The Early Modern Potato: A Global History

By Rebecca Earle

Vincent Van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, 1885. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Vincent Van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, 1885. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Have you encountered a reference to potatoes from before 1800?

I’m interested in all early modern potatoes and would be delighted if you could alert me to any references, however fragmentary. You can email me on r.earle@warwick.ac.uk or use this form.

This Potato Project asks two inter-connected questions.

  • How, why, and by what routes did the potato spread around the world and into individual diets after Europeans first encountered the tuber in the sixteenth century?
  • Why did states across eighteenth-century Europe begin to promote the cultivation and consumption of the potato?

The first question builds on the pioneering work of Alfred Crosby. Crosby and other scholars suggested that the spread of new world foods such as potatoes and maize helps explain the dramatic increase in the world’s population over the last five hundred years, and also hinted at the ways in which these foods travelled to Africa, India and elsewhere. At the same time, the details of their dissemination remain in many cases opaque. The Project traces the ways in which potatoes entered the diets of individual eaters around the world.

The second question examines the historical roots of the our conviction that food, agriculture, health and state security are intrinsically linked. The Project investigates the moment, in the late eighteenth century, when European philosophers, political economists, agronomists, doctors, bureaucrats, priests and other historical actors began to insist that strong, secure states were inconceivable without a resilient agricultural programme grounded on significant changes in the dietary practices of the population as a whole. It was in the eighteenth century that the processes connecting individual diets to the wealth and strength of the state began to be theorised in ways that allowed for effective manipulation and state intervention. Many projects and proposals for dietary reform were articulated in the eighteenth century. This Project focuses on the central role the potato played in many of them.


6 thoughts on “The Early Modern Potato: A Global History”

  1. I once owned the book: “The History and Social Influence of the Potato.” by Redcliffe N. Salaman (Cambridge University Press 1985). It’s awfully expensive, but maybe you can borrow it from a library. As I remember, it should be a good starting point for your two bulleted questions.

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