Book Series Comparative Rural History Network- Publications, vol. 9

When the Potato Failed. Causes and Effects of the Last European Subsistence Crisis, 1845-1850

Richard Paping, Eric Vanhaute, Cormac O Grada (eds)

  • Pages: 342 p.
  • Size:156 x 234 mm
  • Language(s):English
  • Publication Year:2007

  • ISBN: 978-2-503-51985-2
  • Paperback
  • Available
  • ISBN: 978-2-503-55773-1
  • E-book
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These essays provide an excellent summary of the current state of research on the period of the 1840s.

Raymond L. Cohn, "Review of Cormac Ó Gráda, Richard Paping and Eric Vanhaute (editors), When the Potato Failed: Causes and Effects of the Last European Subsistence Crisis, 1845-1850." EH.Net Economic History Services, Nov 29 2007. URL:

"When the Potato Failed: Causes and Effects of the Last European Subsistence Crisis, 1845-1850 is a ground-breaking publication on a number of levels. (...) This is a welcome addition to Irish and European history." (C. Kinealy, in: Irish Economic and Social History, xxxv, 2008, p. 6-9)


The decade that gave rise to the term ‘the Hungry Forties’ in Europe is often regarded, and rightly so, as one of deprivation, unrest, and revolution. Two events, the Great Irish Famine and the various political events of ‘1848’, stand out. This book is the first to discuss the subsistence crisis of the 1840s in a truly comparative way. This subsistence crisis may be divided into two rather distinct elements. On the one hand, the failure of the potato caused by the new, unfamiliar fungus, phytophthera infestans, which first struck Europe in mid-1845, resulted in a catastrophe in Ireland that killed about one million people, and radically transformed its landscape and economy. Poor potato crops in 1845 and in the following years also resulted in significant excess mortality elsewhere in Europe. On the other hand, this period, and 1846 in particular, was also one of poor wheat and rye harvests throughout much of Europe. Failure of the grain harvest alone rarely resulted in a subsistence crisis, but the combination of poor potato and grain harvests in a single place was a lethal one. Connections between the local and the global, between the economic and the political, and between the rural and the industrial, make the crisis of the late 1840s a multi-layered one.

 This book offers a comparative perspective on the causes and the effects of what is sometimes considered as the ‘last’ European subsistence crisis. It begins with an extensive introduction that treats the topic in comparative perspective. The subsistence crisis had its most catastrophic impact in Ireland, and three chapters in the current volume are concerned mainly with that country. A fourth chapter uses price data to shed comparative perspective on the crisis, while the remaining nine chapters are case studies covering countries ranging from Sweden to Spain and from Scotland to Prussia. Throughout, the contributors focus on a range of common themes, such as the extent of harvest deficits, the functioning of food markets, fertility and mortality, and public action at local and national levels.

Cormac Ó Gráda is professor of economics at University College, Dublin.  He has worked extensively on the history of famines in Ireland and worldwide.

Richard Paping teaches economic and social history and economics at University of Groningen. He has done extensive research on developments in standard-of-living, economy and demography in the Netherlands.

Eric Vanhaute is professor social and economic history and world history at Ghent University. He has mainly published on the history of  the rural society and of labour markets in Flanders and outside.

Table of contents:

Eric Vanhaute, Richard Paping and Cormac Ó Gráda, The European Subsistence Crisis of 1845–1850: a Comparative Perspective

PART I - The Irish Famine in an International Perspective

Cormac Ó Gráda, Ireland’s Great Famine. An overview - Mary E. Daly, Something Old and Something New. Recent Research on the Great Irish Famine - Peter M. Solar, The Crisis of the Late 1840s. What Can Be Learned From Prices? - Peter Gray, The European Food Crisis and the Relief of Irish Famine, 1845–1850

PART II - A Potato Famine Outside Ireland?

Tom M. Devine, Why the Highlands Did Not Starve. Ireland and Highland Scotland During the Potato Famine - Eric Vanhaute, “So Worthy an Example to Ireland”. The Subsistence and Industrial Crisis of 1845–1850 in Flanders - Richard Paping and Vincent Tassenaar, The Consequences of the Potato Disease in the Netherlands 1845–1860: a Regional Approach - Hans H. Bass, The Crisis in Prussia - Gunter Mahlerwein, The Consequences of the Potato Blight in South Germany - Nadine Vivier, The Crisis in France. A Memorable Crisis But Not a Potato Crisis - Jean Michel Chevet and Cormac Ó Gráda, Crisis: What Crisis? Prices and Mortality in Mid-Nineteenth Century France - Pedro Díaz Marín, Subsistence Crisis and Popular Protest in Spain. The Motines of 1847- Ingrid Henriksen, A Disaster Seen From the Periphery. The Case of Denmark - Carl-Johan Gadd, On the Edge of a Crisis: Sweden in the 1840s