Since the Neolithic revolution, agriculture has been the foundation of human life. For most of human history, knowledge about soils, crops, and fertilizer, crucial for survival, has been rooted in local customs and obtained through ‘learning by doing’ processes passed down from one generation of farmers to the next. From the classical era, agricultural writers began to write advice books on household and farm management, enabling long-term preservation and sharing of farming knowledge. It was, however, only following the enlightenment that a scientific approach to farming emerged, novel because of its theory-based and experimental methods. According to a prevalent narrative within agricultural history, the birth of a scientific approach to farming practices and knowledge has traditionally been dated to the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the almost simultaneous establishment of scientific agricultural societies in several European countries.
This narrative, however, misses a crucial chapter in the history of agriculture in late sixteenth and seventeenth-century England before the institutionalization of farming knowledge in scientific agricultural societies. My current research project focuses on this period in English agricultural history. It investigates how new forms of agricultural knowledge and expertise arose among agricultural writers, reformers, and natural philosophers as farming increasingly became a national concern during the seventeenth century.
Promoting cornucopian theories of infinite growth according to which any natural and human limits to agricultural improvement could be conquered by using the powers of science, these reformers were convinced that the new agriculture would bring about an era of wealth and happiness. To generate and promote their ideas, advice, and schemes, they published detailed agriculture books and tracts, met in experimental fields and gardens, and established extensive correspondence networks.
These agricultural writers and reformers often drew on networks among landowners and farmers. I investigate the reach and depth of these networks among gentlemen already interested in experimental natural philosophy and their connection to more extensive groups of farmers. Did writers and reformers draw on and generalize existing best practices among farmers to promote them in a wider public sphere?
Investigating the social world of agricultural writers and reformers further reveals how agricultural knowledge was embedded within contemporary economic and power relations. Practical farming knowledge was also knowledge about how to manage the labour force and land, feeding into the deep conflicts about changing property relations, new field systems, and a growing often itinerant labour force unfolding in the period. The experimental and theory-based approach to agriculture promoted by the writers and reformers further underpinned a growing disruption of the intellectual powers inherent to farm work caused by the increasingly competitive economic environment of an impending agrarian capitalism, clashing with what contemporaries perceived as “custom” and an emerging labouring identity and culture.
I have created the analytical concept of Rural Science to try to capture these diverse forms of knowledge practices among agricultural writers, reformers, experimental philosophers, and farmers. As such, Rural Science refers to the forms of knowledge, new ideas and theories about human agency and nature, and practices of knowledge production, such as information gathering, discussions, observations and conducting experiments, occurring in the spaces where experimental philosophers, agricultural reformers, and farmers interacted, corresponded, and met. These spaces took various forms, from farms, fields, and gardens to correspondence and information networks.
The general rise of scientific farming had to wait until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Of small immediate impact on contemporary farming, the often messy but not entirely disorganized rural science unfolding in England in the seventeenth century nevertheless constitutes a crucial although underappreciated chapter in the history of agriculture.
Finally, the project seeks to approach agricultural history in new ways by drawing on recent scholarships in the history of science and knowledge as well as environmental history and the history of ecological thought. By studying the practice of agricultural knowledge production and the creation of new forms of farming expertise among experimental philosophers, agricultural reformers, and farmers, the project explores how the relations between human agency, soils, and plants within a wider “oeconomy of nature” were reimaged.
The project is funded by the Independent Research Fund Denmark as an international postdoctoral fellowship hosted by the Department of History and Classical Studies, Aarhus University and by the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, where I have been invited as a visiting scholar. At Cambridge I will work with professor in environmental history and editor of the Agricultural History Review, Dr. Paul Warde. The project was further rewarded fellowships by the Carlsberg Foundation and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, which I, unfortunately, had to decline due to overlap in funding.
