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Peasant cultures abide

Many years ago I read Tim Blanning’s The Pursuit of Glory: The Five Revolutions that Made Modern Europe: 1648-1815. Some portion of it was dedicated was the attempt of scientifically oriented rulers to encourage the cultivation of potatoes amongst their subjects. Today Russia is huge on potatoes, but during the reign of Catherine the Great, this was not the case. Blanning outlines the resistance of the superstitious and backward Russian peasant in particular to the new wisdom of the agronomists. Truth be told, these illiterate peasants really didn’t give reasons for potato aversion. They simply pointed out that planting potatoes was not “how it was done.”

This Russian skepticism was common among European peasant cultures. But there was a major exception: Ireland. The Irish cultivation of the potato allowed for prosperity and population growth. By 1800 one third of the population of the United Kingdom were Irish.

This changed. The potato famine led to mass starvation and emigration.

We all know the reason: the famine. The reality here is that Russian stubbornness may not have been easy to rationalize, but the rejection of “expertise” in this case was socially meritorious.


24 thoughts on “Peasant cultures abide

  1. I know this from German lands as well and “dirty” foods from “below the earth” were generally not well liked, with potatoes being really hated as fodder for pigs and other animals, not for humans. It seems to have tasted bad for the people too and the quality might have been questionable as well.
    There were cases of people in poorhouses and soup kitchens getting enraged and even violent when potatoes were served to them for free. They shouted whether they are animals to be fed with these bad tasting tubers instead of proper food.

    The administration made big propaganda efforts, you could say publicity campaigns, to make the potato tuber better accepted among the people. Like spreading recipes which would make the potato taste better or that you don’t have the typical potato taste at all. I think if I remember right, there were even competitions for the best recipes in Prussia.
    Yet in some cases, nothing of this helped and people were forced to plant it even. But the real acceptance came with wars and famines, when people were forced to eat it and got used to it, as well as with new recipes and concepts about the tubers being not just “for the animals”.
    But throughout most of the time it was still a “poor peope’s food” with the proverbial “potato face” of undernourished people which lived almost exclusively from it. The “Kartoffelbauer” is also not really on top of the farmer society because of the very dirty work of the potato harvest.
    And even today to call someone “Kartoffel” (like “Kraut” from the English) is a derogative term used by some Southern migrant people to slur Germans. In the past it was also used between differerent regional German ethnicities. The poorest were more associated with potatoes.


    So basically, even though most people eat it today, especially in their altered forms, potato/Kartoffel is still not positively associated in the social context overall. The reluctance is understandable and might just show that the Russian farmers had even more of their “own head” and the state there was not all that strong and accepted to begin with.

    Tubers from below the earth with all that dirty work to do is something free people did not easily accept if having a choice. The Irish simply had no choice it seems.

  2. Doesn’t Scott (Seeing like a State) argue in Against the Grain that states require visible crops that can serve as a basis for taxation: visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable’? Grains are the ideal crop for a state, potatoes, not so much since the farmer knows where to locate each individual tuber and assessors don’t. So by resisting potato cultivation, peasants on the continent were allowing for their state enforced oppression while the Irish cultivation could be seen in this framework as an attempt to smash the state!

  3. My grandmother had many stories of people starving to death during the War, they refused to eat chapatti. I suspect there was gluten intolerance going on as well. Also the lack of knowledge on how to cook them versus rice in South India.

    French: Pomme de Terre (apple of earth) to encourage people to eat them.

    Going back to india — long standing food prejudice against onion, garlic other crops grown from ground. Even tapioca is considered poor people. IN the case of onion and garlic may be taste as much as the “dirt” from the earth.

    Honestly I start modern europe at the Italian wars, not at Westphalia but that is another argument.

