Medieval cities were obsessed by food, food supplies and food shortages. Like in most pre-1900 societies, extreme weather conditions, warfare, trade conflicts easily disrupted the precarious food supplies, resulting in recurrent and virulent price spikes and potentially unleashing social unrest. No wonder then, that urban food supplies or 'Feeding the city' has been a prominent topic in economic history for decades, with a particular emphasis on the later Middle Ages, period of far-reaching crisis, instability and economic transformation in Europe and beyond. All of this literature however, is based upon the assumption that cities, above a certain population level, are basically fed through the market, where rural agricultural surpluses are exchanged against the products of urban industry and trade. Urged by recent articulations of alternative ways of urban food provisioning – notably the rise of Urban Agriculture and all efforts to replace anonymous 'Food from Nowhere' mediated by increasingly globalized food markets by more localized 'Food from Somewhere' – this project aims at revolutionizing our understanding of urban food provisioning in the past, by questioning the self-evidence of the market as hegemonic allocator of food in past urban societies.
In this project, the key to achieve such paradigm shift in urban food history, is sought in the access to land. The accumulation of both urban and rural land by urban households has been documented in many contexts, but is mostly explained in terms of capital investment and rent seeking and as a tool of social ascent. The food generating capacity of land is mostly overlooked, or minimized as a sign of economic backwardness, small 'agro-towns' or a mere survival strategy for the urban poor. Either through the direct cultivation of land in the city and its periphery, through deliveries in kind by rural tenants or rural family-members or through access to urban commons, land might have provided a wide range of 'alternative food entitlements' for many different social groups, with or without the capability and incentive to secure a market-independent access to food.
Understanding the role of land for feeding the citizens (rather than the city) might be crucial to understand the dynamics of food markets in the later Middle Ages. What if land-based food supplies did not contract but rather expand with the development of food markets? What if dependency of the food markets became connected with lower social status? After all, the social fabric of the late medieval cities was both characterized by an ascent of 'corporate' middle classes, and the disposition of alternative, land-based food supplies, might be one of the instruments through which these middling class tried to emulate the social elites, leaving the food market for the lower strata of urban society. Such observation would significantly change our understanding of 'imperfect' food markets and failing food policies.
For Ghent, Norwich and Dijon, three comparatively large cities with a pronounced difference in connection to regional and long-distance food trade, an in-depth analysis of alternative food entitlements at the household level, will allow to reveal the contexts in which alternative food economies flourished; their relative contribution to the supply of urban households; the actors and networks involved in such supplies; the solidarity and dependency they create and finally their integration in or interaction with the urban food market.
If successful this project might not only generate important new insights in the history of urban food provisioning in late medieval Europe, but also offer an important historical contribution to present-day debates on the viability and social dynamics of alternative urban food supplies.