Published by EH.Net (January 2020)

Wouter Ronsijn, Niccolo Mignemi and Laurent Herment, editors, Stocks, Seasons and Sales: Food Supply, Storage and Markets in Europe and the New World. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2019. x + 224 pp. 74 euros (paperback), ISBN: 978-2-503-58509-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Eric Jones, Senior Fellow, University of Buckingham.

One of my summer jobs as a student was working in an English grain silo on the accounts of the 1953 harvest, which had been nationalized. The losses resulting from this venture were simply written off by the government; hence, I remain suspicious of interventions in the market and expect corruption among farmers. The present volume is about a passably similar topic, arranged like a Festschrift and containing tenuously interrelated pieces. The themes are food supply, food storage and food markets during recent centuries in Europe, with an outlier in Mexico (which was in any case a European anatopism). The thrust runs from producer behavior to provisioning by city governments. But, it covers seven countries and is even more disparate because several periods are addressed. Methods vary too, from quantitative studies to conventional political history. As with Festschriften, corralling such diverse authors is like herding cats. Apart from recognizing that getting enough to eat was a central historical issue, it is hard to discern much commonality.

This leaves the reviewer little choice other than to pick and choose among the items, awarding bouquets according to personal interest. I can do no more than select those that seem promising for further research. Start, then, with the motives of farmers, most closely tackled in studies of English farm accounts by Richard Hoyle and by Liam Brunt and Edmund Cannon. The sins here are not of commission but of what might be called involuntary omission — unavoidable gaps in the available records and serious concerns about the representativeness of the farms investigated. The authors are well aware of these problems. What is unclear is how they can be addressed.

Gaps in the sources affect other pieces. Those that deal with the provisioning of cities sometimes have considerable quantitative data to hand but not necessarily everything required. Decisions about public storage were bedeviled by high costs, the complexities of management in the face of variable seasons, and infighting among political groups; a purely economic history seems scarcely possible. Another line of enquiry relates to a rather modern-sounding concern with urban self-sufficiency, where the finding is that towns with populations under 15,000 were more likely than larger cities to supply their own food from gardens. What might be missing is that incomes were lower in small towns, prompting supplementation by vegetable growing. This leads to the whole question of substitutions, which is sometimes discussed; the (obviously limited) trade-off between food and heating is however not mentioned.

A further intriguing line concerns the alternatives of expanding the “urban food frontier” versus the intensification of crop growing. The large city of Vienna drew in enough food to supply itself more or less satisfactorily by extending its reach even before the advent of rail and steamships. Changes in the quality of food were also significant and warn against over-simplified price series. Above all, interest attaches to the implication in more than one contribution that the motive of stabilizing grain supplies dominated the harsher market behavior an economist might expect.

A common sensation when an author finishes writing a book is that a somewhat different approach should have been taken. In the introduction, which is informative despite the disparate contributions, two of the editors, Wouter Ronsijn and Niccolo Mignemi, hint they could perhaps have reached beyond a focus on crops. They can see that the livestock sector has been largely left out. A chapter on fish is suggestive from the conservation point of view, but the fishing economy was not so immediately connected with grain production. The introduction also serves as conclusion, despite listing rather than summing up what is offered. It does point out a brace of distortions in the literature on storing food, meaning grain. First, scholars have striven to deduce the motives of farmers from pre-harvest movements of prices and fallen into wrangling over how far producers were rational maximizers. Although current opinion tends to emphasize motives other than profit, the results are indeterminate. I am sympathetic to the shift away from a priori assumptions but worry where it might take us. No one has yet set out a sharp alternative to the maximizing calculus — must economic history, then, deliquesce into special cases?

Secondly, the editors note that econometric historians tend to skirt technical aspects of producing and storing grain, just as they do in similar investigations. They can behave as though the world is fully represented by columns of prices. Perhaps it is, but the result is to gloss over aspects of the physical or biological world and be blind to features on the ground that may affect the series. As an example, the expense of barns is mentioned several times but less so that of the cheaper granaries. Nor did I find a single reference to staddle stones — which supported over 300 granaries in one English county alone — although without an index it is hard to be sure. At least the introduction to this collection does notice the methodological quirks of a fixation on price series and lack of concern about relevant technology. Furthermore, it presents what is in total a usefully wide-ranging non-Anglophone literature — although simultaneously demonstrating how nationalistic economic history can still be. Conflict between free-traders and regulators raged in the past and is not laid to rest today. Thus the chapter on Mexico is supported by few English language sources and those mostly of the Hobsbawm persuasion; unsurprisingly, but uninterestingly, it dismisses “liberal doctrine” tout court as naïve or disingenuous. Nevertheless, despite patchiness in this collection, the editors (being based in Ghent University, Bocconi University and CNRS Paris) are in as good a position as any to recruit an international team and I hope they will turn next to the pastoral economy.

Eric Jones, Senior Fellow, University of Buckingham, and Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University, is the author of Barriers to Growth: English Economic development from the Norman Conquest to Industrialisation (Palgrave Macmillan, in press) and Landed Estates and Rural Inequality in English History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018)

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