The Joan Thirsk Memorial Prize is awarded annually for the Best Book in British or Irish Rural or Agrarian History. The prize was awarded for the first time in Spring 2017.

How the prize works

Works entered can be concerned with any aspect of British and Irish rural or agrarian history provided that they use broadly historical methodology (so works of pure archaeology will not be eligible). Works by single or joint authors will be eligible but edited collections of papers will not.

Joan Thirsk (1922–2013)

Joan Thirsk was the leading agricultural and rural historian of her generation. Her books and articles have a lasting influence. The fertility of Joan’s mind was such that she wrote a succession of pioneering articles, offering ideas and even creating areas of research which others took up and developed. She was an early writer on the family, on open fields, and on the industrialization of the countryside. Her Economic Policy and Projects created a historiography of the manufacture and consumption of ordinary things (‘starch, needles, pins, cooking pots, kettles, frying pans, lace, soap, vinegar, stockings do not appear on the shopping lists [of men] but they do appear on mine’). She was a historian of knitting, horticulture, tobacco and, of course, woad and our leading authority on early modern food. Her editorial labours, notably on the Agrarian History of England and Wales, were prodigious. And one should not ignore—Joan would not forgive us if we did—her interest in (and and deep empathy with) her female predecessors in the history profession. Her kindness and generosity of time, advice and references to many historians was considerable.

Joan was much more than an agricultural and rural historian and yet the British Agricultural History Society, of which she was a founder and loyal servant, always remained dear to her. In return the Society acknowledged her excellence by making her its president for two terms. Its members gave her a Festschrift when she retired and another when she passed eighty.

The Society now wishes to perpetuate her memory with an annual prize for the best book published in the broad fields of British and Irish rural and agrarian history. To that end we solicit contributions to a prize fund to be administered by the Society.

Joan Thirsk, leading agricultural and rural historian and twice BAHS President.

This year’s winners

In 2023, for the first time, the Joan Thirsk Memorial Prize was split between two authors, Professor Christopher Dyer and Dr Jane Rowling, seen here with President of the BAHS, Professor Nicola Verdon.

Presenting the prize at the BAHS Spring Conference in Nottingham, Professor Verdon said: “I would like to thank my fellow panellists this year, Sarah Holland and Henry French. We all agreed that the submissions were of a very high standard, each contributing to the field of British/Irish rural/agrarian history in different ways.

“We read submissions that in many respects marked the culmination of a lifetime of scholarship, showcasing a mastery of myriad primary sources; we read others that were written by scholars at the beginning of their academic and publishing careers, which were conceptually innovative and thought-provoking. Indeed, one of the submissions took issue with some of the conclusions of a previous Thirsk Prize winner, which shows how quickly the field can move on.

“Some submissions concentrated on particular regions and landscapes, whilst others ranged more broadly; some focused on the life and work of one particular agricultural writer, whilst others analysed a cannon of published agricultural literature. All this made our job very hard as we found merit in each.

“Because of this, the panel this year decided, for the first time, to split the award between two submissions: Chris Dyer’s Peasants making history: Living in an English region, 1200-1540 (Oxford University Press) and Jane Rowling’s Environments of identity: Agricultural community, work and concepts of local in Yorkshire, 1918-2018 (The White Horse Press), both meticulously researched, highly readable and thought-provoking.”

Thirsk Prize Winners with the President 2023

Previous winners

Paul Brassley, David Harvey, Matt Lobley, and Michael Winter (2021), The real Agricultural Revolution: The transformation of English farming, 1939–1985, The Boydell Press

Presenting the prize, Professor Clare Griffiths said: “This year’s judges enjoyed many hours of both enjoyable and instructive reading as we worked our way through the submissions. I was joined in these endeavours by my fellow judges Nicola Verdon and Paul Warde. The standard of the submissions was very high this year, but one book did shine through, and we were unanimous in our decision. This is the first occasion on which the prize has been awarded to a book with more than one author.

“This book will surely prove to be indispensable reading for anyone studying the history of British agriculture in the twentieth century. It is a book which impressed us with its scholarship, its use of original primary research across a great range of source materials, and the way in which it combines attention to the particular and the regional with an ability to contextualise historical experience and tell a wider and more far-reaching story, a story which it sets out with eloquence and engaging argument. Above all, it succeeds in making a significant contribution to the field, not only in adding to our sum of knowledge, but in providing new insights as to how we may interpret and better understand an important period in the history of British farming, and the complicated processes by which changes in agricultural practice take shape as a consequence of the decisions and actions taken by myriad individuals.”

Paul Warde (2018), The Invention of Sustainability: Nature and Destiny, c.1500–1870, Cambridge University Press

Presenting the prize, the President of the Society, Dr John Broad, said, “There were more entries for this year’s Joan Thirsk prize than ever before, the standard was high, and the judges found a great deal of interest in them all. Nevertheless, they were unanimous in awarding the prize to Paul Warde for his lively and well-written book, The Invention of Sustainability, which uses the printed literature of Britain and many other European countries to show how ideas of a sustainable rural economy—forestry as well as agriculture—developed from the early modern period through to the mid-nineteenth century.

“Its concern is with agricultural writers and with European-wide linkages, and its success is both relevant to contemporary concerns and apt: these are themes that Joan Thirsk discussed and wrote about throughout her life.”

Claas Kirchhelle (2020), Pyrrhic Progress: The History of Antibiotics in Anglo-American Food Production, Rutgers University Press

Presenting the prize, the President of the Society, Paul Brassley, said, “The year 2020 will be remembered for several bad things, but among the good things that happened was the emergence of a larger crop of Thirsk Prize candidates than ever before: ten books, with authors from six different countries, on topics ranging from early medieval pigs to the problems of the Common Agricultural Policy.

“It is never easy to decide upon the best in such a diverse field, but in a plague year it was always going to be difficult to ignore a book that deals with the history of a potentially major factor in the next pandemic, given the significance of antimicrobial resistance. Consequently this year’s Thirsk Prize has been awarded to Claas Kirchhelle of University College, Dublin, for Pyrrhic Progress: the History of Antibiotics in Anglo-American Food Production, a meticulously researched and compelling analysis of the differences between Britain and the USA in the use and control of antibiotics in agriculture.”

Briony McDonagh, Elite Women and the Agricultural Landscape, 1700–1830 (Routledge)

Presenting the prize, the President of the Society, Dr John Broad, said: “The excellence of the field for the Thirsk Prize this year was such that all submissions would be worthy winners in a normal year. We found it extremely difficult to rank the books and indeed each of the four was ranked first or equal first by one of the judges. However, we were ultimately unanimous in our decision to award the prize to Briony McDonagh for Elite Women and the Agricultural Landscape, 1700–1830.

“She used both national samples and local case studies to illuminate how female landowners could be independent managers of their estates and shapers of the landscape. I am sure that Joan Thirsk would have warmed to both the subject matter and the quality of the argument and writing.”

Peter Jones, Agricultural Enlightenment: Knowledge, Technology and Nature, 1750-1840 (Oxford University Press)

Announcing the winner, Dr John Broad, President of the BAHS, said, “All the entries were of a high standard and worthy of serious consideration. Interestingly, three of them had a significant ‘transnational’ comparative element which we enjoyed and felt was well done. Although we had marginally different views of the merits of each book, were were unanimous in awarding the prize to Peter Jones.

“This is a book Joan Thirsk would have empathised with and enjoyed, since one of her last essays, ‘The World Wide Farming Web’, covered some of the same issues of the transmission of agricultural ideas in a slightly earlier period. Peter’s book ranges right across Europe from the the British isles to Germany and beyond, and from Scandinavia to Spain, tracing the spread of ideas, the interactions between them, and using illuminating case studies to show the practical implications. It is a pleasure to congratulate him on his achievement.”

Ros Faith, (2019) The Moral Economy of the Countryside: Anglo-Saxon to Anglo-Norman England, Cambridge University Press

The President of the Society, Paul Brassley, writes: “As in previous years, it is gratifying to see that 2019 produced an excellent crop of entries for the Thirsk Prize. They were all potential winners, and covered periods ranging from the eighth century to the twenty-first, but the judges were unanimous in awarding the prize to Rosamond Faith for The Moral Economy of the Countryside: Anglo-Saxon to Anglo-Norman England.

The book explores the structure of values and obligations in Anglo-Saxon landed society which determined whether behaviour was judged to be right or wrong, and explains how these ideas affected landholding. Concepts of rank, reciprocity, and worth were changed by the Norman Conquest, so by the twelfth century a formerly free peasantry owed regular labour and rent in cash or kind to a new class of landlords. The culmination of a lifetime’s work, this book makes comprehensible a huge amount of knowledge, secondary literature and primary sources. Beautifully written, and sensibly priced, it’s exactly the kind of book that Joan Thirsk would have enthused about.’

Dr Faith writes in response: “I should like to thank the Society for this honour. Joan Thirsk and her work have been of great significance for historians of English rural life, and have had a particular resonance for me. She took me under her wing when I was a young mother-of-two struggling to combine academic work with family life and I am sure that it was largely due to her influence that in 1966 the Agricultural History Review published my article on peasant inheritance. When I began to return to academic life many years later it was a conference she organised at the Department for Continuing Education in Oxford, whose papers were published as The English Rural Landscape in 2000, that brought home the importance of being alert to the ways that the local landscapes influenced farming and farmers’ lives. That approach became a template for my contribution to the book that Debby Banham and I wrote on Anglo-Saxon farming and dedicated to her.

“I don’t know what Joan would have made of The Moral Economy of the Countryside, but I do remember a conversation from some sixty years ago in which we both deplored the breach between the study of Anglo-Saxon and later medieval England. I hope she would think that I had done my best to take a longer view.”