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9-08-2015, 18:14

Agricultural change and rural protests

In 1600, European agricultural productivity was not much different than it had been two centuries earlier: about fi ve bushels of grain per bushel sown in fertile areas, roughly one-tenth of the average yield today. Yields were even lower on poor soil or during the all too frequent droughts, late frosts, or heavy rains. The percentage of the labor force employed in food production was only slightly less than it had been centuries earlier, about two-thirds of the working population. During harvest, when armies of men, women, and children were needed to cut, gather, and stack grain, and then thresh it to separate the kernels from the stalks, even more people worked in the countryside. Two centuries later, these numbers had still not changed very much when looking at Europe as a whole. Only when mechanical reapers and threshers, steel plows, and other agricultural machinery gained widespread use in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did the numbers of people employed in agriculture plummet, and only with chemical fertilizers did yields skyrocket. Aggregate numbers hide great regional variations, however, for during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries agriculture in some parts of Europe underwent tremendous changes. These included new crops and crop rotation schedules, altered patterns of landownership, selective breeding of stock and plants, and increases in the amount of land put under cultivation through the draining of marshes and coastal areas and the clearing of woodlands. In areas where these changes were introduced, fi rst the Netherlands and then England, agricultural workers produced between 50 and 175 percent more than farmers elsewhere. This meant that there was more surplus to sell, and in both places governments and private investors encouraged the building of canals to get produce to local and regional markets, and in some cases into ships carrying goods internationally. That surplus also allowed many rural residents to purchase consumer goods that those ships brought in, or to make further improvements to their property. In many of these developments, the Dutch led the way, combining technological and organizational innovations to improve agriculture just as they used them to speed up the production of ships and textiles. By the fourteenth century, the Netherlands – including both Flanders and what later became the Dutch Republic – was one of the most urbanized parts of Europe, which created a steady demand for agricultural products. As we saw in chapter 6 , this led farmers to work their land more intensively, and to experiment with crop rotation patterns that would lessen the amount of time land needed to be left fallow. They discovered that planting legumes such as beans, peas, alfalfa, or clover actually made the soil richer, increasing the next year’s grain crop from that land. Agricultural scientists would later learn that this effect resulted from legumes converting atmospheric nitrogen into the soil nitrates needed by grain crops, but farmers experimented with crop rotations long before anyone understood the chemistry behind them. In the eighteenth century farmers added turnips and potatoes to their rotation patterns, and often increased the frequency with which they grew hay. These crops increased the amount of food available for animals, allowing rural residents to build up their herds of sheep and cattle and feed them over the winter instead of slaughtering most of them in the fall. Farmers in the Netherlands experimented with livestock breeding as well as crop rotation, cross-breeding cattle to select for those that would produce more or higher-quality milk or meat. Dutch butter and cheese became known throughout Europe and beyond. More and bigger animals meant more manure for fertilizer, which improved the productivity of the fi elds even further. Along with more intensive use of existing land, the Dutch also created new land. They built dikes and walls out into the sea along their shallow coast, and then drained the land behind the walls. The average elevation of the already Low Countries grew even lower with such large-scale drainage projects, in which new fi elds, called polders, were bordered by ditches and canals, the largest of which could be used for transport. (Today 27 percent of the Netherlands, with 60 percent of its population, lies under sea level, and the maintenance of sea walls is an important national issue.) Pumps powered by windmills helped keep the land dry. This process of draining could also be used for marshes and swamps, and by the seventeenth century landowners and rulers in other parts of Europe were hiring Dutch engineers to carry out similar projects. They built canals and reclaimed land for Italian princes, French cities, and the Spanish crown, and built mines in Poland, Russia, and other Baltic areas. In 1619, King Gustavus Adolphus decided he needed a city on the west coast of Sweden that was well fortifi ed to fend off Danish attacks. He used Dutch plans for canals and fortifi cations and hired Dutch engineers and workers to construct this city of Göteborg (Gothenburg), which they modeled on the Dutch colony of Batavia on the island of Java (now Jakarta in Indonesia). The majority of the fi rst city council was Dutch, and in 1731 Göteborg became the home of the Swedish East India Company, modeled on the similar Dutch company. Dutch innovations found their readiest market in England, where landlords were already enclosing fi elds and common lands to create sheep-runs, selling their wool to the growing textile industry. Enclosed fi elds, controlled by a single owner rather than a village community, could be easily planted in an innovative rotation pattern if the owner thought this would be even more profi table than wool. Viscount Charles Townshend (1674–1738) was an advocate of such changes; he had seen what the Dutch could do while serving as English ambassador to the Netherlands, and he returned to his huge estates extolling the virtues of new crops and methods. He advocated a fourfi eld system of crop rotation, with each fi eld planted successively in two kinds of grain, legumes, and turnips; each of these crops either adds nutrients to the soil or absorbs nutrients differently, so that no land has to be left fallow. This system was already being used by some farmers in England, and Townshend encouraged the farmers who leased his lands to adopt it, which led his fellow landowners to nickname him “Turnip” Townshend. Sowing grain – which formed the bulk of the European diet – was done through scattering seeds by hand, and various inventors tried to build machines that would put the seeds in the soil in a regular pattern instead of haphazardly on top of it. Jethro Tull (1674–1741), the son of a gentleman farmer, developed the fi rst mechanical seed drill that worked. Drawn by horses, his seed drill made rows of small trenches in the soil and dropped seeds into them, using less seed than sowing by hand. Tull’s seed drill is seen as the ancestor of modern farm machinery because it was the fi rst successful agricultural machine with inner moving parts. It was complicated and expensive, however, and seed drills were not widely adopted until the early nineteenth century. Tull also invented a horse-drawn hoe for weeding and modifi ed existing plow designs, but none of these brought him great success. He ended his days unhappily on the estate he had hopefully named Prosperous Farm, a title that turned out to be more ironic than accurate. Many innovators were aristocrats or gentry who had the wealth and leisure to contemplate new methods, but some were individuals who actually worked the land themselves. Robert Bakewell (1725–95), born into a family of tenant farmers, traveled around Europe observing agricultural methods. He experimented with fl ooding fi elds to improve hay yields and built special stalls for cattle in which they would not lie in their own manure, which kept them healthier, yielded more manure for fertilizer, and lessened the amount of straw needed for bedding, thus increasing the straw available for animal feed. He was especially interested in intensive selective breeding, and separated males from females in his herds so that he could breed specifi c individuals. He bred cattle and sheep that produced more meat, as did other experimental farmers, turning beef and mutton from foods for the upper classes into staples of the English diet. Landowners in England also emulated Dutch techniques of gaining new land. They brought in Dutch engineers and technicians to design and build drainage projects in the marshy areas of eastern England called the fens, turning them from low-intensity use into high-intensity fi elds. Woods and hillsides were also cleared and planted in clover or turnips, which could grow on poor soil and provide still more food for animals. All of these changes created an agricultural system that was sustainable over the long haul and produced a steadily increasing amount of food. Changes in rural life were gradual, but their cumulative result could be very disruptive. When fi elds were enclosed, land that had been held in common by the whole village became the property of one individual or one family; individuals were supposed to receive land in proportion to their share of the open fi elds, but large landowners often got a disproportionate share of the better land. This was particularly true after 1750, when enclosure was more often by Act of Parliament than by an agreement among local landowners. Enclosed property often included not just existing fi elds, but also woods and scrub areas where poorer people raised a few pigs or geese, and gathered nuts, coal, stone, and fi rewood for their own use or to augment their meager incomes. Enclosure, and sometimes even the rumor of impending enclosure, sparked protests, threats, and occasionally riots. In 1631, for example, a crowd of several thousand people gathered in Gloucestershire to protest the sale of royal forests to entrepreneurs for subdivision; the crowds destroyed fences, burned down the houses of the encloser’s agents, and fi nally burned an effi gy of the encloser himself, Sir Giles Mompesson. In 1753, armed crowds broke into the area where a noble landowner had begun raising rabbits for the urban market, killing thousands of the animals they believed destroyed grazing lands.

SOURCE 33 Comments on the draining of the English fens

The English fens, huge low-lying wetlands similar to the American Everglades, were home to a distinctive culture in which people supported themselves by fi shing, hunting, cutting willow for furniture, and cutting peat – the thick layer of sphagnum moss that covered much of the fens – to sell for fuel. Parts of the fens were so wet that people worked on stilts, though higher and dryer areas held villages, towns, and the city of Ely. In the 1630s, the earl of Bedford and a group of venture capitalists – “adventurers” as they were then known – hired Cornelius Vermuyden, a Dutch engineer, to start a major drainage project. If it worked, the investors would receive thousands of acres of new and very fertile farmland. Fen-dwellers protested the loss of their livelihood, and there were violent riots, especially during the 1640s – the time of the English Civil War – when their concerns were linked with other political and social grievances. An unknown author put the complaints of the fen-dwellers into verse: Come, brethren of the water, and let us all assemble, To treat upon this matter which makes us quake and tremble, For we shall rue it, if’t be true, the Fens be undertaken, And where we feed in fen and reed, they’ll feed both beef and bacon. Behold the great design, which they do now determine, Will make our bodies pine, a prey to crows and vermin; For they do mean all fens to drain and waters overmaster; All will be dry and we must die, ‘cause Essex calves want pasture. The feathered fowls have wings to fl y to other nations, But we have no such things to help our transportations; We must give place (oh grievous case!) to horned beasts and cattle, Except that we can all agree to drive them out by battle. (Cited in William Dugdale, The History of Imbanking and Draining of Divers Fens and Marshes [1661].) Investors and agricultural improvers answered with their own verses. Walter Blith, a captain in the parliamentary army, published The English Improver in 1649, a handbook advocating changes in agricultural practices, including draining marshes. When he published an expanded version, The English Improver Improved in 1652, he included an anonymous dedicatory poem, ostensibly written in his praise after the fi rst book appeared: How then ought all to Count this Author rare! Who by experience and observant care, Knows how to husband grounds to their best use, And doth to publique light what’s known produce! Who clearly aims in what he doth unfold At Common good still adding new to old. He gave us heretofore to understand The Art of fl oating and of Watering Land, Taught us how Fens and Bogs we ought to drain, How each one might by fair Enclosure gain, How antient Pasture might by tillage mend, Till’d ground by Grazing to improvement tend; What soyl and compost for each ground is good. And what waies further best the growth of Wood. Blith himself was more direct in his criticism of those who objected: As to the draining, or laying dry the fens: those profi table works, the Commonwealth’s glory, let not curs snarl, nor dogs bark thereat. Both draining and protest riots continued, though by 1850 there were very few people who made their living in traditional occupations, and by 1950 99 percent of the fens had been drained. In the past several decades, with worldwide recognition of the ecological value of wetlands and the environmental consequences of draining them, conservationists have been working to restore a small part of the fens to their original state and provide habitat for wetland plants and animals. Such protests did not stop changes in the countryside. Rural residents with small amounts of land were often forced to sell once they had lost their rights to use common lands, increasing the number of landless. They then hired themselves out as servants or day laborers to larger landowners, for root crops, hay, and specialized market crops were all very labor-intensive, increasing the demand for workers in the countryside at all times of the year, not simply during the grain harvest. Intensifi ed stock-raising and enclosed fi elds meant animals were often fed all year in stables rather than being allowed to range freely. This created constant work, especially for women, for feeding animals was viewed as a woman’s task. Historians estimate that by 1700 there were about two landless agricultural laborers for every independent farmer in England, and this proletarianization of the rural population continued in the eighteenth century. By 1800, more of the rural population in England were completely landless wage workers than elsewhere in western Europe. As in many parts of Europe, aristocratic landholders in England owned vast estates, but they often rented out much of their land to large-scale tenant farmers. The noble landowner then paid for improvements while the tenant farmer and hired laborers did the actual work fencing fi elds, felling trees, manuring soil, and breeding livestock. Tenant farmers, and wealthier peasants who owned fairly large farms in both England and the Netherlands, were the real entrepreneurs, developing technical expertise that led to farm improvements and adopting new products with changing demand and market conditions. The number of independent peasant farmers declined slowly in England as many found it advantageous to sell their lands to large landowners and then lease them back as tenant farmers, but they never completely disappeared. Agricultural practices changed more slowly in other parts of Europe than they did in the Netherlands or England. In eastern Europe, the institutions of serfdom established in the sixteenth century became even more onerous, with serfs bound completely to the land in Russia in 1649 and living in similar circumstances elsewhere. Aristocrats held estates with thousands of acres, though they often calculated their landed resources in terms of serfs rather than acres because the number of workers available to them was the most important determinant of total output. They took little interest in improving productivity, however, for they were operating on such a large scale that even with a high ratio of labor per acre and very primitive methods they were still able to produce a marketable surplus for export. Spanish landowners were similarly uninterested in agricultural innovation. High taxes and rents drove many peasants to sell their land to nobles, who sometimes chose to raise sheep for the international wool trade, but did so with traditional methods of transhumant sheepgrazing, not intensive stock-raising. In most of western Europe, much of the land was held by peasant proprietors with very small holdings, and even the larger landowners – nobles, townspeople, monasteries, church offi cials – did not own more than 1,000 acres. Local aristocrats often charged various dues and fees on peasant property, or for certain services, such as milling grain, and regional or central governments charged taxes. As we saw in chapter 6 , during the sixteenth century these fees and taxes often went up, forcing some peasant proprietors to sell their land and become tenant farmers or agricultural workers. Even for peasants who were able to keep their land, higher taxes and dues meant they had little surplus to experiment with new crops or techniques, and little incentive to change, as that would simply have meant an even higher tax burden. This meant that except in a few areas, such as the district around Paris, the German North Sea coast, and some parts of northern Italy, yields did not go up as they did in the Netherlands and England. There was some enclosure of common lands, but relatively little. There were few canals or roads for the transport of agricultural products, so that even in areas with specialized agriculture, such as the wine-growing parts of Italy or France, peasants still needed to produce enough grain to sustain themselves. Wine or olives or silk thread were valuable enough to carry to market, but grain was generally too expensive for peasants to buy if it had to be transported. During years with poor harvests, rural crowds also tried to prevent grain from being taken away to nearby cities by blocking roads or waterways. This happened in the regions that supplied London in the 1630s and those that supplied Rome in the 1640s; in the latter instance, crowds grew so violent that they killed the local papal governor and burned down his residence. Rising grain prices in the eighteenth century actually made the situation worse instead of better. As they had in the sixteenth century “price revolution,” wheat prices rose throughout the century, especially in France. Peasants and other landholders responded by planting as much wheat as they possibly could rather than legumes or crops for animal consumption. Wheat strips nutrients from the soil very quickly, however, so that yields per acre went down, especially as there was not enough livestock to produce the necessary nitrogen-rich manure. This led to higher prices, and created a vicious cycle of even more wheat being planted. Most French peasants still had to buy some grain to survive, so they suffered more than they gained from the rise in prices. In 1775, a year with crop failures in many parts of France, crowds protesting rising prices gathered in hundreds of towns; they seized wheat, fl our, and bread, sometimes for their own use and sometimes to force sales at prices they thought were reasonable, what was known as the taxation populaire . These violent actions, later called the Flour War, were eventually put down only when the monarchy brought in 25,000 troops. The French monarchy responded to these problems by alternately regulating and deregulating the grain trade, but this vacillation, combined with harvest shortfalls, created more dislocation and unrest. The harvest of 1788 was again very meager, bread prices soared, and riots broke out in many towns in late 1788 and 1789. The most dramatic of these was in Paris, where on July 14 crowds stormed the Bastille, a fortress and prison in the center of the city, looking for weapons. At the same time, peasants in the countryside ransacked the houses of their noble landlords, reoccupied common lands, and burned documents that recorded their taxes and dues. The inability to produce enough food at prices that people could afford became a political as well as an economic matter, and an important ingredient in the French Revolution.

 

 

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