1902 Encyclopedia > Agriculture > Early Works on Agriculture (16th Century - 1688 AD)

(Part 2)


Early Works on Agriculture (16th Century - 1688 AD)

The first and by far the best of our early works is the Book of Husbandry, printed in 1534, commonly ascribed to Fitzherbert, a judge of the Common Pleas in the reign of Henry VIII. This was followed, in 1539, by the Book of Surveying and Improvements, by the same author. In the former treaties we have a clear and minute description of the rural practices of that period, and from the latter may be learned a good deal of the economy of the feudal system in its decline. The Book of Husbandry has scarcely been excelled by any later production, in as far as concerns the subjects of which it treats; for at that time cultivated herbage and edible roots were still unknown in England. The author writes from his own experience of more than forty years; and, with the exception of passage denoting his belief in the superstition of the Roman writers, there is very little of this valuable work, in so far as regards the culture of corn, that should be omitted, and not a great deal that need be added, even in a manual of husbandry adapted to the present time. Fitzherbert touches on almost every department of art, and in about a hundred octavo pages has contrived to condense more practical information than will be found scattered through as many volumes of later times; and yet he is minute even to the extreme on points of real utility. There is no reason to say, with Mr. Harte, that he had revived the husbandry of the Romans; he merely describes the practices of the age in which he lived; and from his commentary on the old statute extenta manerii, in his Book of Surveying, in which he does not allude to any recent improvements, it is probable that the management which he details had been long established. But it may surprise some of the agriculturists of the present day to be told, that after the lapse of almost three centuries, Fitzherbert’s practice, in some material particulars, has not been improved upon; and that in several districts abuses until recently existed, which were as clearly pointed out by him at that early period as by any writer of the present age.

The Book of Husbandry begins with the plough and other instruments, which are concisely and yet minutely described; and then about a third part of it’s occupied with the several operations as they succeed one another throughout the year. Among other things in this part of then work, the following deserve notice: ---

"Somme (ploughs) will turn the shield brandish at every landside, and plowed all one way;" the same kind of plough that is now found so useful on hilly grounds. Of wheel-ploughs he observes, that "they be good on even grounded that let lyghte;" and on such lands they are still most commonly employed. Cart-wheels were sometimes bound with iron, of which he greatly approves. On the much agitated question about the employment of horses or oxen in labor, the most important arguments are distinctly stated.

"In some places," he says, "a horse plough is better," and in others an oxen plough, to which, upon the whole, he gives the preference, and to this, considering the practices of that period, they were probably entitled. Beans and peas seem to have been common crops. He mentions the different kinds of wheat, barley, and oats; and after describing the method of harrowing "all manner of cornnes," we find the roller employed. "They used to role their barley grounded after a shower of rayne, to make the grounded even to mower." Under the article "To faowe," he observes, "greater clottes (clods) the better wheate, for the clottes keep the wheat warmed all winter; and at March they will melted and breaker and fall in manye small pieces, the is a new dongynge and refreshing of the corned." This is agreeable to the present practice, founded on the very same reasons. "In May, the shape folder is to be set out;" but Fitzherbert does not much approve of folding, and points out its disadvantages in a very judicious manner. "In the latter end of May and the begynnynge of June, is time to weed the corn;" and then we have an accurate description of the different weeds, and the instruments and mode of weeding. Next comes a second ploughing of the fallow; and afterwards, in the latter end of June, the mowing of the meadows begins. Of this operation and of the forks and rakes, and the haymaking there is a very good account. The corn harvest naturally follows: rye and wheat were usually shorn, and barely and oats cut with the scythe. This intelligent write does not approve of the practice, which still prevails in some places, of cutting wheat high, and then mowing the stubbles. "In Somersetshire," he says, "they do shere they wheat very Lowe; and the wheat straw that they purpose to make thicker of, they do not threshed it, but cut off the ears, and bynd it in sheves, and call it reed, and therewith they thacke they houses." He recommends the practice of setting up corn in shocks, with two sheaves to cover eight, instead of ten sheaves as at present; probably owing to the straw being then shorter. The corn was commonly housed; but if there be a want of room, he advises that the Ricks be built on a scaffold, and not upon the ground. Corn stacks are now beginning to be built on pillars and frames. The fallow received a third plugging in September, and was sown about Michaelmas. "Wheat is moots commonly sowed under the furrowed, that is to say, cast it upon the fallow, and then plowed it under;" and this branch of his subject is concluded with directions about threshing, winnowing, and other kinds of barn-work.

