Encouraged by the work of Gabriel Plattes (see catalogue no. 61 ), Hartlib had shown an interest in agricultural projects and improvement as early as 1639. In that year, he had become acquainted, through Plattes, with the work of the Surrey farmer, Sir Richard Weston (1591–1652), whom he called ‘one of the greatest Experimenters and triers of all manner of Projects’, later describing him as ‘a Papist but of a free and communicative disposition and one of the greatest husbandmen in all England’.
In 1644, Weston, who had already pion eered the growing of clover and other improvements on his lands in Surrey, travelled to the Low Countries, following the sequestration of his estates in England by Parliament. On his journey, he saw how new crops, and new methods of tillage and of rotation, could generate significant profits from otherwise redundant soils. The following year, he composed A Discours of Husbandrie Used in Brabant and Flanders, in the form of ‘a legacy to his sons’. This work, which encouraged the use of clover, root crops, and hemp, to prepare the soil for wheat and barley, and which envisaged the profitable sale of crops at market, came to Hartlib’s attention, in the form of a faulty manuscript copy, procured through Robert Boyle. It was published by Hartlib in 1650.
By then, Hartlib had become especially concerned with problems of un employ ment and poverty in England, and with the need for intensive husbandry, cheaper produce, and improved yields to help combat them. Initially, he was unaware of the identity of the author whose treatise he had published, but, by December 1650, he began to suspect that it was by Weston, and obtained a better copy of the manuscript. Correspondence with Weston followed, leading to the publication by Hartlib in 1652 of an enlarged and corrected version of the Discours. Spurred on by Weston’s example, Hartlib decided himself to make ‘a Legacie of the same kinde to this Common-wealth’ (Hartlib to Weston, 2nd May 1651, printed in [Weston], pp.28–9).
Hartlib’s Legacie (first published in 1651, and enlarged in both 1652 and 1655) built on Weston’s discoveries by deploying the knowledge of techniques of improvement which could be gleaned from Hartlib’s wide circle of correspondents. Among these, the most important were Robert Child (d. 1654), a chemist and Kentish man, who had visited New England but was, by 1651, resident in Ireland, and Arnold Boate (see catalogue nos.63, 64 and 79 ), who had been physician to the English forces in Ireland, and was now resident in Paris. Child contributed a long letter on the deficiencies of English husbandry, whilst Boate added an appendix of his letters concerning husbandry (which helped to clarify such matters as the cultivation of sainfoin and lucerne), and an ‘interrogatory’ relating to the husbandry of Ireland – a Baconian questionnaire which discussed Irish natural history in general.
Although it was often confusing, Hartlib’s Legacie generated considerable debate about the best methods of agricultural improvement. Implementation of Hartlib’s recommendations was often frustrated by difficulties in obtaining seeds or equipment, but his work encouraged others to believe that yields could be raised, and people fed and employed, without depleting natural resources. It suggested that these benefits could be achieved through the hard work of right-minded individuals. As such, it seemed to offer the hope that the fertility of the earth could be restored to its original extent by a virtuous few, a biblical motif which was taken up by other agrarian writers in the Hartlib circle.
One right-minded individual who was particularly interested by Hartlib’s Legacie was John Aubrey, whose signature appears at the top of the title-page of this copy. Aubrey’s annotations suggest that he was particularly intrigued by the interrogatory relating to Ireland, to which he added fresh information, perhaps during his stay in Ireland in 1661.