Ideology in Agrarian Manuals

Esben Bøgh Sørensen, Aarhus University


The idea of looking into early modern English agricultural books and manuals for my research project was triggered by a general interest in the history of capitalism. In the last ten to twenty years, we have witnessed a revival in historical studies of capitalism, manifested in the general upsurge of courses, seminars and conferences on the topic offered at European and American universities. In the US, a generation of scholars, represented by for example Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, are studying what is called a ‘new history of capitalism’, although mostly focused on North American history. At the same time, the ‘transition debate’ is back, and in a wide range of studies being published on early modern transitions to capitalist development, including new global and feminist perspectives, we can see the re-emergence of capitalism as a historical concept.

What I find fascinating about agrarian change in early modern England as a field of study is its incredibly well researched nature while at the same time being exceptionally open to continuous debate, new data and new theoretical perspectives. As a trained intellectual historian, I look into the intellectual and ideological aspect of these changes. While there are countless interesting sources to look at, I have chosen one surprisingly revealing source type as my point of focus: agrarian books and manuals.

The well-ordered country house and the efficient and profitable farm. From Timothy Nourse’s ‘A Discourse of the Benefits and Improvements of Husbandry’, 1700.

Reading up on the history of the European agrarian literary tradition, I have found that this literature gives us a unique insight into not only concrete farming practices, systems and techniques in a given society, but also the social and cultural ideals, norms, and values of that particular society. Questions about how to plough, which seeds to sow and how, what animals to rear, and other farming practices were always closely linked to questions about the organisation of labour processes, the distribution of land and property, the social relations between the owners of the land and those who work it, between rulers and producers.

My intention is to read the sources not so much for what they can tell us about farming practices and techniques in the period (although this is also important), but rather analyse them to bring out the cultural and social ideals, norms and values embedded in the texts otherwise occupied with very concrete and everyday questions. Intellectual history offers some useful tools in this regard. The Skinnerian notion of ‘innovative ideologists’ stimulates important questions when reading the texts. I read the texts as innovating, creating, reinventing and rearticulating new and old ideas and concepts.

The manuals are heavily embedded in specific social and cultural contexts, and in order to understand these contexts, engaging with the extensive literature on cultural changes in the period is necessary. For the sixteenth century, I have found that the manuals gradually shifted from a paternalist household ethic in the tradition of classical agricultural literature, to new ways of considering farming more oriented toward the market. In a wider sense, the texts reflected and contributed to broader cultural changes. So far my reading of the texts have reaffirmed many of the results from the last twenty or so years of research into changes in gentry culture as identified by for example Felicity Heal, the emergence of a new middling culture as elaborated by Craig Muldrew and many others, and the creation of a scientific culture.

Illustration from John Fitzherbert’s ‘Book of Husbandry’, 1523.

One noteworthy example from the sixteenth century is Thomas Tusser’s (1524-1580) book A Hundred Good Points of Husbandry from 1557, republished again with significant editions in 1573 as Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry. In the book, Tusser completely changed the meaning of the word ‘covetousness’ by applying it not to enclosing and engrossing landlords and farmers, as was usual in the mid-sixteenth century, but rather to customary tenants. Besides covetousness, he blames these minor farmers for being thieving, idle and disorderly. This is in contrast to the farmer running bigger, enclosed and market-oriented farms, who Tusser associates with new cultural norms and values like thrift, good credit, honest trade and earnestly made profit.

Another remarkable book from 1600 is The new and admirable Arte of Setting of Corne by Hugh Plat (1552-1608). Plat was part of an emerging scientific culture and community in late Elizabethan London, and like other contemporaries, he developed a practical, observational and experimental approach to the study of nature. In the book from 1600, he described how he had roamed the countryside, asking gentlemen and farmers for the newest and best practically tested farming techniques and methods. In contrast to tradition and customary forms of knowledge, farming based on such an experimental approach would be much more profitable, he thought, and called it a ‘new kind of husbandry’.

In my research, I try to understand the agricultural writers as engaged in particular conflicts over property rights and relations, tenurial forms, the organisation of labour processes, and types of knowledge and knowledge production pertaining to agrarian changes in the period. By intervening in these conflicts, struggles and negotiations, the writers both drew on and contributed to wider cultural changes by acting as innovating ideologues in the sense mentioned above.

In the seventeenth century, the publication of agrarian books and manuals greatly increased as they contributed to the making of what Paul Slack has described as a dominant culture or ideology of improvement by the turn of the eighteenth century. It is my claim, that in order to account more fully for agrarian change, and the emergence of agrarian capitalism, it is important to show how the social struggles, conflicts and negotiations leading to these changes were also carried out on an intellectual and ideological level.

My reason for presenting a paper at this year’s Social History Society conference was to present my intellectual history based research to social historians with the expectation of getting some critical comments. My main methodological problems lie in questions of the novelty and the impact of the ideas expressed in the texts, respectively. While the first problem can be answered by relating the texts to wider cultural contexts as described above, the question of impact is more difficult to answer. Although the texts were all published and many of them several times, it is hard to measure the impact of ideas. When I return next year, I will have handed in my dissertation. By that time, I expect that I will have figured out a good answer to this particular question, and I hope to show more generally that making intellectual and social history communicate with each other can give some interesting and fruitful results.


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About the author: Esben Bøgh Sørensen is a PhD student at Aarhus University in Denmark. His research uses the work of agricultural writers to explore the role of ideology, ideas and thought in the early emergence of capitalism in England. He was joint runner-up in the prize for the best postgraduate paper at the 2018 Social History Society conference.

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