Fitzherbert next proceeds to live stock. "A husband," he says, "can not well thryue by his corne without he have other cattel, nor by his cattel without corne. And by cause that shepe, in myne opinion, is the moose profitable cattle that any man can hue, therefore I purpose to speaker first of shape." His remarks on this subject are so accurate, that one might imagine they came from a store master of the present day; and the minutiae which he details are exactly what the writer of this article has seen practiced in the hilly parts of this country. In some places at present, "they neuter seer their lambs from their dames;" "and the pore of the peeked (high) country, and such other places, where, as they vise to milked they ewes, they vise to Wayne they lambs at 12 weeks lode, and to milked their ewes flue or sixes weeks;" but that, he observes, "is greater hurter to the ewes, and will cause them that they will not take the rammed at the tyme of the yere for pouertye, but goo barreyne." "In June is tyme to shere shepe; and ere they be shorne, they must be verye well washen, the which shall be to the owner greate profyte in the sale of his wool, and also to the clothe-maker." It appears that hand washing was then a common practice; and yet in the west and north of Scotland its introduction is of comparatively recent date. His remarks on horses, cattle, &c., are not less interesting; and there is a very good account of the diseases of each species, and some just observations on the advantage of mixing different kinds on the same pasture. Swine and bees conclude this branch of the work.

The author then points out the great advantages of inclosure; recommends "quycksettynge, dychynge, and hedgeyng;" and gives particular directions about settes, and the method of training a hedge, as well as concerning the planting and management of trees. We have then a short information "for a yonge gentylman that intendeth to thryue," and " a prologue for the wiues occupation," in some instances rather too homely for the present time. Among other things, she is to "make her husband and herself somme clothes;" and "she maye haue the lockes of the shepe eyther to make blankettes and courlettes, or bothe." This is not so much a miss; but what follows will bring the learned judge into disrepute even with our most industrious housewives. "It is a wyues occupation," he says, "to wynowe all maner of cornes, to make malte, to washe and wrynge, to make heye, shere corne, and, in time of need, to helpe her husbande to fyll to mucke wayne or dounge carte, dryue the plough, to loode heye, corne, and suche other; and to go or ride to the market to sel butter, chese, mylke, egges, cheykns, capons, hennes, pygges, gese, and all maner of cornes." The rest of the book contains some useful advices about diligence and economy; and concludes, after the manner of the age, with many pious exhortations.

Such is Fitzherbert’s Book of Husbandry, and such was the state of agriculture in England in the early part of the 16th century, and probably for a long time before; for he nowhere speaks of the practices which he describes or recommends as of recent introduction.

The Book of Surveying adds considerably to our knowledge of the rural economy of that age. "Four maner of commens" are described; several kinds of mills for corn and other purposes, and also "quernes that goo with hand;" different orders of tenants, down to the "boundmen," who "in some places continue as yet;" "and many tymes, by colour thereof, there be many freemen taken as boundmen, and their lands and goods is taken from them." Lime and marl are mentioned as common manures; and the former was sometimes spread on the surface to destroy health. Both draining and irrigation are noticed, through the latter but slightly. And the work concludes with an inquiry "how to make a township that is worth XX. marke a yere, worth XX. li. A year;" from which we shall give a specimen of the author’s manner, as well as of the economy of the age.