  4. @Marcel: The exact opposite was the case. The Irish were just as poor as the soil they had to live from and they were among the people of Europe which were occupied by a foreign people with a different denomination and lots of conflicts. But they were well controlled, with little choices.
    Potatoes were practically everywhere second choice, people didn’t like it, its a dirty work to do and dirty food in a way. Just look at the clean and upward growing wheat, the good corn you get and compare that with the potatoes you have to dig out of the ground. Ever harvested it? Its no fine job and its no fine food, its quite a procedure before it gets acceptable food and its poisonous too, if not being cooked properly or being storaged the wrong way. So I guess at the start fo the usage, a lot of people got ill or even died from it, which didn’t helped with the acceptance of this “unnatural” food which needs to be processed with great care.
    People had to get used to it and those living from potatoes, as their main source of nutrition, were, practically everywhere again, piss poor, dependent people. You can observe that not just between different people, but between different regions and social classes. IF you couldn’t afford any other food, you could still grow some potatoes… That’s also why the potato blight hit some people and regions particularly hard: They had no other food, they completely relied on the potato monoculture, which is never healthy and never a good idea, but the result of a lack of choice.
    Taxation and tax collectors where quite effective and creative for thousands of years, its the basis of civilisation.

  5. Grew up in the Soviet Union and maybe I was too young to understand all cultural dynamics around the potato but…

    It was one of my favorite foods. Mashed or sliced and fried. Baby potatoes with butter and dill were practically a delicacy….

  6. The problem for the Irish was not the potato, or dependence on it. It was that Ireland was a conquered country, in the process of full colonial exploitation. Famines are rarely (if ever) due to a lack of food, but rather government failure. At best, the Irish were victims of English indifference to a situation of England’s making and control. At worst, it was a grim policy of genocidal intent, also like many famines historically. Ireland was forced to export it food while it’s people starved. Belgium was equally dependent on potato crops and equally affected by the blight, but there was no famine there. The same can be said for countries throughout Europe at the time.

  7. I guess facetiousness does not come through well in comments. I did not mean to be taken seriously in suggesting that Irish peasants, in accepting the potato, were attempting to smash the state.

    I have had some additional thoughts about this post since that previous comment, and offer them here. This comment will be too long, so I am breaking it up into 3 parts.


    Peasants have a repution for being just about the most conservative demographic group on earth (see this, and consider this quote: Hence the cliché of “the peasant mentality, with its inherent conservatism and apathy towards change”), second only to the greatest, most hidebound reactionaries of all, toddlers & 2-3 year olds (h/t Miss Manners, but I cannot locate her line). Like a clock, one can expect peasants to be right from time to time, much like, I imagine, opponents of GMOs (i.e., not those who merely reject eating GMOs for themselves but rather oppose all cultivations of and research into GMOs). The only issues I can think of where peasants are not generally opposed to change concern land tenure — land reform where they get title to land — and reduction of their taxes and other obligations to the state or feudal lord (required labor, droit du seigneur, and other feudal dues).

    Why are peasants so conservative? In most societies, certainly those without commercial agriculture and even some with, peasants generally reap none of the benefits of agricultural innovation and bear all the risks. So far as they are concerned, the likely downside of innovation far exceeds the likely upside, so no change is best.


    Why the difference between the response of Russian and Irish peasants? Domar’s serfdom model provides a suggestive answer. At the time of the attempted introduction of the potato (late 18th C), land was plentiful and labor in relatively scarce supply in Russia. Peasants had some leverage because they could disappear if they found their treatment too oppressive, moving to available land elsewhere.* Irish peasants 200 years earlier did not have this option. They lived on an island where the land was already both well populated and the control of the aristocracy was well established. The feudal lords (and later rural gentry) exported the grain that they (had) cultivated, leaving potatoes for the cultivators, the Irish peasants.

    Obs points to the role of colonialism in the case of Ireland. I had thought that was important too, but on reflection think it less so. In England, the record of feudal lords showing concern for the well being of the peasantry during the enclosures of the later middle ages is at best very sparse and more likely non-existent; their (functional if not biological) descendants showed similarly little concern for the lower classes during the agricultural revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, and during the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. It is not at all evident to me either that they showed less concern for the Irish peasantry or that Irish (Catholic) feudal lords and gentry would have been any less cruel to the Irish peasantry.

