History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

23 November 2006

For The Love Of Mangel-Wurzels

Agriculture in history. Before you start dozing off, let me tell you that this is interesting stuff! After all, where do you think all those earls and dukes that we love to read about got their wealth? That’s right: from owning vast quantities of land and from the crops the land—and the people working it—produced.

The Agricultural Revolution in Georgian times went hand-in-hand with the Industrial Revolution. Things started changing rapidly, innovations were made, and landowners and farmers started trying new techniques and tools to improve their crop yields. So listen up!

The eighteenth century started with the invention of the seed drill in 1701 by Jethro Tull (no relation to the rock band.) Prior to this, farmers sowed crops by broadcasting the seed by hand. As you can imagine, a good portion of the seed was wasted by this method. Tull’s invention—a simple box mounted on wheels and pulled by a horse—saved on seed and made for a better yield.

Charles Townsend, the second Viscount Townsend, popularized the practice of four field crop rotation in the first half of the century. With his system of rotating the crops—he used turnips, clover, barley, and wheat—a field wouldn’t have to lie fallow to renew the soil. Instead, the clover added nitrogen to the soil and both the clover and turnips could be used as fodder crops, meaning the animals that fed on the crops in the field would leave their manure. Crop yields increased significantly. You can read more about “Turnip” Townsend on my website.

Meanwhile, Robert Blakewell was experimenting with the controlled breeding of sheep—not only to improve the wool, but also to improve the meat. Blakewell kept meticulous, detailed records of his breeding program and even lent out his best stock for breeding purposes to neighboring farmers to improve their herds as well.

Unfortunately for the people working the land, all this agricultural innovation only hastened the process of enclosure. For centuries in much of England peasants had farmed the land in long strips that were rotated on a three year basis—one of the years being used to let the land lie fallow and recover its fertility. Landowners could vastly improve the crop yields of the land, but only by combining the traditional, long narrow fields and enclosing the new, larger field with walls or hedges. And in order to do that they would have to throw the farmers off the land—land that the peasant farmers may have been working for generations. Thousands of people were put out of work in the country and were forced to find jobs in the city—in the new factories that were being built as part of the Industrial Revolution.

And what about the mangel-wurzels in the title of this piece? Well, mangel-wurzels are a type of field beet developed in the eighteenth century to feed cattle. Whilst looking for an illustration of a mangel-wurzel, I came across this fascinating site, which reports a historical use for the mangel-wurzel that even I had previously never heard of.

Elizabeth Hoyt


Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Mangel-Wurzel, huh? And here I'd have guessed it was some kind of Medieval musical instrument. LOL!

7:57 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Lynna here: what a great idea...
"The knight took up his mangel-wurzel and played to his lady."

Probably sounded like a sausage being stuffed?

12:51 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Maybe we should run Balderdash-like contests where all the Hoydens misuse a period word and the first reader to guess the correct answer gets a prize. LOL!

1:03 PM  
Blogger Lois said...

Now, agriculture is definitely not a field I'm familiar with, but I do know that changing the crops every year is a good thing to restore the minerals in the soil. And you mentioned that one, so I"m happy. LOL Heck, I'm easy to please. :) But I never heard of this so I picked something new up today! :)


1:39 PM  
Anonymous Judy T said...

LOL! This is fascinating! These quirky little things are so much fun. I appreciate these little details when I read... well, maybe not the Mangel-Wurzel. It's interesting, but I think it would be a bit distracting without a lot of explaination. It would be easy for it to detract from a story, but it's so fun to have it as background knowledge... though it could be introduced at the very beginning of the book, apart from the story. Thank you, Elizabeth for the interesting info!

6:14 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

...cool, and with the practice of field enclosure in the early eighteenth century came the rise of the foxhunt, the hounds, the glorious horses---and ladies soaring over the fences while riding sidesaddle!

...gotta love history. ;-)


8:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff! I love details like these.

12:35 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Free Web Site Counter
Kennedy Western University Online