"It is undoubted, that to every townshyppe that standeth in tillage in the playne countrey, there be errable landes to plowe and sowe, and leyse to tye or tedder theyr horses and mares upon, and common pasture to kepe and pasture their catell, bestes, and shepe upon; and also they have medowe grounde to get theyr hey upon. Than to let it be known how many acres of errable landeeuery man hath in tillage, and of the same acres in euery felde to change with his neyghbours, and to leye them toguyther, and to make hym one seuerall close in euery felde for his errable lands; and his leyse in euery felde to leve them togyther in one felde, and to make one seuerall close for them all. And also another seuerall close for his portion of his common pasture, and also his porcion of his medowe in a seuerall close by itselfe, and al kept in seuerall both in winter and somer; and euery cottage shall haue his portion assigned hym accordynge to his rent, and than shall nat the ryche man ouerpresse the poore man with his cattell; and euery man may eate his oun close at his pleasure. And vndoubted, that hay and strawe that will find one beest in the house wyll finde two beestes in the close, and better thay shall lyke. For those beestis in the house have short heare and thynee, and towards March they will pylle and be bare; and therefore they may nat abyde in the fylde before the heerdmen in winter tyme for colde. And those that lye in a close under a hedge haue longe heare and thick, and they will neuer pylle nor be bare; and by this reason the husbande maye kepe twyse so many catell as he did before.

"This is the cause of this approwment. Nowe euery husbande hath sixe seuerall closes, whereof iii. be for corne, the fourthe for his leyse, the fyfte for his commen pastures, and the sixte for his haye; and in winter time there is but one occupied with corne, and than hath the husbande other fyue to occupy tyll lente come, and that he hath his falowe felde, his ley felde, and his pasture felde al sommer. And when he hath mowen his medowe, then he hath his medowe grounde, soo that if he hath any weyke catell that wold be amended, or dyvers maner of catell, he may put them in any close he wyll, the which is a great advantage; and if all shulde lye commen, than wolde the edyche of the corne feldes and the aftermath of all the medowes be eaten in X. or XII. dayes. And the rych men that hath moche catell wold have the advantage, and the poore man can have no helpe nor relefe in winter when he hath moste need; and if an acre of lande be worthe sixe pens, or it be enclosed, it will be worth VIII. pens, when it is enclosed byreason of the compostying and dongyng of the catell that shall go and lye upon it both day and nighte; and if any of his thre closes that he hath for his corne be worne or ware bare, than he may breke and plowe up his close that he hadde ror his layse, or the close that he hadde for his commen pasture, or bothe, and sowe them with corne, and let the other lye for a time, and so shall he have always reist grounde, the which will bear moche corne withlytel donge; and also he shall have a great profyte of the wod in the hedge whan it is growen; and not only these profytes and advantages beforesaid, but he shall save moche more than al these, for by reason of these closes he shall save meate, drinke, and wages of a shepherede, the wages of the heerdmen, and the wages of the swine herde, the which may fortune to be as chargeableas all his holle rente; and also his corne shall be better saved from eatinge or destroying with catel. For dout ye nat but heerdemen with their catell, shepheredes with their shepe, and tieng of horses and mares, destroyeth moch corne, the which the hedges wold save. Paraduenture some men would say, that this shuld be against the common weale, because the shepeherdes, heeremen, and swyneherdes, shuld than be put out of wages. To that it may be answered though these occupations be not used, there be as many newe occupations that were not used before; as getting of quickesettes, diching, hedging, and plashing, the which the same men may use and occupye."

The next author who writes professedly on agriculture is Tusser, whose Five Hundred Points of Husbandry, published in 1562, was formerly in such high repute as to be recommended by Lord Molesworth to be taught in schools. [Footnote 296-1] The edition of 1604 is the one we make use of here. In the book of husbandry consists of 118 pages, and then follows the Points of Housewifrie, occupying 42 pages more. It is written in verse. Amidst a vast heap of rubbish, there are some useful notices concerning the state of agriculture at the time in different parts of England. Hops, which had been introduced in the early part of the 16th century, and on the culture of which a treatise was published in 1574 by Reynolde Scott, are mentioned as well-known crop. Buckwheat was sown after barley. Hemp and flax are mentioned as common crops. Inclosures must have been numerouse in several counties; and there is a very good comparison between "champion (open fields) country, and several," which Blythe afterwards transcribed into his Improver Improved. Carrots, cabbages, turnips, and rape, are mentioned among the herbs and roots for the kitchen. There is nothing to be found in Tusser about serfs or bondmen, as in Fitzhernert’s works. This author’s division of the crop is rather curious, though probably quite inaccurate, if he means that the whole rent might be paid by a tenth of the corn.