    *Something like this situation existed in western Europe following the Black Death, where surviving peasants and urban workers were able to command higher than customary wages, much to the chagrin of both the rural nobility and the urban middle and upper classes.


    Finally, on the role of experts and expertise. … but the rejection of “expertise” in this case was socially meritorious. This strikes me as another case of the stopped clock is right twice a day phenomenon.

    i) It is often the case that experts over-estimate both their own expertise and the importance of their expert knowledge. Expert knowledge is typically quite narrow, and when it comes to policy recommendations, it is often quite rightly left to non-experts to figure out how to balance conflicting goals. This reminds me of the disagreement this week between Senator R. Paul & Dr. Fauci. The Senator criticized the doctor, saying:

    “I think we ought to have a little bit of humility in our belief that we know what’s best for the economy,” Paul said. “And as much as I respect you, Dr. Fauci, I don’t think you’re the end-all, I don’t think you’re the one person that gets to make a decision. We can listen to your advice, but there are people on the other side who are saying there’s not going to be a surge and that we can safely open the economy.”

    Fauci responded with “I have never made myself out to be the end-all and only voice in this,” he said. “I’m a scientist, a physician, and a public health official. I give advice according to the best scientific evidence… There are a number of other people who come into that who give advice that are [sic] more related to the things that you spoke about, about the need to get the country back open again and economically. I don’t give advice about economic things. I don’t give advice about anything other than public health.”

    Unlike your typical economic advisor (e.g., Kevin Hassett), Fauci seems quite humble about the limits of expertise. And I would prefer to trust him about the likely course of the pandemic than, say, that famous generalist Richard Epstein.

    ii) The blog post refers to the potato famine. It overlooks that not only did Ireland (continue to) export agricultural products during the famine, primarily to Great Britain, but that exports increased over earlier years during this period. This suggests that the famine was at least as much a political phenomenon as a biological one and fits well with Sen’s model of famines as at least as much political as anything else. Finally, it reinforces my point in the first in this sequence of comments that the issue of accepting or rejecting the potato was more likely one of relative power than anything else (e.g., distrust or skepticism of experts or a credulousness or gullibility unique among European peasants to the Irish).

  10. Marcel beat me to the punch on GMOs but from a different angle. I saw in the OP:

    “The reality here is that Russian stubbornness may not have been easy to rationalize, but the rejection of “expertise” in this case was socially meritorious.”

    And of course thought of GMOs, but in a not-so-dismissive way re the public’s skepticism. FWIW, my view of GMOs is “proceed, but with caution.”

    Razib covered GMOs in a recent podcast. I would say there’s a known unknown, in that GMOs have the potential for unknown unknowns that other breeding methods don’t have, at least in human timescales. I’d also point to the massive use of herbicide-resistant GMO crops as one of the primary uses of GMOs, and that it has significant downsides for people and the environment (as well as upsides like cheaper soy).

    So proceed, with caution.

  11. The problem with GMOs is the same as with a lot of other experiments: Many negative effects will be known when its too late, they never can or will be as cautious as they should be, because in the end its a lot of money invested and the investors want to see quick profits. That’s the real problem.
    But even if time and money wouldn’t be such a burden, there might still slip something through which will be just show effects “in the wild”. Even for humans sometimes, like new forms of allergies and inflammation caused by the modified structure. Probably it won’t affect all, but just a small minority of consumers and will be detected, if at all, decades after it became a mass product.
    This is however already problem with a lot of food additives, GM or not.

    Generally I am for the cautious usage of GMO. That’s because its a too big chance, too many opportunities to miss, even if there are risks. But it needs a lot of control and private, profit based companies shouldn’t decide on their own at all.

