Jethro Tull’s “Horse-Hoeing Husbandry”

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Lifting the Ancient Curse from the Land

“We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land.”

Most people know this old harvest hymn, but not everyone realizes that it is a couple of centuries out of date. Farmers have long ceased to scatter the good seed on the land. It is planted in drills and the man responsible for bringing about what was the greatest revolution in agriculture was a London barrister named Jethro Tull, who became what is called a gentleman farmer at the turn of the eighteenth century. It is from his ideas and discoveries that all modern farm-sowing implements are derived.

To understand what Tull’s discovery meant it is necessary to give a brief resume of the agricultural history of Western Europe.

It is convenient to think of the history of man as beginning at the end of the last Ice Age, though his true history, of course, goes back very much further, nearly three-quarters of a million years.

When the ice finally retreated, in about 20,000 B.C., it left Western Europe a tundra upon which teemed immense herds of grass-eating animals. This vast plethora of game made it unnecessary for Paleolithic man to till the soil. He was a hunter and he flourished on the flesh of the reindeer, bison, horse and mammoth which roamed the great plains.

He was also a considerable artist. The Magdelenian and Aurig-nacian cave drawings are quite remarkable for their sensitivity, virility and sophistication. Modern critics have compared them favourably with Picasso and El Greco.

The climate became warmer and the rainfall upon the rich virgin soil caused vast forests to grow where once had been plains of grass, and so the grazing herds vanished, and with them vanished the remarkable communities of hunter-artists.

The advance of the great forests all over Europe was a set-back for early man. It made him turn to agriculture. Early Western European man copied such agrarian skills of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilizations which filtered across the spaces of Europe with the restless nomadic tribes.

These primitive Neolithic farmers groaned under the ancient Biblical curse: “Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. Thorns and also thistles shall it bring forth and thou shalt eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return into the ground, for out; of it thou wast taken… Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden to till the ground from whence he was taken.” (Gen. 3, 17-23.)

This bondage to the soil after the Eden of hunting and painting at first seemed to depress man’s soul, and the dim folk-memory of that distant Eden when food was plentiful and life was sweet entered into the mythologies and religions of the early civilizations. Mankind was haunted by this legend of the happy, carefree life, when the world was young, and all was hunting and making love, and he did not have to wrest food from the reluctant and cursed soil.

Cain, the first murderer, was a tiller of the ground. He killed Abel, who bred sheep and found greater favour thereby in the sight of God, which was rather to be expected in view of the above quotation from Genesis.

And so the tillers of the soil started under a curse, and it is not surprising that agriculture got off to a bad beginning. It could hardly have been inaugurated under a more discouraging auspice.

The early history of husbandry is wrapped in mystery. Not until Greek and Roman times did it become a highly developed craft. Modern farming is founded on Roman agriculture, which spread all over Europe and the skills of which were never lost during the Dark Ages which followed the barbarian invasions. It was the towns mainly which declined or entirely vanished during those centuries. Life remained very much the same in the countryside.

However, the Roman “dry-farming” methods, which resulted in under-manuring and over-tilling, were not really suitable to the soils of the Atlantic European countries, although there was much agrarian prosperity in Romano-British times, and southern England was a great corn-producing area.

The Anglo-Saxon invaders brought a more primitive agriculture with them, but they were responsible for clearing large areas of Britain’s forests and putting them under the plough. During those centuries there was a big agrarian advance, but the type of farming which evolved into the manorial system of medieval farming was by its very nature inefficient. The wide extent of Saxon agriculture was revealed in the record made by William the Conqueror in the Domesday Book.

The system of crop rotation was the simplest and most primitive. Manuring was done merely by driving cattle on to the stubble after the harvest, or strewing roughage. The crops had to depend mainly upon such fertility as was inherent in the soil. Seed was scattered or planted by hand.

The yield therefore was as low as two bushels of wheat per acre in the thirteenth century, though in open-field land there was a yield of ten bushels of wheat to the acre in medieval times.

Life was hard and bitter for the medieval serf who was bound to the land, and to his lord. Aelfric, the early English writer, in his Latin work, Colloquium, puts words into the mouth of an eleventh-century ploughman to describe his life of unremitting slavery to the soil: “Oh, my lord, hard do I toil. I go out at dawn with my oxen to the fields and yoke them to the plough. Be it never so severe a winter, I dare not hide at home for fear of my lord. All day I shall have to plough an acre or more. Oh, oh, much work it is, my lord, because I am not free.”

The peasant risings and the Black Death helped to put an end to this bitter period of English agriculture.

Poverty, want and appalling privations darkened the scene in the fifteenth century, but something of a renaissance came in the following century when the introduction of Dutch agricultural techniques In England did something to lift the primeval curse from the soil. In Tudor times feudalism was at an end and the lot of the farm worker was a little easier.

