Famine and Scarcity in Late Medieval and Early Modern England: The Regulation of Grain Marketing, 1256-1631

Published in History Today

Front cover of Famine and Scarcity in Late Medieval and Early Modern England: The Regulation of Grain Marketing, 1256–1631
Cambridge University Press.
264pp. £64.99

Famine years – when the grain harvest failed and hunger stalked the land – were an all-too-frequent event in England before the nineteenth-century. This book seeks to show how both the government and ordinary people responded to these recurrent disasters. The topic has received attention from numerous historians since E.P. Thompson’s influential work on grain riots in the eighteenth-century was first published in 1971. However, few scholars have attempted to trace the roots of these reactions further back than the famines that struck during the reign of Elizabeth I. Here, then, is the first systematic study of responses to scarcity over the preceding centuries.

The government did not sit idly by when the population starved and it is their actions that are Sharp’s primary focus. The crown made various attempts to regulate the sale of grain and bread from the late thirteenth century, but more direct action had to wait until the Great Famine that began in 1315, when Edward II dramatically proclaimed bans on the exportation of grain and blamed hoarders for the dearth. According to Sharp, these policies – bans on exports, denunciations of hoarders and reinforcement of existing market regulations – quickly became the standard official response in times of hunger. It was only under Henry VIII that novel interventions were tried. When scarcity arrived yet again in 1527-9, Cardinal Wolsey established national-wide commissions to search out surpluses of grain in the counties and force the owners to bring their excess supplies to marketplace. This laid the foundation for the more well-known ‘paternalist’ orders of Elizabeth I and the early Stuarts.

Meanwhile, the English people had begun to establish their own tradition: the grain riot. Sharp finds no evidence of disorder during the early famines, but the dearth of 1347 sparked a series of protests in at least half a dozen towns. These were apparently ‘fully formed, mature examples’ of the sort of riots that continued into the nineteenth century, wherein the crowds issued mock ‘proclamations’ against exports, seized loads of grain destined for overseas buyers, and sold the seized stocks at discounted rates. Throughout, the rioters defied the stereotype of the anarchic mob. Instead, they chose their targets carefully and avoided serious violence. This was not, however, the only response to scarcity, for Sharp also finds many cases of subjects sending petitions to parliament or the king seeking protection and tighter regulation. On the other hand, he also finds more than a few instances of seditious mutterings and attempted conspiracies in which hungry townspeople plotted insurrections.

Sharp makes a persuasive case for the long-term continuities in official and popular responses to scarcity, although with perhaps more detail than necessary in some places. This book offers a wealth of information on the centuries of regulation and riot that formed what Thompson called ‘the moral economy’ of the food market in pre-industrial England.

Brodie Waddell is a lecturer in early modern history at Birkbeck, University of London. His most recent book is God, Duty and Community in English Economic Life, 1660-1720 (Boydell, 2012).

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