Plate 6 from Nova Reperta
by Johannes Stradanus

Monstrous Barley

 

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 Click Here for a Larger Viewpromise 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.

Steven A. Walton
Michigan Technological University

Suggested Reading

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 Press, 1946.

Orlin, Lena Cowen. Elizabethan Households, An Anthology. Washington, D.C.: The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1995.

Shapin, Steven, and Simon Schaffer. Leviathan and Air-Pump. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.