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Second Thoughts on the European Escape from Hunger: Famines, Price Elasticities, Entitlements, Chronic Malnutrition, and Mortality Rates


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  • Robert W. Fogel


The six principal findings of this paper are as follows: (1) crisis mortality accounted for less than 5 percent of total mortality in England prior to 1800 and the elimination of crisis mortality accounted for just 15 percent of the decline in total mortality between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (2) The use of variations in wheat prices to measure variations in the food supply has led to gross overestimates of the variability of the food supply. (3) The famines that plagued England between 1500 and 1800 were manmade, the consequence of failures in the system of food distribution related to an extremely inelastic demand for food inventories, rather than to natural calamities or inadequate technology. (4) It was not only within the power of government to eliminate famines but in fact the food distribution policies of James I and Charles I succeeded in reducing the variability of annual wheat prices by over 70 percent. (5) A change in the government policy could not have eliminated chronic malnutrition. Elimination of chronic malnutrition required technological changes that permitted the per capita consumption of food to increase by about 50 percent. (6) Improvements in average nutritional status appear to explain nearly all of the decline in mortality rates in England, France, and Sweden between 1775-1875 but only about half of the mortality decline since 1875.

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Historical Working Papers with number 0001.

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Date of creation: May 1989
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Publication status: published as (Published as "Second Thoughts on the European Escape from Hunger: Famines, Chronic Malnutrition, and Mortality Rates") Nutrition and Poverty, Osmani, S.R., ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992, pp. 243-286.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberhi:0001

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Cited by:
  1. Sophie Mitra & Jean‐Marc Boussard, 2012. "A simple model of endogenous agricultural commodity price fluctuations with storage," Agricultural Economics, International Association of Agricultural Economists, vol. 43(1), pages 1-15, 01.
  2. Vanhaute, Eric, 2009. "From famine to food crisis. What history can teach us about local and global subsistence crises," MPRA Paper 17630, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  3. Kelly, Morgan & O'Gráda, Cormac, 2010. "Living Standards and Mortality since the Middle Ages," CEPR Discussion Papers 8036, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  4. Sophie Mitra & Jean-Marc Boussard, 2008. "Storage and the Volatility of Agricultural Prices: A Model of Endogenous Fluctuations," Fordham Economics Discussion Paper Series dp2008-11, Fordham University, Department of Economics.
  5. Edvinsson, Rodney, 2008. "Harvests, prices and population in early modern Sweden," Stockholm Papers in Economic History 1, Department of Economic History, Stockholm University.
  6. Martin Uebele & Tim Grünebaum & Michael Kopsidis, 2013. "King's law and food storage in Saxony, c. 1790-1830," CQE Working Papers 2613, Center for Quantitative Economics (CQE), University of Muenster.
  7. Eric Vanhaute & Richard Paping & Cormac Ó Gráda, 2006. "The European subsistence crisis of 1845-1850 - a comparative perspective," Working Papers 200609, School Of Economics, University College Dublin.
  8. Kopsidis, Michael, 1997. "Marktintegration und landwirtschaftliche Entwicklung: Lehren aus der Wirtschaftsgeschichte und Entwicklungsökonomie für den russischen Getreidemarkt im Transformationsprozeß," IAMO Discussion Papers 5, Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Central and Eastern Europe (IAMO).
  9. Cormac Ó Gráda, 2004. "Introduction to Special Issue of Food and Foodways," Working Papers 200409, School Of Economics, University College Dublin.
  10. Timmer, C. Peter, 1995. "Getting agriculture moving: do markets provide the right signals?," Food Policy, Elsevier, vol. 20(5), pages 455-472, October.
  11. S. R. Osmani, 1996. "Famine, demography and endemic poverty," Journal of International Development, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 8(5), pages 597-623.
  12. Cormac Ó Gráda, 2002. "Adam Smith and Amartya Sen - Markets and Famines in Pre-Industrial Europe," Working Papers 200218, School Of Economics, University College Dublin.


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