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1Jean Meuvret’s (1901-1971) article on subsistence crises is a classic of postwar historiography. [1] It was perfectly timed to lay the foundations for the study of population history, a field of economic and social history still unexplored at that time, whose importance had just been highlighted by Louis Chevalier (1946) in one of the first issues of Population. This “founding paper” has marked several generations of historical demographers, whether or not they had the good fortune to attend the classes taught by the author at the École pratique des hautes études from 1951. [2] Meuvret had exceptional knowledge of the archive collections that could be used by quantitative historians to explore research avenues whose contours were already clearly defined. He intended to follow these avenues himself and, above all, encouraged others to do so. He was among the first to reveal the neglected potential of the parish registers, an accessible and informative source for reconstituting population change in the pre-statistical era and for identifying demographic characteristics of the past. Meuvret thus set the stage for historical demography, be it the major survey on “the population of France from Louis XIV to the Restoration” launched by Louis Henry with the help of Michel Fleury in 1958, the pioneering work of Pierre Goubert (1960, 1966) or the masterful study of famine under the reign of the Sun King by Marcel Lachiver (1991).

2Meuvret had been working for several years on a thesis on subsistence problems during the long reign of Louis XIV, and had published two articles in 1944, respectively in the Mélanges d’histoire sociale (les Annales, founded by Bloch and Lucien Febvre, had been renamed in 1942), and in the Journal de la Société statistique de Paris.[3] The first discussed the quality of goods price lists (known as mercuriales) – the main data source for tracking the history of grain prices – using weekly records, if available, in preference to annual evaluations, and examined the pitfalls to be avoided in metrological and monetary conversions. The second made important methodological recommendations for reconstituting price changes, such as the use of a moving median rather than a moving average to eliminate the influence of outliers in very irregular data series. It also argued that the crop year was a more appropriate timeframe for capturing food price fluctuations, especially to study their impact on the populations exposed to price rises.

3Two years later, in the Population article presented here, Meuvret brings greater depth and breadth to his analysis of the demographic “repercussions” of exceptional price rises. He examines their complex mechanisms and looks at ways of quantifying them. In his view, the exact share of deaths attributable to famine itself is impossible to determine “in statistical terms”. He also highlights the disruptive effect of famine migration which is liable to distort such measures. His scant use of figures to support his hypothesis may seem surprising. As pointed out by Albert Soboul (1972), the author “was not fatally attracted to numbers”, contrary to what some would have us believe. Another highly original feature of this article is the focus on a hitherto relatively unnoticed past phenomenon to be taken into account when assessing crisis intensity, namely the downturn in births, measured by the calendar of conceptions. It is as much a consequence and a characteristic symptom of crisis as excess mortality – if not more so. Last, the contrast revealed between the two major types of crisis – acute crisis and latent crisis – remains one of the major findings of this study, admittedly based on a limited volume of data and whose representativeness, at the level of the kingdom, was open to question. The graph is still as strikingly illustrative today, though the author says little about how it was constructed.

4Twenty years later, Meuvret (1965a, 1965b) acknowledged that the source used for the price curve was “wholly inadequate”. But by that time he could refer to the work of his “disciples” – Pierre Goubert in particular – to reaffirm the often positive correlation between high grain prices and demographic crises, even if other observations, such as those of René Baehrel (1961) in Provence, contradicted or qualified this assertion; like all pioneering articles, it raised controversy and was sometimes caricatured by its adversaries. In particular, the distinction between crop year and calendar year was seen as a pointless refinement, and very time-consuming for historians (Baehrel, 1954). Pierre Chaunu, in his classic provocative style, appeared to sound the death knell of Meuvret’s teachings in 1962: “There are subsistence crises that do not kill, and demographic crises in periods of plenty; even when the two coincide, it is not a simple relation of cause and effect… It is not hunger that kills, but the repercussions of hunger… The subsistence crisis is no longer the fashionable cliché of Ancien Régime demography” (Chaunu 1962). Meuvret nonetheless remained a respected pioneer of the “French school of demography” (Dupâquier, 1995; Kaplan, 2015; Séguy, 2016).

5The question of the link between scarcity and natural population change raised in the eighteenth century (Meuvret made use of anonymous studies published by Louis Messance in 1766), pursued in the nineteenth century (Loua, 1867) and abundantly researched in the 1980s, has since been abandoned by historical demographers and economic historians. The subsistence crisis model is known and recognized, although the correlation between grain price increase and mortality increase is not as systematic as Jean Meuvret believed. Subsistence crises are now studied from a broader perspective. The main causes of famine are well-known, and climate historians have described both the random fluctuations and the long-term patterns which, throughout the Little Ice Age, durably disrupted farming cycles and techniques. In parallel, economic historians have pointed up the inadequacies of the kingdom’s production and distribution system, due in some cases to rigid and sometimes ineffective rules, and in others to demographic factors (such as a farm labour shortages after successive years of excess mortality). However, deeper structural causes must also be mentioned. The practically permanent state of war under Louis XIV not only ruined the populations, but also made it difficult to transport corn from one province to another. Moreover, much of the grain produced was set aside to supply food and animal feed to the troops. Last, the support systems run by municipalities and charities, some of them with a long tradition of providing food to the poor, limited the local impact of high food prices upon the poorest populations. But this support, provided mainly in towns and cities, inevitably attracted beggars and ruined farmers who were promptly turned away; these institutions did not have the means to support both the urban and rural poor. As well as studying their causes, historians also examined the consequences of shortages and famine. While Jean Meuvret focused on the immediate demographic impacts of severe food scarcity, other historians considered the more long-term effects, notably lost births. Today, researchers are exploring the physiological, psychological and epidemiological consequences of malnutrition and famine, notably by studying the severe food crises of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

6Text and commentary translated by Catriona Dutreuilh.


  • [*]
    French Institute for Demographic Studies.
  • [1]
    This article was republished in Études d’histoire économique (1971), a collection of texts published shortly before the author’s death.
  • [2]
    Jean Meuvret held the chair in rural history at the “Economics and social sciences” 6th section founded in 1947 and headed by Lucien Febvre until 1956, then by Fernand Braudel, and which later became the EHESS. A graduate of the École normale supérieure and with an advanced teaching qualification in history (agrégation), he taught and served as deputy librarian at the École normale supérieure for some twenty years before beginning a late teaching career in higher education. For his biography, see Cobb (1972), Soboul (1972), Goubert (1972, 1996, pp. 151-156).
  • [3]
    Meuvret began his thesis under the supervision of Henri Hauser (1866-1946). He had completed two major sections in 1952, but never defended it. The manuscript was published by his “students” after his death (Meuvret, 1977-1988). On his contribution to economic history, see Grantham, 1989).


  • historical demography
  • subsistence crisis
  • mortality
  • Jean Meuvret


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