Food Riots

views updated May 17 2018


FOOD RIOTS. From the sixteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century Europe witnessed increasingly widespread food rioting. These riots pitted vulnerable consumers against producers and merchants, and both sides invoked protection and support from their rulers. As part of a broad and long-standing tradition of collective bargaining by riot, food riots erupted when, faced with the threat of scarcity and rising prices, a crowd composed largely of consumers assembled to demand affordable, accessible subsistence (usually grain or bread). They confronted those who controlled this "item of first necessity"bakers, merchants, millers, cultivators, and local authoritiesand took and shared what provisions they needed, sometimes forcing sales at prices below market (or asking) prices. Those who needed food and those who controlled it clashed over transports on highways and rivers, sacks displayed for sale in markets, supplies stored in farms and urban granaries, flour in mills, and bread in bakeries. Since households of the common people spent from one-half to two-thirds of their budgets on food, rioter declarations that "they would rather hang than starve to death" carried poignancy.

Food riots had erupted sporadically since the Middle Ages, but they peaked in intensity and sophistication in eighteenth-century western Europe, appearing earliest in France and England and later in central and eastern European states, such as Prussia. France had the longest tradition of food rioting: over one hundred in the 1690s, 17091710, and 17641768; over four hundred in the 1770s; and over two hundred in 17881789 by the time the Estates-General met in May 1789. English eruptions peaked after the mid-eighteenth century, becoming the most common form of popular protest: over one hundred erupted in 17561757, 1766, 17951796, and 18001801. Although widespread food rioting persisted over a shorter time span in England than in France, the English experienced as much if not more rioting per capita in the eighteenth century. In Prussia food rioting erupted only sporadically after the 1770s and slightly more frequently in the 1790s.


The origins of food riots lay beyond the short-term fluctuations associated with shortages. Rioters invoked long-standing communal norms to respond to larger economic, social, and political changes that menaced and outraged them. Despite the existence of market relations in early modern Europe, the assumption had widely prevailed, even among elites, that in times of food crises popular subsistence needs took precedence over property rights and local needs came before more distant ones. This "moral economy," or right to existence, was embedded in the local and royal consumer safeguards that had enveloped the production and distribution of grain and other foods since the late Middle Ages. Although never consistently implemented or entirely successful in stabilizing food prices and supplyand sometimes vitiated by royal, seigneurial, or guild privilegesthese regulatory policies had served to mitigate some of the worst effects of widely fluctuating prices, to supply markets emptied by hoarding and speculation, or to impede the departure of grain to other markets. They also indicated political commitment and sensitivity to local welfare dictated by the knowledge that public order required that the people be fed.

The increased frequency of food riots coincided with accelerating commercialization of food, mounting numbers of market-dependent consumers, and centralizing states that turned increasingly from paternalist supervision of provisioning to laissez-faire economics and to favoring producers and merchants over consumers, urban over rural demands, and regional, national, and international markets over local ones. Stresses on the provisioning system intensified when governments and their agents plunged into local markets to feed growing armies and politically sensitive, hungry places, such as capital cities. Food riots thus ignited where the spark of local grievances encountered the tinder of national and international economic and political forces. When prices rose or supplies dwindled while commercially oriented grain producers, grain and flour merchants, millers, and liberalizing authorities ignored traditional norms and practices, consumers demanded that suppliers and authorities acknowledge and serve popular needs by lowering prices, assuring supplies, and activating emergency relief.


The timing and geography of rioting depended on multiple factors, including the existence of communities capable of mobilization and some sort of trigger, such as skyrocketing prices, sudden market shortages, evidence of hoarding or speculation at consumer expense, or the refusal of authorities to activate crisis-related paternalist regulations and relief. Places most likely to react violently experienced a rapid shift in their ability to retain or attract food for their consumers: producing regions confronting new demands on resources, heavily traveled transit routes and junctions, and markets whose positions had eroded at the time of the crisis. In France after the mid-eighteenth century food rioting became the most frequent form of popular protest, and every province experienced some disorder. However, the most turbulent provinces in the early modern periodÎle-de-France, Normandy, and Orléanaiswere those most affected by large-scale changes in the provisioning process, exacerbated by the imperious pull of the Paris market.

