The old English countryman and farmer

Rare book from MERL libraryThis exhibition highlighted some of the 17th and 18th century agricultural books from the library of the Museum of English Rural Life.

The display included texts by a number of noted agriculturalists and writers on rural life, including John Evelyn’s Silva, Walter Blith’s The English improver improved, John Worlidge’s Systema agriculturae (see engraved title-page shown right), and one of William Marshall’s county and regional surveys. The examples were chosen primarily for their historical importance, and also for their illustrative appeal, and represent just a selection of important sources of information on British agrarian history held in the MERL library.

Other notable authors from the 16th to 19th centuries also housed in the collection include Thomas Tusser, Gervase Markham, Jethro Tull and Arthur Young, who was well-known for his farming tours.

The MERL rare book collections have now been fully catalogued on the Unicorn catalogue, and can be viewed in the Special Collections Service reading room upon prior request.

List of exhibits

The following books were on display:

Walter Blith. The English improver improved, or, The survey of husbandry surveyed ... London : Printed for John Wright, 1652. MERL LIBRARY NUPTOWN HOUSE—NH 243

This was first published in 1649, and was thought of as one of the most important contemporary handbooks for agricultural improvement. This edition has a new frontispiece depicting warring Royalists and Parliamentarians beating their swords into ploughshares and shows a trenching spade used for constructing drainage trenches, a plough team and a man using a level for surveying.

John Evelyn. Silva, or, A discourse of forest-trees and the propagation of timber in His Majesty’s dominions…In two books… 4th ed. London : Printed for Robert Scott…[et al.], 1706. MERL LIBRARY NUPTOWN HOUSE—NH 144

This was the first important book published on forest trees, the first edition being 1664. In the 17th century, timber was the single most important natural resource after food. Evelyn’s findings were presented to the Royal Society after the Commissioners of the Navy addressed a series of enquiries about the management of woodland. This edition consists of Silva (title spelling changed here from ‘Sylva’), Pomona, Kalendarium hortense and Acetaria.

J.B., Gent. The epitome of the art of husbandry… London : Printed for Benjamin Billingsley, 1670. MERL LIBRARY RESERVE—3514 BLA

Thomas Hale. A complete body of husbandry : containing rules for performing, in the most profitable manner, the whole business of the farmer and country gentleman… : vol. 2 / compiled from the original papers of the late Thomas Hale. 2nd ed. London : Printed for Thomas Osborne, Thomas Trye and S. Crowder & Co., 1758. MERL LIBRARY RESERVE-3516 HAL

Edward Laurence. The duty and office of a land steward … 2nd ed. London : Printed for J.&J. Knapton…[et al.], 1731. MERL LIBRARY RESERVE—3060 LAU

William Marshall The rural economy of Gloucestershire… : vol. 1. Gloucester : Printed by R. Raikes for G. Nicol, 1789. MERL LIBRARY RESERVE—2454 MAR

William Marshall was a leading writer on 18th century English agriculture and in 1787 published the first of his major studies of the farming practices of 6 different regions of England – Norfolk, Yorkshire, Gloucestershire, West of England, Southern counties.

M. de Reaumur. The art of hatching and bringing up domestick fowls of all kinds, at any time of the year… London : Printed for C. Davis, A. Millar and J. Nourse, 1750. MERL LIBRARY RESERVE—4534 REA

John Worlidge. Systema agriculturae : the mystery of husbandry discovered… 4th ed. London : Printed and sold by Nath. Rolls, 1697. MERL LIBRARY RESERVE—3514 WOR

John Worlidge (1640-1700) was a British agriculturalist noted for being the first to discuss the importance of farming as an industry.


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