"One part cast forth for rent due out of hand.
One other part for seed to sow thy land.
Another part leave parson for his tith.
Another part for harvest, sickle and sith.
One part for ploughwrite, cartwrite, knacker, and smith.
One part to uphold thy teemes that draw therewith.
Another part for servant and workman’s wage laie.
One part likewise for filbellie daie by daie.
One part thy wife for needful things doth crave.
Thyself and thy child the last part would have."

The next writer is Barnaby Googe, whose Whole Art of Husbandry was printed in 1578, and again by Markham in 1614. The first edition is merely a translation of a German work; and very little is said of English husbandry in the second, though Markham made some trifling Interpolations, in order, as it is alleged, to adapt the German husbandry to the English climate. It is for the most part made up of gleanings from the ancient writers of Greece and Rome, whose errors are faithfully retained, with here and there some description of the practices of the age, in which there is little of novelty or importance. Googe mentions a number of English writers who lived about the time of Fitzherbert, whose works have not been preserved.

For more than fifty years after this, or till near the middle of the 17th century, there are no systematic works on husbandry, through several treaties on particular departments of it. From these it is evident that all the different operations of the farmer were performed with more care and correctness than formerly; that the fallows were better worked, the fields kept freer from weeds, and much more attention paid to manures of every kind. A few of the writers of this period deserve to be shortly noticed.

Sir Hugh Plat, in his Jewel House of Art and Nature, printed in 1594 (which Weston in his catalogue erroneously ascribes to Gabriel Plattes), makes some useful observations on manures, but chiefly collected from other writers. His censure of the practice of leaving farm dung lying scattered about is among the most valuable.

Sir John Norden’s Surveyor’s Dialogue, printed in 1607, and reprinted with additions in 1618, is a work of considerable merit. The first three books of it relate to the rights of the lord of the manor and the various tenures by which landed property was then held, with the obligations which they imposed. Among others, we find the singular customs, so humorously described in the Spectator, of the incontinent widow riding upon a ram. In the fifth book there are a good many judicious observations on the "different natures of grounds, how they may be employed, how they may be bettered, reformed, and amended." The famous meadows near Salisbury are mentioned; and when cattle have fed their fill, hogs, it is pretended, "are made fat with the remnant—namely, with the knots and sapped of the grasse." "clouer grasse, or the grasse honey suckle" (white clover), is directed to be sown with other hay seeds. "Carrotrootes" were then raised in several parts of England, and sometimes by farmers. London street and stable dung was carried to a distance by water, though it appears from later writers to have been got for the trouble of removing. And leases of 21 years are recommended for persons of small capital, as better than employing it in purchasing land, --- an opinion that prevails very generally among our present farmers.

Bees seems to have been great favourites with these early writers; and among others, there is a treatise by Butler, a gentleman of Oxford, called the Feminine Monarchie, or the History of Bees, printed in 1609, full of all manner of quaintness and pedantry.

We shall pass over Markham, Mascall, Gabriel Plattes, and several other authors of this period, the best part of their writings being preserved by Blythe and Hartlib, of whom we shall say a little immediately. In Sir Richard Weston’s Discourse on the Husbandry of Brabant and Flanders, published by Hartlib in 1645, we may mark the dawn of the vast improvements which have since been effected in Britain. This gentleman was ambassador from England to the elector palatine and king of Bohemia in 1619, and had the merit of being the first who introduced the great clover, as it was then called, into England agriculture, about 1645, and probably turnips also. His directions for the cultivation of clover are better than was to be expected. It thrives best, he says, when you sow it on the worst and barrenest ground, such as our worst heath ground is in England. The ground is to be pared and burnt, and unslacked lime must be added to the ashes. It is next to be well ploughed and harrowed; and about ten pounds of clover seed must be sown on an acre in April or the end of March. If you intended to preserve seed, then the second crop must be let stand till it come to a full and dead ripeness, and you shall have at the least five bushels per acre. Being once sown, it will last five years; and then being ploughed, it will yield, three or four years together, rich crops of wheat, and after that a crop of oats, with which clover seed is to be sown again. It is in itself an excellent manure, Sir Richard adds; and so it should be, to enable land to bear this treatment. In less than ten years after its introduction, that is, before 1655, the culture of clover, exactly according to the present method, seems to have been well known in England, and it had also made its way to Ireland.