Riots finally erupted only when vulnerable consumers could mobilize in concert to activate networks intertwined with work, neighborhood, friendship, and patronage for protest. Early modern riots erupted more frequently in medium-sized towns than in large cities or small villages because they nurtured the kinds of dense networks of social and political relations that underpinned early modern collective action. Although each crowd reflected the particular character of the community mobilized, most rioters came from early modern Europe's vulnerable common people, for whom a subsistence crisis threatened the household's capacity to provision itself: wage earners, shopkeepers, and artisans. England's food rioters largely came from the ranks of town artisans, proto-industrial workers, and industrial workers. In France artisans, microproprietor winegrowers, agricultural workers, and proto-industrial workers formed a majority of the crowds. The lowest ranks of the rural and urban poor participated rarely because the combination of charity and repression reserved for them by local and royal governments made collective action less likely.

As members of household economies, women as well as men played prominent roles in food riots, and most riots mobilized both. However, the gender balance of crowds reflected differences in regional dynamics and types of riots. In France, for example, women frequently led and participated in hometown market riots or neighboring spaces, such as bakeries and storage areas. More men ventured farther afield to lead and join crowds that marched in the countryside from producer to producer to demand supplies. Even when men and women appeared in the same riot, they at times played different roles.

By the eighteenth century riots had become more organized and purposeful. Although interceptions of grain shipments by locals for their own consumption remained the most common form of rioting during the early modern period, market riots grew in number, significance, and sophistication. Most strikingly, rioters more frequently invoked the taxation populaire forced sales at lower, "just," prices that they fixed themselves. Rioters drew upon a combination of accurate information about grain production and marketing (which helped them pick their targets); traditions of paternalist practices that included price-fixing, searches and requisitions, and charitable distributions; as well as their own heritages of previous food rioting. Indeed veritable riot traditions emerged in towns such as Caen, France, where fourteen riots erupted between 1631 and 1789.


Early modern riots proved a relatively successful form of community politics to solve short-term problems during a crisis. They frequently produced results: reactivation of paternalist regulations, lower prices and more food in markets or bakeries, institutional purchases of additional supplies, food distributions for the needy, and chastised merchants who respected their social responsibilities at least temporarily. Early modern authorities responded to food rioting with an uneven mixture of forbearance and severe, "exemplary" repression. In most places local elites and administrators, and sometimes even the central government, created political space for food riots when they hesitated to definitively abandon intervention in favor of free trade, to repudiate local entitlements, or to enforce free trade at bayonet point.

Food riots intersected most directly with political debate in France. The monarchy vacillated over liberalizing the grain trade in the last decades of the eighteenth century, freeing it from intervention from 1763 to 1770, reregulating it from 1770 to 1774, freeing it again from 1774 to 1776, and reregulating it yet again. This interplay of royal policy and the dislocations associated with it coincided with harvest shortfalls to trigger widespread rioting. Such visibility made provisioning an object of public political debate, which in turn helped to desacralize and discredit the "Baker King," Louis XVI (ruled 17741792). Further partial deregulation in 1787 preceded another wave of rioting that, together with debates over and meetings for the Estates-General, further politicized the debate about the people's right to subsistence and also contributed to the further politicization of many food rioters themselves. Food riots thus formed an important constituent of the political fabric of early modern life.

The era of the French Revolution witnessed extensive rioting in France and elsewhere. Although rioting ebbed swiftly in England after 1800, it continued to spread in France and Germany in the first half of the nineteenth century. Its decline after the mid-nineteenth century reflected improvements in distribution, the success of relief and repression in quenching hunger and quelling tensions, and the transposition of the politics of provisions to other realms: to national assemblies, to the platforms of political parties that debated there, and ultimately to the welfare state. However, the late twentieth century witnessed the resurgence of food riots in South America, Africa, and Eastern Europe.

See also Economic Crises ; Liberalism, Economic ; Poverty ; Revolutions, Age of .


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Bouton, Cynthia A. The Flour War: Gender, Class, and Community in Late Ancien Régime French Society. University Park, Pa., 1993.

