Rebecca Earle

senior fellow
EURIAS cohort 2017/2018
discipline History
Full Professor, University of Warwick, Department of History

Research project

Potatoes and the State in the Global Eighteenth Century


When did the modern state first become interested in how we eat? Scholarship on public health generally dates this to the late 19th century, as scientists became concerned with the productivity of the labouring classes. Writings on food security, in contrast, identify the mid-20th century as the moment when food emerged as crucial element of national strength. This project demonstrates the 18th century origins of these notions. What people ate began to be seen as central to the well-being of the state, which was itself being reconceptualised by theorists of the new discipline of political economy. The project investigates this fundamental transformation in the relationship between individuals and the state through an examination of a food that became emblematic of these new ideas: the potato. It aims to explain the genesis of our current concerns about the relationship between individual diet and the health of the body politic.


Most histories of the potato stress its slow adoption in Europe. Peasants supposedly mistrusted unfamiliar foods until coaxed to expand their culinary repertoire by far-sighted elites. The project first retells the story of the potato’s penetration into European dietaries, demonstrating that ordinary people in many parts of Europe ate potatoes long before it attracted the attention of 18th century statesmen. The central role of small cultivators in such innovation has important implications for programmes of agricultural reform today.


Integrating the history of the potato’s conquest of Europe with its frenetic promotion in the 18th century illuminates the central role that everyday eating practices came to play in enlightened models of statecraft. During the 18th century the potato achieved an unprecedented level of political visibility. From Norway to Naples, officials and organisations promoted potatoes in word and deed. The project documents this pan-European potato propaganda, using this story to trace the emergence of new models of politics and governance that stressed the importance of a healthy, well-nourished population to the strength and wealth of the state.


While 18th century discussions of public health differ from today’s debate about food security, the current debate bears direct comparison to these earlier discussions precisely because both draw on the language of political liberalism born in the Enlightenment. The project aims to re-connect contemporary potato promotion in states such as China with its earlier history, to underline the contemporary resonance of this project’s 18th century themes. Current concerns about food justice and security cannot be resolved unless we understand the origins of the very language we employ in their analysis. This is, therefore, an historical investigation aimed at uncovering the foundations of our current reality.





Rebecca Earle is Full Professor at the Department of History at the University of Warwick. She holds a Ph.D in History from the University of Warwick. Her main research interests are the history of food, the cultural significance of food, and the cultural history of Spanish America and early modern Europe. Her early work was rooted in a very specific part of the world (southern Colombia). Currently she studies the movement of ideas and practices across larger geographies.


Selected publications

‘Promoting Potatoes in the Eighteenth-Century’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 51, no. 1, 2017. [forthcoming]


‘Food, Colonialism and the Quantum of Happiness’, History Workshop Journal, 84, 2017, pp. 170-193.


‘The Pleasures of Taxonomy: Casta Paintings, Classification and Colonialism’, William & Mary Quarterly, vol. 73, no. 3, 2016, pp. 427-466.


The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race and the Colonial Experience in Spanish America, 1492-1700, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2012.


The Return of the Native: Indians and Mythmaking in Spanish America, 1810-1930, Duke University Press, Durham, 2008.



senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2015/2016
Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS)
discipline Cultural Studies
junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2012/2013
Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS)
discipline Linguistics
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2013/2014
Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS)
discipline Literature
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2014/2015
Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS)
discipline History