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Dissertation Dive: Famine After The Black Death

Emerson faculty’s expertise and interests are as varied as the students they teach. This is one article in a series about faculty and staff dissertations.

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Adam Franklin-Lyons, Associate Professor in Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts

Name: Adam Franklin-Lyons

Emerson role: Associate Professor of History in the Marlboro Institute of Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies

Dissertation title: Famine—preparation and response in Catalonia after the Black Death

Degree and university: Ph.D., Yale University

Why did you want to write about this topic for your dissertation?

When I lived in Chestnut Hill, I worked as a cook and had worked as a cook as an undergrad during summer jobs, and throughout the year. I didn’t major in history, but I got interested in food history. I was considering a lot of [dissertation topics] about the history of food.

I thought about food as a class marker of influence in Spain’s conquest in the Americas, and what was considered being the wealthy versus the poor.

I got a real sense that the assumptions of the causes of famine in the 17th century were also the same [assumed causes] in the 14th century. What we thought about famine really colored how we viewed international distribution and food aid. Basically, it’s not uncommon to view resource use as overpopulation. Which may be a real question at the global level with climate change, even for regional famines. But having the pressure of too many people for the amount of agriculture, you will still have political and economic questions.

People point at pre-19th-century famine and that it was due to [overpopulation]. If we take earlier historical examples in less developed countries of the world — when there’s too much aid to help people — famine will only perpetuate. Because if the question is about the number of people, and there is a certain amount of people and land, you’re asking them to use the same amount of resources. I think it’s wrong. I think it’s a political economic question.

I intentionally focused on famines in the wake of the Black Death, when the number of people plummeted. It killed 1 in 3, 1 in 4, or 1 in 5 people. Whatever you thought of how many people died, the cause of famine was not because there were too many people afterwards. From my work on famines, it looks like population is not the problem.

To some extent, it lines up with other reasoning of today for famines that happen now. They’re complex disasters wherein you have some sort of shock, something changes like the food supply. But actual shortage and starvation has persisted though inequality in society, and inequalities are upheld in violence.

British violence made the great Irish Potato Famine worse than it would’ve been. There is an overlap of famine and war. … Or if there is a civil war or social upheaval. A breakdown of civil society can lead to famine, and if there is a lack of food, the breakdown is really going to cause suffering and ultimately starvation. When structures of society hold, generally people are not going starve.

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