Market Failure during The Great Famine in England and Wales (1315-1317)



Slavin P (2014) Market Failure during The Great Famine in England and Wales (1315-1317). Past and Present, 222 (1), pp. 9-49.

Famine as a historical phenomenon has attracted considerable scholarly attention in recent decades, especially since the publication of Amartya Sen’s now-classic Poverty and Famines in 1981. Roughly speaking, we can identify two main scholarly camps or schools of thought: ‘institutionalist’ and ‘environmentalist’. The ‘institutionalists’ contend that famines tend to be, to a large degree, man-made phenomena, and that nature is of secondary importance. Thus Sen argues, using the example of the Bengal famine of 1942–3, that in many cases famines occur not because of an absolute lack of food resources but because of a decline in ‘entitlements’ to (depleted) food resources. He distinguishes between ‘FAD’ (food availability decline) and ‘FED’ (food entitlement decline). For Sen, famines occur when lower social echelons lose their entitlement to food and when the better-off, at the expense of the rest, increase their own supply of food.1 Notwithstanding some criticisms, Sen’s theory of famine remains widely influential.2 But, in more recent years, with more knowledge about the history of the physical environment, some scholars have seen nature as the primary initiator of famine in pre-industrial societies.3 The present paper stresses the impact of anthropogenic factors on famine, and underlines the relevance and importance of Sen’s theory of FED by means of one case study: the Great European Famine of the early fourteenth century. Sen’s ideas are tested against devastating disruptions in grain supply caused by a collapse of local markets, uncontrolled price inflation and the hoarding of crops. A close analysis of available evidence suggests that, compared with other major European famines, the Great Famine was a catastrophe on a different scale, one rather similar to that of the food crises of the developing world in the modern era. Although the disaster began as an ecological crisis, it was soon intensified by purely anthropogenic or endogenous factors. One particularly devastating such factor was the widespread failure of crop markets. This phenomenon forms the core of the paper. To appreciate the anthropogenic side of the Great Famine, several aspects of market failure are discussed and analysed: (1) price behaviour; (2) market segmentation; (3) reduced market supervision; (4) the rise of ‘preferential trade’; and (5) seasonality of transactions.

Past and Present: Volume 222, Issue 1

FundersUniversity of Kent
Publication date28/02/2014
Publication date online03/11/2013
PublisherOxford University Press (OUP)

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Professor Philip Slavin

Professor Philip Slavin

Professor, History