The Agricultural Enlightenment: Reviewing Peter Jones’ contribution to Enlightenment historiography

Kant famously addressed the prompt “Was ist Aufklarung?” in 1784 and for nearly 200 years, we spoke of the Age of Enlightenment as the beginning of a modern age when Western European philosophes set the groundwork for the rational world.

Foucault returned to the question in 1978, challenging this positive narrative and promoting a “historico-critical” reexamination and contextualization of the 18th century. Together with Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlighenment, Focault’s work fed a post-colonial, poststructural historiography that moved away from viewing “The Enlightenment” as the unchallenged success of French and English intellectuals, and replaced it with fragmentary microhistories.

Jonathan Israel has sought to recenter the Enlightenment on the development of historical and religious studies in the Netherlands. Israel has gone so far as to suggest that Voltaire came after the culmination of the Enlightenment and that his arguments were only derivatives of the debates already played out in the Netherlands. Religious and political histories of Enlightenments in Italy, Germany, Scotland, and America similarly identify various leaders negotiating both locally contextualized social issues and broader international debates. As a result, it is far more common to hear now of enlightenments and their various agendas rather than a single unified and purposeful Enlightenment.

In the 1980s and early 90s, as emphasis was shifting from a predominantly French and English history of the Enlightenment to the more situated national enlightenments, Peter Gay, Steven Shapin, Edith Spary and other historians of science wrote about the Scientific and Technological enlightenments. Observational, experimental, and mathematical epistemologies were tied to the rationalization at the core of intellectual histories of the Enlightenment. As the history of science moved from a narrow focus on theory to the inclusion of practice and applied sciences, these scientific histories of the enlightenment have come to include the mechanical, medical, and industrial developments that connected science to the economic developments of the 18th- and early 19th centuries.

Peter Jones’ new book, Agricultural Enlightenment: Knowledge Technology and Nature 1750-1840is a sweeping, trans-European retelling of the Enlightenment(s) through the lens of agricultural development. Though agriculture has at times been included as a science or as a constellation of sciences, it has not been included to this point in either the economic or scientific histories of the enlightenment.

Jones touches on the various national key terms from the enlightenment in the first chapter. Through his discussions of  physiocracy, cameralism, political economy, and agronomy, Jones ties agricultural to the the economic and political histories of 18th-century Europe. By quickly establishing the role of agriculture in the rational management and growth of centralized governments, Jones draws together the pluralistic accounts of the various national enlightenments into a meta-narrative that applies across Europe. While political and religious debates varied by nation and even region in the eighteenth century, the desire for autonomy through self-sufficient agriculture and industry is as close to universal as any force can be for an entire continent.

An agricultural historian throughout his career, Jones draws explicitly from history of technology and history of the book in his discussion of information dissemination/promulgation in chapters four and five. Jones combines a thorough survey of the differential literacy across Europe with a summary of the class structures of farmers to paint a vivid picture of the role of books, newspapers, and correspondence in the dissemination of agricultural knowledge. He combines this history of the dissemination of written information with a study of the ‘contagion theory’ of localized, person-to-person communication of knowledge to produce a multivalent model of agricultural knowledge diffusion. I found this to be a convincing and well-developed construct for the many methods by which knowledge moved in the eighteenth century. However, I think he could have drawn from the work of Suzanne Moon and other historians of post-colonial technology to identify the various socio-cultural challenges for knowledge diffusion. Jones notes the economic and political disruption that led to documented instances of resistance from the upper classes, but I think he could have done more to acknowledge the cultural reasons why the lower classes actively and consciously resisted agro-economic change.

In chapters five and six, Jones provides insight into the geographic and social mobility of skilled labor as continental rulers at every level recruited laborers. These chapters combine well with earlier discussions in chapters two and three in parsing the roles of the various governments and major land holders in promoting Agricultural Enlightenment and Revolution throughout Europe. These chapters will be of interest for all historians of the enlightenment because they survey the patronage and power structures of nearly every country.

From the perspective of a historian of eighteenth century chemistry, the weakest section was the two-page section on agricultural chemistry in chapter seven. Jones acknowledges several attempts at agricultural chemistry during the 18th and early-19th centuries, but concludes, as so many do, that true agricultural chemistry did not take off until Justus Liebig’s work in the 1850s. In my opinion this misses the important work done by Scottish chemists William Cullen, Joseph Black, and George Fordyce and the motivational importance of that chemistry for authors that Jones does spend time with like Lord Kames, Adam Smith, and Thomas Malthus. Joseph Priestley, Jan Ingen-Housz, Richard Kirwan, and Claude Louis Berthollet were amongst the many chemists who wrote on soils and manures in the eighteenth century. Works on respiration by Priestley, William Irvine, Joseph Black, and Antoine Lavoisier were crucial to understandings of both biology and chemico-physical heat. I would argue that the marling, dunging, and even plowing techniques were all heavily influenced by lay understandings of chemistry and mineralogy in the second half of the eighteenth century, if not before.

With this self-centered objection aside, Peter Jones’ book is a wonderful addition to the historiography of the enlightenments. As a lens, agriculture provides an economic motivation that was similarly applicable throughout the various national enlightenments. The resultant meta-narrative is utilitarian in a way that complements the politico-economic histories that can focus too heavily on the great thinkers. Jones’ work also details the rise of agrarian capitalism, as a shift from feudalism, in tones that inform both the history of capitalism and the twentieth-century use of the Green Revolution to push capitalism on the developing world. Amazingly, Jones’ book remains succinct, while giving a century’s worth of agricultural and economic history for all of Europe. Agricultural Enlightenment transcends the boundaries of economic, scientific, and political history and is an important extension of Enlightenment historiography.

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