[Spoilers Extended] Army size and agriculture – a rebuttal of Game of Thrones’s 40 million population estimate

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I originally posted this on the westeros.org forums, but I’ll post it here as well for better visibility:

This post has been a long time coming. I’m finally going to buckle down and write it.

Seven months ago made a post on r/asoiaf in which I proposed a different way of calculating the population of Westeros, based on the number of existing settlements and their average population in medieval times.

I arrived at a high estimate of 14 million inhabitants, a number I was very happy with, since the 40 million based on the 1% army size rule always felt too large to me (I have a background in geopolitics and I feel ruling over 40 million would require a more complex political system than the one depicted in the series), and also unreliable, since basing your estimate on such a small percentage can cause wild variation in your result.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to convince Elio at that time, even though the nameless market towns he pointed out I had ommitted (based on oane of Arya’s chapters in AcoK) wouldn’t have made much of a difference (an extra 4 million people overall, and this is ignoring the fact that I was very generous with my estimates everywhere else).

Now, I am able to provide you with solid textual proof that Westerosi armies represent more than 1% of the population, and hopefully I will be able to explain why a lower population density makes perfect sense for the World of Ice and Fire.

1. Army size and population

While the main series never gives us much insight into the recruitment process the lords of Westeros employ, we do get to see this in the second Dunk & Egg novella, The Sword Sword.

Ser Eustace Osgrey, a disgraced knight, requires Dunk to levy no less than “every able-bodied man of fighting age”. This would normally mean roghly 33% of all men, or 16.5% of the population… This is a tall order, of course, and I doesn’t quite get filled, but it is important to note that this was the initial goal, and nobody found it unusual. This woman in particular takes it very naturaly:

“Is it war?” asked one thin woman, with two children hiding behind her skirts and a babe sucking at her breast. “Is the black dragon come again?”

Now, how many people does Ser Eustace have? Let’s take a look:

Ser Eustace’s lands supported three small villages, none more than a handful of hovels, sheepfolds, and pigs. The largest boasted a thatched one-room sept with crude pictures of the Seven scratched upon the walls in charcoal.

“No more than a handful of hovels” I take to mean 5 or less (my own grandfather on my mother’s side was born in a “village” with 3 houses in northern Romania, so I wouldn’t find such a number unusual), so less than 15 families in total.

According to Google, the average medieval family had 6 members, though if we want to pump it up a little we can go to 10. That’s somewhere between 90 and 150 people under Ser Eustace’s care. This lines up with the real world estimates; a knight was usually supported by an average of 300 villagers. Since Eustace’s family had lost some lands both before and after the rebellion, and men during the fighting no doubt, it makes sense that he would be way below average.

Of these 90 to 150, 12 recruits show up, of which Dunk keeps 8. Note how we have extra recruits to balance out the draft dodgers (if there were any at all – the numbers could be small simply because Eustace had previously lost another round of fighting men in the rebellion). With Dunk himself, the count goes up to 9 (I’m not counting Bennis because he did run away in the end).

So, what is the army size relative to the population for Ser Eustace Osgrey, disgraced knight who has little to offer and little to threaten his subjects with? 6-10%! 3% at the lowest, if we ignore the hovel count and go straight with the real world average, but even so it is a far cry from the 1% used to reach the 40 million.

With the 3%, we get to a number very close to my own initial estimate, 13,400,000, both methods allowing for that number to go even lower.

But wait! Westeros is supposed to be roughly the size of Europe, which used to have between 50 and 70 million inhabitants in the Middle Ages. Its population can’t possibly be this low!

I used to think the same, and I was actually advocating for retconning its size in that old reddit post, which is… silly, I have to admit.

But there is actually a perfectly viable explanation that works with the world… and it has to do with agriculture.

2. The quirks of growing your crops when the seasons are out of whack

Yes, agriculture is the true solution to our problem.

Because the actual size of the territory has little to do with the size of its population. It’s how much food that territory can provide that truly matters.

Medieval Europe, from Charlemagne to the Renaissance, used two systems of agriculture: the two-field system and the three-field system.

Under the two-field system, a field is planted in one year and left to fallow in the next. Under the three-field system, the field is planted for two consecutive years, once with one type of crop during the autumn and once with a different one, which consumes different nutrients and replenishes the others, during the spring, then is left to fallow in the third year.

The yearly harvest from each of this style of crops will feed a certain population for one year (smaller for the two-field, larger for the three-field). Now, in Westeros, you don’t get the standard temperate European year; you get several consecutive years of fertile summer, followed by a similar number of years of winter, in which you can’t plant anything at all.

This means that you effectively have to plant double the number of crops in the years of summer in order to store enough for the years of winter.

It sounds easy. Plants tend to grow in summer, after all. However, you still have to respect the fallow cycle, otherwise the soil will become degraded and quickly lose its fertility. Best case scenario, this means you need to have set aside double the surface of arable land so you can plant enough crops per year to cover the quota. And it only goes downhill from here.

The more efficient three-field system largely relies on high yield winter cereals for one of the crops. These are planted in autumn and benefit from the snow’s moisture to gather nutrients and grow, so they can’t really be used throughout a prolonged summer.

The heat of the summer also means that the fallow land will become dry and cracked unless it is allowed to be covered by grass an weeds.. which is a Catch 22. In our world, ploughing an overgrown field in autumn would allow winter to kill most of the weeds and provide fresh, moist soil for planting in spring. In Westeros, during mid and late summer they might have to rely solely on grazing to clear the land for a new crop, which may increase the fallow cycle and also increase the chance that some weeds would survive to affect the crop, decreasing later yields throughout the years.

Worst case scenario, people would be unable to replant a summer-fallowed field until the next spring, meaning they could use even five or six times more land than us for the same number of crops over the length of their average seasonal cycle (starting with a perennial fodder that can be easily cleared as they move over to that field).

A low yield per hectare averaged for all seasons would also explain why villages and towns are situated far away from each other: each village needs that much more arable land compared to an European village in order to provide it with the same amount of food. A larger ratio of fallow land compared to planted crops – due to a need to prevent soil degradation – also explains why we see our characters more often on wild roads than in fields.

It also explains why the cities are so few, and always on the shores of a sea or river: the area required to provide food for the inhabitants is much larger, to the point that it hinders transportation on land, and they need fresh goods to be shipped to them.

Last but not least, it explains why the Iron Island are so populous compared to much larger kingdoms on the continent: they rely on the sea to provide food for them, and the sea manages to replenish itself more efficiently. It also adds a new dimension to the words of House Greyjoy, “We do not sow”.

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