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In The Lord of the Rings, the Shire is essentially a provincial backwater within Middle-earth, where the people (hobbits) largely get on with their own very local business and remain blissfully unaware of larger goings-on in the world. It has a stable self-governing system and doesn't seem to rely on interaction with the rest of Middle-Earth. Socially and culturally, it's based on mostly pre-industrial England, the setting that probably felt most homely to Tolkien and his intended audience.

I noticed during the "Long-expected Party" that Bilbo was listing off families (ProudFEET!), suggesting that the Shire (or at least Hobbiton?) is small enough for everyone (or at least the bourgeoisie?) to know each other's families if not know each other personally. I'm not sure if this is a valid deduction, to extrapolate to the whole region from just one party. Perhaps there's other evidence elsewhere in the books or appendices etc.

What is the population of the Shire? Is there any way to make an estimate based on known information, or at least an informed guess? We do know more about the Shire than about other regions of Middle-earth, so there might be enough information bobbing around in Tolkien's writings to pull together an answer here.

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    See also scifi.stackexchange.com/a/249825/4918
    – b_jonas
    Commented Feb 8 at 3:44
  • I would say generally that a person should know the majority of the people/families they invited to a party, no? Still a great question regardless!
    – Skooba
    Commented Feb 8 at 13:59

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The Shire was not small enough for every hobbit to know every other hobbit.

Bilbo was not a bourgeois, he was an aristocratic landowner with an income from rents enabling him to live a life of leisure. The Hobbits from other villages and locations who Bilbo invited to his party were mostly from aristocratic landowning families, many of them his closer or more distant relatives.

And some were of higher status. I am not sure whether Buckland was part of the Shire at that time. If it was not, the Master of Buckland was the more or less ruler (though hobbits had little government) of an tiny independent country. Merry Brandybuck was a member of the Master of Buckland's family, and in fact eventually inherited the job of Master of Buckland from his father.

The head of the Took family was the Thain of the Shire, making him sort of the Hobbit version of the Steward of Gondor, ruling until the king returned. Since the Hobbits had very little government, the Thain didn't have many functions, but was still considered the highest hobbit in the Shire. Peregrin "Pippin" Took eventually inherited the Thainship. So the rumor in Gondor that Pippin was a prince of the halflings was not entirely incorrect.

Bilbo also invited all of the hobbits living in Hobbiton, Bywater, and neighboring villages, including everyone in the region from the highest to the lowest. And Bilbo knew many of them personally and was friendly with most of those he knew. There were hundreds or maybe thousands of hobbits in the party field, and the large tent was reserved for Bilbo and 144 special guests, very extended family and friends.

Bilbo and Frodo were very friendly with the Gamgee family, who were their tenants and employees. So friendly that in Chapter five "A Conspiracy Unmasked" Pippin says:

Sam is an excellent fellow, and would jump down a dragon's throat to save you, if he did not trip over his own feet; but you will need more than one companion in your dangerous adventure.

The dimensions of the Shire (presumably before Buckland and the Westmarch were added) were given in the prolog to The Fellowship of the Ring:

Forty Leagues it stretched from the Fox Downs to the Brandywine Bridge, and fifty from the western moors to the marshes in the south.

I don't know whether "the Fox Downs" is an error for "the Far Downs" mentioned earlier as a border of the Shire.

Since a league is about three miles, the Shire would have a total area of 18,000 square miles if it was a perfect rectangle 120 by 150 miles. Since the shape of the Shire is uncertain, I can believe it might have had a total area of 9,000 to 36,000 square miles.

Assuming an average population density of 50 to 200 hobbits per square mile in the Shire, it would have a total population of about 450,000 to 1,800,000 hobbits. [Added Feb. 7, 2024. My calculation was in error. The population of the Shire with 9,000 to 36,000 square miles and 50 to 200 Hobbits per square mile should be 450,000 to 7,200,000.]

