Poverty without patience? The politics of dearth and scarcity in early modern England

Prof. John Walter, University of Essex


Famine was a recurring reality and ever-present fear in early modern (sixteenth and seventeenth century) England. A state that lacked a standing army and professional police force feared the disorder that dearth was inevitably thought to bring in a world in which, it was proverbially believed, ‘hunger will break through stone walls’. A society whose rudimentary system of poor law was scarcely able to meet the life-cycle needs of the old and orphaned feared being overwhelmed by the conjunctural crisis of famine. Nevertheless, despite demographic evidence of the reality of crisis mortality and of the ‘silent violence’ of dearth, England in this period did not experience a breakdown in the social order. Famine was regionally selective and of diminishing impact; a social economy continued to operate in which – for the fortunate – a preference for food security was written into many economic relationships; the reciprocities of ‘commonwealth’, not the profits of commodity retained diminishing, but at times of harvest failure continuing importance in the mental world of early modern society, regulating to some degree an economy in which rising agricultural productivity underwrote a surprisingly responsive system of crisis relief; famously (and controversially) a moral economy shared between Crown and crowd meant that popular protests were fewer than expected and in their disciplined exercise of (often symbolic) violence and preference for negotiation failed to conform to the elite-inspired stereotype of collective theft with violence. In offering an overview of responses to famine in early modern England, this paper will argue for the importance of the ‘infrapolitics’ of the people in seeking to maintain in the face of economic and intellectual change forms of social and governmental responses offering protection against the crisis of dearth.