The best books that explain the politics behind hunger

Carl J. Griffin Author Of The Politics of Hunger: Protest, Poverty and Policy in England, C. 1750-C. 1840
By Carl J. Griffin

Who am I?

I’m driven to understand the lives and mentalities of poor workers at the time of the Industrial Revolution. It’s a subject on which a great has been written but I’ve always been surprised that, in a British context, the subject of hunger has been largely ignored. The great joy of being a historical scholar is that freedom to follow your nose in the archive, to trust your instinct, and to uncover untold stories of the forgotten. Their experiences of hunger might relate to a now seemingly distant world, but such hunger histories are also amazingly prescient in our new age of food banks and famines. 


I wrote...

The Politics of Hunger: Protest, Poverty and Policy in England, C. 1750-C. 1840

By Carl J. Griffin,

Book cover of The Politics of Hunger: Protest, Poverty and Policy in England, C. 1750-C. 1840

What is my book about?

In the age of Malthus and the workhouse when the threat of famine and absolute biological want had supposedly been lifted from the peoples of England, hunger remained a potent political force - and a problem. This study is the first attempt to think through the ways in which hunger persisted as something both feared and felt by the poor, was the subject of public policy innovations, and was central to the emergence of new techniques of governing and disciplining populations. It analyses the languages of hunger that informed the protests and politics of the poor, and explores how the authorities tried to mitigate the effects of hunger whilst also using hunger as a device to discipline the poor in the new poor law workhouse.

The books I picked & why

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Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act

By E.P. Thompson,

Book cover of Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act

Why this book?

I adore this book. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class might be better known, but his book that I return to time and time again, his most brilliant, most detailed, most political, is Whigs and Hunters. More than any other book, this gets absolutely to the heart of how power was practiced in early eighteenth century. Against the protests of poor forest dwellers, the British state in one swoop made more acts punishable by death than the rest of the statute combined. If you want to understand how and why inequality persists, and how foodstuffs became a battleground between the rich and poor, this is essential.

Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act

By E.P. Thompson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Whigs and Hunters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With Whigs and Hunters, the author of The Making of the English Working Class, E. P. Thompson plunged into the murky waters of the early eighteenth century to chart the violently conflicting currents that boiled beneath the apparent calm of the time. The subject is the Black Act, a law of unprecedented savagery passed by Parliament in 1723 to deal with 'wicked and evil-disposed men going armed in disguise'. These men were pillaging the royal forest of deer, conducting a running battle against the forest officers with blackmail, threats and violence. These 'Blacks', however, were men of some substance; their…


Annals of the Labouring Poor: Social Change and Agrarian England, 1660–1900

By K. D. M. Snell,

Book cover of Annals of the Labouring Poor: Social Change and Agrarian England, 1660–1900

Why this book?

Masterful. Keith Snell is arguably the finest ever historian of the modern British countryside and this, his first book, has done more than any other to stimulate research. What’s the link to hunger? Annals examines the uneven contours of poverty and its relief, detailing the experience of poverty as well as its causes and conditions. It might be almost 40 years old, but it remains without unparallel in bringing together an understanding of law, social policy, and the cultures of everyday life. Without it my book couldn’t have been written.     

Annals of the Labouring Poor: Social Change and Agrarian England, 1660–1900

By K. D. M. Snell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Annals of the Labouring Poor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This collection of inter-connected essays is concerned with the impact of social and economic change upon the rural labouring poor and artisans in England, and combines a sensitive understanding of their social priorities with innovative quantitative analysis. It is based on an impressive range of sources, and its particular significance arises from the pioneering use made of a largely neglected archival source - settlement records - to address questions of central importance in English social and economic history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Levels of employment, wage rates, poor relief, the sexual division of labour, the social consequences of…


A Tale of Two Cities

By Charles Dickens,

Book cover of A Tale of Two Cities

Why this book?

"Hunger stared down from the smokeless chimneys, and started up from the filthy street that had no offal, among its refuse, of anything to eat." In these few short words Charles Dickens artfully summed up the experience – and landscapes – of abject urban poverty. Set in Paris and London during the period of the first French Revolution, it is perhaps more convoluted and less effective in terms of characterization than his best novels, but it pulls no punches. Although it’s a historical novel, and a romance at that, it’s as close as we can get to feeling what it must have been like to be hungry at that moment in which our modern world – and its social problems – was made.

A Tale of Two Cities

By Charles Dickens,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked A Tale of Two Cities as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sydney Carton is a lawyer who has wasted his abilities and his life. Now he has to make a difficult choice about what is really important to him, which could be a matter of life or death. The French Revolution is running its violent course; lives are ruined as a new France is created. How did the gentle Doctor Manette and his daughter Lucie become caught up in France's struggles? What is the real identity of the handsome Charles Darnay, who wins Lucie's hand in marriage? And why does the shadow of La Bastille Prison hang over them all? The…


Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation

By Amartya Sen,

Book cover of Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation

Why this book?

The hard fact of the matter is that in the modern world no one needs be hungry, let alone die from starvation. But the idea that famine is not a result of ‘total food-availability decline’ but instead was a function of ‘entitlements’ is Sen’s – and is one of the most profound and important theories of the past hundred years. The theory is a complex one but can be boiled down to the idea that hunger – and then famine – are the product of political choices in the distribution of goods. It is impossible, meaningless even, to write of hunger without first thinking of Sen’s extraordinary book.  

Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation

By Amartya Sen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Poverty and Famines as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The main focus of this book is on the causation of starvation in general and of famines in particular. The author develops the alternative method of analysis-the 'entitlement approach'-concentrating on ownership and exchange, not on food supply. The book also provides a general analysis of the characterization and measurement of poverty. Various approaches used in economics, sociology, and political theory are critically examined. The predominance of distributional
issues, including distribution between different occupation groups, links up the problem of conceptualizing poverty with that of analyzing starvation.


Women and the Great Hunger

By Christine Kinealy (editor), Jason King (editor), Ciaran Reilly (editor)

Book cover of Women and the Great Hunger

Why this book?

Throughout history – and into the present – hunger is always profoundly gendered, women being disproportionately impacted upon than men. The point has been remarkably little studied so it’s a good thing that the most prolific writer on the Great Famine of Ireland, Christine Kinealy alongside two other fine famine scholars, have finally addressed this. The book is a series of essays exploring the roles that women (and children) played during the famine. Timely and powerful and a useful reminder that when it comes to writing the history of hunger we’ve only just started.

Women and the Great Hunger

By Christine Kinealy (editor), Jason King (editor), Ciaran Reilly (editor)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Women and the Great Hunger as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Even considering recent advances in the development of women's studies as a discipline, women remain underrepresented in the history and historiography of the Great Hunger. The various roles played by women, including as landowners, relief-givers, philanthropists, proselytizers and providers for the family, have received little attention.This publication examines the diverse and still largely unexplored role of women during the Great Hunger, shedding light on how women experienced and shaped the tragedy that unfolded in Ireland between 1845 and 1852. In addition to more traditional sources, the contributors also draw on folklore and popular culture.Women and the Great Hunger brings together…


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