Amy Bentley
New York University

Volume: "Food Fights," Volume 5 (2019)
Digital Object Identifier: 10.21431/Z3T889

Almost a half century ago eminent British historian E.P. Thompson published his article “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteen Century” in Past and Present, a journal he had helped found in the 1950s (1971). Thompson, a Communist until the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, shed his party affiliation but maintained his commitment to socialism in his everyday politics as well as his historical research, focusing his historian’s eye on what anthropologist Eric Wolf termed the people without a history (1982). Thompson’s most famous work, The Making of the English Working Class (1963) examined radical movements in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. While his “Moral Economy” essay appeared a few years later, both were part of the discipline’s new turn toward social history. No longer was history to be just a record of presidents, kings, and wars; everyone had a history, and moreover that history was interesting, important, and had bearing on the present day.

Thompson and his fellow academics, affiliates of what came to be called the New Left, were writing in an era deeply affected by post-World War II global events and movements: hot wars and Cold Wars, growing discontent with colonialist rule, social justice and fair wage movements. The political, economic, and social events occurring in the 1960s and 1970s left their imprint on the ways these scholars understood the past, indeed, the questions they applied to the past, the people upon which they focused, and the documents and data they used for proof. The social history turn included the work of the Annalistes, French historians who explored the everyday life for peasants primarily in medieval and early modern Europe: how much bread and meat they ate, as well as a focus on mentalités. Historians began to apply Marxist economic analysis to the historical record. In addition to Thompson and his colleagues in Britain, appearing at the same time was Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems analysis, which sought to retrain the historical lens from nation to the broader category of core and periphery, and viewing both as equally important. It is impossible to understand England, for example, independent of the riches it extracted from the colonies upon which the sun never set.

It is in this context that E.P. Thompson published his witty, erudite study of what happened when bread prices rose so much in eighteenth-century England that the poor took action through rioting and forced the sale of grain and bread at a “just price.” The English food riots in the late-1700s, Thompson noted, took place in a transition period as the paternalist economic system gradually gave way to one more beholden to the “free market.” The paternalist system that had been in place since medieval times regulated the weight, composition, and price of bread. It also stabilized markets, giving the poor, for example, exclusive time on market mornings to buy their bread before middlemen who bought bread to export for sale elsewhere. Peasants were used to a system that maintained bread supplies at affordable prices, even during times of poor grain harvests. The general assumption by all was that this was to everyone’s benefit, as well as the proper, the moral, thing to do. Yet there was increasing pressure to do away with the paternalist system for bread and let the free market regulate supply and demand.

But what works well in theory is often less than ideal in real life, and especially so during years with poor grain harvests. When peasants were faced with high prices and restricted supplies, under the new regime they took matters into their own hands. Food riots ensued, but Thompson notes their organization and logic, describing them as “a highly-complex form of direct popular action, disciplined and with clear objectives” (78). Rather than ransacking granaries and taking bread for free, peasants most often forced farmers, millers, and bakers to sell for a “just price”—a price that was affordable for them.

Almost two decades ago I wrote about food riots, and upon re-reading Thompson’s essay for the first time since then I am struck by how well it holds up (Bentley 2001). Solidly based on archival data, “The Moral Economy” tells an engaging story while providing astute historical and economic analysis, all done with a touch of British humor and a clear undertone of humaneness. “It is difficult to re-imagine the moral assumptions of another social configuration,” wrote Thompson. “It is not easy for us to conceive that there may have been a time, within a smaller and more integrated community, when it appeared ‘unnatural’ that any man should profit from the necessities of others” (131). Writing at a time when women’s history was only emerging, Thompson made a note of gender, remarking that the initiators of riots were very often women, who were “most involved in face-to-face marketing…most experienced in detecting short-weight or inferior quality” (116). But Thompson’s essay is especially remarkable in that it gives the crowd a personality, a motive, an ethics which humanizes them. He explored and made meaning of the lives and actions of people who did not own the record or control the narrative.

Explicitly or indirectly the authors in this special issue draw on E.P. Thompson’s moral economy of the just price to help explain their subjects’ motives and actions. Eminent French historian Louise A. Tilly’s 1971 article reprinted here was published just a few months after Thompson’s, and in a footnote she gives a nod to his essay. In fact, Tilly’s careful, detailed description and analysis functions as a case study of Thompson’s moral economy of the just price. Both Fernando Pureza’s “Food Riots, Strikes, and Looting in Brazil between 1917 and 1962” and Ferdous Jahan and Naomi Hossain’s “Food Riots in Bangladesh?” indirectly employ the notion of a moral economy. While both are more focused on politics, each observes that prior events—the early twentieth century food riots in Brazil and the 1974 devastating famine in Bangladesh—fostered moral economies of sorts whereby governments and elites felt compelled to temper their policies and behaviors to allay unrest. Pureza shows us how in 1962 a severe food crisis was averted because of the earlier “phantasmagoria” of food riots, an image of the past that made the upper classes fear for their property. Similarly, Jahan and Hossain show us how in Bangladesh the food system married “moral with political economy.” The specter of the 1974 famine haunted leaders, even as wages were kept unbearably low.

