Nature, science and the new kind of husbandry

Our second blog post is from Esben Bøgh Sørensen (Aarhus University), who discusses the intersections between agricultural practice and scientific knowledge in early modern England.

In the 1590s, Hugh Plat (1552-1608), the son of a wealthy London brewer, roamed the countryside conversing with gentlemen landowners and farmers about their best farming practices. Plat was looking for methods that were practically tested and proven the most efficient and profitable. From ‘a Yorkshire Gentleman’ he had received advice on how to use ashes to enrich the ground, while another gentleman ‘dwelling in Surrey’ had told him about his experiments with different ways of setting corn. A third gentleman, described as ‘being very industrious, and searching into the workes of nature’, had explained to him efficient ways of ploughing. Plat’s purpose was to gather information that was experimentally tested and proven to be efficient and profitable and publish it in an accessible form in order to ‘stirre vp a number of drowsie wittes to the practise thereof’. He published his findings on agrarian issues in two books, first in the second section of the 1594 book The Jewell House of Art and Nature,[1] and later in his 1600 book The New and Admirable Arte of Setting of Corne.[2]

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Front page from the 1601 edition of Hugh Plat’s The New and Admirable Arte of Setting of Corne (Source: Early English Books Online/STC 1149:19).

Plat was a participant in the emergent scientific communities in Elizabethan London.[3] In the 1590s, when he lived just across the street from Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Plat spent his time walking the streets and gathering information on diverse sorts of inventions and experiments from all kinds of people. These people came from all types of occupations, and included physicians, apothecaries, goldsmith, gardeners, clockmarkers, and, as we have seen, farmers. Plat criticized the current state of natural knowledge in the universities. This knowledge was of a ‘theoretical speculative kind’, and scholars produced ‘volumes of imagination only’. Instead of this speculative kind, knowledge of nature should be ‘drawne from the infallible grounds of practise’, he thought. From this position, he constructed a practice of knowledge production based on hypothesis making, experimentation, observation, trail and judgement. This way of producing knowledge was, according to Plat, the best way to learn the secrets of what he called the ‘Jewel House’ of nature. Nature could be discovered only through practical and experimental knowledge production.

The use of the house metaphor by Plat is significant. It referred not to the ideals of the well-ordered and patriarchal governed domestic space. Rather, he described nature in feminized terms as a kind of unruly force, which through experimental practice could be understood, used and manipulated to delightful and profitable ends. The house of nature was not like a closed domestic space, but constituted an infinite resource. In the practice of farming, this meant perceiving land not as embedded in a complex set of social relations and customary regulations, but rather as a ‘store-house’ or a ‘cofer’ that should be unlocked by well-tested and efficient farming methods based on experimental knowledge. Plat explicitly contrasted the customary types of knowledge of traditional husbandry, with the experimental and therefore efficient and profitable kind of knowledge of what he called the ‘new kind of husbandry’.

Plat provided new criteria for distinguishing between good and bad husbandry based on the production and possession of experimental, observational and practical knowledge. Farmers practicing husbandry according to customary rules and tradition, and who were not willing to engage in experimentation and invention and implement the newest and best agricultural methods thus proven, were described as ‘ignoraunt Farmers’, ‘the common and vulgar sort of people’, the ‘simple sots’, and as ‘clownish people’. In the best case, these farmers would voluntarily follow the practice of the new kind of husbandry. If not, Plat advised to ‘take our idle Farmers by the hand’ and by ‘violence thrust them into one of his Marle-pittes’, thus revealing the often violent conflicts over the implementation of new farming systems in the early modern period.

In Plat’s mind, specific types of social relations, kinds of knowledge, ideas of nature, and use of land was connected. The customary farming systems and practices, described as the ‘general practise of this land’, were heavily condemned by Plat. According to him, certain types of social relations and farming systems stood in the way of developing a more efficient and profitable new kind of husbandry. By promoting and publishing an experimental kind of knowledge about farming, he imagined that he could inspire the supposedly lazy and idle farmers to leave their old ways of farming. He was, however, also aware that violent conflict could result.

Plat represents the intersection in the period between an emergent scientific culture in London and a new English tradition of agrarian literature promoting ideals of improvement. By the turn of the eighteenth century, a unique English culture of improvement had been established,[4] and the messy scientific communities of sixteenth century London had been institutionalized in the form of the Royal Society. Despite the many intellectual and personal overlaps, the connections between these two intellectual and cultural developments, and the ideas promoted by their intersection, remains understudied.

[1] Hugh Plat Sir, The Iewell House of Art and Nature, London: Printed by Peter Short, dwelling on Breadstreat hill, at the signe of the Star on Bredstreet hill, 1594

[2] Sir Hugh Plat, The Nevv and Admirable Arte of Setting of Corne, London: Printed by Peter Short, dwelling at the signe of the Starre on Bredstreet hill, 1600

[3] For these communities, see Deborah E. Harkness, The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution, Yale University Press, 2007

[4] See Paul Slack, The Invention of Improvement: Information and Material Progress in Seventeenth-Century England, Oxford University Press, 2015. For the connection between improvement ideals, social relations and the shaping of the English rural landscape see Richard W. Hoyle (ed.), Custom, Improvement and the Landscape in Early Modern Britain, Ashgate, 2011

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Esben Bøgh Sørensen is a PhD fellow in the Department of the History of Ideas at Aarhus University, Denmark. He was recently awarded runner-up in the Postgraduate Paper Prize awarded by the Social History Society Annual Conference.

Find Esben on twitter, academia.edu and at Aarhus University.

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