By Richard Bruce BA, MA, and PhC in Economics
Former Instructor St. John's University, New York City

Hamlet, Village, Town, City, Metropolis, What is the System?

If you check the dictionary you will find that a hamlet is smaller than a village, which is smaller than a town, which is smaller than a city, which is smaller than a metropolis. But perhaps you have wondered if there is more to this system.

We are talking about English words so historically England is particularly relevant. When I checked the definitions of these words in dictionaries there was clearly an old system that determined the meaning of these words. They were tied to the church hierarchy.

Church Hierarchy and The Definition of Metropolis, City, Village, and Hamlet

The largest division of the Catholic Church is a province, which is composed of several dioceses. The province is lead by a metropolitan.

Perhaps you have never heard of a metropolitan. They are usually called archbishops. A metropolitan is both a metropolitan and an archbishop. In their role of archbishop, they are the bishop of an archdiocese, which does not include the other dioceses in the province. The other dioceses are called suffragan dioceses. In their role of metropolitan, they direct the province.

The city from which the metropolitan directs the province was called a metropolis. It was likely to be the largest city in the province, so today we use the word metropolis for a particularly large city.

The Greek word metropolis existed before Christianity, and therefore before bishops and metropolitan. But I am explaining how the words were used many centuries ago in England. Today the word metropolis is used differently in England, only London is a Metropolis, in spite of England have eight Catholic and two Anglican archbishops.

In England the honour of being called a city came with the honour of having a resident bishop and his cathedral. Once again the city was likely to be the largest, most important community in the diocese. So a city is a large community, though it is likely to be smaller than a metropolis.

What about a town? The system does not work for towns, I will expand on that later.

In England a hamlet was defined as a community that was too small to have a church. People living there were supposed to attend church in a neighbouring village or town.

Given this, a village was the smallest community that had its own church. So if there was a rural parish with several communities the one with the church was the village, the others were hamlets.

A church had a priest in charge who was the spiritual leader for a region. The priest in charge is called a pastor, the region is called a parish.

The village was the equivalent of the pastor's capital or county seat. It many cases the village was the largest community in the parish, or it may have been the largest when the church was built. If several communities were about equal in size the most centrally located might have been chosen for the church. But one can see why a village would generally be considered larger than a hamlet.

So you can see the system, the metropolitan directs a province from a metropolis, the bishop directs a diocese from a city, and the pastor directs a parish from a village.

Towns, Deans, and Deaneries

So I have not really explained a town. Towns do not work in this system. A town meant a community that had a regular market. So it was defined economically, not in terms of the church hierarchy.

However, there is another rank in the Catholic Hierarchy above a pastor and below a bishop. They are called deans. About ten parishes are grouped together in a deanery, which is led by a dean. There are generally about ten deaneries in a diocese.

I thought that maybe a town was related to a deanery, but as it happens the deanery was historically related to another political unit, called a hundred. This unit was typically larger than a village, smaller than a city.

The role of dean is largely ignored today, at least in my local parish. In my diocese the diocese website allows you to search for your parish alphabetically, or by deanery. That is one of the few uses of the term I have ever seen. The role of dean is actually rotated among the pastors, which means it carries no authority because the dean knows his relationship with the other pastors will soon be reversed.

The importance of the deans was always been weak compared to other levels in the hierarchy, and they actually seem to fade in and out of existence.

Settlement Hierarchy

Today, the definitions of these words are much looser. There have however been attempts to assign a population range to the words, metropolis, city, town village, and hamlet. This is called a settlement hierarchy. In the Wikipedia article, I have just linked too they provide an example of a settlement hierarchy. It, however, seems unnecessarily complex and hard to remember.

So using my status as a layman with no authority what so ever I have created a more simple system. I make each threshold ten times higher than the one below it. Furthermore, I will attempt to keep to the traditional understanding of how large each community should be. So this is it.

  • Metropolis greater than a million
  • City one hundred thousand to a million
  • Town ten thousand to one hundred thousand
  • Village one thousand to ten thousand
  • Hamlet less than a thousand.
  • You might ask how we should handle communities of less than a hundred and more than ten million. We do not need words for these communities very often, so I suggest we keep it simple by not inventing them. We could handle these cases with two words. A community greater than ten million could be called a super metropolis, smaller than a hundred but greater than ten could be called a sub-hamlet.

    Let me note that some authors speak of hamlets as being less than 100. I am increasing the size of a hamlet a bit because with increasing population we really do not need a word for communities with less than a hundred as much as we did in centuries past.

    As you can see I have a medieval love for hierarchical organization. Not that I believe in it, but I like to study it. So here is a review of the ranks of the European, mostly British, royalty, aristocracy, gentry, and peasantry.

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