In his essay, ‘Grain prices and subsistence crises in England and France, 1590-1740’, Appleby
attempts to explain why England had no food crises from 1650 to 1725, a period when France was unusually vulnerable to famines. During this time, oat and barley prices in England did not always increase following a failure of the wheat crop. In France, however, all grain rose in price simultaneously, leaving the poor with no affordable substitute grain when the wheat and rye harvests failed.
that in those regions where both winter and spring grains were grown – that is, northern France and most of England – a symmetrical price structure, in which prices of all grains increased significantly at the same time, and famine went hand in hand.
Appleby's arguments are impressive and the graphs accompanying his article show clearly that while the market price of spring grains at Norwich and Reading in the 1690s rose much less than the price of winter wheat, at Pontoise (thirty kilometers from Paris) the market prices of all grains remained closely correlated during the crises of 1661, 1693, 1709, and 1740.
We have absolutely no intention of challenging Appleby's general thesis. Rather, in this chapter we propose to examine whether there were any significant differences between France and England in their experience of major mortality crises between 1650 and 1725, and whether the correlation between mortality crises and high prices in France was absolutely clear, as supporters of the ‘subsistence crisis’ theory claim was the case.
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