In 2022, I started on an international postdoc funded by the Independent Research Fund Denmark with a project that further developed the research done in my PhD dissertation. The purpose was to go from considering the agrarian economic culture revealed in early modern farming manuals to include also transformations in agricultural knowledge and expertise. The project was broken of earlier than expected because I took a job as curator and head of collections at he Danish Green Museum in late 2022. Publications and papers relating to my dissertation and the postdoc project include:
2023: "From Thrift to Improvement: Reimagining Agrarian Management in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England", Agricultural History (accepted)
2021: ”To be Bold of One’s Own: Agrarian Capitalism and Household Management in Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry”, Cultural and Social History, vol. 18, issue 2, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14780038.2021.1918846
2021: "The Ecology of Agrarian Capitalism in Early Modern England", Climate, Crisis, Capital: Sixth Annual Conference of the Danish Society for Marxist Studies
2018: ”Ideology in Agrarian Manuals”, Social History Society Research Exchange, http://socialhistory.org.uk/shs_exchange/ideology-in-agrarian-manuals/
2018: “Nature, science and the new kind of husbandry”, Environmental History Virtual Workshop, https://environmentalhistoryworkshop.wordpress.com/2018/08/10/nature-science-and-the-new-kind-of-husbandry/
2018: ”Arbejde som improvement: landbrug, husholdning og kapitalisme I 1500- og 1600-tallets England” (Work as Improvement: Agricultural, household, and capitalism in the 16th and 17th centuries England), Slagmark – Tidsskrift for Idéhistorie (The Danish Journal for Intellectual History), vol. 76
2018: “A ‘New Kind of Husbandry’: Work, Household and Farming in Sixteenth Century English Agricultural Manuals”, Social History Society Annual Conference, Keele University (awarded the runner-up prize for best postgraduate paper)
2017: “Agrarian Capitalism and the culture of improvement: Representations of work in 16th and 17th Century English Agrarian Literature”, The Early Modern and Modern History Postgraduate Forum, University of St. Andrews
In Rural Science my main sources are published agricultural books and pamphlets, which represent the most active agricultural writers and reformers in the period. From these published sources, I trace further networks among writers, reformers, farmers, and natural philosophers by studying a wider variety of sources including manuscripts, personal notes, letters, and correspondences. Here I provide some examples of the most important agricultural books ->
Thomas Tusser's (1524-1580) five hundred points represents a classic example of a farming manual intended to provide substantial farmers with a managerial form of knowledge. It included advice not only on practical farming tasks but also on the management of servants, the work of the farmer's wife, and good neighbourliness. Tusser's manual directly intervened in ongoing conflicts about enclosure and was generally very critical of the open field system.
“more profit is quitter found (where pastures in seuerall bee : ) Of one seelie aker of ground, than champion maketh of three, again what a ioie is it knowne, when men may be bold of their owne!”
See my publication on Tusser here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14780038.2021.1918846
Hugh Plat (1552-1608) was the first English agricultural writer to promote a specifically experimentally and theory-based approach to agriculture, which he sharply contrasted with the customary farming practices of “ingoraunt Farmers”, “the common and vulgar sort of people”, the “simple sots”, “clownish people”, and “meane husband men” who had “neuer tasted of any true natural philosophie”. His publications and manuscripts reveal that he engaged in a wider network of gentlemen farmers on whose knowledge and farming practices he drew. Plat also represents the first example of the use of "chymical" theories on practical farming issues.
See my publication on Plat here: https://environmentalhistoryworkshop.wordpress.com/2018/08/10/nature-science-and-the-new-kind-of-husbandry/
Gervase Markham (1568-1637) was perhaps one of the most popular writers on agriculture in the first decades of the seventeenth century. His book from 1620 contained a highly significant chapter describing an entirely impersonal way of making a "generall computation of men and cattels labours, how they ought to be imployed for the best vse and profit" Such a general account of farm work tasks and methods would prove a strong managerial instrument of labour control. Furthermore, Markham was one of the first agricultural writers to directly relate advice on individual farm management to the prosperity of the nation.
In my current project, I investigate Markham's social network of gentlemen and farmers and if he had any relations to the emerging groups of natural experimental philosophers.
Samuel Hartlib (1600-1662), an immigrant from Elbing in Poland, established the most important network among natural philosophers and agricultural reformers in the seventeenth century. The Hartlibian reformers promoted the experimental approach to agriculture already advised by Plat as a way to increase national prosperity. They wrote and published several books, pamphlets, and schemes to promote what they called agricultural "improvement".
This particular short pamphlet, sometimes attributed to Cressy Dymock (1629-?), one of the Hartlibian reformers, promised to reveal a set of proposals that "seek to impart to all, even to the whole Nation, the Meanes of all Plenty and Riches: and they offer a course which may improve by Experimental Industriousness, some rare known Advantages of Husbandry".
Hartlib left a vast corpus of notes and letters, and later scholars have done much to collect and organize these and his correspondence network into what is now known as the Hartlib papers. These papers are one of the most important sources in my project.
Walther Blith (1605-1654), “a lover of Ingenuity”, was close to Hartlib's network of reformers. His book from 1652 is the epitome of the contemporary improvement discourse.
In his book, Blith combined advice on best farming practices, including some that were to become important to the eighteenth-century agricultural revolution, such as the cultivation of clover, with an "experimental" approach as well as emphasising that "carefull ingenioius Overseers of the Labourers is an unvalued furtherance to the work".
The book reveals how issues like the management of a growing agricultural labour force, continuing conflicts relating to field systems, and raising agricultural output had become crucial in discussions about national prosperity, not least after the devastation brought about by the English Civil Wars and Revolution and the dearth years of 1647-50.