Thorfinn Stainforth Dr. Hanlon Hanlon Research Paper II March 10, 2003
Famine in 17th Century Europe Famine had been a regular, unwelcome, occurrence in Europe for centuries before the seventeenth century. The cycle of good harvests, poor harvests and the resulting periods plenty, scarcity, or famine are a part of every peasant society. During the seventeenth century, in parts of Europe, this cycle began to end. Famines continued to recur regularly in most areas of Europe long after the seventeenth century, but in some areas they began to disappear in that century. This remarkable change was the result of improved agricultural techniques and the increasingly commercialized nature of agriculture in Europe. In areas where famines did still occur, a variety of social and governmental measures were used to mitigate the effects of those tough times. Agriculture dominated the European economy in the seventeenth century. The vast majority of the population was involved in the production and distribution of food.1 Most people on the continent were still subsistence level peasants.2 Although the economy was beginning to become more commercialized, as we shall see, most people still produced food for themselves and their landlord. Agriculture was dominated by the production of grain. A typical craftsman in the Low Countries around 1600 spent about 1/2 of his income on grain or bread.3 Grain was used to make bread which provided the bulk of almost every meal. There were many different kinds of grain produced, varying depending on the local climate and culture. Wheat was the most prized grain, due to its taste, texture, and colour, but it was generally unavailable to northern Europeans who had to settle for rye, oats, or a combination of grains. Wheat was not particularly more nutritious than either of these grains, and many northerners continued to prefer their traditional grains long after they were able to grow wheat reliably. Naturally, with such a dependence on grain, a poor harvest of the local staple grain could easily lead to famine. Many areas were heavily dependent on the one type of grain they chose to rely on, and were thus extremely vulnerable to crop failures.4 In some areas a dual crop system was developed that helped to alleviate some of the problems of over-reliance on one kind of grain. Wheat and rye were planted in autumn, harvested the next summer, while barley and oats could be planted in spring and harvested in autumn. If one crop failed, the other had the possibility of sustaining the population for the time it took to harvest another crop.5 Usually barley and oats were not so much grown for their bread making qualities, but in the case of barley for making drink, and in the case of oats to feed the livestock. Other refinements of agriculture helped to alleviate famine or dearth, but did not usually prevent it. Improvements in the field rotation system allowed peasants to use their land more frequently and efficiently . The “three field” system was adopted in many areas, an improvement over the medieval “two field” system. New crops were introduced from the Americas and elsewhere. Maize and potatoes were the most notable of the new crops. Maize was first introduced in the 1550s, but it took some time for it to become widely accepted.6 Maize was an extremely versatile crop and was eventually able to feed peasants even in the years with the worst harvests. In the course of the seventeenth century, potatoes also came into wide use. They were a phenomenon of northern Europe, and came to be the staple crop of the peasantry and urban poor.7 Fruits and vegetables were not well regarded by most of the population. However, during the seventeenth century they came to be eaten on a much more regular basis than they had previously, possibly as a result of the increased population of the time. Beans, cabbage, leeks, peas, sorrel, lettuce, endive, onions, melons, pumpkins, cucumbers, parsnips, carrots, cabbage, turnips, apples, pears, plums, cherries, and in some areas peaches, oranges, and lemons came to be eaten on a regular basis during the seventeenth century.8 Meat was available in northern Europe primarily in spring and autumn, the two slaughtering periods. Fish was available in areas close to the coasts, or on rivers with relatively quick access to the sea. The seventeenth century was a period of change for the food producers of Europe. For centuries they had lived primarily as subsistence farmers in a feudal system. They had obligations to their lords, who usually owned the land they worked. They shared the food that they produced with the lord in exchange for the use of the land. Peasants generally tried to minimize the amount of work they had to put into agricultural food production. Their lords rarely pressured them to increase their food output, except when the population started to increase, at which time the peasants were likely to increase the production themselves. More land would be added to cultivation until there was no more available and the peasants were forced to take up more labour intensive methods of production. None the less, they generally tried to work as little as possible, valuing their time to do other things such as hunting, fishing, or relaxing, as long as they had enough food to sustain their population.9 It was not in their interest to produce more than they could eat or store themselves. During the seventeenth century, continuing the trend of previous centuries, there was in increase in market driven agriculture. Farmers, people who rented land in order to make a profit off of the product of the land, employing wage labour, became increasingly common, particularly in western Europe. It was in their interest to produce as much as possible on their land in order to sell it to areas that demanded that product. They produced guaranteed surpluses of their crop every year if they could.10 Farmers paid their labourers in money, increasing the commercialization of rural society. This monetization had a profound impact on the behaviour of peasants. Farmers were interested in increasing labour input into their lands, not decreasing it as subsistence peasants were. Subsistence peasants were also increasingly forced to commercialize their activities because of increasing taxes. Taxes that had to be paid to central governments in money forced the peasants to produce crops to sell. Sometimes they produced industrial crops, but often they would find ways to increase their production in order