That seems too large to me, but it seems clear that the total population of the Shire was far larger than anyone could know personally, nor even know all the family names of all the families in the Shire.

You write:

In The Lord of the Rings, the Shire is essentially a provincial backwater within Middle-earth, where the people (hobbits) largely get on with their own very local business and remain blissfully unaware of larger goings-on in the world. It has a stable self-governing system and doesn't seem to rely on interaction with the rest of Middle-Earth.

Like you, many people assume that the Shire was almost totally self-reliant and had no interactions with the outside world.

Of course the countryside of Victorian and Edwardian England, which Tolkien based his Shire society on, was very dependent on interactions with the industrial cities of England.

And the Shire was not self-sufficient any more than the rural England of Tolkien's time was. The wealthier Hobbits of the Shire had the use of many inventions which were comparatively recent in Tolkien's time, and which the Hobbits could not have invented themselves.

Even though most of the northwest of Middle-earth was rather desolate and uninhabited, there must have been rather advanced civilizations outside the borders of Middle-earth maps. And most of those advanced civilizations would have been worshippers of Sauron and Morgoth, and politically hostile to the free peoples of northwestern Middle-earth.

But I don't think that would stop some of the people of those lands from trading with members of the free peoples of Middle-earth for their own personal profit.

So I guess that ships of Elves of Lindon sometimes traveled to distant lands, or ships from those distant lands sometimes traveled to Lindon, to trade with Cirdan's Elves and/or the Dwarves of the Blue Mountains.

Both Elves and Dwarves could make beautiful exotic artifacts, and the dwarves could make many useful items, and perhaps the Dwarves had valuable ore to sell.

And the Dwarves traveled through the Shire on their travels, and naturally stayed in Shire inns and bought provisions from the Hobbits. And maybe Dwarves came to the Shire to buy food for their settlements and mines in the Blue Mountains so they wouldn't have to farm themselves.

The Shire had another product, pipe weed, which other peoples learned about from the Hobbits. So pipe weed may have been a big export of the Shire before and after the War of the Ring. And sometimes I worry that the Hobbits might have caused more horror and suffering and death by inventing smoking than Sauron even did!

There is a paragraph in Chapter One "A Long Expected Party" with several examples:

...He took off his party clothes, folded up and wrapped in tissue paper his embroidered silk waistcoat, and put it away....From a locked drawer, smelling of moth-balls, he pulled out an old cloak and hood...

And a few pages further:

Bilbo took out the envelope, but just as he was about to set it by the clock, his hand jerked back, and the packet fell on the floor.

So Bilbo has a clock on his mantlepiece.

Tissue paper, silk, moth-balls, and mechanical clocks small enough to fit on mantlepieces are all items which were invented a few centuries ago by advanced societies or never naturally found in Europe.

And there is Lobelia Sackville-Baggins's umbrella. The next day:

He escorted her firmly off the premises, after he had relieved her of several small (but rather valuable) items which had fallen into her umbrella.

And we can add tobacco and potatoes, products of the new lands across the ocean (the Americas) unless the "taters" and "pipe weed" in LOTR are similar plants which were natural to Middle-earth but became extinct in the Old World before historic times.

Tolkien removed a number of other anachronisms and out of place items from the revised editions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but these examples, and maybe others, remain and are in LOTR canon.

Thus the well-to-do aristocrats in the Shire obviously have acquired by trade vegetable products from distant lands and maybe other continents, as well as products invented by technologically advanced societies like the Dwarves or some human cultures in distant lands.

So the Shire must participate to some degree in long-distance trade and not be as self-sufficient as it is often pictured.

Another Stack Exchange which has questions about the Lord of the Rings is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Stack Exchange.

[Added January 7, 2024. I have written another answer where I find what I hope are comparable population density figures and calculate that the population of the Shire should have been between 100,000 and 2,500,000.]

