Friday, January 9, 2009

Animal fodder and literature

The Early Modern Center at UCSB has accepted my proposed paper (abstract below) for their upcoming conference on early modern environmentalism. Before you exclaim on the eclectic nature of my research, I should say that this is actually an offshoot of my earlier work on animal bodies and national identity. It's kind of a leftover, in a way, although I haven't fleshed out this particular angle. So, more work to do.

Showing the mettle of your pasture:
Animal fodder as national identity in early modern England

Robert Trow-Smith’s classic history of British livestock (1957) argues that demand for meat and dairy products in growing urban regions fueled a revolution in early modern English livestock husbandry.   Other historians such as Peter Edwards have since shown that the number of animals used for transport (horses and oxen) also increased dramatically in the period.  All of these creatures had to eat, and their growing appetite resulted in increasing concern over the productivity of English pastureland and the quality of its hay, oats, and other green stuff. Much depended on these, and much more was thought to depend.  The quality of English plant life became a fundamental part of the national imagination. Drawing on works ranging from traditional natural history and agronomy to commonplace books and mathematical texts, I argue that English pastures and the plants growing in them became metonymic vehicles for the expression of concerns about the English people as a whole. This metonymy, I show, underpins many of the references to national climate and character in literary works like Shakespeare's Henry V, which begins with the youth of England selling their pastures to pay their way to war. In France they are exhorted to show the value of their English pasture, and the French first mock and then are astounded that English “barley-broth” should produce such success. Throughout the play the value of England as the ground for English valiance is both questioned and insisted upon, an uncertainty that reflects back to deeper seated ecological concerns. 
Here's an aerial phot of a water meadow (the remains, anyway), one of the early 17th century innovations in pasture technology.  Basically it's a fancy way of irrigating fields so that they can double the amount of hay produced.  Nobody does this anymore because it's incredibly labor intensive.

“Chesterblade catchwork water meadow (RAF CPE/UK/1944 2248) : English Heritage : English Heritage.” 9 Jan 2009 <>.

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