Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Controlling Knowledge of the Land

James D. Fisher

In most stories, books are cast as liberators of knowledge and agents of progress – but they can also be devices to channel and control flows of knowledge.

For over two centuries, early printed farming books have held a prominent position as heroes of an ‘agricultural revolution’ in England, and more recently an ‘agricultural enlightenment’. As the tale goes, Tudor agriculture was trapped in tired customary methods before – in the words of author William Marshall in 1778 – ‘REASON found her plodding through a narrow, blind-lane… and introduced her to BOOKS’ and ‘SCIENCE’. The notion that farming books played a key role from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries in disseminating useful knowledge leading to technical improvements in farming and an increase in productivity has been subject to increasing scrutiny and scepticism. But little consideration has been given to what other purposes books may have served.

My new book The Enclosure of Knowledge: Books, Power and Agrarian Capitalism in Britain 1660-1800 is an effort to change the conversation. It sets aside questions about the technological contribution of books and focuses on their social function. To do so, it drops the theoretical model of knowledge diffusion, which treats knowledge as a neutral entity that spreads evenly throughout society in the absence of obstacles. Instead, it builds on recent sociological approaches to knowledge, which all recognise that knowledge exists in multiple forms, that it is always transformed when moving from one context to another, and that – crucially – it serves different purposes for different social groups.

Who desired farming knowledge in a written form in sixteenth-century Britain? Not the majority of semi-literate farmers and farm workers who learned the art of husbandry by working alongside older practitioners and absorbing local customs. Nor the majority of landowners who were content to collect their rents and not dirty their minds or boots with vulgar peasant business.

Yet over the next two centuries agriculture was transformed through a polarisation in landholdings, evolving from a landscape dominated by small family farms to one dominated by large capitalist farms using hired wage labour. A new managerial class of improving landlords and capitalist farmers emerged who wanted to access and control knowledge in new ways; to seek improvements upon customary methods and to impose these new methods on their workers.

Printed manuals and treatises offered the ideal solution, especially for the gentry. Codified knowledge could be developed independently from custom, accessed through reading rather than laborious practice, and concentrated in the hands of managers. Hence the proliferation of farming books over time helped construct an alternative system of knowledge – the way it was produced, stored, transferred, acquired, and legitimated – to compete with the existing system of customary knowledge (local, stored in practice, transferred through speech and demonstration, learned through labour).

This sociological perspective overturns many previous assumptions and highlights new dimensions in the history of agricultural literature. Rather than being a vehicle for a straightforward top-down dissemination of knowledge, we can see how farming books first facilitated a bottom-up appropriation of knowledge by capturing the customary art of husbandry and translating it into a form that was inaccessible to many of its practitioners. Rather than ‘rationalising’ farming for the benefit of all, books helped codify farming in accordance with the managerial interests and cultural preferences of gentlemen farmers and sought to establish the supremacy of written knowledge over the experiential knowledge of their workers. Rather than being unfairly dismissed by stubborn farmers, the new ‘book-farming’ provoked both internal tensions (e.g., in translating the local into the universal) and external resistance from those who sought to defend a labour-based system of knowledge.

This transformation in the system of knowledge should be understood in tandem with the transformation of socio-economic relations. The emerging capitalist structure of landlord, tenant and labourer required a corresponding structure of knowledge, whereby mental labour was largely extracted from those performing manual labour and concentrated in managerial positions. Hence the publication and circulation of farming books in early modern Britain was driven by the desire for greater managerial control over knowledge, land, and labour. Why describe this as the ‘enclosure of knowledge’? Because the appropriation of customary knowledge into texts paralleled the expropriation of common land. In both cases, a collective resource (land, knowledge) was re-packaged into a private resource for individual cultivators. These processes were not merely analogous but necessary corollaries, as the campaign for ‘improvement’ required both land and knowledge to be reformed for a competitive system of farming, such that individual cultivators with full control over their fields could apply knowledge independently from custom.

The Enclosure of Knowledge By James D. Fisher

About The Author

James D. Fisher

James D. Fisher is a historian of early modern Britain. He is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Exeter (2020–23), and has previously taught history at King's Co...

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