Joan Thirsk, 1922-2013

One of the leading social historians of her generation has died

October 17, 2013

Joan Thirsk was born in London on 19 June 1922. She studied at the University of London, where her first degree was followed by a PhD supervised by the social historian R. H. Tawney – most famous for Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), although his earlier book, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (1912), addressed more closely some of the themes that Dr Thirsk was to make her own.

During the Second World War, she served in the code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park. She went on to pursue an academic career, first as assistant lecturer in sociology at the London School of Economics, then senior research fellow in agrarian history at the University of Leicester (1951-65) and finally reader in economic history at the University of Oxford (1965-83). She was editor of Agricultural History Review from 1964 to 1972 and sat on the editorial board of Past & Present from 1957 to 1992. She was appointed a fellow of the British Academy in 1974 and made a Commander of the British Empire in 1993.

As well as editing volumes 4 and 5 of The Agrarian History of England and Wales (1967, 1984), Dr Thirsk’s extensive list of publications includes English Peasant Farming (1957), Economic Policy and Projects: The Development of a Consumer Society in Early Modern England (1978), The Rural Economy of England: Collected Essays (1984), Alternative Agriculture: A History from the Black Death to the Present Day (1997) and Food in Early Modern England (2007).

For Roger Richardson, emeritus professor of history at the University of Winchester, a former student who went on to become a close friend, Dr Thirsk was a “warm-hearted, unfailingly caring and understanding” woman who was “always ready to place her research and insights at the disposal of the historians’ community”.

He added: “Although chiefly a specialist in early modern English agrarian history, she ranged far more widely, not least in her innovative and probing treatment of the interface between agriculture and industry, family and inheritance patterns, cross-cultural contacts, and more generally of women in history and historiography.

“She wrote always very accessibly and with great precision – echoes, perhaps, of her wartime work at the Bletchley Park decrypting centre.”

Dr Thirsk died on 3 October after a fall and is survived by her husband James, whom she met at Bletchley Park, a son and a daughter.

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