This is also the case in Liora Gvion’s article on African refugees, food provisioning and the declining Israeli middle class, except here it is the Israeli middle-class citizens, as opposed to government officials or elites, who feel the weight of a moral economy of food access. This felt obligation propels their actions to create meals for African migrants, even has it bolsters their own self-image in a time of economic retrenchment. Tracey E. Watts’s article on food provision in ancient Rome, and Annie Mendoza and Tashima Thomas’s article on artistic re-memories of the Columbia banana massacre are less directly reflective of E.P. Thompson, but are still suggestive in that they seek to humanize and flesh out the motives of the peasant classes. In their sympathy to their subjects’ plight, Mendoza and Thomas evoke a moral economy that while it may not focus on “just prices” of bread, is brilliantly evoked and imagined through Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and the visual and other artistic renderings that came after it. All of the authors here think of obligations between governments and citizens, between elites and peasants, in moral terms.

The entire issue also brings to mind Peter Garnsey’s concept of the food crisis spectrum (1990). Garnsey, a classics historian, sought to measure the frequency of famine in the ancient world. In doing so he found helpful the notion of a spectrum of food crises, with food shortages on one end and outright famine on the other. Even in the so-called early civilizations, notes Garnsey, outright famine was infrequent, though food shortages were common. Famine was relatively rare, Garnsey explains, because government officials and elites intervened during times of shortage. They did this in a number of ways, including releasing private or public grain stores, alleviating taxes on grains produced, limiting food exports, increasing production, or acquiring through force or otherwise productive lands or food supplies of neighboring settlements. Peasants themselves also took measures to increase their food supplies in times of shortage, including foraging for food, or eating less desirable foods, such as bitter greens. Even with these interventions, food shortages and hence hunger were frequent in the ancient world. Sometimes peasants would riot and demand grain or other foodstuffs, but in general riots were infrequent because leaders would take intervening measures. If shortages became extreme or extended, people then out migrated, either voluntarily or by force. Each article here, then, can be read as a case study of the tensions occurring over food, and how they were dispelled, or not. For example, Watts shows how Roman elites controlled the urban food supply by which they maintained social order, including through the public gifting known as euergentism, which included large public banquets where leftover food was distributed, an act of conspicuous consumption that also reinforced their power. So perhaps there have always been mixed motives when elites seek to alleviate food shortages for peasants: while there may be a genuine, “moral” felt obligation, there most certainly is also a utilitarian, even self-serving motive as well.

In conclusion, these articles nicely illustrate, from different time periods and parts of the globe, an array of societal disruptions over food and how societies, citizens, and their rulers alleviate the tensions, or fail to, and how these are collectively remembered over the decades. While today the overall global percentage of hungry or malnourished is down, people all over the world–think of Venezuela, Yemen, South Sudan, North Korea–are systematically hungry, malnourished, even starving. These shortages are crises of entitlements, to use Amartya Sen’s astute term (1976). There is enough food available to feed people adequately, but barriers such as war, despotic leaders, and corrupt governments prevent equitable distribution. James Scott, in his recent book Against the Grain, goes farther than this, arguing that no state has a true interest in the majority of its citizens (2017). States may take care of the elites, says Scott, but for everyone else states are a much greater detriment than a benefit, and have been so since their earliest formation.

Scott may be right, but yet here we are in the early twenty-first century firmly ensconced in our respective states, and these states make up a global structure of political, social, and cultural institutions and interconnections. We have no choice but to keep working to address the wicked problem of unequal access to food. Section 25 of the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states: Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food. Fifty years later, the Food and Agriculture Organization further elaborated, The right to freedom from hunger is fundamental, which means that the state has an obligation to ensure, as a minimum, that people do not starve…In addition, states should also take all the necessary steps possible towards the goal of full enjoyment of the right to adequate food….Adequate food must also be culturally acceptable, its provision must not interfere with the enjoyment of other human rights and it must be environmentally and socially sustainable (1998). These aspirational statements themselves are simple and straightforward, but in our enormously complicated world of shrinking resources and precarious political landscapes, they are difficult to realize. Yet to maintain our humanity we have no choice–we must regard societal obligations in moral as well as practical terms. In fact, as both Thompson and Garnsey, as well as the authors here illuminate, the two need not be mutually exclusive.



Bentley, Amy. “Reading Food Riots: Scarcity, Abundance, and National Identity.” In Peter Scholliers, ed. Food, Drink and Identity: Cooking, Eating and Drinking in Europe since the Middle Ages (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2001): 179-194.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The Right to Food in Practice and Theory (Rome: FAO, 1998).

Garnsey, Peter. “Responses to Food Crisis in the Ancient Mediterranean World.” In Lucile F. Newman, ed. Hunger in History: Food Shortage, Poverty, and Deprivation (Oxford UK and Cambridge US: Blackwell, 1990), 126-146.

Scott, James C. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (Yale, 2017).

Sen, Amartya. “Famines as Failures of Exchange Entitlements,” Economic and Political Weekly Vol. 11, No. 31/33 (Aug., 1976): 1273-1280.

Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1963).

————. “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century” Past and Present. No. 50 (Feb. 1971): 76-136.

Wolf, Eric. Europe and the People without History (University of California Press, 1982).