elsevier, Amsterdam

    Google Scholar 

  • Kiesewetter H (2007) Die Industrialisierung Sachsens: ein regionalvergleichendes Erklaerungsmodell. Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart

    Google Scholar 

  • Levy M (2009) Gibrat’s law for (all) cities: comment. Am Econ Rev 99(4):1672–1675

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lommatzsch G (1905) Die Einwohnerzahlen der Landgemeinden von 1834 bis 1900 und die Veraenderungen in der Verwaltungseinteilung des Koenigreiches seit 1815. Z Koeniglichen Saec Stat Landesamtes 51(1):12–91

    Google Scholar 

  • Malecki EJ (1980) Growth and change in the analysis of rank-size distributions: empirical findings. Environ Plan A 12(1):41–52

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Martindale D (1958) Prefatory remarks: the theory of the city. Max Weber, The City, pp 9–67

    Google Scholar 

  • Nunn N, Qian N (2011) The potato’s contribution to population and urbanization: evidence from an historical experiment. Q J Econ 126(2):593–650

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ploeckl F (2010a) Borders, market size and urban growth, the case of Saxon towns and the Zollverein in the 19th century. Institut d’Economia de Barcelona working paper, 966

  • Ploeckl F (2010b) The Zollverein and the formation of a customs union. Oxford university discussion papers in economic and social history, 84

  • Ploeckl F (2011) Space, settlements, towns: the influence of geography and market access on settlement distribution and urbanization. Mimeo, Oxford University

  • Ploeckl F (2012) Endowments and market access; the size of towns in historical perspective: Saxony 1550–1834. Reg Sci Urban Econ 42(4):607–618

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ploeckl F (2015) The Zollverein and the sequence of a customs union. Aust Econ Hist Rev 55(3):277–300

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rosen KT, Resnick M (1980) The size distribution of cities: an examination of the Pareto law and primacy. J Urban Econ 8(2):165–186

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tilly C (1976) Vendee: a sociological analysis of the counter-revolution of 1793. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Waechter G (1901) Die saechsischen Staedte im 19. Jahrhundert. Z Koeniglichen Saec Stat Landesamtes 47(1):179–232

    Google Scholar 

  • Weber M (1920) Die Stadt. Mohr, Tübingen

  • Wrigley EA (1985) Urban growth and agricultural change: England and the continent in the early modern period. J Interdiscip Hist 15(4):683–728

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Zipf GK (1949) Human behavior and the principle of least effort. Addison-Wesley Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

Download references


I want to thank Bob Allen, Rui Esteves and James Fenske for helpful discussions as well as seminar audiences at Oxford and conference audiences at the Sound Economic History Meeting, as well as the APHES, EEA and EHES meetings.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Florian Ploeckl.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 119 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Ploeckl, F. Towns (and villages): definitions and implications in a historical setting. Cliometrica 11, 269–287 (2017).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Towns
  • Villages
  • Geography
  • Definition
  • Classification
  • Town size

JEL Classification

  • N93
  • B49
  • O13
  • R12