Urban Agriculture and Urban Food Provisioning in Pre-1850 Europe: Towards a Research Agenda
Abstract: "Feeding the city" has been a prominent topic in historical literature for many decades. Most of this literature, however, remained based on the assumption that cities above a certain population level are essentially fed through the market, with rural agricultural surpluses being exchanged for the products of urban industry and trade. Stimulated by recent articulations of alternative ways of urban food provisioning, this article reconsiders the importance of urban agriculture in European towns before 1850 from the perspective of "urban food alternatives". The scattered evidence suggests that in many European towns a significant part of the urban population was directly involved in food production, but also that important differences persisted both between towns and between households in a town. While traditional interpretations - for instance, those linking urban agriculture with small towns, poverty, or the rise of commercial horticulture - fail to explain this spatial, social, and temporal variation, a better understanding of the success and decline of urban agriculture in different market configurations and in different social contexts might offer an important historical contribution to present-day debates on the viability and social dynamics of such urban food alternatives.
Key Words: urban agriculture, urban food supplies, horticulture, market gardening, famine
Introduction: reconsidering urban food provisioning in the past
How to feed a premodern city? For Henri Pirenne, founding father of European medieval history, the answer was quite simple: cities were based on industry and commerce, while food was produced in the countryside.1 Hence city-dwellers were obliged to convert part of their income into food, for which they had a wide variety of markets and shops at their disposal. Six centuries before Pirenne, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, painter of the famous Buon Governo fresco in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena, presented us with a similar picture of a bucolic, though hardworking, contado supplying the urban shops and markets with a perpetual flow of food. In neighboring Florence this was estimated to be 4,000 oxen, 60,000 sheep, 20,000 goats, 30,000 pigs, 25 million quarters of wine and 474,500 bushels of grain per year for a pre-Black Death population of about 110,000 inhabitants.2 And yet a small detail in the cityscape of Lorenzetti's Buon Governo fresco reminds us that urban food supply might be more complex than the straightforward case of rural supply meeting urban demand at the market: within the city walls a man is herding a small herd of goats. Does the tiny scene represent the delivery of fresh meat from the surrounding countryside to the urban butchers? Possibly. However, the goats are clearly being guided towards the city wall, not the urban market. The goats remind us of the importance of animal life within the medieval city, as witnessed by their appearance in countless urban regulations and, increasingly, restrictions in an ever more complicated urban "environmental law".3 One of the key goals of such regulation was precisely to manage the access to alternative forms of food supply that parts of the urban population enjoyed, thereby bypassing the market. Apart from animal husbandry, urban households might engage in horticulture, wine-growing, or even cereal cultivation. Also, these foods might be supplied by tenants or sharecroppers working a piece of land they owned in the countryside - in a city like Siena in the fourteenth century, urban households, and not just those of the elite, owned massive amounts of land in their contado.4 In addition they might benefit from occasional or regular gifts of food distributed by charitable foundations, elite families supporting their retinue, confraternities sharing a meal, or close relatives making a testamentary bequest.
When focusing on the level of households, the history of urban food supply might be much more complex than food history allows us to believe. Since Fernand Braudel and other historians working in the tradition of the French Annales school started to investigate the material conditions of urban life in the 1960s, urban food supply automatically became a central issue in historiography. In an environment which was inspired by both Malthusian and Marxist models, food was about calories and class. It was considered in terms of access to staple foods like grain, beer, wine, and the like, which had to ensure the subsistence of the average city-dweller.5 Feeding the city hence seemed above all a question of acquiring sufficient quantities of grain - and to a lesser extent, meat - and assuring that there were enough foodstuffs available even during difficult times such as those of harvest failure or war. Since Braudel, numerous studies have been published about the food supply of individual cities before 1800, in addition to the organisation of comparative roundtables.6
Scholarship has usually distinguished between two basic strategies enabling such a massive transfer of food from the countryside to the hungry city: coercion (usually the coercive power of the "state") and the market. In European history, the importance of providing food to cities through coercion probably had its heyday in the annonae politics of the Roman Empire, when free grain distribution had to feed - and appease - the imperial capitals of Rome and, later, Constantinople.7 Moreover, it was also a strong defining feature of the privileged position of Paris in the grain policies of Early Modern France8 and in the close link between food supply and territorial expansion in Renaissance Venice.9 On the other hand, the standard example of market-driven food provisioning is provided by the strategies of medieval London before 1300, as elaborated in the very influential "Feeding the City" project. Elaborating on von Thünen's model of concentric land use surrounding the "isolated city", Bruce Campbell, Derek Keene, and others were able to demonstrate how growing urban demand induced a gradual intensification of land use in an expanding hinterland, with supply and demand being matched through a relatively "open" market which included multiple buyers and sellers.10 Research on other premodern cities arrived at similar results.11 The demand-driven logic of the "Feeding the City" model was underpinned by the work of urban geographers explaining the gradual demise of food production near the built environment of the city: in a context of urban growth, higher bid-rents for residential and industrial land use inevitably pushed out agricultural and horticultural activities.12 Explaining evolutions in urban food supply thus requires economic historians to be attentive both to the development of the coercive power of cities and their rulers, and to patterns of population densities and market integration.13
The dichotomy between a food-producing countryside and a food-consuming city is even more prominent in recent literature on "urban metabolism", which aims to map the continuous flows of energy, food, and raw materials imported from the hinterland and needed to sustain urban "life". Existing work on the urban food metabolism is based on two binary pairs of almost antagonistic categories: "town" and "hinterland", "consumption" and "production" - the so-called "metabolic rift".14 Hence, metabolic thinking is intimately linked to commodification: food and other resources are processed as commodities and traded through or from the city.15 From a metabolic view, urban growth is conceived as an expanding wave gradually encroaching upon low-productive land and transforming its natural resources into commodities transported to an ever-hungry city.16
On the other hand, the awareness that urban food supply may work very differently from one household to another has been an essential feature of famine history over the past three decades. Inspired by the work of Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, famine history saw an important shift away from the aggregate level of cities or regions to the level of individual households.17 According to Sen, food shortage was usually not induced by insufficient food availability in society as a whole, but rather by the insufficient "entitlements" to food enjoyed by some groups and individuals within a given society. Entitlement, conceived by Sen as "the ability of people to command food through the legal means available in that society", is a powerful concept capable of embracing all kinds of access to food. These include food production on one's own land, the "endowment", which produces "direct entitlements"; the conversion of labour and capital into food via the market, referred to as "exchange entitlements"; as well as other legal rights to food mobilised through distributions, gifts, or solidarities. While the concept of entitlement provides us with an ideal analytical tool for grasping the multiplicity of paths of food supply at the household level, most entitlement scholars, including Amartya Sen himself, were primarily interested in the role of the market as an - imperfect - allocator of food in times of famine.18 Direct entitlements as well as entitlements via other legal rights have received only scant...