    About the Irish I can largely agree with Marcel, but want to add that their colonial status really made a difference. The British governement cared less for them, they didn’t intervene at all, also because they were “just the Irish”. And the landlords treated them like animals, like you said, fed them with potatoes, while giving “the good grain” to their customers abroad. That is typical for dependent farmers and farm workers in a more Capitalist social environment, or generally very poor ones, untypical for free farmers which are doing well and can sustain themselves.
    Also, to me England too is a special case, because even the Anglo-Saxons were actually colonised. So the gap between the upper class, the aristocracy and the common people was always larger in Britain than in many other parts of Europe. I think that played a big role for the way the English society evolved, it was always more of a split society actually.

  12. Ireland was forced to export it food while it’s people starved.

    This. The potato blight was widespread in Europe, but there was no mass die-off outside Ireland. The Catholic Irish aristocracy and landowners were dispossessed under English rule and most private land was controlled by English and Anglo-Irish owners, many of who were absentee lords (in England). Despite the crop failure, they took massive amounts of foodstuff from Ireland to England throughout the period.

    Something similar happened in Korea during the Japanese colonial rule – during the Pacific War, there was a food shortage in Korea, but it was forced to supply Japan with grain and other food items, leading to much misery for the Korean (tenant) peasants.* As in Ireland, the colonial power dispossessed the native nobility and landlords and earmarked the best farmlands for Japanese ownership and exploitation.

    *The Japanese encouraged the suffering Korean peasants to migrate to Manchukuo and assist in Japanese exploitation of the region, so as with the English rule in Ireland, the forced famine served a dual purpose.

  13. Russian peasants weren’t averse to root vegetables. Turnip was a staple, and it got decimated by the same fungal blight as potatoes (replaced later by small-size bitter but blight-resistant turnip cultivars).

    So I don’t think the theory of “conservative wisdom” provides a good explanation, because the crop the conservatives liked has suffered exactly the same kind of a fate, with even more disruptive outcomes, as the crop they didn’t like.

    I have two other theories of Potato Revolts.

    1) it was one of the facets of the great Orthodox Schism. The Old Order people rejected everything new from the new sign of cross to tobacco and potatoes because they saw the 2nd coming as imminent, and were prepared to burn themselves alive or to castrate themselves or to escape into frozen wilderness to cleanse themselves of Satan and His innovations. Not too concerned by the earthly considerations such as crop yields.

    2) Potato greens and berries are poisonous, and some historians suggest that the peasants got poisoned by the above-ground parts and didn’t want any further trouble with the below-ground parts.

  14. Charlie

    The reason against onions was given to me as being too stimulating an aphrodisiac.

    I scoffed, but onions do increase testosterone (whereas garlic damages the testes)

    They of course do have strong flavors and are not for everyone, and in the past when fertilization was more intimately involved with literal shit, rooting in the soil would not be a prestigious occupation

  15. As for which goods were valued and which not, always look at the elite of a people and their preferences. Medieval literature on the subject is quite informative. Always good to listen to what the people actually said and wanted to understand them. What did they prefer if having a choice.

  16. Ireland is a very wet country, where grain did not grow very well, and the land could historically only support a population of about 2 million. When the potato was introduced, it grew very well in the damp climate, became the staple food, and the population had risen to 6 million by the 1840s. This is why the famine was so devastating in Ireland – their main food source was no longer available. The blight affected other countries, but none were so reliant on the potato. Even today, with new damp-resistant grain varieties available, Ireland’s main agricultural product is dairy produce, and it is only in recent years that the population has again risen to 6 million.

  17. Michelle Ann, your comment puzzles me. Having a wet climate is associated with agricultural bounty normally, not aridity, and indeed Ireland is famous for it’s lush vegetation (“the emerald isles”). As you note, however, it’s main agricultrual product is dairy, but this has been true since ancient times. Cattle were the traditional measure of wealth until modern times. Several of Ireland’s most famous epics center around cattle and the hero’s quest to acquire more. And Ireland’s population rose comparably to the general rise in western Europe’s population during the same period, potato or no potato.

