Samuel Palmer, Gleaning for Wheat under a Harvest Moon, 1833 from Feasts and Festivals
Sometimes things just come together. Last week I spent a good bit of time at a seminar on Nutritional Anthropology and more writing about how in nineteenth-century Europe, famines ceased to be a regular part of life, as well as going through Frank Trentmann’s fine book Free Trade Nation on why free trade roused as much moral fervor in nineteenth-century Britain as anti-corporate food politics does in twenty-first century America. And then this morning three blog posts popped up on my feeder, very different posts, but all circling round hunger and trade.
But first, the hungry season. Most of us aren’t much used to hunger, real gnawing hunger, that is, and we´re not much used to its varieties, tending to think of it in terms of out-and-out famine. But through most of history, the annual hungry season, the time when last year´s stores were depleted and the harvest had not come in was how many people experienced hunger. The fruits and vegetables of mid to late summer in northern Europe, for example, could seem a poor joke when you craved something substantial, bread, porridge, a heavy steamed pudding, and the meals of barley, wheat, rye, and the other cereals.
So here’s Liz, in Feasts and Festivals talking about the ancient English festival of Lammas, the first of August.
The first of August is half way between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox. This is when the agricultural cycle moves from growing to ripening and harvest. In pre-Christian times this was celebrated at the pagan festival of Lughnasadh and Lammas is its Christian successor.
Lammas marks the gathering in of the first summer harvest. In Saxon and medieval societies, when the first grain crop of the year was ready to cut it was an occasion of enormous importance and relief. There were two main times when starvation threatened in agricultural societies – early spring and immediately before harvest time. At Lammas the medieval housewife could bake new bread from the first cut of the grain. No wonder it was a time to celebrate.
When Lughnasadh became Lammas, the first bread was offered at a special mass. The word Lammas derives from the Anglo Saxon ‘hlafmaesse’ – meaning ‘loaf mass’ so technically people were celebrating not the raw grain but the bread made with it – which may distinguish Lammas from Church’s Harvest festival, when all is safely gathered in later in the season, and which is actually a Victorian innovation. Its origin is in Morwenstow in Cornwall when in 1843 the extremely eccentric Rev R.S. Hawker reinvented it.
Given that grain was so expensive to transport except by ship, prior to railroads, containers, and trucks on asphalt roads, given that most governments in an attempt to protect the landowning classes and control the politically-sensitive grain had protectionist policies against grain imports, the hungry season tipped over into famine all too easily.
And here´s a very short clip from the Seattle Times a day or so ago signalling a situation that once might have tipped the hungry season in Russia and some of the former Soviet Republics into famine.
Wheat prices surged in July by the biggest amount in more than a half century as severe drought conditions in Russia and other former Soviet republics destroyed grain crops.
In the mid nineteenth century, Britain did away with its protectionist agricultural tariffs, just as railroads and steamships made wheat from old wheat-growing areas like south Russia and new ones such as the Punjab, Argentina, Australia, Canada and the US available.
Consumers gazing at cheap loaves, jam and cheese
And here´s Frank Trentmann on bread and Free Trade in nineteenth century Britain.
Free Trade put the consumer on the political map. . . .Through a focus on ‘necessities’ or basic goods, cheapness became primarily a language of social justice, distracting from more selfish, acquisitive aspects of consumption. Consumers, in this view, were part of civic life–not just customers in a shop. Free Trade, it was hoped, would instil consumers with consideration for the rest of the community. Instead of a retreat from public life, consumption would foster civic participation, and, over time, raise the quality of production. With the ‘cheap loaf’ as a symbol of the right of all Britons to the cheapest goods available on the world market, Free Traders painted a picture of equity and social solidarity . . . Millionaires and capitalist trusts, as well as hunger and social anarchy, in this view, were the products of protectionist societies abroad.
In short, Free Trade then roused the same kinds of enthusiasm that the local, natural, fresh, doing-good-by-eating-well, slow-and-small trumps fast-and-big movement does today.
As an example, here´s Diana Buja quoting the nineteenth-century British explorer, David Livingstone, extolling the necessity of free trade world wide, including Africa, in 1857. It´s a perfect example of the harnessing together of the consumer, civic society, civilization and commerce that made up the Free Trade movement. Don´t be distracted by the bits of Victorian terminology that grate today.
Sending the Gospel to the heathen must … include much more than is implied in the usual picture of a missionary, namely, a man going about with a Bible under his arm.
The promotion of commerce ought to be specially attended to, as this, more speedily than any thing else, demolishes that sense of isolation which heathenism engenders, and makes the tribes feel themselves mutually dependent on, and mutually beneficial to each other.
With a view to this, the missionaries at Kuruman got permission from the government for a trader to reside at the station, and a considerable trade has been the result; the trader himself has become rich enough to retire with a competence.
Those laws which still prevent free commercial intercourse among the civilized nations seem to be nothing else but the remains of our own heathenism.
In the years following World War I, the Free Trade movement lost ground for a whole variety of reasons that I won´t go into in this post. But the problems it addressed–how to make food accessible and cheap year round, how to balance the interests of farmers and consumers, how to handle food trade between nations–are as pressing as ever.