This blog post is the first in a series which will examine the population of Middle-Earth at the end of the Third Age, around the time of the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien made little comment concerning the practicalities of everyday life in Middle-Earth beyond his fastidious descriptions of Hobbit-life, so forming a picture of the its demography must rely on much guess-work and inference. I’ve relied on the original source material (the books) as much as possible, but I’ve also pulled from relevant historical data that may have influenced Tolkien in order to fill in the gaps. Without further ado, here’s the first in the series – Gondor!
Although it had suffered numerous assaults from the forces of Mordor, Gondor stood at the end of the Third Age as the most populous free realm in Middle Earth.
In the north, the fields of Anórien were well-populated, as were the Pelennor Fields surrounding the city of Minas Tirith. Minas Tirith (“the Tower of Guard” in Sindarin) was Gondor’s capital and probably one of its largest population centers. However, the neighboring city of Osgiliath, once Gondor’s capital and a great trading hub on the river Anduin, was ruined and almost totally depopulated.
Fortunately, southern Gondor had fared better. Shielded by the efforts of the defenders of Minas Tirith and the Rangers of Ithilien, the Southern Fiefs (totally ignored in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation) were populous and prosperous. With a temperate, Mediterranean climate*, we can imagine that the coast along the Bay of Belfalas was dotted with homesteads and farms. The city of Dol Amroth represented the crown jewel of Gondor’s south; though Tolkien never described the city, we can see glimpses of its majesty through his reverent description of its swan-knights – men of “high blood”, “tall… and proud with sea-grey eyes”.
So much for description. Can we find any hard numbers?
At face value, the Lord of the Rings is about a military conflict between good versus evil. Thus, we must rely on military statistics to get a more complete idea of Gondor’s demography. Indeed, since we can readily imagine Gondor was a highly martial society, built to weather constant assault by a persistent evil of untold power and ingenuity, determining the numerical strength of Gondor’s armies should help us find a rough estimate of Gondor’s overall population.
Let’s start with Minas Tirith. In her Atlas of Middle Earth, Karen Wynn Fonstad estimates that, at the Battle of Pelennor Fields, after summing up all the oblique references to various “out-companies”, the local garrison of Minas Tirith numbered only 2000 men.
Now we can rely on historical example to figure out how 2,000 men fits into the overall population of a city. The clearest and most direct parallel would be Constantinople, right at the time of its fall to the Ottomans. In 1453, Sultan Mehmed II’s massive Turkish army besieged the city of Constantinople. The Siege of Minas Tirith clearly echoes the 1453 Siege of Constantinople – a hopelessly outnumbered army defending the last fortress of a declining civilization against a vastly superior invader. Tolkien himself acknowledged the parallels, referring to Minas Tirith as a “half-ruinous Byzantine City” in his letters.
In 1453, Constantinople had approximately 50,000 residents, and was able to muster a garrison of around 5,000 against the Turks. That corresponds to a rule-of-thumb per-capita militarization ratio of 10%. Before you gasp in horror and spill mead all over your scrolls – that’s a militarization ratio twice that of North Korea – remember that Minas Tirith was a fortress-city, serving an explicit military purpose. Applying our 10% ratio to Minas Tirith gives a population around 20,000. At the time of the siege, the city’s population was likely larger than this, as many residents of Anórien and the Pelennor must have fled into the safety of the city’s walls with the approach of Mordor’s host.
Now, on to the Southern Fiefs, the heart of Gondor’s population. The fear of an attack on the South by Mordor limited the South’s contribution to Minas Tirith’s defenses to but a “tithe of their strength”. In the Atlas, Fonstad pegs their number at roughly 3000. If we take the word “tithe” literally – a tenth – we can estimate that the Southern Fiefs had the capability of fielding 30,000 fighting men.