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    "Another stack exchange which has questions about the Lord of the Rings is the Science Fiction and Fantasy stack Exchange." The OP knows that, since he is a moderator there.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Feb 20, 2023 at 9:55
  • @garethrees I'd always presumed the hundred soldiers at Bywater was a dig at the hobbit's lack of suitability for military matters than a measure of population.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Feb 20, 2023 at 22:04
  • @Gareth Rees Tolkien's map shows only part of the Shire. There are other settlements within the Shire and outside the borders of the map, including the largest town, Michel Delving. I would suggest that it was normal for a medieval society to mobilize much less than 1 percent of the population in time of war. Commented Mar 31, 2023 at 15:10
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In my answer on February 19, 2023 I estimated that the Shire had an area of about 9,000 to 36,000 square miles. And guessing that the population density was 50 to 200 persons per Square mile, I estimated the total shire population at 450,000 to 1,800,000 Hobbits. But I made an error, the larger figure for 200 Hobbits per square mile and and 36,000 square miles should be 7,200,000 Hobbits in the Shire.

I can add that Tolkien doesn't specify whether the dimensions he gives are north to south & east to west or northwest to southeast & northeast to southwest.

I have also wondered whether those dimensions are supposed to be through the center of the Shire or are supposed to be two of the four edges of a roughly rectangular shire. Since the 50 league distance is from the western moors to the marshes of the south, it might be the distance along a relatively straight border going from northwest to southwest. And then the distance of 40 leagues from the Fox Downs (or the Far Downs) to the Brandywine Bridge might be a relatively straight border of the Shire from northwest to southwest roughly parallel to the other border.

According to this calculator:

https://www.calculatorsoup.com/calculators/geometry-plane/circle.php

the area of a circle with a radius of 20 leagues or 60 miles would be 11,309.7 square miles, and the area of a circle with a radius of 25 leagues 75 miles would be 17,671.5 square miles. And I guess that this is a somewhat more probable range of area than the 9,000 to 36,000 square miles I previously calculated.

Tolkien more or less based the Shire on his memories of Warwickshire from his childhood.

Wikipedia says:

"The county is largely rural; it has an area of 763 sq mi (1,980 km2) and a population of 571,010. After Nuneaton (88,813), the largest settlements are Rugby (78,125), Leamington Spa (50,923), Warwick (37,267), Bedworth (31,090) and Stratford-upon-Avon (30,495). For local government purposes, Warwickshire is a non-metropolitan county with five districts. The county historically included the city of Coventry and the area to its west, including Sutton Coldfield, Solihull and Birmingham city centre."

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warwickshire

At the present time Warwickshire has a population density of 748.37 persons per square mile. This is probably several times as great as it was in Tolkien's time. If we assume that Tolkien imagined the shire had a 10th of that population density, or 74.837 persons per square mile, it might have a total population of about 846,384 with an area of 11,309.7 square miles, and a total population of 1,322,482 with an area of 17,671.5.

In 1861 the Confederate States of America should have been approximately as advanced as rural Warwickshire in Tolkien's childhood. The CSA had a total population of 9,103,332 people in the 1860 census, including 3,521,110 slaves. The area of the CSA was 770,400 square miles, giving a population density of 11.816 persons per square mile. With that population density the shire would have a population of 133,639.6 to 208,813 persons in 11,309.7 to 17,671.5 square miles.

England has an area of 51,320 square miles. It had an estimated population of 1.25 to 2 million in 1066 and an estimated population of 5 to 7 million before the Black Death in the 1340s.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medieval_demography#High_Middle_Ages

So from about 1066 to 1340 the population density of England varied between 34.36 and 136.4 per square mile. So that would give the Shire a total population of 388,601.292 to 2,410,392.6 persons in 11,309.7 to 17,671.5 square miles.

So these calculations indicate that with a plausible population density the Shire should have had a population of over 100,000 Hobbits, and possibly up to about 2,500,000 Hobbits.

And also see the discussion at:

https://www.reddit.com/r/tolkienfans/comments/w4amyl/what_do_you_suppose_the_population_of_the_shire/

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