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Tilly, Louise. "The Food Riot as a Form of Political Conflict in France." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 2 (1971): 2357.

Cynthia A. Bouton

Food Riots

views updated May 08 2018


FOOD RIOTS. A food riot can be defined as any gathering, whether planned or spontaneous, that may begin peacefully (a "food protest") but evolves into disorder, leading to loss of control, violence, bodily harm, or damage to property. "Food riot" and "food protest" can be understood and discussed together as "food disturbances" (Gilje, p. 4). Food disturbances occur and have occurred for obvious reasons: When people feel their sense of entitlement to an adequate supply of food is being breached by those controlling the food supply, they will go to extreme measures to get the kind, quantity, and quality of food they feel they need for themselves and their families.

Historical and archaeological evidence documents the existence of food riots for several thousands of years and in all parts of the world, with periods of greater and lesser activity (Newman). Food riots occurred most frequently in the modern era (sixteenth through eighteenth centuries), declined through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and increased again toward the end of the twentieth century, primarily in developing countries.

Types of Food Riots

Since it is such a strong component and shaper of identity, food is deeply enmeshed in a collective as well as an individual sense of identity. How and why foods accrue special meaningwhat makes them unique to particular groups of peoplecan vary widely: method of preparation, long-held tradition, particular "flavor principles," perception of purity, religious, cultural, or political significance, signification of wealth or status, or any combination of factors. The restriction in availability of foods imbued with distinctive meaning, then, whether through government manipulation or the vicissitudes of a "free market" economy, can function as a catalyst for collective protest. This is true not only in relatively isolated communities in the past, but in the ever-changing global villages of the twenty-first century.

A major subfield in social history, a rich body of scholarly work both documents and theorizes about food disturbances. European social historians especially have set the standard for scholarship in the field. While no two riots are ever exactly the same, and each contains a multiplicity of circumstances, historians have generalized that in the past food riots have fallen into three main categories: First, a blockage or entrave, where protesters blocked shipments of grain or other foodstuffs shipped from one region to another; second, the price riot or taxation populaire, where peasants seized the goods from a retail shop whose prices were deemed too high, which would then be sold for a "just price," and often the money paid to the merchant. The final form of food riots, the market riot, was simply looting stores and supply depots to protest high prices or the lack of goods (Thompson; Gilje; Walton and Seddon).

Modern-day riots tend to conform to the latter category of market riots, as looting and destroying property are common factors. In addition are the more calculated, less volatile, demonstrations where the food at issue is ceremoniously dumped on the grounds of, for example, the local government headquarters. The boycotting of food, also a common means of protest in the twentieth century, can be effective, especially when centered on one item such as milk, beer, bread, or grapes, or on a single manufacturer (Linden). Boycotts, however, can evolve into full-fledged food riots if participants harass or violently attack those choosing to purchase a targeted item or frequent a targeted store.

Theories of Food Rioting

Why do people riot over food? The obvious answer, that they riot because they are hungry, does not begin to answer the question since most who are poor and hungry do not riot. What intervening variables determine who eventually riots over which foods? Historians have analyzed and explained food riots in a variety of ways, including as collective action representing the "moral economy" of an era, as part of a so-called "female consciousness," and as an exhibition of nationalism/patriotism. In his 1971 article, "The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century," eminent British historian E. P. Thompson sets about to provide a "thick description" of food rioters' motives in preindustrial England, an era when subsistence riots happened with great frequency. Thompson argues that English peasant bread riots were symptomatic of a society caught between changing economic and political forces, of an England in the midst of moving from a looser collection of landed gentry to a stronger state, and from a mercantilist, feudal economic system to one of laissez-faire market capitalism. Peasants under the feudal system were used to bread sold at "just prices"an amount reduced for the poor as part of the communal moral ethos. In the shift to an emerging market economy that abandoned the notion of the just price, peasants understandably clung to the older "moral economy." Viewing inexpensive bread prices as an entitlement, when peasants felt the long-held social pact was not being honored under the new system, they rioted in response. People, argues Thompson, were thus not just rioting because they were hungry, but also out of a sense of injustice. As the peasantry evolved into the industrialized working class, conflicts over food were absorbed into and displaced by organized labor strikes. This explains why the number of food riots diminished considerably in the nineteenth century and beyond. Scholars have taken issue with Thompson's moral economy theory, but few if any reject his theory outright.

