This is an impressive and ambitious work of comparative history which draws upon sources in three languages, as well as a range of literatures, in tackling a major historiographical issue. The aim of the author, Peter M. Jones, is to counter economistic interpretations of the revolution in European agriculture c.1750–1850 by making a case for the importance of ideas, knowledge and practices: the ‘agricultural enlightenment’. This broad category embraces theoretical knowledge about the economy (physiocracy, political economy), bodies of largely empirical knowledge (eighteenth-century agronomy, cameralism) and various techniques for the improvement of land-use (e.g., reclamation, enclosure) or cultivation practice (e.g., rotation, new crops). Significantly, the category is not restricted to the printed word but also includes tacit knowledge (‘know-how’). In effect, the author analyses the process by which knowledge may have fostered economic revolution in terms of three processes: invention, diffusion and adoption. ‘Invention’ (unfortunately used interchangeably with ‘innovation’) refers to the emergence of new forms of artefact or practice, and Jones makes the important point that radically new forms were almost certainly much less common than incremental improvements (‘emulation’, as it was known to contemporaries). Since the latter were seldom documented in textual form, however, they remain largely invisible to the historian, making it difficult to assess their importance or to establish who the inventors were. Written sources make the process of ‘diffusion’ (from inventor to user) rather easier to study. The mechanisms of transmission naturally include publications of various kinds, ranging from treatises to farmers’ magazines to merchants’ catalogues. But farmer-to-farmer communication also took place in the ‘economic’ or ‘patriotic’ societies which emerged so rapidly in many places from the mid-eighteenth century and which promoted good practice through lectures, pamphlets, demonstrations and so on. Peasant-farmers, however, were rarely admitted to these societies, so landowning members often relied upon estate managers or rural clergy to convey information ‘down’ to smallholders. Also important as intermediaries were prominent travellers such as Arthur Young and numerous aristocrats, but also many anonymous figures such as British workers or tenant-farmers who were invited by other countries to visit and demonstrate their skills. The mere availability of new knowledge, of course, was no guarantee that it would be adopted. One wonders, therefore, whether adoption was socially patterned: which classes of farmer were most likely to embrace improvement? Although there were plenty of instances where small farmers declined to innovate, Jones points out that they occasionally experimented with new crops and innovated where it seemed profitable to do so (despite being handicapped by a lack of resources). By contrast, attempts by tenants to innovate sometimes ran into resistance from landlords, and leases with improvement clauses were quite rare, on the Continent at least. ‘Landowners’, however, is quite a diverse category, and, in view of suggestions in the literature that gentry were more likely than nobles to embrace improvement, it is unfortunate that this possibility remains unexplored here. What role, then, did the agricultural enlightenment play in the agricultural revolution? Surprisingly, the book offers two rather different answers to this question which could be characterised as ‘negative’ and ‘positive’. If one looks at the individual chapters, the answer which emerges is that knowledge actually made very little impact upon economic productivity during the period in question, a conclusion clearly stated in the final chapter, where Jones acknowledges doubts about a causal relationship between knowledge and economic change. Even in countries where the agricultural enlightenment was strong (e.g., Scotland), for example, it was demand factors which proved decisive in promoting economic change. Similarly, however enthusiastically the merits of enclosure were discussed and promoted in state circles in various countries, such measures were often not implemented before 1840. Indeed, the evidence from several chapters suggests that this negative interpretation could have been stated even more emphatically. Along with lowland Scotland, for example, Denmark is chosen as one of the only European countries where agricultural restructuring took place within a few decades, carried out from above by a state committed to enlightened reform. To be sure, the result was a substantial increase in productivity by about 1800, but, as Jones observes, this was achieved mainly through increased labour intensity rather than via technical innovation. Hardly an agricultural revolution of the classical kind. On the other hand, if one examines the author’s summarising remarks in the final chapter, a rather more positive conclusion comes across. Agricultural enlightenment is said to have ‘played a key role’ in the agricultural transformation. Useful knowledge ‘laid the foundations for the innovative technological growth of the nineteenth century’ and ‘prepared the way for, or, at the very least, optimised the conditions for’ an agricultural revolution (pp. 229, 216). Apart from their positive gloss, what is notable about these formulations is that they simply ignore the evidence of negative impact. If anything, they seem to suggest that the enlightenment’s economic impact became evident after the period covered by the book. This upbeat and future-oriented interpretation is particularly striking in Chapter Seven on ‘science’ where, despite the undeniable volume of interest in ‘agricultural science’ from the mid-eighteenth century, there is no evidence that ‘science’ had any demonstrable impact upon the agricultural economy, at least before 1840. The author’s summary remarks about ‘science’, however, are again silent on its lack of impact and instead strike an optimistic tone: by the mid-nineteenth century ‘Fact grubbing—the very stuff of “rational”, practitioner agriculture—yielded to hypothesis testing both in the field and in the laboratory’ (p. 187), and ‘a veritable science of agriculture took shape’ (p. 225). The implied message seems to be that the future was bright even if the track-record to mid-century was unimpressive. Despite this interpretative ambivalence, the book is still well worth reading, in my view, and constitutes an important text for anyone interested in the agricultural revolution as well as in large-scale economic transformations more generally. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 3, 2018
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