  18. Populations increased in Europe due to new crops (particularly the potato), better cultivation methods, and a decline in plagues. However, all crops have optimum climatic conditions for growth, and Ireland is very wet, with constant cloud cover, a lot of rain, and cool temperatures. This is ideal for grass pasture for cows, but as well as water, grain needs a warmer climate, sunshine to ripen, and low humidity to prevent mould and mildew. Grain crops have always been poor in Ireland, and even today there are doubts about the future of economic wheat growth there, as even new strains have become susceptible to damp-induced diseases.

    Potatoes like a cool climate, need lots of water to develop, and can be grown in ridges which stops the roots becoming waterlogged, and prevents mould growth. Potatoes grew very well in Ireland, unlike grain, and this meant that Irish people at the time of the famine relied almost solely on potatoes for carbohydrates, unlike other countries where the potato complimented grain crops.

  19. Potatoes have zero protein, as corn, grain(wheat) and other grains win as a main staple. Potatoes need supplementing, it only leads the war on calories.

  20. Michelle Ann

    >>Grain crops have always been poor in Ireland

    Do you any references for this? Ireland served as the breadbasket for Britain during this period. This would suggest a booming agricultural sector: “According to economist Cormac O’ Grada, more than 26 million bushels of grain were exported from Ireland to England in 1845, a “famine” year. Even greater exports are documented in the Spring 1997 issue of History Ireland by Christine Kinealy of the University of Liverpool. Her research shows that nearly 4,000 vessels carrying food left Ireland for ports in England during “Black ’47” while 400,000 Irish men, women and children died of starvation.”

    >> Potatoes grew very well in Ireland, unlike grain, and this meant that Irish people at the time of the famine relied almost solely on potatoes for carbohydrates, unlike other countries where the potato complimented grain crops

    On the contrary, everything grew well in Ireland, but potatoes were cheap and not worth exporting, so they were the only thing left for the poor to eat. When the potatoes disappeared, the poor were left to starve, because the abundant other crops were being hauled away.

  21. The point I was making Jad, is that Ireland relied far more on the potato for food than other countries. Less than 20% of Irish agricultural land is used for crops, because of climatic problems, but what I didn’t realise is that virtually all of the Irish wheat crop was (and still is) winter wheat (which tolerates cooler, damper climates) and is used for cattle feed, and spring wheat, which is necessary for bread was, (and still is), mainly (wholely?) imported. I don’t know what percentage of food was exported, or imported, but food imports also continued during the famine, though this is often not stated. You would need both lots of figures to fully understand the situation. See

    However, the various government famine relief schemes were inadequate, and 12% of the population died, a complete tragedy. The famine hit hardest in the west of Ireland, were the soil is poor and potatoes were many people’s only crop. A good brief outline of the famine, how it affected different areas, and the role of the potato can be found at

  22. My understanding is that most grain did not go to export in Ireland, only 20-25% or something like this. Most would have gone to feed the still quite substantial non-agricultural population of Ireland, which was about 50% (per “Cambridge History of Ireland”). Ireland wasn’t one of the totally 90% agricultural societies at this time, but had gone down some of the route of changes to a less agricultural social structure that happened earlier in Europe, though they were lagging a bit the most “advanced parts”.

    So even if they had blocked grain exports entirely, there may not have been enough food.

    But we could still possibly blame the British for putting in place that social structures that led to concentration of farmland that left a high population growth of many marginal farmers (possibly 30-40% of population at this time?) dependent on potatoes. Though this outcome of course did not happen with effectively the exact same concentration and enclosures in England and Scotland and Wales, where they just got a larger industrial and service workforce that bought its bread with industrial wages; possibly internal migration barriers. Introducing high productivity agriculture, without having anything to “soak” the labour surplus and give it a wage probably led to a big, precarious poor agricultural population. And not organizing any effective famine relief.

    Just the “Ireland exported grain while it starved” argument is possibly overdone.

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