Seeking Food Paradises

The Role of Hunger in Great Geographical Enterprises (Europe, 14th‐ 19th century)

Laura Prosperi

Historians tend to have a difficult relationship with the topic of hunger. Whereas it is obvious that famine and hunger have been sadly familiar to bygone generations, historians have drawn their attention mainly to the low rates of yielding (history of agriculture), to biological effects of under- and malnutrition (history of medicine) as well as to the public initiatives meant to control the social disorders caused by the shortage of food supply (social and political history).

Much more difficult, and so far mostly overlooked, is dealing with hunger as an engine of the public agency. So, to what extent has hunger played an active role in creating historical change? As a shared experience what collective emotions has it generated in the past?
This paper is meant to present an ongoing research project dealing with the participation of poor masses to the great geographical enterprises and geographical mobility as a typical reaction to a steady lack or shortage of food. My focus will lie in the European hungry imaginaire in late medieval and modern period.

Developing this theme requires a proper understanding of the hunger dimension, along with a consideration of the concrete spectrum of consequences it might entail in given historical settings. Hunger cannot be identified uniquely with the biological feeling due to lack of nutrition. Imposed in the long-term by adverse circumstances, it could hit entire generations, turning hunger into a shared daily experience. Generalized and structural problems of food availability in the late medieval and early modern context made hunger not only a widespread physical and psychological condition of need, but enabled it to turn into a wide range of collective emotions, such as public anger, will to escape or inanition. Even though this last and extreme phase tends to be identified with a lack of action, a milder stage of hunger has in the past spurred great collective moving actions. In modern times emigrant movements have proved this to be a major motivation, but in the previous centuries the link between hunger, emotions of anger, fear/desperation/greed and participation in great geographical enterprises, remains poorly supported by evidence and ultimately disregarded in explanations of collective journeying.

Among the most common strategies to cope with this unsatisfied need, the European context had a durable belief that in remote and exotic places, Earth could feed her sons and namely that food paradises exist in remote areas of the globe. What is the role of this positive imaginaire, and the emotional expectations tied to that, in the radical act of leaving for an adventurous journey, without any guarantee of a way back? What is the exact nature of these people’s deep emotional motivation? Can we give a name to their main fear? To what extent did hunger affect bravery, curiosity, taste for adventure, or even commercial interest along with ambition? What is the legacy of this historical attitude?
The attempt to empathize from an emotional perspective with the lower grades of the social order is faced with the difficulty of finding suitable evidence to rest on.