Hugh Plat, the son
of a wealthy London brewer, devised many projects for the public
good during his lifetime. Plat pursued mechanical inventions, distilling,
and projects of agricultural improvement, and was a popular sixteenth-century
author of farming manuals. His Jewel House of Art and Nature
was a collection of useful do-it-yourself recipes and household
hints on everything from brewing to cooking to building. It was
first published in 1594 with the promise
that it would provide the means to increase the yield of harvests
and to fructify the land. A woodcut of the Earl of Essex's coat
of arms appeared on the verso of the title page of the first edition,
emphasizing Plat's dedication to the earl of Essex. But when the
manual was reprinted nearly six decades later—during Oliver
Cromwell's Protectorate—the coat of arms was replaced by an
ear of barley. The new image suggested the importance of the natural
world and brought into focus the growing value of quantification
in the seventeenth century.
The image of the ear
of barley was executed as a woodcut, a traditional medium for book
illustration. But the image substituted a newly current appeal to
mathematical verification for an appeal to nobility. A ruler-like
series of numbers (in increments of fives) accentuate the ear of
barley, endorsing its length as truly some 35 inches long
(although there is a "fish-story" deceit implicit in the
placement of the zero well to the left of the actual barley ear).
This was a remarkable claim—as today a typical barley ear
grows to about 8 to 10 inches. But the very presence of the virtual
ruler renders the astonishing size of the ear of barley more believable.
The caption for the
image also buttresses the claim of remarkable size. The text attests
to the specific place and time when and where this barley grew.
Indeed, Plat did reside in Bishop's Hall, Bethnal Green (Essex),
where he maintained experimental gardens. The caption also directs
the reader to the specific passage in the text—on page 139—where
Plat's avowal of the efficacy of a certain kind of soap ash as fertilizer
and herbicide appeals in circular fashion back to the woodcut at
the front of the book:
And because I would not rely wholly upon
the outlandish experience of those ashes, . . . I have thought
good to prefix in the front of this Treatise, the portraiture
of an ear of Summer barley, being drawn truly and sharply, according
to the breadth and length thereof; which together with sundry
others of the same proportion (as by divers eye witnesses of good
credit, I can prove and justifie) did grow this Summer at Bishops-hall,
where I dwell, to the great admiration of the beholders: the stalk
of which together with the ear was measured to be an ell, and
three inches in length from the ground to the summity [sic] thereof.
Plat's appeal to eye-witnesses of "good
credit" is an early example of what Steven Shapin and Simon
Schaffer describe as a key strategy for the establishment of truth
claims in early modern scientific communities. Still, there remains
a problem with Plat's measurements. "An ell, and three inches"
is only 48 inches, which implies that while the metric of the ruler
in the image is correct, the proportion of the ear to the stalk
is vastly distorted (and in Plat's favor). Did Plat presume that
his readers would not recognize this blatant size distortion of
a real-life barley stalk?
There is evidence
of one reader's response to the text in the Folger copy depicted
here. A (presumably contemporary) reader has written Plat's name
and elaborated the reference to Bishops-hall as Plat's own home.
The resulting annotation could be misconstrued as another attempt
on Plat's part to authenticate the claims of the text with his own
"signature." But the more likely explanation is that the
reader is simply drawing attention to that function of the illustration.
That the anonymous reader remains skeptical is more apparent in
the same reader's annotation on the passage on page 139. He has
underlined the word "this" in Plat's claim that he "did
grow [the stalk] this summer." The annotation in the margin
there reads "Midd'x 1594," perhaps to emphasize that at
least in the seventeenth century, barley did not grow like that,
and that this miraculous barley was a product of Elizabeth's reign.
The identity of this
annotator remains unknown. But the hyperbole of the image suggests
that the readership was not, in fact, the practical one we might
assume, but rather a more gentlemanly audience interested in a theoretical
rather than a practical knowledge. Some aspects of the reader's
presumed interests may be surmised from the identities of the book's
backers, though here further questions of reliability also arise.
The 1653 [sic] edition was dedicated to another influential patron,
in this case Bullstrode Whitelocke (1605-1675), Oliver Cromwell's
keeper of the Great Seal of England. Since Whitlocke didn't take
up his post until July 1654 (and because it is assumed the printer
Alsop died sometime in 1653; another 1653 edition of the work lists
his widow Elizabeth on the title page), it is less than certain
that the book was actually published in 1653 rather than 1654.
Most of Plat's text
is preserved from 1594. The original text is supplemented in the
interregnum edition, however, by the treatise, "A rare and
excellent Discourse of Minerals, Stones, Gums, and Rosins."
The author (D.B., Gent., according to the title page) has been identified
as Arnold Boate (or de Boote; 1600-1653). Boate was a Dutch physician
and member of Samuel Hartlib's (c. 1600-1662) circle of reformers
and seekers of universal knowledge. Together with his younger brother
Gerard, Boate had earlier compiled Ireland's Natural History
(published by bookseller John Wright in 1652). Incomplete, that
work was an attempt to describe the land and its uses, but it also
advanced the agenda of the protestant settlers who fled after the
1641 rebellion in Ireland. Hartlib, who was personally interested
in the plantation of Ireland, had himself published a work on husbandry
in 1653—the widely read Discoverie for division or setting
out of land. The resurrection of Plat's work must be studied
in the context of a new agenda for land reform in Cromwell's England.
Michigan Technological University
Barnard, T.C. "The Hartlib Circle and
the Cult and Culture of Improvement in Ireland." In Samuel
Hartlib and Universal Reformation: Studies in Intellectual Communication,
edited by Mark Greengrass, Michael Leslie, and Timothy Raylor,
281-297. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Coughlan, Patricia. "Natural History
and Historical Nature." In Samuel Hartlib and Universal
Reformation: Studies in Intellectual Communication, edited
by Mark Greengrass, Michael Leslie, and Timothy Raylor, 298-317.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
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.
Eamon, William. Science and the Secrets
of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Juel-Jensen, Bent. "Plat's Floraes
Paradise - Garden of Eden - 1608/1653." The Book Collector
38 (1989): 406-407.
Mullett, Charles F. "Hugh Plat: Elizabethan
Virtuoso." In Studies in Honor of A.H.R. Fairchild,
edited by Charles T. Prouty, 91-118. Columbia: University of Missouri
Orlin, Lena Cowen. Elizabethan Households,
An Anthology. Washington, D.C.: The Folger Shakespeare Library,
Shapin, Steven, and Simon Schaffer.
Leviathan and Air-Pump. Princeton: Princeton University