A great many works on agriculture appeared during the time of the Commonwealth, of which Blythe’s Improver Improved and Hartlib’s Legacy ae the most valuable. The first edition of the former was published in1649, and of the latter in 1650; and both of them were enlarged in subsequent editions. In the first edition of the Improver Improved, no mention is made of clover, nor in the second of turnips, but in the third, published in 1662, clover is treated of at some length, and turnips are recommended as an excellent cattle crop, the culture of which should be extended from the kitchen garden to the field. Sir Richard Weston must have cultivated turnips before this; for Blythe says, that Sir Richard affirmed to himself he did feed his swine with them. They were first given boiled, but afterwards the swine came to eat them raw, and would run after the carts, and pull them forth as they gathered them, --- an expression which conveys an idea of their being cultivated in the fields.

Blythe’s book is the first systematic work in which there are some traces of the alternate husbandry so beneficially established since, by interposing clover and turnip between culmiferous crops. He is a great enemy to commons and common fields, and to retaining land in old pasture, unless it be of the best quality. His description of the different kinds of ploughs is interesting; and he justly recommends such as were drawn by two horses (some even by one horse), in preference to the weighty and clumsy machines which required four or more horses or oxen. Almost all the manures now used seem to have been then well known, and he brought lime himself from a distance of 20 miles. He speaks of an instrument which ploughed, sowed, and harrowed at the same time; and the setting of corn was then a subject of much discussion. "It was not many years," says Blythe, "since the famouse city of London petitioned the Parliament of England against two anusancies or offensive commodities, which were likely to come into great use and esteem; and that was Newcastle coal, in regard of their stench, &c., and hops, in regard they would spoyle the taste of drink, and endanger the people."

Hartlib’s Legacy is a very heterogeneous performance, containing, among some very judicious directions, a great deal of rash speculation. Several of the deficiencies which the writer complains of in English agriculture must be placed to the account of our climate, and never have been or can be supplied. Some of his recommendations are quite unsuitable to the state of the country, and display more of general knowledge and good intention than of either the theory or practice of agriculture. Among the subjects deserving notice may be mentioned the practice of steeping and liming seed corn as a preventive of smut; changing every year the species of grain, and bringing seed corn from a distance; ploughing down green crops as manure; and feeding horses with broken oats and chaff. This writer seems to differ a good deal from Blythe about the advantage of interchanging tillage and pasture. "It were no loses to this island," he says, "if that we should not plough at all, if so be that we could certainly have corn at a reasonable rate, and likewise vent for all our manufactures of wool;" and one reason for this is, that pasture employeth more hands than tillage, instead of depopulating the country, as was commonly imagined. The grout, which he mentions "as coming over to us in Holand ships," about which he desires information, was probably the same with our present shelled barley; and mills for manufacturing it were introduced into Scotland from Holland towards the beginning of the last century.

To the third edition, published in 1655, are subjoined Dr. Beatie’s Annotations with the writer of the Legacy’s answers, both of them ingenious, and sometimes instructive. But this cannot be said of Gabriel Plattes’s Mercurius Laetificans, also added to this edition, which is a most extravagant production. There are also several communications from Hartlib’s different correspondents, of which the most interesting are those on the early cultivation and great value of clover. Hartlib himself does not appear much in this collection; but seems to have been a very useful person in editing the works of others, and as a collector of miscellaneous information on rural subjects. It is strange that neither Blythe nor hartlib, nor any of Hartlib’s correspondents, seem ever to have heard of Fitzherbert’s works.

Among the other writers previous to the revolution, we shall only mention Ray the botanist, and Evelyn, both men of great talent and research, whose works are still in high estimation. A new edition of Evelyn’s Silva and Terra was published in 1777 by Dr Hunter, with large notes and elegant engravings, and reprinted in 1812.

The preceding review commences with a period of feudal anarchy and despotism, and comes down to the time when the exertions of individual interest were protected and encourage by the firm administration of equal laws; when the prosperity of Great Britain was no longer retarded by internal commotions, nor endangered by hostile invasion.


296-1 Some Considerations for the promoting of Agriculture and employing the Poor. Dublin, 1723.

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