Of course, it would be unfair to apply Minas Tirith’s 10% DPRK-esque militarization ratio to the peaceful South in order to find its total population. Minas Tirith was a watchful fortress guarding against the evil of Mordor; the Southern Fiefs were places were people lived to prosper and multiply.
Again, we’ll have to rely on historical analogues to find an appropriate militarization ratio. With an area roughly similar to medieval England, comparing the Southern Fiefs to England around 1066, the year of the Norman invasion, would not be a bad choice. Unlike the fortress-cities of Minas Tirith and Constantinople, both England and the Southern Fiefs were probably agricultural and feudal, relying on a local levy system to raise troops for defense.
Thanks to the Battle of Hastings, we have some reasonably accurate numbers about England’s military strength at this time – the English fyrd, or local levy, could muster around 14,000 men. Getting an accurate reading of medieval England’s overall population is harder, but the Domesday Book of 1086, compiled by William the Conqueror, provides a decent estimate of around 1.4 to 1.9 million. To make the math easy, let’s lean to the lower end of that range and estimate that England’s levies could muster 14,000 men out of a total population of 1.4 million – a militarization ratio of 1%. Apply that ratio to Gondor’s Southern Fiefs with their 30,000 men-at-arms, and we find a total population of roughly 3 million.
Since the Southern Fiefs represented the bulk of Gondor’s population, adding on the 20,000 of Minas Tirith, the people of Anórien and the scattered populations in the South and East probably amounts to little more than a rounding error. With that, we can come to a final estimate of Gondor’s total population at the end of the Third Age – somewhere between 3 and 4 million.
That concludes the Gondor section of my Demography of Middle-Earth; the next part will concentrate on Rohan.
Addendum: Some readers have commented that the figure of 3-4 million (though, really, closer to the lower bound of that range) seems too high, especially for a population constantly ravaged by war and disaster. I really, really appreciate these comments! I’m making a lot of assumptions here, and there is certainly more than one correct interpretation of the data. Here are some of my responses to common objections:
1) I got the impression that Gondor was a lot more sparsely populated than having 3 million people would imply.
Karen Wynn Fonstad estimates that Gondor’s total land area was 716,426 square miles. Dividing 3 million by a land mass that large gives a population density of a little more than 4 people per square mile, a population density lower than that of modern Mongolia.
2) 3 million seems very high for a population constantly ravaged by war and disease – the War of the Last Alliance was only 3000 years ago!
This is definitely a fair point – I was a little surprised myself when I calculated these numbers. However, do not underestimate the ability of humans to repopulate and multiply. The world’s population was around 200 million in 0 AD, compared to 400 million in 1000 AD (I used pre-industrial numbers to avoid including the benefits of mechanized agricultural production and modern medicine). That gives a doubling time of 1000 years. This means that Gondor’s population could have been as low as 375,000 in order to reach a population of 3 million 3000 years later. Also, don’t discount the possibility of migration and even immigration from other parts of Middle-Earth – there were other populations of Men who could intermarry with and join the Numenorean settlers.
3) Gondor’s Southern Fiefs are not comparable to pre-1066 England. War-ravaged Gondor would likely have a much higher conscription rate than England (which enjoyed relative peace), meaning that Gondor’s overall population was likely much lower than its army size would imply.
This is a very fair point. Ultimately, any calculation of Gondor’s population comes down to what assumptions you make. I assumed that Gondor’s South was spared a lot of the damage of Gondor’s wars, making it a good fit to compare with England. Though my memory may fail me, aside from the occasional conflicts with the Corsairs of Umbar, the Southern Fiefs were generally spared from the destruction that ravaged northern Gondor. Most of Gondor’s battles – the Battles of Dagorlad and the Field of Celebrant come to mind – were fought in the northeast. Thus, I think Gondor and pre-1066 England are decent analogues, at least in terms of population.
* If you accept the not-too-onerous proposal that the Shire is an analogue of Tolkien’s native England, southern Gondor around the Bay of Belfalas would have a latitude similar to that of the south of France and Italy.