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UBC Theses and Dissertations

By the book? : farming manuals, animal breeding and the English 'agricultural revolution' McLaren , Dorothy Kathleen


English pastoral husbandry has been largely neglected by previous historians. It is generally agreed that the mid-eighteenth century saw a revolution in breeding practices, moving livestock husbandry from hopeless confusion to a controlled, 'scientific' selection for marketable traits. The academicians, mostly economic historians, who have developed this model of pastoral history rely heavily upon farming manuals dating from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries for evidence of the changes they claim to perceive. Agricultural manuals are complex literary documents. However, in the current historiography, the manuals are quoted as simple records of contemporaneous agricultural practice, the intricacies of authorship, audience and motive for publication being almost entirely ignored. A critical survey of the manuals which deal with pastoral husbandry beginning with the thirteenth, rather than the fifteenth, century reveals flaws in the use which has been made of the manuals and, therefore, in the conclusions which have been drawn from them. In order to accomplish a reconsideration of English pastoral husbandry, it is necessary to reincorporate the extant medieval farming manuals and to examine all didactic agricultural texts as representative of a single genre. Discussion of livestock husbandry was carried out in terms of generation and nutrition of animals. Therefore, any intimations of procedural changes or scientific influence upon breeding and feeding in the discussions of manuals which deal most extensively with pastoral husbandry should be noted as of particular interest. Finally, the manuals must be considered within a social context. It is here that the interaction of science and agriculture becomes particularly important, though as a tool for understanding the manuals as documents rather than solely as the motor for late eighteenth-century changes in livestock husbandry. Such an analysis reveals an amazing continuity of actual information in the agricultural manual genre. There are no changes in the depictions of practices of breeding and feeding. However, especially in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century texts, a preoccupation with attracting the attention of institutional science, particularly the Royal Society, emerges as a new trend. Yet there is no indication in the textual record that livestock husbandry was ever affected by 'Natural Philosophy'. Far from simply recording contemporary practice, agricultural manuals, especially those which expressed a desire to ally with institutional science, reveal themselves more as vehicles for their authors' social aspirations than as exemplars of agricultural practice. Once this is recognized, the prevailing models of pastoral husbandry lose credibility. Eighteenth-century animal breeding was no more nor less 'scientific' or intellectually sophisticated than preceeding breeding programs. In short, the use of farming manuals to corroborate economic models of agrarian development has been, at best, somewhat spurious. Studying livestock husbandry and its relationship to institutional science in medieval and early modern England can be peculiarly helpful in assisting to rectify this error.

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