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Reviewed by:
  • Agricultural Enlightenment: Knowledge, Technology, and Nature, 1750–1840 by Peter M. Jones
  • Neil Davidson
Agricultural Enlightenment: Knowledge, Technology, and Nature, 1750–1840. By Peter M. Jones (New York, Oxford University Press, 2016) 268pp. $100.00

There have been surprisingly few attempts to draw out the connections between the Enlightenment and the contemporaneous transformation of agriculture. In an important new book that seeks to remedy this situation, Jones suggests that, in the light of the currently dominant conception of the Enlightenment as a purely intellectual movement, his project might be regarded as “somewhat unusual, perhaps even perverse” (5). But as he rightly points out, the majority of Enlightenment figures did not see their work in that way. Equally important, from the perspective of this journal, the world of knowledge that they inhabited had not yet been divided into a series of arbitrarily defined disciplines. To take only the most obvious example, the political economy associated with Adam Smith is not “economics” as currently practiced (whether or not we consider it a “science”); it also contains elements of what would now be included in economic history, social geography, politics, and even psychology. Part of Jones’ achievement in this book is therefore to re-create the “pre-disciplinary” eighteenth-century world through an “interdisciplinarity” capable of encompassing theoretical debates about, say, physiocracy (17–20), as well as the seemingly more germane contribution of animal manure to soil fertility (181–184).

Agricultural Enlightenment does not claim to be a total history of the Enlightenment in the manner of Israel’s recent work.1 Rather, as the title and organizing principle (“research paradigm”) suggest, it seeks to understand it as something in the way of a social movement, albeit a diffuse one, intent on changing agrarian practice. For those who were enlightened, this orientation involved “a concern for attainable, incremental improvements in day-to-day conditions of living” that also opened up potential benefits for states: “Governments interpreted the phenomenon of Enlightenment as both an opportunity for and as a guide to the [End Page 253] extraction of wealth from the land” (217). Jones also makes clear that agriculture during the Enlightenment involved shifts in culture and belief in addition to changes in technique or ownership. In many respects, the book is constructed as a critical endorsement of Mokyr’s argument for incorporating the role of “useful knowledge” into our understanding of agrarian growth after 1750 (6, 214–215).2

Jones’ previous book, Industrial Enlightenment: Science, Technology and Culture in Birmingham and the West Midlands 1760–1820 (Manchester, 2008), was in many ways a major departure from his previous work as a specialist in the last stages of France’s ancien regime and early revolutionary era. In the current book, Jones works within a similar, but slightly broader, time frame, 1750–1840 rather than 1760–1820, concluding at the point when countries at the leading edge of development had overcome the technical limitations to agricultural growth. But his geographical sweep is much wider than in the preceding work, encompassing Western and Central Europe. He is justifiably skeptical of claims by Pomeranz and the California school that the more advanced areas of the Chinese Empire and Europe—the “East” and “West”—showed no significant differences in productivity, though he lapses into the inadequate shorthand about it that everyone else often does.3 As he notes toward the end of his book, “If the West succeeded in bringing together in a unique combination the ingredients for sustained agriculture and industrial growth, it began doing so long before the start of the nineteenth century” (228).

In his attempt to demonstrate the West’s priority in agriculture, Jones carefully avoids two misleading extremes into which earlier analysts have fallen. One, to which the California school is prone, refers to an undifferentiated “West” (meaning, in this case, Europe and its North American extensions), which misleadingly implies that countries like, for example, England and Portugal, were always on the same plane. The other approach, associated with Brenner and especially his followers, like Wood, is problematical for the opposite reason, claiming that England alone experienced endogenous capitalist agricultural development.4 In contradistinction to both views, Jones is suitably attentive to...


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