God Speed the Plough - 168 small mount (Stevengraph Works credit)



Andrew McRae. God Speed the Plough: The Representation of Agrarian England, 1500-1660. 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.


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