Walter Blith, a gentleman
of Cotesbach in Leicestershire, served as a captain of Parliamentary
forces. He was also an agent for the sequestration of Royalist land
and was engaged in the survey of Crown Lands, some of which he purchased
for himself. His English Improver (first published in 1649)
was one of the most important handbooks advocating agricultural
improvement in seventeenth-century England. Blith described the
main obstacles to reformed practices as legal, economic, and technical,
and he enumerated the ways that the ordinary farmer could improve
his land, usually rehearsing well-known, standard techniques. He
also advocated new crops such as clover, lucerne (alfalfa), woad,
hemp, and flax, and he described drainage techniques and methods
of plowing. The English Improver is an ambitious record
of Blith's comparative study of land improvement techniques and
farm machinery in various parts of England, Scotland, northern France,
and the Netherlands.
In 1649, Blith had
dedicated his work to Parliament, and those associations were reinforced
by the position of his publisher, John Wright, as one of Parliament's
official printers. By 1652, when the third edition was published,
it was newly entitled—The English Improver Improved;
Blith's main dedicatee had become Oliver Cromwell; and the book
was more than twice the size of the original. The 1652 edition contains
an evocative and highly decorative title page. The
title appears within a central panel surrounded by a wreath of leaves
and a biblical motto from Isaiah, 2:4, "They shall beat their
swords into plow-shares and their spears into pruning hooks."
The motto is illustrated by the figures on the rest of the page.
The figures on the left side of the design can be identified as
Royalist soldiers, known as Cavaliers, by their being mounted on
horseback and by the flowing plumes in their hats. On the opposite
side, similar figures are foot soldiers, and their dress indicates
that they are from the Parliamentary faction. As the viewer's eye
travels down the page, military figures on both sides are replaced
by figures engaged in peaceful agricultural activities such as ploughing,
ditch digging, and surveying. At the bottom of the page, both types
of figures engage in such laboring tasks, even though the Cavaliers
are clearly dressed rather unsuitably. All other space on the page
is filled in with decorative drawings of armor, drums, and helmets.
The whole page is surmounted by a ribbon legend, "Vive la Republick"
This title page tellingly illustrates Blith's optimistic
hopes. Blith had been a captain in the Parliamentary army, and his
treatise advocates agricultural improvements in Cromwell's Commonwealth.
Completing the title page's quotation from Isaiah, "Neither
shall they learn war any more," one sees that Blith hoped the
peace of the commonwealth would bring a new spirit of agricultural
improvement. Unfortunately, this temporary peace was short-lived,
and Blith's improvements did not really take hold until the next
The culture of experimentation
that swept Western Europe during the early modern period, however,
did have some impact on agriculture. In
the case of England, better irrigation methods (in the form of water-meadows),
more efficient systems of cultivation (such as convertible husbandry),
and the introduction of leguminous grasses (e.g., clover), all led
to the improvement of crop yields. In some other ways, however,
agrarian techniques retained a continuity with the past. A case
in point is made with the spades and ploughs depicted here. The
implements differ little, in terms of their design patterns, from
those utilized during the Middle Ages and even earlier. Blith shows
these various tools to indicate the choices available in a variety
of situations to alleviate the English practice of plowing too deeply.
Blith returns to ploughs again later in his
work to emphasize the importance of matching tool and situation.
second full-page illustration distinguishes the Harfordshire Wheeled
plough, the Single Wheeled plough, the Plaine plough, and the Double
plough, and provides more detailed drawings of the Dutch coulter
and the pure Dutch share, all of which are fully described in Chapter
XXIX of the text. Blith outlines the most suitable plough for different
types of soil, landscape, and location. Blith takes considerable
effort to describe and illustrate the various implements for land
improvement, yet he seems, at times, to lose patience with his task,
as when he invites interested readers to "come and see the
thing itself, better than all the Figures and Illustrations I can
do." There is little evidence that his advice was much heeded
by his intended readers; indeed his advocacy of new drainage techniques
in the Fen district met with local resistance.
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