Feeding inequalities: the role of economic inequalities and the urban market in late medieval food security. The case of fourteenth-century Ghent
From Firenze University Press Book: Economic inequality in pre-industrial societies: causes and effect
Stef Espeel, University of Antwerp, Belgium
Sam Geens, University of Antwerp, Belgium
Although the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) revised their theoretical model of food security for over two decades ago, historians have been slow in adopting these new insights to study pre-modern societies.
Showcasing the potential of the holistic approach proposed by the FAO, this paper analyses the evolution of food security in the calamitous fourteenth century in Ghent, one the most populated cities at that time. In the long-term, access to food seem to have bettered during the second half of the century thanks to increased wages, wealth and investments into farmland.
While these gains can partly be linked to demographic evolutions, we found no evidence of an often-hypothesized Malthusian ceiling before the Black Death. Both skilled and unskilled workers probably earned enough income to feed their households in most years.
In the short-term, several episodes of hardship are identified on a monthly basis and explained through the interaction between warfare and the market. Especially the trade embargoes during the Hundred Years’ Wars (1340s) and the devastation of the countryside during the Ghent War (1379–85) negatively impacted access to food. Socially, economic inequality played a major role in determining one’s food security.
Wealth provided an important buffer in times of need. During the second half of the century, the middle class was the clear winner, much at the cost of the lower classes and the elite. The declining textile industry probably pushed many of the unskilled workers into poverty. Aside from the total value of assets, the composition of wealth was equally important.
Food producing assets, such as mills or bakeries, were concentrated in the hands of the rich. After the Ghent War, middle classes invested their increased wealth in farmland, providing them direct access to food.
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