Book-Knowledge is Power

Dr James Fisher, King’s College London


Imagine you are a young gentleman in late eighteenth-century Britain who has taken over a farm. You have spent plenty of time in the countryside, but you know more about fox hunting than crop rotations. You were not ‘bred to husbandry’, in the common phrase. You are the master of your farm and need to direct a team of servants to ensure it is profitable. But you find you are almost completely reliant on the head servant to run the farm. You suspect they are being wasteful and perhaps cheating you. You want to introduce some improvements, but you don’t know how, and your servants simply follow the customary methods. Fortunately, there are books – hundreds of books! – whose title pages promise to teach you the complete art of husbandry, or a new system of agriculture, and turn you overnight into a successful gentleman farmer.

Here is a remedy for your managerial troubles. You can substitute the stubborn grunts of your insubordinate servants for the ordered, scientific knowledge of respectable country gentlemen, clergymen and physicians. You are confident that you will soon understand the whole art better than these clowns and clod-hoppers. This is important. In the words of the agricultural writer Arthur Young, ‘in every species of business, the master should know more’ than his servants (Rural Oeconomy, 1770). Indeed, some farming books advertised themselves precisely as fulfilling this need for managerial knowledge. The incessant publisher John Trusler explained that his manual Practical Husbandry (1780) was ‘to give Gentleman… such an insight into the nature of farming, as will enable them to check the negligence, correct the ignorance, or detect the imposition, of servants’.

Now imagine you are a servant of the gentleman farmer described above. You have lived and laboured in the area all your life. You were taught by your father and mother almost every activity on a small farm and gained further experience as a young servant in a few different households. You learned the ‘mystery of husbandry’ through practice, not from a book. You are hired for your knowledge and skill and it gives you a small degree of control over daily tasks. How would you view these farming books that gentlemen read? What would you think of a clean-booted gentlemen claiming that he knows more about the soil than you?

Unfortunately, we know little about the opinions of most farm servants and labourers, except what can be gleaned from a few surviving diaries. But we do know that gentlemen farmers complained that their servants and labourers would not listen to their instructions, and that agricultural authors complained that common husbandmen refused to read or follow the advice in their books. The author Charles Varlo shared a typical response from small farmers: ‘shall a gentleman because he can write, pretend to instruct me what to do with my land, does he know better than myself, who has been brought up to farming business all my life time, and perhaps on the same land too, a pretty joke indeed’ (A New System of Husbandry, 1770). Such anecdotal comments suggest there was a tension between two different kinds of expertise: workers who gained knowledge and skills through practical experience, and gentlemen in possession of a book proclaiming fundamental scientific principles.

These are the tensions surrounding agricultural knowledge that I explore in my article for Cultural & Social History. The question of agricultural expertise involved a number of complex debates in the late eighteenth century, including the balance of theory and practice, the relative value of experience or experiment, and the role of chemistry. However, the primary aim of my article is to show how this problem of knowledge was linked to and articulated through antagonistic social relations. A key source I use to illustrate this point is an anti-enclosure pamphlet from 1785, which presented a detailed critique of the social ‘evils’ arising from the printing of agricultural books. It brings into sharp focus the notion that book-knowledge is not socially neutral, but a particular way of acquiring, storing and transferring knowledge, which can serve particular purposes in different circumstances – such as the intensification of managerial control over farm production. Indeed, I argue that a key function of agricultural books was to help gentlemen (or, more generally, any inexperienced but educated manager of a farm) to be less dependent on their servants or other social inferiors who usually possessed greater practical experience.

It is only by appreciating the relations between knowledge and power, especially with respect to divisions of labour, that we can fully understand the controversy surrounding ‘book-farming’ – the practice of farming with knowledge acquired chiefly from books – in the late eighteenth century. Whereas previous historians have noted in passing that common farmers were sceptical or hostile to farming books, they have explained this solely in terms of the poor quality of books or the illiteracy of farmers. This ignores the social struggles over productive knowledge in the development of agrarian capitalism.

The article arose from my recently completed thesis, which argues that the development of agricultural instructional literature from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries was linked to the polarisation of the occupational structure in agriculture. The typical farm changed from a small subsistence farm using family labour to a large commercial farm using hired wage labour. At the same time, the growth of printed instructions on agriculture offered an alternative form of knowledge to the customary knowledge acquired through labour and transferred orally and by demonstration.

In an earlier Research Exchange post, Esben Bøgh Sørensen articulated a problem in studying agricultural books and their relation to social conditions: how do we assess the impact of the ideas within them? My own response to this challenge was to reframe the question in terms of the impact of the printed books themselves, as material objects filled with written knowledge. I believe this offers an alternative perspective on the development of capitalist relations, which traces the links not only to ideas, but also to the entire structure of knowledge acquisition and transmission. Any history of agricultural books must take into account the shifting balance of power within agricultural labour relations and the associated tensions between a labour-based and a book-based system of knowledge.


Read more in the Cultural & Social History article

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Read more blog posts by CASH authors here.


About the Author: Dr James Fisher recently completed his thesis at King’s College London, which offered a reinterpretation of the relationship between books, knowledge and labour in the development of agrarian capitalism in eighteenth-century Britain. He currently teaches history at King’s College London and the University of East London. He is the author of ‘The Master Should Know More: Book-Farming and the Conflict Over Agricultural Knowledge’, Cultural & Social History, vol. 15, no. 3 (2018), pp. 315-331.

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