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'England is not a kingdom located on the Moon': Use and usefulness of English knowledge in early modern Swedish agricultural literature

Linnea Bring Larsson

Abstract: Books of husbandry and agriculture were long-standing elements of the early modem European culture. In the first instance, they served as conveyors of useful practical knowledge. However, through a process of circulation and translation, the knowledge was incrementally detached from its practical context. This chapter argues that the usefulness of these books thus shifted to a more theoretical one, connected to the learned elite’s appropriation of knowledge and the aspirations of the individual authors. By studying the use of English agricultural knowledge in two Swedish works, Jacob Serenius’ The English Husbandman and Shepherd (1727) and Reinerus Broocman’s A Complete Book of Swedish Husbandry (1736), this study examines how the different uses and usefulness of the knowledge influenced the translation and selection, and thus the circulation, of agricultural knowledge during the early modern period.


Books of husbandry and agriculture, that is, manuals on agricultural administration and practices, were long-standing elements of the European learned culture, from antiquity onwards. However, during the early modern period, the number of works increased dramatically for a number of reasons, including the invention of the printing press, the so-called scientific revolution, mercantilistic and cameralistic systems of thought, and an increasing interest in both agriculture and practical knowledge overall, by the gentry and learned elites. In Sweden, the genre experienced its real upsurge only in the eighteenth century, starting in the late 1720s.1 This increase was, in addition to the above-mentioned factors, partly fuelled by the political situation. Sweden, its economic and military power severely diminished after the Great Northern War (1700-1721), was in dire need of improvements in agriculture and commerce.2 In this context, English agricultural knowledge proved useful. However, it is important to ask to whom this knowledge was most useful. This discussion examines how the perceived practical and theoretical usefulness of the knowledge influenced the translation and selection, and thus circulation, of English agricultural knowledge into Swedish books of husbandry and agriculture during the eighteenth century. Through two case studies, Jacob Serenius’ The English Husbandman and Shepherd (1727) and Reinerus Broocman’s A Complete Book of Swedish Husbandly (1736), it thus focuses on processes of appropriation, circulation, and translation of agricultural knowledge during the early modern period.

Translation as appropriation

The Swedish books of husbandry and agriculture have been largely overlooked by previous scholars, due to their perceived unoriginality and dependence on European agricultural works.3 Many of the books were indeed compilations or translations. However, in recent years, it is possible to discern an increased international interest in translations as sources. This is especially true in studies of knowledge circulation, for example concerning the transformation of political and scientific concepts through translation. ‘Translation’ is here defined broadly, as the translation of knowledge from one context (for example social or linguistic) to another.4

Previous research regarding the translation of agricultural knowledge has explored how information tended to lose some of its practical usefulness through translation. For example, Mauro Ambrosoli has shown how the difficulty of translating and/or agreeing on plant names between different contexts led to the confusion of lucerne (Medicago satina), sainfoin (Onobrychis), and sorghum (Sorghum nidgare) in medieval and early modern Europe, which reduced the spread of their cultivation.5 However, books of husbandry and agriculture served an additional purpose apart from the at least perceived circulation of practical knowledge: as part of the early modem process of knowledge appropriation, where local, practical popular knowledge was codified and systematised by learned, educated elites in order to control it. This happened, for example, in mechanics and medicine, as well as agriculture. The will to control knowledge was linked to a corresponding desire to control social structures, legitimising the status of the educated as above those who had learned by practice and custom.6 As James Fisher has argued, the English books of husbandry and agriculture can be seen as ‘tools of appropriation’, where local, practical agricultural knowledge was transformed and put into different theoretical systems of thought. This was done, Fisher argues, not only to improve agricultural practices, but to legitimise the control by the gentry and estate managers in a period which saw an increase in agricultural professionals and gentlemen. By removing the knowledge from its context, its usefulness shifted from a purely practical one to the one also concerning control over knowledge and power.7

The processes of translation and appropriation are clearly linked. The transformation of knowledge from oral to written is in itself a type of translation. Translations between different linguistic and social contexts thus played a great role in the appropriation and subsequent transformation of the usefulness of the knowledge, from a practical to a more theoretical one. However, these processes were not only affected by the wants of a group, but also by the aims of individual authors. This study explores these individual motives, by examining two Swedish works and the uses of English agricultural knowledge by their authors: Jacob Serenius’ The English Husbandman and Shepherd (1727) and Reinerus Broocman’s A Complete Book of Swedish Husbandry (1736). During this period in Sweden, the notion of ‘usefulness’ (nytta) - as in public and therefore virtuous usefulness as opposed to sinful self-interest - was a cherished concept.8 The ambition to improve the wealth of the state fell within this kind of usefulness. It was therefore commended, and both Broocman and Serenius declared this to be the purpose of their books. However, it is argued here that the books also had another purpose: to serve the economic and political ambitions of their authors. These different and sometimes conflicting purposes affected the translation and selection of agricultural knowledge in various ways.

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