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Rural Science: Experimental Philosophy and Agricultural Improvement in Early Modern England

Visiting Fellowships at University of Oxford


Since the Neolithic revolution, agriculture has been the foundation of human life. For most of human history, knowledge about soils, crops, and fertilizer, crucial for survival, has been rooted in local customs and obtained through 'learning by doing' processes passed down from one generation of farmers to the next. Rural Science studies how English natural philosophers, agricultural reformers, and farmers broke with customary and habitual farming knowledge in the late 16th and 17th centuries. The project hypothesizes that the intersecting emergence of experimental methods within natural philosophy, the rise of agrarian capitalism, and the reform-aspirations of agricultural improvers led to the development of an experimental and theory-based approach to farming in early modern England.


The project argues that the traditional dating of a scientific approach to farming to the late 18th and 19th centuries misses a crucial period in late 16th and 17th century England. In so doing, the project intervenes in the fields of agricultural history and the history of science by significantly enhancing our knowledge of the agricultural roots of early modern experimental science and the early modern roots of scientific approaches to agriculture. Finally, the project explores highly relevant themes within environmental history, such as the changing views on the role of human agency within wider natural systems following the rise of capitalist farming.


To explore how the connection between experimental philosophy, agricultural reform, and farming unfolded in the period, the project creates the analytical concept of 'rural science'. The concept refers to the forms of knowledge and practices of knowledge production, such as information gathering, discussions, observations, and conducting experiments, occurring in the spaces where experimental philosophers, agricultural reformers, and farmers interacted, corresponded, and met. These spaces took various forms, from farms, fields, and gardens to correspondence and information networks. Through three cases studies, including extensive archival research, the project traces how the often messy but not entirely disorganized knowledge and practices of rural science unfolded throughout the period.


The future of agriculture is central to the challenge of contemporary environmental crises. Rural Science contributes a small part to meeting this challenge by enhancing our historical understanding of the social and environmental impact of scientific and capitalist farming. The project demonstrates how knowledge about soils, crops, and fertilizer is always embedded within specific social and economic ways of organizing agriculture and how the advent of scientific-oriented farming was closely related to conflicts between customary and capitalist ways of farming. In so doing, the project raises awareness of the non-neutrality and socio-political embeddedness of agricultural knowledge and potential lines of conflict of relevance for actors working on transforming agriculture in the face of current climatic, ecological, and economic challenges. The project employs open scholarship practices within the humanities, such as open sharing of publications, research ideas and results. It will create the website ruralscience.org to openly share research ideas, preliminary results, possible transcripts of sources, and the first-ever prosopographical database on experimental philosophers, agricultural reformers, and farmers built from the extensive bibliographical and archival research of the three case studies.