to meet both their subsistence requirements as well as their tax obligations.11 Peasants also often used the new money to purchase manufactured goods. The agricultural and social developments encouraging increased food production were gradually taking place throughout the sixteenth century, but were spurred on more directly by the adverse conditions for food production that Europe found itself in in the early seventeenth century. There was a general cooling trend in the Earth’s temperature starting at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The 1590s saw the worst famines in centuries all across Europe, except in certain areas, notably the Netherlands.12 Famine had been relatively rare during the sixteenth century. The economy and population had grown steadily as subsistence populations tend to when there is an extended period of relative peace (most of the time). Subsistence peasant populations will almost always increase when possible since the peasants will try to spread the work to as many hands as possible.13 Although peasants in areas of high population density, such as northern Italy, had learned to increase the yields of their lands through techniques such as promiscuous culture,14 they were still often quite vulnerable to famines, forcing them to work their land even more intensively. Famine was a very destabilizing and devastating occurrence. The prospect of starvation led people to take desperate measures. When scarcity of food became apparent to peasants, they would sacrifice long term prosperity for short term survival. They would kill their draught animals, leading to lowered production in subsequent years. They would eat their seed corn, sacrificing next year’s crop in the hope that more seed could be found. Once those means had been exhausted, they would take to the road in search of food. They generally migrated to the cities where merchants from other areas would be more likely to sell their food. Cities had a stronger purchasing power than did rural areas.15 Cities also administered relief programs and bought grain for their populations so that they could keep order.16 With the confusion and desperation of the migrants, crime would often follow them. Many peasants resorted to banditry in order to acquire enough to eat. The countrysides and cities were especially dangerous in times of dearth or famine. There was little direct relationship between famine and disease.17 It has often been assumed that disease was directly related to periods of hunger, but Schofield believes that the two blights were generally unrelated, except as an extension of extended social disorder. None the less, famines were obviously extremely difficult times for the population. One famine would often lead to difficulties in following years because of lack of seed stock or disruption of routine, or perhaps because of less available labour. Famines were often interpreted as signs of God’s displeasure.18 They were seen as the removal, by God, of His gifts to the people of the Earth. Elaborate religious processions and rituals were made to prevent God’s wrath in the form of famine.19 The great famine of the 1590s began the period of famine and decline in the seventeenth century. The price of grain, all over Europe was high, as was the population. Various types of people were vulnerable to the succession of bad harvests that occurred throughout the 1590s in different regions. The increasing number of wage labourers in the countryside were vulnerable because they had no food of their own, and their meager living was not enough to purchase the expensive grain of a bad crop year. Town labourers were also at risk because their wages would be insufficient to cover the cost of grain, and to make matters worse, they often received less money in bad crop years since the disposable income of the wealthy was spent on grain. Often unemployment would be the result of the increase in grain prices, leading to ever increasing numbers of urban poor. All areas of Europe were badly affected by the famine in these periods, especially rural areas. The Netherlands were able to escape most of the damaging effects of the famine, though the 1590s were still difficult years there. Van Deursen, a Dutch historian wrote,
actual famine did not occur, for the Amsterdam grain trade [with the Baltic] guaranteed that there would always be something to eat in Holland... In Holland and in the Republic as a whole, people did not die of hunger... [though] dearth could become quite fearsome.20
The Netherlands had the most commercialized agriculture in all of Europe at this time. They grew many industrial crops such as flax, hemp, and hops. Agriculture became increasingly specialized and efficient. The efficiency of Dutch agriculture allowed for much more rapid urbanization in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries than anywhere else in Europe. As a result, productivity and wealth increased, allowing the Netherlands to maintain a steady food supply.21 By the 1620s the economy was even more developed, so the country was able to avoid the hardships of that period of famine with even greater impunity. The years around 1620 saw another period of famines sweep across Europe. These famines were generally less severe than the famines of twenty five years earlier, but they were none the less quite devastating in many areas. The harvest failures were devastating for the northern Italian economy. The economy of the area had recovered well from the previous famines, but the famines from 1618-21 coincided because of a period of war in the area. The economy did not recover fully for centuries.22 The economic downturn left the area less able to deal with famine than other areas such as the Netherlands. Italian agriculture began to lag behind Dutch agriculture in terms of commercial development and Italy continued to suffer from famines throughout the seventeenth century. There were serious famines in the late 1640s and less severely in the 1670s throughout northern Italy. Local famines continued to occur throughout the period, but were less devastating than harvest failures effecting larger areas. England also lagged behind the Netherlands, but by 1650 their agricultural industry was commercialized on a wide scale. The last peace-time famine in England was in 1623-24.23 There were still periods of hunger, as in the Netherlands, but there were no more famines. Enclosure of common pasture for private use and the consolidation of farms are two of