is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

The Politics of Provisions: Food Riots, Moral Economy, and Market Transition in England, c. 1500-1850

Author(s):Bohstedt, John
Reviewer(s):Ó Gráda, Cormac

Published by EH.Net (February 2011)

John Bohstedt, The Politics of Provisions: Food Riots, Moral Economy, and Market Transition in England, c. 1500-1850. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Books, 2010.? x + 312 pp. $100 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-7546-6581-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Cormac ? Gr?da, Department of Economics, University College Dublin.?

One of the classic set pieces in Alessandro Manzoni?s I Promessi Sposi is a famine scene set in seventeenth-century Milan, in which the hapless hero, Renzo, barely escapes with his life during a food riot.? Manzoni was a fan of the Enlightenment and of Adam Smith, so his account of Renzo?s folly is implicitly critical of those who would interfere with market forces, even during a famine.? Many economists would instinctively agree with him.? Some might change their minds, however, after reading John Bohstedt?s The Politics of Provisions, a masterly history of food riots in England.

Food riots were typically the product of commercialization and its handmaiden, the division of labor.? They were most likely in towns where the impact of sudden rises in food prices was most acutely felt, and where resistance was more easily organized.?? They were less likely in contexts of agricultural productivity growth and competitive, rapidly-adjusting markets.? Food riots thus became widespread in England during the Tudor-Stuart period, reached a peak on the eve of the Industrial Revolution, and petered out in the early Victorian era.

Politics of Provisions is built around the meticulous analysis of over seven hundred food riots occurring over a period of three centuries or so.? Riots are defined as collective action involving a dozen or more individuals.? Episodes might be over in a day or might last a week or two; they were more likely in areas with a tradition of collective action on other issues.?? Bohstedt?s census, which is available online [], is not a continuous three-century time-series; it focuses instead on episodes of peaks in rioting.? Thus Bohstedt identifies and documents in detail forty-five riots in 1740-41, but more than a hundred in 1756-57 and in 1766, and a further forty or so in 1772-73.? These are periods of extreme hardship well-known to scholars of subsistence crises in England and further afield.? Bohstedt contrasts the Tudor-Stuart period (c. 1550-1650) of rising population pressure and declining real wages with the following period (1650-1739) characterized by increasing market integration, an agricultural productivity growth that outstripped population, and (as a result) a decline in the number of scarcity crises (p. 266).? Then his third period (1740-1820) was what he calls the ?golden age of food riots.?

Bohstedt?s study is not an exercise in crude economistic determinism.? Although the riots were always caused by hunger, those who took part in them were not necessarily the most vulnerable or the poorest.?? They were more likely to be independent artisans and craftsmen, what Bohstedt calls ?masterless men? (p. 264).? The number of food riots grew as the growth in the number of ?masterless men.?? The rioters sought neither a return to bucolic self-sufficiency ? la Karl Polanyi nor social revolution ? la Karl Marx; according to Bohstedt they simply operated out of a deep conviction that the rich were bound to help in times of need.? Although their protests sometimes turned violent, the rioters were on the whole disciplined.? Moreover their actions, be they blocking exports, seizing food directly, and forcing prices down, succeeded in extracting concessions from the better-off.? Predicated on the ?moral economy? conviction that ?necessity knows no law,? the transfers of resources they that extracted saved lives.? Rioting worked.

The concessions gained by the rioters were by no means ad hoc only; some had lasting institutional consequences.? Thus, in January 1587 rioting led to the first book of ?dearth orders,? which directed local officials to regulate food supplies.? In the 1590s widespread rioting produced the codification in 1598 of the Elizabethan ?old? poor law, which would have an enduring impact on welfare and, some would argue, economic development; in 1756 widespread unrest prompted the creation of municipal food banks by the gentry; and in 1795 food riots in the south of England prompted magistrates in Berkshire to introduce their much maligned Speenhamland system of outdoor relief.? Bohstedt surmises that food riots were partly responsible for the elimination of famine in England after the 1620s, citing with evident glee E.P. Thompson?s panacea for famine: send cadres of food-riot instructors to countries at risk (pp. 33-34, 89).? The claim is plausible, although it must be qualified, given the evidence for excess famine mortality in England as late as the late 1720s and the early 1740s (Kelly and ? Gr?da, 2011).?

The correlation between rioting intensity, high food prices, and the threat of famine is striking.? The main outlier in this respect seems to be 1726-29, a period of famine which produced only twenty-one food riots (p. 97).? But did rioters succeed in reducing food prices?? While Bohstedt provides evidence on price controls, only micro-studies using high quality, high frequency data can really answer this question.? In order to be effective, did the riots have to reduce food prices?? One answer, set out by Malthus in An Investigation of the Cause of the Present High Cost of Provisions (1800) — prompted, incidentally, by the serious outbreak of food rioting in 1799-1800 (pp. 206-09) — is ?not necessarily.?? Malthus pointed out, rather mischievously, that riot-induced transfers of purchasing power from the rich to the poor might increase the price of staple food items.? Yet he also conceded, atypically, that the operation of the poor laws had ?been advantageous to the country? in averting famine in 1799-1800.

Although Bohstedt does not cite Karl-Gunnar Persson?s Grain Markets in Europe, the very different approaches taken by him and Persson nicely complement one another.? One of Persson?s key points is that for as long as food markets responded sluggishly to disequilibria, both spatial and intertemporal, governing elites actively sought to preempt shortages by storing food and controlling interregional trade.? They did so partly out of noblesse oblige, but also out of fear.? The increasing integration of markets reduced the likelihood of those local food shortages and price peaks which led to food riots.

Politics of Provisions is well-produced but, as is the rule with Ashgate, pricey.? It deserves to be widely read and known.? It will be of particular interest to historians interested in the evolution of markets and the role of institutions and in the social and economic history of industrializing England.

Morgan Kelly and C. ? Gr?da. ?The Poor Law of Old England: Institutional Innovation and Demographic Regimes,? Journal of Interdisciplinary History, XLI[3] (Winter, 2011), 339?366.

Karl Gunnar Persson, Grain Markets in Europe, 1500-1900: Integration and Deregulation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Cormac ? Gr?da is Professor of Economics, University College Dublin.? Recent publications include Famine: A Short History (Princeton, 2009) and Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce: A Socioeconomic History (Princeton, 2006).

Copyright (c) 2011 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (February 2011). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Household, Family and Consumer History
Markets and Institutions
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century