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Chapter 4 examines the codification of agricultural knowledge, the process through which practical knowledge was transformed into writing. Rather than asking whether this produced ‘useful’ knowledge to improve farming methods, it asks: for whom was such knowledge useful? It first identifies the construction of ‘agriculture’ as a literary category and an independent body of theory in the seventeenth century, departing from classical and medieval genres. The main section analyses four key modes of codification from 1669 to 1792: systematic, theoretical, experimental and observational. It argues that fundamentally all these modes of codification were shaped by the need to subordinate customary knowledge and labour and establish the supremacy of written knowledge. It further argues that the art of husbandry was codified in accordance with the cultural preferences and managerial interests of landowners, professionals and large farmers. Hence farming books provided a managerial knowledge suitable for the emerging occupational structures of agrarian capitalism.
Chapter 1 sets out a new sociological model for analysing the relationship between agricultural books, knowledge and labour in early modern Britain. The first section argues that the major socio-economic trends in early modern agriculture, giving rise to agrarian capitalism, necessarily involved a concentration in managerial control and therefore required a change in the social system of knowledge. The second section explores recent sociological approaches to books, knowledge and labour. It concludes by summarising how these sociological insights can be applied to early modern agriculture to develop a new framework for understanding the cumulative social impact of printed information and advice. It establishes the basic research question pursued in later chapters: How did books contribute to new divisions of labour and new ways of controlling knowledge?
Chapter 3 argues that agricultural books should be understood as a tool to appropriate the practical art of husbandry by learned culture, enabling a ‘bottom-up’ transfer of knowledge as much as a ‘top-down’ diffusion of knowledge from expert to practitioner. It argues that there was a shift around mid-seventeenth century England as the gentry became more directly engaged in farm management. It shows how the customary art of husbandry was re-imagined for gentlemen, by elevating it to science of agriculture and undermining the authority of common husbandmen and housewives. It discusses how educated men collected into writing the knowledge of husbandry stored in customary practice and oral tradition. In particular, it highlights a hidden gendered dimension, in which women’s knowledge was transferred to male authors, contributing to the increased marginalisation of women’s farm work. Finally, it draws attention to how common farmworkers resisted the extraction of their knowledge by their social superiors.
Chapter 6 explores the efforts to institutionalise a new book-based expertise through the professionalisation of agriculture. First, it considers the reimagining of agriculture as a learned profession through contemporary analogies with medicine. Second, it examines how books were envisioned as part of a new system of learning by analysing proposals for educational reform. Third, it examines the development of the estate or land steward as an example of an agricultural profession that came to be defined by possession of universal book-based knowledge, through an analysis of manuals for stewards. It argues that while the vision of professionalised agriculture was only partly achieved, it reveals the scope of ambition of agricultural authors in their determination to monopolise knowledge.
This introduction sketches the main arguments about the contribution of farming books to the development of agrarian capitalism and lays the groundwork for the detailed argument in later chapters. It first offers a critique of the standard research paradigm, the enlightenment model, which only evaluates the role of books with respect to technological change and is insensitive to early modern social relations. It then explains the research method and scope, focused on British agricultural books printed between 1660 and 1800. Since the structure of the book is thematic, it presents a broad survey of agricultural books and authors to serve as a reference for the rest of the book. It ends by summarising how the core argument is developed over seven chapters.
This conclusion reflects upon the contribution of this study to different spheres of history. First, it considers how the analysis changes our understanding of agricultural books in early modern Britain, by revisiting the advantages of the sociological approach compared with the enlightenment model. It restates the core argument about the enclosure of knowledge in light of the detailed arguments of specific chapters. Second, it suggests that this study opens up space for a new field of research: the social history of agricultural knowledge. It discusses how the current arguments about book-knowledge can be tested, but also how alternative approaches might go beyond the focus on books. Third, it considers the implications for general histories of knowledge and capitalism, which is illustrated through three key concepts: the real subsumption of labour, deskilling and commodification. It argues that the story of early English agricultural literature is not only relevant, but foundational to the history of capitalism in general.
Chapter 7 re-examines the ‘book-farming’ controversy of the late eighteenth century. It first highlights the precarious power of book-knowledge, which offered mastery to an educated landowning class, but was a poor substitute for experience. The analysis distinguishes between a weak and a strong critique of agricultural books. The weak critique expressed by authors themselves condemned an overly theoretical approach or the overly speculative ideas in books. The strong critique was expressed in the reported hostility of working farmers, which was fundamentally suspicious of the value of learning about farming from books and challenged the proclaimed authority of writers. It argues that the strong opposition to book-farming can only be understood by considering the balance of power within agricultural labour relations. Hostility to book-farming was a form of ‘everyday resistance’ to the subordination of customary knowledge and the use of books as tools of management in the running of estates and large farms.
Chapter 2 establishes the context usually neglected by histories of agricultural literature: how farming was learned without books in the prevailing system of knowledge in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It examines the discourse on the ‘mystery of husbandry’ (and closely associated discourse of ‘secrets’), a term denoting the knowledge and skills acquired by experienced practitioners that were inaccessible to amateurs, to both elucidate contemporary beliefs about learning through labour and to indicate the ways in which the publication of husbandry manuals disrupted existing notions of expertise. In doing so, it explores the parallels between craft and farming knowledge and borrows ideas from modern studies to argue that early modern husbandmen and housewives would have possessed a ‘peasant epistemology’ analogous to an ‘artisanal epistemology’. The chapter argues that when linked to broader socio-economic changes in farming, the emergence of the term ‘mystery of husbandry’ in the seventeenth century can be seen as a symptom of tectonic shifts in the social system of agricultural knowledge. In short, the knowledge of husbandry was being commodified in an increasingly competitive commercial environment.
Chapter 5 shifts focus to consider the social effects of the appropriation and codification of the art of husbandry by examining the impact of books on new divisions of labour. It argues that agricultural books facilitated the increasing separation between intellectual and manual labour; a task division between those who exercised knowledge on a specific farm or estate and those who followed instructions, and a social division between those who produced knowledge and those who applied it in practice. The former was manifested in the figure of the gentleman farmer who managed with a pen, and the latter was manifested in the ‘agriculturist’, whose contribution to farming was primarily theoretical. Both were expressions of a new book-based agricultural expertise distinct from local custom and experience. The cumulative effect of print was to shape a new social system of agricultural knowledge in which cultivation was directed by men with such expertise, which we can call agriculturism.
The rise of agrarian capitalism in Britain is usually told as a story about markets, land and wages. The Enclosure of Knowledge reveals that it was also about books, knowledge and expertise. It argues that during the early modern period, farming books were a key tool in the appropriation of the traditional art of husbandry possessed by farm workers of all kinds. It challenges the dominant narrative of an agricultural 'enlightenment', in which books merely spread useful knowledge, by showing how codified knowledge was used to assert greater managerial control over land and labour. The proliferation of printed books helped divide mental and manual labour to facilitate emerging social divisions between labourers, managers and landowners. The cumulative effect was the slow enclosure of customary knowledge. By synthesising diverse theoretical insights, this study opens up a new social history of agricultural knowledge and reinvigorates long-term histories of knowledge under capitalism.