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Farmers, Consumers, Innovators: The World of Joan Thirsk

Editor(s):Jones, Richard
Dyer, Christopher
Reviewer(s):Cliff Bekar

Published by EH.Net (May 2017)

Richard Jones and Christopher Dyer, editors, Farmers, Consumers, Innovators: The World of Joan Thirsk. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2016. xii + 174 pp. £17 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-909291-56-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Cliff Bekar, Department of Economics, Lewis and Clark College.

Most economic historians will have encountered the writings of Joan Thirsk at some point in their career; her work has been continuously cited in numerous literatures for decades. While I have long appreciated the breadth of Thirsk’s work, this volume helps one appreciate its inventiveness and “durability.” Thirsk’s innovations — an incomplete list would include her work on economic cartography, regional economics, models of proto-industrialization, and novel applications of probate data — continue to shape the work of economic historians today. Farmers, Consumers, Innovators presents Thirsk as a scholar who was consistently adapting and shaping her theoretical and empirical toolkit in pursuit of historical inquiry, explaining why her work is so often considered foundational (perhaps most clearly illustrated by her work on common fields). One editor puts it this way, “By whatever criteria one cares to judge the quality and impact of Joan’s scholarship and its reception … one is left in no doubt that we are dealing with a pioneer who, in exploring parts of history overlooked or deemed beyond reach by others, became one of the most influential figures in her field, and who has left us an enduring intellectual legacy” (p. 157).

Farmers, Consumers, Innovators — edited by Richard Jones (University of Leicester) and Christopher Dyer (University of Leicester) — is volume 8 in a series focusing on local and regional English history. The volume is hard to categorize. It is not an intellectual history (although there are elements of it), nor is it organized around a single question or argument. Instead, the collection of thirteen essays is loosely grouped around themes related to people’s roles as “economic actors” in the work of Joan Thirsk (i.e., as farmers, consumers, or innovators). The structure represents an attempt to provide a coherent theoretical linkage between a very eclectic set of essays. The structure works well enough in highlighting the wide range of topics informing Thirsk’s work. However, since each section lacks an internal coherence, and displays a high variance in chapter quality, the work often feels “thin,” failing in most cases to reflect the depth of Thirsk’s work. The volume is thus hard to recommend to anyone beyond “Thirsk completionists” (the introductory chapter does a nice job providing a brief overview of Thirsk’s personal and work history).

Oddly enough, the first section of the volume abandons its organizing principle and presents the results of a roundtable discussion focused on regional economic issues. Thirsk’s early work had a distinct regional focus, especially her analysis of English agriculture and proto-industrialization. The focus in this section is two-fold: 1) the conceptual units underlying Thirsk’s work on regional economics; and, 2) a series of maps produced by Thirsk on the economic regions of England. The short chapters in this section make an interesting case — using genetic, surname, and economic data –for the continuing usefulness of Thirsk’s conceptual units of analysis. Chapter 2 on “pays” is especially interesting in this regard. Pays, a unit of regional analysis proposed by Thirsk, are distinct from counties, districts or countries (e.g., the west country). Their boundaries are defined instead by “farming practices.” The chapter presents intriguing data suggesting a relative stability in the distribution of surnames and certain genetic markers within these sorts of regional populations. While none of the chapters in this section serve as a useful literature survey, or standalone argument, they do serve to leave the reader with the impression that Thirsk’s early work coheres with a range of modern developments in related fields. Thirsk’s focus on cartography and integrating spatial analysis into models of the distribution of economic activity would be familiar to anyone employing modern GIS systems. Further, her use of endogenous irregular regional economic units — as distinct from political or other formal units — reminds one of modern literatures that integrate economies of scale, knowledge spillovers, transport costs, and other factors into models of economic and spatial heterogeneity. But while the chapters here pose interesting questions — when did regions with distinct mixes of agricultural practices and products develop? to what extent did the character of regions endure? what role did London play in the evolution of agriculture’s spatial organization? — they do not adequately answer or engage those same questions.

Sections III and IV read much the same. Again, the chapters do not stand alone as useful surveys of Thirsk’s work, nor do they make standalone theoretical or empirical contributions.  They are better conceived of as illustrations of a topic or method in Thrisk’s work. For example, chapters 9 and 10 use probate sources to outline the diverse consumer offerings outside of London’s expansive retail market (chapter 9 focuses on small rural shops, chapter 10 on the market for fashionable garments). Chapter 12 employs diary evidence to analyze the relationship of an individual to the goods market; chapter 13 uses more traditional sources to analyze the evolution of an individual good (oatcakes) within the broader goods market. The essays are interesting short reads, but it is unclear how useful they might be to a general reader and/or someone seeking a better understanding of Thirsk’s work.

Fittingly perhaps, the strongest chapters in the volume concern Thirsk’s work on the common fields. Chapter 5 (“Joan Thirsk and ‘The Common Fields’”) does a wonderful job situating Thirsk’s work in the vast common fields literature. It clearly lays out her argument and those elements (such as Thirsk’s dating of the system) that have been challenged by modern scholarship. The essay makes the case that Thirsk’s focus on demographic dynamics shaping the evolution of common fields has remained “extremely influential.” Speaking personally, I am glad to have the volume for this chapter alone. The section ends with chapter 7 (“Enclosure, Common Fields and Social Relations in Early Modern Norfolk”), which examines the legal, social, and cultural implications of enclosure. The material analyzes the implications of spatial and environmental heterogeneity across regions on patterns of enclosure and the peasant reaction to enclosure. It goes further, touching on some of the ways that the often subtle changes in property rights that came with enclosure worked to shape peasant conceptions of their land, their family and its relationship to that land, as well as to their community. The material wonderfully integrates economic, legal, social, and cultural analysis in applying elements of Thirsk’s model of the long evolution of common fields.

In sum, while the volume’s chapters display a high variance in quality, and mostly lack theoretical and/or empirical coherence, it serves nicely as a reminder of the enduring innovations we inherit from one of the field’s true scholars.
Cliff Bekar is Associate Professor of Economics at Lewis and Clark College. His work focuses on medieval English agriculture, innovation and long-run economic growth. His most recent publication focuses on the effects of land markets on peasant wealth inequality.  (bekar@lclark.edu).

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Household, Family and Consumer History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century
18th Century