Famine as agricultural catastrophe: the crisis of 1622-3 on the Walmsley estates in Lancashire r w hoyle University of Reading




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Famine as agricultural catastrophe: the crisis of 1622-3 on the Walmsley estates in Lancashire

R W Hoyle
University of Reading

A generation ago Peter Laslett asked whether people really starved in early modern famines. Andrew Appleby showed that in northern England in 1586-7, 1596-8 and 1622-3, high levels of mortality coincided with years of high prices and casual mentions of the dislocation caused by famine. The case seemed to have been convincingly made. Other historians, notably John Walter, have outlined the social response to famine, its ‘moral economy’, drawing on the work of Sen in particular for a theoretical underpinning. Famine, we now understand, could occur in years when the food supply was not seriously inadequate. Starvation was caused by the failure of the market to make food available, or rather by people’s inability to enter the market, and the logic of ‘entitlements’ between occupations and within households. Even in Ireland in 1846, it may be argued, there was no shortage of foodstuffs. So it is possible for Professor Fogel to hold ‘that famines were not natural calamities caused by bad weather; they were “man made – the consequences of failures in the system of food distribution’”. As Slack (from whom this quotation is taken) goes onto to say, ‘Dearth in early modern England is like the Cheshire cat: appearing, and then vanishing, just when one thinks one has the measure of it’.



Agricultural historians have not contributed much to these debates. This paper offers new data from an estate in Lancashire at Dunkenhalgh, twenty miles east of Preston, which experienced the crisis of 1622-3. The data is not complete and its interpretation is not clear cut: but any local data is a bonus. The evidence includes price data as well as rough and ready information from one home farm on the area sown and volume of grain produced per acre over the previous decade. Price volatility over this period will be explored. The evidence is that the harvest of 1621 was deficient and that of 1622 seriously so. The collapse of agriculture in 1623 was serious and there are indications that it took several years for the demesnes to return to their pre-1621 levels of productivity. In 1623 it is possible to show malt being conveyed long distances overland into Lancashire which indicates that there was none available for purchase locally. Short term palliatives included letting some demesne land for agistment and other land was sharecropped. Moreover, the record of pastoral agriculture shows that there was a major restocking of the estates in the years after 1623 from which it can be inferred that the crisis of 1622-3 was one of both the arable and pastoral economies.

In this locality, the famine of 1622-3 was not simply the result of the operation of the logic of entitlements: there was a major agricultural catastrophe from which it took several years to recover.


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