The enclosure of the commonland was the subject of much controversy during these centuries. While enclosure was good for the soil itself it created great hardships, and a new class of rural poor who were deprived of their ancient rights to the commonland.

This burning question of sociology versus technology tended to overshadow the improvements in techniques which came in during the time of Charles I, when the all-important turnip was introduced into England. This new type of farming involved the growing of winter feed for cattle, and brought about a remarkable increase in production yield. But it could only be practised on enclosed farms and so there was much opposition to it. At the end of the sixteenth century wheat-land under the new system was producing anything up to 60 bushels to the acre, six times the yield of medieval times.

During the eighteenth century enclosure was seen to be the foundation of good husbandry, despite the fact that it pauperized the small peasant, but it proceeded at such a pace that it had to be controlled by parliament.

These primitive Neolithic farmers groaned under the ancient Biblical curse: “Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. Thorns and also thistles shall it bring forth and thou shalt eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return into the ground, for out; of it thou wast taken. . . . Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden to till the ground from whence he was taken.” (Gen. 3, 17-23.)

This bondage to the soil after the Eden of hunting and painting at first seemed to depress man’s soul, and the dim folk-memory of that distant Eden when food was plentiful and life was sweet entered into the mythologies and religions of the early civilizations. Mankind was haunted by this legend of the happy, carefree life, when the world was young, and all was hunting and making love, and he did not have to wrest food from the reluctant and cursed soil.

Cain, the first murderer, was a tiller of the ground. He killed Abel, who bred sheep and found greater favour thereby in the sight of God, which was rather to be expected in view of the above quotation from Genesis.

And so the tillers of the soil started under a curse, and it is not surprising that agriculture got off to a bad beginning. It could hardly have been inaugurated under a more discouraging auspice.

The early history of husbandry is wrapped in mystery. Not until Greek and Roman times did it become a highly developed craft. Modern farming is founded on Roman agriculture, which spread all over Europe and the skills of which were never lost during the Dark Ages which followed the barbarian invasions. It was the towns mainly which declined or entirely vanished during those centuries. Life remained very much the same in the countryside.

However, the Roman “dry-farming” methods, which resulted in under-manuring and over-tilling, were not really suitable to the soils of the Atlantic European countries, although there was much agrarian prosperity in Romano-British times, and southern England was a great corn-producing area.

The Anglo-Saxon invaders brought a more primitive agriculture with them, but they were responsible for clearing large areas of Britain’s forests and putting them under the plough. During those centuries there was a big agrarian advance, but the type of farming which evolved into the manorial system of medieval farming was by its very nature inefficient. The wide extent of Saxon agriculture was revealed in the record made by William the Conqueror in the Domesday Book.

The system of crop rotation was the simplest and most primitive. Manuring was done merely by driving cattle on to the stubble after the harvest, or strewing roughage. The crops had to depend mainly upon such fertility as was inherent in the soil. Seed was scattered or planted by hand.

The yield therefore was as low as two bushels of wheat per acre 111 the thirteenth century, though in open-field land there was a yield of ten bushels of wheat to the acre in medieval times.

Life was hard and bitter for the medieval serf who was bound to the land, and to his lord. Aelfric, the early English writer, in his Latin work, Colloquium, puts words into the mouth of an eleventh-century ploughman to describe his life of unremitting slavery to the soil: “Oh, my lord, hard do I toil. I go out at dawn with my oxen to the fields and yoke them to the plough. Be it never so severe a winter, I dare not hide at home for fear of my lord. All day I shall have to plough an acre or more. Oh, oh, much work it is, my lord, because I am not free.”

The peasant risings and the Black Death helped to put an end to this bitter period of English agriculture.

Poverty, want and appalling privations darkened the scene in the fifteenth century, but something of a renaissance came in the following century when the introduction of Dutch agricultural techniques in England did something to lift the primeval curse from the soil. In Tudor times feudalism was at an end and the lot of the farm worker was a little easier.

The enclosure of the commonland was the subject of much controversy during these centuries. While enclosure was good for the soil itself it created great hardships, and a new class of rural poor who were deprived of their ancient rights to the commonland.

This burning question of sociology versus technology tended to overshadow the improvements in techniques which came in during the time of Charles I, when the all-important turnip was introduced into England. This new type of farming involved the growing of winter feed for cattle, and brought about a remarkable increase in production yield. But it could only be practised on enclosed farms and so there was much opposition to it. At the end of the sixteenth Century wheat-land under the new system was producing anything up to 60 bushels to the acre, six times the yield of medieval times.

During the eighteenth century enclosure was seen to be the foundation of good husbandry, despite the fact that it pauperized the small peasant, but it proceeded at such a pace that it had to be controlled by parliament.

