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Laslett: The World we have Lost: Extract

This extract comes from the 1983 revision of The World We Have Lost. Here Laslett is revisiting the question he posed in 1965, ‘Did the peasants really starve?’ to see how our knowledge has advanced in the interim.

We have seen in an earlier chapter that transfer incomes from those who had to those who had not may have been no inconsiderable part of all English goods and services and the authorities in question administered a great proportion of them. That they nearly always succeeded in underwriting the entitlement of the poor to food is the inference we must draw from the local character, the relative rarity, of near famine, and from the virtual absence of outright starvation in the English record. When they blundered in respect of an individual, men like John Russel of Wednesbury died. When their policy was ineffective, or the problem was too difficult, situations like those of 1586-7, 1596-7 and 1623-4 came about in areas like that of the English north-west. When they failed, it was an administrative and political failure, as well as, perhaps rather than, an inevitable outcome of the weather, or warfare, or uncontrollable economic vicissitude. The peasants ceased to starve in England, starve in the special sense we have adopted, because of the expansion of resources, because of economic integration, because of improved communication. But it could not have happened without the greater efficiency with which entitlements to a share in these more favourable conditions were distributed. We may end this consideration of the fundamental facts about the livelihoods of our ancestors by repeating the following phrases of what was first printed in 1965.
Why is it that we know so much about the building of the British Empire, the growth of Parliament, and its practices, the public and private lives of English kings, statesmen, generals, writers, thinkers and yet do not know whether all our ancestors had enough to eat? Our genealogical knowledge of how Englishmen and their distant kinsmen overseas are related to Englishmen of the pre-industrial world is truly enormous, and is growing all the time. Why has almost nothing been done to discover how long those earlier Englishmen lived and how confident most of them could be of having any posterity at all? Not only do we now know the answers to these questions, until now we never seem to have bothered to ask them.
Not one of these plaintive queries is as appropriate now in 1983, and some, that to do with the length of life for example, are entirely inappropriate. It might still be justifiable to hint, however, that the historians of our decade are more interested in the riot and revolt which sometimes broke out when food supply was threatened, than they are in the extent to which that threat menaced the life chances of the people who rose up. Once having begun to respond to them, we are only just beginning to recognize the implications of such queries for human association altogether, and that not only of the English people in their pre-industrial past.

Peter Laslett The World We Have Lost Further Explored (London: Routledge 1983)


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