Famine for Profit: Food Surpluses in Medieval Germany
Stanford University: Social Sciences History Workshop, 8 April (2009)
“Most discussions of historical demography start, continue, and finish with Thomas Malthus.” This assessment of the current state of historical analysis, made by a historian who appears to think that this is as it should be, is accurate except only that it should not be limited to historical demography. It is true also of much social and political discussion of the past and of the present. Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population, by name or simply by approach, is the all-but-ubiquitous explanation for social crises for the pre-capitalist era and very often is applied to the modern world as well. “Overpopulation” is the standard reason given for the fall in the standard of living of the working population specifically and the crises of the 1300s and 1500s generally.
Malthus argued that “poverty and misery aris[e] from a too rapid increase of population.”3 “[A]ll animated life,” including humans, he claimed, has a “constant tendency to increase beyond the means of subsistence.”4 “[T]he human species,” Malthus alleged, increases geometrically, the food supply arithmetically, thus population “would increase in the numbers 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, and subsistence as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. In two centuries the population would be to the means of subsistence as 256 to 9.”5 Malthus insisted that his “principle” of population reflected the will of god and was a law of nature, like gravity, impervious to change by government action, revolution, medicine, or technological advance.