Nevertheless, despite the many advances in husbandry, eighteenth-century farming practice was still wedded to medieval procedures. It lacked the technical means of taking full advantage of the new knowledge.

The man who provided English agriculture with this new technical means was Jethro Tull (1674-1741), who came from a wealthy Berkshire family. He studied law at Oxford and was called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn in 1699, but he never practised, for Tull had little interest in law. His heart was in the farmlands. His original work was to be the basis of all the improvements in cultivation during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Tull began farming on his father’s land at Howberry, near Wallingford, in 1700, and he made a scientific investigation into the question of plant nourishment. He rightly postulated that this was a fundamental question, the key to which was the nourishment of the root system of the plant, which Tull discovered was far more extensive than had hitherto been supposed. Plants must therefore, he said, be more widely spaced and the soil around them should be thoroughly broken down during growth.

Tull’s system was based upon a fundamental mistake. He believed that the nourishment which the plant took from the earth was in the form of minute particles of soil. He did not believe that animal manure provided the plant with nourishment. Its sole quality, he thought, was in its fermentative action in breaking up the soil particles. He thought manure was otherwise an objectionable substance which could only tend to taint the plants which grew in it.

Plants would grow better, he said, if the soil was thoroughly broken down, not only during sowing but in the early stages of growth. For this purpose he invented two machines, the seed-drill and the horse-hoe. With these, crops could be sown in drills or rows sufficiently wide apart so that the horse, drawing the hoe, could walk without damage to the plants, and provide tillage with the hoe during almost the whole period of growth. This after-cultivation of the growing plant was the centre point of Tull’s thinking, and the practice of course is carried on to this day. His horse-hoe was just an adapted wooden plough.

In 1711 Tull went on an extended visit to the Continent to study methods of agriculture in France and Italy. He returned in 1714 and it was not until 1731 that he published his famous book Horse-Hoeing Husbandry.
But, although Tull is reckoned as the greatest original thinker about farming processes which England had then produced, his theories fell upon stony ground. Very few eighteenth-century farmers were prepared to listen to his wisdom. Most of them clung to the old ways, and it was a hundred years before Tull’s methods began to be generally applied.

Tull’s wrong conclusions about the value of animal manure no doubt did the rest of his theory a good deal of harm. Farmers well knew from experience the fertilizing qualities of animal manure. Widely spaced plants were frequently smothered by weeds, unless Tull’s second principle of thorough hoeing was followed. Thus Tull’s theories fell into disrepute. He died at Hungerford on 21 February, 1741, his work unrecognized, his theories scorned, though he never lost faith in them himself.

Fortunately for English agriculture some of the great landowners in the eighteenth century were keenly interested in progressive farming. The most celebrated of these was the second Viscount Townshend.

Townshend was a statesman. He negotiated the Treaty of Utrecht, and he and his brother-in-law, Robert Walpole, held the reins of government between them. In 1730 Townshend quarrelled with Walpole and retired to his estate at Raynham in Norfolk, where he devoted his energy and intelligence, both of which were considerable, to farming.

At Raynham Townshend put Tull’s theories into practice. His soil was light and poor and he used the Tull method to cultivate turnips as a field crop. He was able to winter-feed his cattle on turnips and thus improve his livestock, and also increase the fertility of his land by the practice of Tull’s techniques.

”Turnip Townshend”, as they called him, transformed Norfolk farming by the intelligent application of Tull’s teaching. Arthur Young, an agricultural writer in the middle of the eighteenth century, discussing the work of Townshend and Tull, said that within living memory the county of Norfolk had yielded nothing but sheep-feed, but as a result of the new methods, “those very tracts of land are now covered with as fine barley and rye as any in the world and great quantities of wheat besides”.

Although Tull laid the foundations for modern techniques of sowing and cultivation, a hundred years passed before his seed-drill displaced the ancient method of broadcasting, scattering “the good seed on the land”.

It was at the beginning of the nineteenth century that British (arming eventually adopted more efficient and scientific methods. The agrarian revolution which Tull began was not completed until nearly a hundred years after the publication of Horse-Hoeing Husbandry. Horse-hoeing of wheat was practised until the 1880s, when a fall in wheat prices made it uneconomic, and it is now rare. But certain crops, such as peas and beans and root crops, are still cultivated by Tull’s method, though the “horse-hoe” is now usually drawn by a tractor, is multi-bladed and is called an inter-row cultivator.

The great importance of Tull lies in the fact that all modern sowing implements are founded upon the principle of his seed-drill.

These modern methods gave rise to the new style of mixed farming, balancing larger and better stock with a wider range of crops, and have enabled man finally to lift the ancient curse from the land.