William Marshall’s Minutes of Agriculture
and eighteenth-century agricultural writing
by Angela Davis
The eighteenth century was a time of improvement, and this did not fail to extend as far as the field of agriculture. Science in this time was fashionable, and agricultural writers attempted to put forth improvements on the methods of farming as well as the methods of writing about farming. Because there was no distinction between scientific writing and literature in eighteenth century England, problems arose surrounding agricultural texts. Factors include debates about scientific language, readership, and the form an agricultural text should take. These issues are contextualized with background history of the changes in scientific writing and readership, as well as an outline of the agricultural revolution that generated an onslaught of agricultural texts in the eighteenth century. Much of the data is taken from agricultural books and criticisms thereof, with specific excerpts used to illustrate the points. One main text, William Marshall’s Minutes of Agriculture, is used to focus the discussion.
Agricultural writers of the eighteenth century attempted to cater to conflicting groups of readers, including scientists, philosophers, gentlemen, landowners, and farmers. However, a style of writing appropriate for one group is necessarily different from writing appropriate for the others, since each group has a different use for agricultural works, and requires different language. Authors attempted to produce books valuable for both their applications and their style, but the one is not necessarily reconcilable with the other, and therefore problems surrounding agricultural writing arose. These problems and the reasons behind them are outlined, along with the context in which they came about.
William Marshall’s Minutes of Agriculture is one such book which received heavy criticisms. This author and his work are used in this paper as an example to illustrate how science and literature converged in the late eighteenth century and the problems that resulted from this. Though Marshall, unlike many other scientific writers of his day, was an agriculturist, his style of writing is not appropriate for a scientific or didactic work as they are viewed today. His language is obscure, he uses techniques such as metaphors and allegory, and he introduces new and unnecessary terms without proper definitions. Though he claims to be putting forth an improved method of writing about agriculture, his style of writing is not appropriate for any of the types of readership mentioned above. The problems found in Marshall’s work exemplify many of the issues surrounding scientific writing of the time.
While The Minutes of Agriculture and the criticisms thereof illustrate various problems that stemmed from the overlap of science and literature, there were on the other hand books written by other authors that avoided such problems and yet suffered equally harsh criticisms. While Marshall is criticized for too ambiguous a style of writing, others who are perspicuous are criticized for lacking style. The blurred boundaries between literature and science created problems for the way in which scientific texts were to be written, and furthermore how they were to be received. Such problems surrounding agricultural writing are addressed, illustrated, and analyzed throughout this paper.