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Famine in European History

Editor(s):Alfani, Guido
Ó Gráda, Cormac
Reviewer(s):Naumenko, Natalya

Published by EH.Net (January 2018)

Guido Alfani and Cormac Ó Gráda, editors, Famine in European History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xi + 325 pp. $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-316-63183-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Natalya Naumenko, Department of Economics, Northwestern University.

This collection of essays undertakes to construct a comprehensive history of famine in Europe. Each of the authors is an expert on the history of famine in a particular country or group of countries. In the opening chapter, the editors introduce methodology and discuss the common factors that created famine conditions and their relative importance in the European context. The concluding chapter studies famines during World Wars I and II.

Throughout the book, a standard definition of famine is used: “Famine refers to a shortage of food or purchasing power that leads directly to excess mortality from starvation or hunger-induced disease” (p. 2). Famines occur when food is scarce. Scarcity, in turn, occurs when either food production or distribution is impaired (or both). Weather, crop diseases, changes in technology and climate all affect production. Market integration and specific public institutions providing relief affect distribution. Population pressure can increase the probability of famine (the number of famine episodes notably decreased after the Black Death epidemics). Finally, war is another important factor affecting both production (by destroying crops and reducing available labor) and distribution (via extortions and disruption of trade). The relative importance of production versus distribution changed over time — while some medieval famines can probably be attributed mostly to a shortage of the total amount of available food due to adverse shocks to production, with improvement in technology and market integration the factors affecting the distribution started playing a major role.

The country-specific chapters have a similar structure. Each chapter reports a time series of famines using best available data (relying on chronicles for earlier events, time series of burials and foodstuff prices for later events) usually from the thirteenth century and up to nineteenth century, although for some countries the time series of famines start as early as seventh century. Each chapter then attempts to analyze the scope and the severity of the famines, highlights some of the most important ones, and discusses the factors that led to the famines.

Although the reasons leading to famine are similar for all countries and are summarized in the introduction, some interesting country-specific factors are worth highlighting. For Italy the authors name population pressure combined with crop failure due to the weather or war as the main reasons leading to famine. Introduction of new crops (especially maize) during the eighteenth century finally increased food security but led to spread of pellagra disease. In Spain in addition to all the factors mentioned earlier epidemics could lead to famine by decreasing labor and consequently harvest. The famine research in France has been so extensive that it is difficult to distinguish between true crises affecting large areas and a high share of population and relatively localized ones. The increase in fiscal dues and the growth of cities to some extent offset the improvement in agricultural technology and therefore increased the probability of famines. In Germany, Switzerland, and Austria the lack of centralization increased the probability of famines — in case of local dearth, neighboring lords could shut grain trade exacerbating local food shortages.

The northern Low Countries, escaped from famine as early as late sixteenth century (with the exception is the crisis of 1845-1850 caused by potato blight) due to the central position of Amsterdam in the European grain trade. Episodes of famine in the southern Low Countries are mostly linked to war. Similarly, England escaped famine as early as eighteenth century due to change in weather conditions, improvements in food production technology, market integration, and, most importantly, the presence of well-developed relief system. In Ireland, chronicles document severe famines as early as seventh century. The two most notable recent crises are the famines of 1740-1741 and the famine of the 1840s. Both were triggered by severe external shocks — extremely cold weather and potato blight respectively. The 1840s crisis is outstanding both in its scale and its long-term impact on the population as it triggered mass emigration. Finally, despite the fact that the Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Iceland) are located in areas that are less suitable for agriculture and therefore more prone to crop failures due to poor weather, widespread famine was a rare occurrence there due to diversified agriculture and well-integrated markets.

In Eastern Europe (Russia and the Soviet Union) little quantitative information is available before the eighteenth century (characteristically, in the Russian language there is no distinction between dearth and famine), although some notable famines of sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are discussed. Most importantly, the nature of food difficulties was determined by specific geographic conditions: for strategic reasons the capital and major industrial centers were located in the grain-deficit North and food had to be extracted from grain surplus regions of the South. Thus, when markets disintegrated due to the war, the grain-deficit North suffered (as in 1918-1920), and when negative weather shock occurred, mortality increased where grain was produced (as in 1921-1922). According to Stephen Wheatcroft, the famine of 1927-1933 was triggered by severe drought, and 1941-1947 food shortages and famine were caused by the occupation of grain producing regions by the Germans, and by poor weather of 1946. Nevertheless, it remains an open question why unfavorable weather caused severe famines in the Soviet Union while in other European countries weather ceased to play a major role by the beginning of twentieth century.

The final chapter discusses the episodes of famines related to World War I and World War II. The unprecedented scale of these conflicts disrupted food production and distribution, negatively affecting both traditionally grain exporting and grain importing territories. In addition, famine relief efforts were hindered by the conflict, the population in the occupied territories suffered from over-extraction of foodstuffs, and many prisoner camps were inadequately supplied. These factors explain pockets of starvation occurring even in areas that had long been free of famine.

This book does not oversell, does not strike the reader with bold concepts, unorthodox perspectives, or loud slogans. It does exactly what it promises — delivers a comprehensive systematic history of famine based on rigorous data collection and careful analysis. The analysis in the introductory chapter provides an excellent summary of the complex phenomena that famines are and will take its deserved place in many economic history courses. And although famine is [hopefully] long gone in Europe, all factors discussed in the book are still relevant for less developed parts of the world.

Natalya Naumenko is completing her dissertation on famines in the Soviet Union at Northwestern University.

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Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Military and War
Household, Family and Consumer History
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII