The Joan Thirsk Papers

Scope and Content

The collection comprises data collected for the Agrarian History volumes 4 and 5. It includes carefully assembled and meticulously transcribed probate inventories, terriers, manorial records and surveys arranged alphabetically by county. The material, collected from the Public Record Office (now The National Archives) and local record offices throughout the country, was gathered by such well qualified researchers as L.M. Midgley, following a template which enabled comparisons to be made across the country. Much of the material contains information which could be used for new investigations, for example into the layout of houses and the types of farm building, of which only limited use was made in the completed Agarian History volumes.

Administrative / Biographical History

A distinguished historian of the early modern economy and society, Joan Thirsk was a major influence on the development of agrarian history. After a degree in modern languages, and a period at Bletchley Park during World War II, she undertook postgraduate research on the history of the crown lands at the University of London. In 1951, following a brief spell as assistant lecturer in sociology at London School of Economics, she was appointed by W.G. Hoskins to the position of senior research fellow in agrarian history in the Department of English Local History at the University College, Leicester. Whilst on the staff at Leicester she researched and wrote a book on peasant farming in Lincolnshire, which challenged the traditional methodologies of agrarian historical research. She championed the use of original manuscript material as a way of reconstructing rural communities and exploring the regional differences between them. During the 1950s, a scheme for the development of an Agrarian History of England and Wales was driven forward by H.P.R. Finberg, who had succeeded Hoskins as the head of the Department of English Local History. Thirsk devised a strategy for writing volume 4 of the series, devoted to the period 1500-1640, with such success that it was published in 1967, well ahead of the other volumes. She realised the importance of reflecting the variety of the English regions in the volume, and a modest amount of funding allowed researchers to be employed to gather documentation from record offices throughout the country. In particular the probate inventories were systematically calendared and summarised, which provided accurate evidence of the types of crops, animals and equipment found in each region, thereby allowing the different farming systems to be identified. Thirsk stayed at Leicester for fourteen years before taking up a post as reader in economic history at Oxford University. Whilst there she edited volume 5 of the Agrarian History, and broadened her research interests into areas such alternative agriculture and early modern food. She retired from her post at Oxford in 1983, but remained actively involved in research for some time and continued to publish until 1995. For her outstanding contribution to agrarian history she was elected in to the British Academy in 1974 and made a Companion of the British Empire in 1995.

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open to bona fide researchers

Acquisition Information

The archive was deposited with the David Wilson Library by Joan Thirsk in June 2009.

Other Finding Aids

Handlists are available via the Speacial Collections pages of the University of Leicester Library website. The lists are arranged in alphabetical order by county

Custodial History

The papers were stored in Joan Thirsk's home prior to their deposit in the Library. They were originally stored in plastic carrier bags; each carrier bag held documentation related to a specific county.


No further accruals are expected