Luttrell Psalter watermill with fishing British Library Add MS 42130 fol 181r Web

Alternative Agriculture: A History From the Black Death to the Present Day

Historians sometimes imagine life in the medieval countryside as purely evolving around the ploughing, tilling and harvesting of the fields. Joan Thirsk pioneered the view of medieval and early modern agriculture as a many-sided business. This book is a late result of her research into this complex world.

Alternative Agriculture: A History. From the Black Death to the Present Day
By Joan Thirsk
Oxford University press 1997
ISBN: 978-0-19-820662-0


Alternative Agriculture by Joan Thirsk - CoverPeople like to believe in a past golden age of ‘traditional’ English countryside, before large farms, machinery, and the destruction of hedgerows changed the landscape forever. However, that countryside may have looked both more and less familiar than we imagine. Take, for example, today’s startling yellow fields of rapeseed, seemingly more suited to the landscape of Van Gogh than Constable. They were in fact, thoroughly familiar to fieldworkers in seventeenth-century England. At the same time, some features that would have gone unremarked in the past now seem like oddities. In the fifteenth century, rabbits were reared in specially guarded warrens as luxury food for rich men’s tables; whilst houses had moats not only to defence but to provide a source of fresh fish. In the 1500s we find Catherine of Aragon introducing the concept of fresh salad to the court of Henry VIII; and in the 1600s, artichoke gardens became a fashion of the gentry in their hope of producing more male heirs. The common tomato, suspected of being poisonous in 1837, was transformed into a household vegetable by the end of the nineteenth century, thanks to cheaper glass-making methods and the resulting increase in glasshouses.

In addition to these fascinating images of past lives, Joan Thirsk reveals how the forces which drive our current interest in alternative forms of agriculture – a glut of mainstream meat and cereal crops; changing patterns of diet; the needs of medicine – have striking parallels with earlier periods of our history. She warns us that today’s decisions should not be made in a historical vacuum. We can still find solutions to today’s problems in the hard-won experience of people in the past.


Joan Thirsk 1922 -2013 was a renowned Agricultural Historian. She was one of the leading economic and social historians of the 20th century, greatly influencing the methodology and direction of research. Her most prominent contribution was to pioneer the use of local manuscripts as a source. During the Second World War she worked as an intelligence analyst at Bletchley Park, providing information that assisted Hut 6 in the breaking of the Enigma ciphers. Her academic career began with assistant lectureship in sociology at the London School of Economics. She was later senior research fellow at the University of Leicester from 1951 to 65, and reader in economic history at Oxford University between 1975 and 1983. She was the editor of The Agrarian History of England and Wales (for volumes 4–6) from 1964 to 1972 and in 1974 was appointed general editor of the series. She acted as President of the British Agricultural History Society. A fine obituary of Joan Thirsk was published in the Guardian.


Luttrell Psalter: Watermill with fishing.  Add MS 42130, fol 181r. © British Library


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