Since women as well as men participated in food riots, often in unique ways, in recent years historians have employed gender as a category of analysis. While not disagreeing with the moral economists, historians such as Temma Kaplan point out that, although the number of food riots decreased in the nineteenth century, food disturbances nevertheless continued. Moreover, they argue, food rioting took on a noticeably female persona, in part because labor unions, the new locus of collective action, largely excluded women. Studying early-twentieth-century food riots in Barcelona, Kaplan argues that women participated in food riots as an extension of their role in the sexual division of labor: caring for home and family, which included food procurement and preparation. Women who accepted the traditional division of labor, argues Kaplan, could be radicalized to action in the public sphere if they were prevented from fulfilling their obligation, especially the feeding and care of their families.

Food riots can also be examined in light of cultural meanings of consumption and their connection to nationalism. Historian Timothy Breen explores the relation between the growth of national consciousness and the American colonial rejection of British manufactured goods, including foodstuffs. Manufactured goods imported from Britain, readily available to so many people, Breen argues, resulted in a standardization of taste that transcended (to some extent) class boundaries. Consumer goods became politicized in the decades leading up to the American Revolution, providing a "shared language of consumption" that colonists of all regions and classes could understand and identify with, hence providing a common experience and knowledge base that united them enough to wage war against the mother country. While Breen does not limit his analysis to food but explores the meaning of consumer goods of all kinds, he focuses on the struggle over tea and its culminating food protest, the Boston Tea Party.

Modern-Day Food Rioting

While food riots and protests have occurred in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the recent wave of food riots and protests are directly tied to strict economic austerity plans forced on developing countries by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international banks. Governments attempting to repay bank loans must enact draconian measures, including abandoning the long tradition of subsidizing staple foods such as bread, rice, and cooking oil. The resulting high prices, deflated wages, scarce resources, shrinking food supplies, and empty bellies has led to a series of food riots, including the looting and pillaging of stores, fast-food restaurants, and supply depots, the blockading of farm and supply trucks, and protests in town squares that have erupted into mayhem and violence. Often the protests and riots have centered on one food item, usually a staple or key ingredient (often with a tradition of subsidization by the government) integral to the culture's cuisine and consumed by rich and poor alike: rice, tortillas, onions, bread. The item, so central to their food habits, has functioned as a symbol of people's intense frustration and anger at being trapped in a global economic web in which they seem to have no agency. Social scientists John Walton and David Seddon note similarities between these recent austerity riots and those of the preindustrial European peasantry. Each era of food rioting, they argue, includes a context of burgeoning urban metropolises, severe economic hardship, and populations with a strong sense of moral economy that regards subsidized food prices as a government obligation.

See also Consumer Protests; Food as a Weapon of War;Food Supply, Food Shortages; Hunger, Physiology of; Hunger Strikes; Malnutrition; Political Economy.


Breen, T. H. "Baubles of Britain: The American and Consumer Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century." Past and Present 119 (1988): 73104.

Gilje, Paul A. Rioting in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Kaplan, Temma. "Female Consciousness and Collective Action: The Case of Barcelona, 19101918." Signs 7 (1982): 545566.

Linden, Marcel van der. "Working-Class Consumer Power." International Labor and Working-Class History 46 (1994): 109121.

Newman, Lucile F., Alan Boegehold, David Herlihy, Robert W. Kates, and Kurt Raaflaub. "Agricultural Intensification, Urbanization, and Hierarchy." Hunger in History: Food Shortage, Poverty, and Deprivation, edited by L. Newman et al. Oxford, England, and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1990.

Thompson, E. P. "The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century." Past and Present 50 (1971): 76136.

Walton, John, and David Seddon. Free Markets and Food Riots: The Politics of Global Adjustment. Oxford, England, and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1994.

Amy Bentley