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

 

During the 18th century eating acquired a new political importance. This project uses the emergence of the potato as an Enlightenment super-food to explore the connections between everyday life and new ideas of individualism, political economy and the state.

 

When did the modern state first become interested in individual eating practices? Scholarship on public health generally dates this to the late 19th century, as scientists and statesmen 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 philosophers and 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. The overall aim is 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 advent of new-world foods in Europe stress their slow adoption prior to the 18th century. Peasants supposedly mistrusted unfamiliar foods until coaxed to expand their culinary repertoire by far-sighted elites. In fact, potatoes were embraced soon after their arrival in in the mid-16th century. Using a range of printed and archival sources, 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 the tuber attracted the attention of 18th-century political economists, statesmen and agronomists. The central role of small-scale cultivators in horticultural and dietary innovation has important implications for programmes of agricultural reform today.

 

Integrating the slower history of the potato’s conquest of European dietaries 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, economic societies, agronomists, priests and many other organisations and individuals promoted potato consumption in word and deed. The project documents this extensive, pan-European potato propaganda, which resulted in the publication of thousands of texts. It uses the promotion of the potato as an Enlightenment super-food to trace the emergence of new models of political economy and governance, which stressed the importance of a healthy, well-nourished population to the strength and wealth of the state.

 

Potato promoters were certain that their schemes would increase happiness. The pursuit of happiness is a familiar 18th-century refrain; this project demonstrates the centrality of food to its pursuit. The Enlightenment’s promotion of the potato is an emblematic example of how changes in individual food preferences were encouraged because such changes were believed both to improve individual happiness and health, and thereby to strengthen the state. It was through this sort of idealised convergence that the free choices of individuals came to form the theoretical foundations of the modern, liberal state. The project explores the ways in which personal interest and the interest of the state were imagined to align at the moment when the tenets of liberalism were first being articulated.

 

While 18th-century discussions of healthy populations and strong states differ in many ways from today’s debate about the sustainability of the global food system, the ideas behind such documents as the UN’s 1996 Rome Declaration on Food Security bear direct comparison to these earlier proposals linking agricultural reforms to improved individual diets, public happiness, population growth and state revenue, 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, India and Ethiopia 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.

 

Biography

Rebecca Earle is Full Professor at the Department of History at the University of Warwick (UK). She holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Warwick. He 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

 

‘Food, Colonialism and the Quantum of Happiness’, History Workshop Journal, 84, [forthcoming].

 

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

 

España y la independencia de Colombia, Banco de la República, Bogotá, 2014.

 

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. 

institut

senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2017/2018
Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS)
discipline History
2017
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2013/2014
Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS)
discipline Anthropology
2013
junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2017/2018
Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS)
discipline Philosophy
2017
junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2011/2012
Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS)
discipline History
2011