the commercial developments of the time that are credited with helping England commercialize its agriculture.24 There were other developments, as in the Netherlands, such as the draining of marshes, more efficient field use patterns, and the wider introduction of industrial crops. These agricultural developments led to wider prosperity in England and increasing urbanization. In both England and the Netherlands the populations stabilized at about the same time that agriculture had been widely commercialized and the countries had escaped from the cycle of famine. Ronald Seavoy believes that the stabilization of the population, evident in both countries represents the successful commercialization of the agricultural economy.25 The Dutch population stabilized between 1650 and 1750,26 and so did the English.27 Seavoy believes that this is a reflection of the decreased value of children in commercialized economy. For a wage labourer a child is less valuable in an economic sense than for a subsistence peasant. The child will be expensive for the wage labourer to raise, and the child will not contribute very much to the family for many years, whereas for a peasant, the more children there are, the more helpers there are for food production. As a result, the number of births declines in a commercialized economy. The birth rate rose again after 1750 because of increasing industrialization which represents a factor independent of the behaviour of rural workers. Often enough, famines in early modern Europe were either caused by or severely compounded by war. Wars were very disruptive to international trade, often interfering with the delivery of goods. If an area was directly affected by war, such as Germany during the Thirty Years’ War, the results could be extremely serious.28 Troops would plunder food and destroy agricultural infrastructure. War could also be very serious for areas not directly affected by the war, but which were required to supply food to the army, or whose trade routes were disrupted.29 France suffered from very poor weather in 1692 and, compounded with the ongoing wars of Louis XIV, there was a serious famine.30 To some degree, wars also hampered the efforts of local administrations to alleviate the effects of famine. Since famines were very destabilizing for any society, it was in the interests of the governing power to prevent them. During the seventeenth century this was usually handled at a local level, even in highly centralized states such as France.31 Government had a lot of power over the conduct of business during this period and they used it as best they could during periods of famine. Tactics used included the prohibition of the export of grain from famine stricken areas. Nothing incited riots more than the sight of food being taken out of the affected areas.32 The governments also regulated the price and quality of bread. They regulated who could buy bread and when, insuring that the poor got bread as well as the rich.33 The main tool at the disposal of a local government was buying grain from somewhere else and distributing it to the population. This was very expensive, but often the only way to stave off complete starvation. The governments also established more long term measures designed to expand agricultural output of areas under their control such as encouraging land owners to expand their fields. There were some national programmes as well, where large states did exist. In both England and France there were fairly elaborate poor laws that were centrally guided. Although in both countries the laws were administered at a local level, they existed nationally. In France the national poor laws compelled all vagrants to return to their own home parish during times of famine.34 Then the local authorities would be responsible for charity. Local governments were usually reasonably successful at relieving the worst effects of famine. Famines were certainly still devastating, but often enough a government could keep the population fed where otherwise they might well have perished. They were often able to protect the cities from the worst effects of harvest failures, and often the peasants who flocked there in times of need.35 Sometimes, however, there was little that could be done given the state of agriculture in the area. There were measures that people could take on their own, beyond the obvious moves to increase agricultural output, to alleviate the problems that famines presented. It is now well established that rural peasants took measures to control the growth of their populations during times of hardship.36 Marriages were postponed to avoid births during times of poor harvests. Some people may have foregone marriage altogether. Children were given up, and there was also a significant rate of infanticide during periods of hardship. Even after hard times were over, replacement rates were often quite slow. These decisions on the part of peasants about their reproductive rate may well have had a greater effect on population than actual mortality from starvation or malnutrition. Famines were a fact of life in the seventeenth century as they had been since the beginning of agricultural society. The severity and number of famines rose in Europe during the seventeenth century due to the general cooling trend that was taking place then. At the same time, some European societies were beginning to show the way that Europe could escape peace time famine entirely. First the Netherlands, and then England freed themselves from the famine cycle through their use of new agricultural techniques, and above all, the commercialization and specialization of their agriculture. However, famine would continue to mark many areas of Europe, even in peacetime, until the 20th century. When famine did occur it sparked a number of responses from the population. Governments tried as best they could to deal with the situation, and the population would deal with the pressures in the only ways they knew how. Famines often had profound demographic effects on European societies. The economic effects were also profound. Often enough, famines were themselves reflections of economic and structural weaknesses in a society, but the famine would generally compound those problems, leading to even greater difficulties for that society. The grave problems that famines presented to European society continued to elicit many profound responses, including some that would ultimately lead to the end of peace-time famine in Europe.