Thirsk, Joan 1922- (Irene Joan Thirsk)

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Thirsk, Joan 1922- (Irene Joan Thirsk)


Born June 19, 1922, in London, England; daughter of William Henry and Daisy Watkins; married James Wood Thirsk (a public librarian), September 12, 1945; children: Martin David, Jane Freya. Education: Westfield College, London, B.A. (with first class honors), 1947, Ph.D., 1950. Politics: Labour.


Home—Tonbridge, Kent, England.


University of London, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, England, assistant lecturer in sociology, 1951-52; University of Leicester, Leicester, England, senior research fellow in agrarian history, 1952-65; Oxford University, Oxford, England, reader in economic history and professorial fellow of St. Hilda's College, 1965-83, honorary fellow, 1983—, Ford Lecturer in English History, 1975. Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, member, 1977-86; Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, member, 1989-96; Standing Conference for Local History, vice chair. Military service: British Auxiliary Territorial Service, junior officer, 1942-45.


Economic History Society (member of council, 1955-83), British Agricultural History Society (member of executive committee, 1953-83; president, 1983-86, 1995-98), Past and Present Society (member of editorial board, 1956-92; vice president, 2003—), British Association for Local History (president, 1986-92).


Fellow of the British Academy, 1974; decorated commander, Order of the British Empire, 1994; honorary degrees from University of Leicester, 1985, University of East Anglia, 1990, Open University, 1991, Wageningen Agricultural University, 1993, University of Kent at Canterbury, 1993, University of Sussex, 1994, King Alfred's College, University of Southampton, 1999, and other institutions.


(Editor) English Peasant Farming: The Agrarian History of Lincolnshire from Tudor to Recent Times, Routledge & Kegan Paul (London, England), 1957, Methuen (New York, NY), 1981.

(Editor, with Jean Imray) Suffolk Farming in the Nineteenth Century, Suffolk Records Society (Suffolk, England), 1958.

Tudor Enclosures, Routledge & Kegan Paul (London, England), 1959.

(Editor and contributor) The Agrarian History of England and Wales, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), Volume 4: 1500-1640, 1967, Volume 5: 1640-1750, 1984.

(Editor) Land, Church, and People: Essays Presented to H.P.R. Finberg, Museum of English Rural Life (Reading, England), 1970.

(Editor, with J.P. Cooper) Seventeenth-Century Economic Documents, Clarendon Press (Oxford, England), 1972.

The Restoration, Longman (London, England), 1976.

Economic Policy and Projects: The Development of a Consumer Society in Early Modern England, Clarendon Press (Oxford, England), 1978.

The Rural Economy of England: Collected Essays, Hambledon Press (London, England), 1984.

Agricultural Regions and Agrarian History in 1500-1750, Humanities (Atlantic Highlands, NJ), 1987.

Alternative Agriculture: A History from the Black Death to the Present Day, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1997.

(Editor and contributor) The English Rural Landscape, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2000.

Food in Early Modern England: Phases, Fads, Fashions, 1500-1760, Hambledon Continuum (New York, NY), 2007.

(Editor and contributor) Hadlow: Life, Land, and People in a Wealden Parish, 1460-1600, Heritage Marketing and Publications (Great Dunham, King's Lynn, Norfolk, England), 2007.

General editor, History of Lincolnshire, 1970-76, and The Agrarian History of England and Wales, 1974-2000. Contributor to books, including Fooles and Fricassees: Food in Shakespeare's England, edited by Mary Anne Caton, Folger Shakespeare Library (Washington, DC), 1999. Contributor to professional journals, including English Historical Review.


Joan Thirsk is a specialist in English agrarian history and regional differences whose point of view is influenced by her experience of living in the countryside of Kent. In her book Alternative Agriculture: A History from the Black Death to the Present Day she uses local examples to explore alternative agriculture as a viable response to overproduction of standard grains and meats. "Thirsk recovers for us an agriculture which has been largely hidden from history and from which we can, and must, learn," commented John K. Walton in the Journal of Social History. Walton cited the work for its "accessible prose, without an intrusive overlay of formal theorising, and with an enticing array of detail and anecdote." The critic concluded that the book "illuminates aspects of society which go far beyond its ostensible remit. It is the crowning triumph of an academic career. It deserves the widest possible readership." In Agricultural History, David Vaught noted that Alternative Agriculture "surely will generate comment and reaction…. Few [readers] will question the clarity, elegance, and passion with which Thirsk develops her argument. She has provided policymakers and scholars alike considerable food for thought."

Thirsk continued her research by focusing on the products of agricultural evolution. In Food in Early Modern England: Phases, Fads, Fashions, 1500-1760 she looks at changing dietary habits and some of the reasons behind the changes. Alternative agricultural methods certainly played their role, but so did other factors, such as the availability of food in wartime, the effects of trade and commerce on the distribution of ingredients that were once limited to regional or foreign consumption, and the development of preservation techniques that made seasonal treats available almost year-round—for a price. Thirsk also explores the social factors that led to the popularity of various foods over the centuries, from perceived health benefits, to food as an expression of status, to novelty value. Jonathan Wright commented in his History Today review that "it is strangely reassuring to learn that culinary snobbery and bizarre dietary fads are not inventions of the modern age." He also seemed pleased to learn that the recipes of the lower strata of society, while less extravagant than those of the wealthy, were no less inventive and varied. Wright found Food in Early Modern England to be as refreshingly entertaining as it is serious and solidly researched. Spectator contributor Ben Wilson expressed surprise to learn from Thirsk's book that the modern western dietary repertoire has shrunk from more than 200 typical food items to less than twenty. Wilson wrote: "Everyone serious about food should read this wonderful book, for inspiration no less than enjoyment."

In an essay for History Workshop Journal, Thirsk wrote: "I see my own work … as having always striven to depict society as a complex web of threads, each final fabric being unique in its blending of influences, and resulting in its own distinctive pattern." She added: "My interest in analysing the distinctive characteristics and personalities of farming regions, and in exploring the interaction of those regions on each other, has persisted and deepened over the years, being always mixed with a desire to bring historic scenes to life by actual examples from the doings and writings of identifiable people. That blend of purposes continues to give me the greatest satisfaction and, if anything, has been intensified by my living in the highly individual countryside of the Weald of Kent."

Thirsk once told CA: "I write to stimulate the interest of general readers in past history and to illustrate its influence on our lives at the present day."



Chartres, John, and David Hey, editors, English Rural Society, 1500-1800: Essays in Honour of Joan Thirsk, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1990.

Hoyle, R.W., editor, People, Landscape, and Alternative Agriculture: Essays for Joan Thirsk, British Agricultural History Society (Exeter, England), 2004.


Agricultural History, fall, 1998, David Vaught, review of Alternative Agriculture: A History from the Black Death to the Present Day, p. 784.

History Today, June, 2007, Jonathan Wright, review of Food in Early Modern England: Phases, Fads, Fashions, 1500-1760, p. 62.

History Workshop Journal, Issue 47, 1999, Joan Thirsk, "Nature versus Nurture," pp. 273-277.

Journal of Social History, summer, 1999, John K. Walton, review of Alternative Agriculture, p. 959.

Spectator, April 14, 2007, Ben Wilson, review of Food in Early Modern England.


H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online, (December, 2000), John Smail, review of The English Rural Landscape.

Internet Bookwatch, (September, 2007), review of Food in Early Modern England.