Plate 6 from Nova Reperta
by Johannes Stradanus

Agricultural Experimentation

 

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. Click for a Larger ViewThe 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" (sic).

T
his 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 century.

The culture of experimentation that swept Western Europe during the early modern period, however, did have some impact on agriculture. Click for a Larger ViewIn 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. Click for a Larger ViewA 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.


Eric Binnie
Hendrix College

Harry Kitsikopoulos
New York University

Suggested Reading

Bennett, Jim, and Scott Mandelbrote. The Garden, the Ark, the Tower, the Temple: Biblical Metaphors of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe. Oxford: Museum of the History of Science and the Bodleian Library, 1998.

Caton, Mary Ann, ed. Fooles and Fricassees: Food in Shakespeare's England. Seattle: Washington University Press, 1999.

Fussell, G.E. The Farmer's Tools, 1500-1900: The History of British Farm Implements, Tools and Machinery Before the Tractor Came. London: Andrew Melrose, 1952.

McRrae, Andrew. God Speed the Plough: The Representation of Agrarian England, 1500-1660. Cambridge: New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Thirsk, Joan. The Rural Economy of England. London: Hambledon Press, 1984.

-. "Plough and Pen: Agricultural Writers in the Seventeenth Century." In Social Relations and Ideas, edited by T. H. Aston, P. R. Coss, Christopher Dyer, and Joan Thirsk, 295-318. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Webster, Charles. The Great Instauration. London: 1975.