Andrew McRae. God Speed the Plough: The Representation of Agrarian England, 1500-1660. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. xv + 332 pp. ISBN 0-521-45379-8 Cloth.
Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr.
Pennsylvania State University

Sullivan, Garrett A., Jr. "Review of God Speed the Plough: The Representation of Agrarian England, 1500-1660." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.2 (September, 1998): 25.1-4 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-2/rev_sull.html>.

  1. Andrew McRae begins his book on the values and practices of rural England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by discussing the plough, which was "claimed as an emblem of traditional structures of rural society, in a stream of complaint decrying the effects of depopulating enclosure. Equally, though, the plough could symbolize the expansive energies of a farmer improving his land" (1). Both plough and, especially, ploughman are recurring figures in McRae’s analysis; they become vehicles for charting the historical debates and developments that are the topic of McRae’s thorough and persuasive book. While the plough could emblematize either traditional practice or agrarian improvement, McRae tells the story of the ascendance of the latter at the expense of the former. That is, "moral economics" (land-based relations built on reciprocity and social obligation) were decisively supplanted in the seventeenth century by conceptions of agrarian improvement predicated upon a vision of land as exploitable resource. "The discourse of improvement . . .  erected a powerful new set of values, which would underpin the consolidation of capitalism in both country and city. . . .  [This discourse struck] at the very foundation of moral economics, confronting the doctrine of manorial stewardship with the logic of absolute property" (18). Or, at the level of the ploughman, "As the individualist farmer was metamorphosed from a covetous canker on the body politic into a godly man of thrift and industry, the meaning of agrarian England shifted accordingly from a site of manorial community and moral economy toward a modern landscape of capitalist enterprise" (7). On one level, then, God Speed the Plough constitutes a fresh contribution to the study of the transition from agrarian feudalism to agrarian capitalism; it charts the ideological (and to a lesser extent the material) developments both necessary to and produced by a nascent capitalism.

  2. To argue thus is to risk misrepresenting the emphases of McRae’s book, however. Seldom explicitly about such a sweeping historical change as the growth of capitalism, God Speed is first and foremost a close survey of a range of texts, both literary and non-literary, that forwards a persuasive historical narrative that is pursued in each of the book’s three sections. Part One, "Versions of Moral Economy," focuses on a range of texts (from prayer books to satires, city comedies to revolutionary pamphlets) that champion a land-based moral order already in tension with the imperatives of the "improvers." McRae describes the emphasis of Edwardian reformers on moral complaint, then shows how under Elizabeth this emphasis gave way to "an increasingly empirical and rationalistic approach to social and economic problems" (58). Such an approach was supplemented by the focus on individual rather than social sin. Whereas for the Edwardian "gospellers" the ploughman and his plight were symbolically central, emblematizing as they did a land-based moral order, under Elizabeth "the ploughman [was exposed] to moral judgement alongside his landlord. The covetousness of the rich becomes just another symptom of moral decay, rather than the definitive index of corruption it had been to the gospellers" (65). Such emphasis on the sins of the individual, no matter what his or her position in the social order, dovetailed with a reconfiguration of agrarian relations; the traditional ideal of moral stewardship was supplanted by a conception of property understood not as social office but as absolute ownership. This reconfiguration took place gradually and unevenly, so that even as late as the interregnum we encounter "[Gerrard] Winstanley’s ambitious attempt to marry traditional strategies of agrarian complaint with the powerful imperatives of improvement . . . " (130). However, McRae shows how by the middle of the seventeenth century the position of the agrarian improvers dominated; phenomena such as enclosure, which constituted a scandal in the mid-sixteenth century, had come to be seen as of a piece with privileged values such as thrift and industry. Despite its emphasis on the traditional strain of agrarian thought, this section charts an historical movement, from moral economics to "progressive economic activities," that is the movement of the entire book.

  3. Part Two shifts the emphasis from moral economics to "Imperatives of Improvement." Here the focus is on husbandry manuals, surveying texts and sixteenth- and seventeenth- century georgic poetry, but much of the same historical terrain is of necessity covered. For instance, McRae argues that Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundredth Points of Good Husbandry (1573) articulates "the tentative emergence of an ethos which rejects the traditional model of local communities bound by a network of social duties and responsibilities" (150). That ethos gains power and credibility over time, for "by the middle of the seventeenth century, a language of individualism and pecuniary gain suffuses the discourse of improvement" in husbandry texts (160). In Part Three, "The Profits and Pleasures of the Land," McRae shows how pastoral and landscape poems and chorographic texts were informed and inflected by "the discourse of improvement." However, this is not to say that these texts were narrowly determined by such discourse. For instance, "the conjunction of idealized stability and improving initiative, pastoral ease and georgic energy, gives chorography a remarkable complexity of vision" (233); that is to say, chorography partakes of the impulse to improvement while also drawing on idealizations of land once associated with (but isolable from) moral economics. The texts McRae takes up here exist in complex and shifting relation to the agrarian discourse he has analyzed in the first two parts of the book, and if not all of his readings seem brand new -- I am thinking in particular of his discussion of Jonson’s "To Penshurst" -- they nonetheless benefit from their conjunction with that analysis. His account of chorography in particular is an important contribution to an ongoing discussion of a genre that has only recently been "rediscovered" by critics such as Richard Helgerson and Claire McEachern.

  4. What is most impressive about McRae’s book is the way in which it fleshes out ideological developments usually represented only skeletally. While it is something of a commonplace to talk of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as ones that witnessed the transition from a late-feudal ethic of paternalism and social reciprocity to an early modern regime of absolute property (or, to echo C. B. Macpherson, from property as a set of relations to property as a thing), McRae is able to trace in admirable detail the contours of this transition. Through his account of representational changes in specific genres, McRae describes with specificity and precision the shift from the hegemony of moral economics to that of agrarian improvement. Moreover, McRae takes pains to insure that this shift is not described simplistically as an absolute or uncontested one; he takes to heart Raymond Williams’s distinction between dominant, residual and emergent ideologies. God Speed is also exhaustively researched; while familiar with surveying manuals in this period, I still learned a great deal from McRae’s chapter on "the discourse of the estate surveyor." In short, this is a book that scholars interested in the place of the land in the social order of early modern England will both learn to depend upon and have to contend with.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(GS, LH, RGS, 16 September 1998)