First published in 1649, Blith’s English Improver was one of the most important contemporary handbooks for agricultural improvement. It was reprinted in the same year, and an emended and enlarged edition, The English Improver Improved, was published in 1652, and reprinted the next year. Walter Blith (d.1652) was a gentleman of Cotesbach in Leicestershire, who served as a captain in the Parliamentary armies, mainly in the midlands. There, he was also an agent for the sequestration of Royalist land. Between 1649 and 1650, he was engaged in the survey of crown lands, some of which he purchased in Potterspury, Northamptonshire. He may also have acquired land in the Lincolnshire fens; certainly, he seems to have gained a detailed knowledge of drainage techniques between 1649 and 1652.
Blith’s original work was addressed to both houses of Parliament, and described the main legal, social, and technical obstacles faced by agricultural improvers, as well as setting out six ways in which the ordinary farmer could improve his land. These were largely standard techniques of land management and fertilization. The English Improver already demonstrated Blith’s concern about social constraints on good farming practice, for example the tendency to overstock the commons, and the years 1649 to 1652 provided plenty of opportunity for Blith to observe the consequences, in terms of food shortages, high prices, and unemployment, generated by social dislocation, bad weather, and the inadequate use of land. The English Improver Improved included discussions of new crops, like clover, sainfoin, and lucerne, woad, weld and madder, hops, saffron and liquorice, rape, cole-seed, hemp, and flax, as well as discussions of how to plant orchard and garden fruits. Blith also expanded his discussions of drainage techniques and methods of ploughing, and included illustrations of different types of plough and spade, and of a device for raising water.
The English Improver Improved also boasted a new frontispiece, which depicted warring Royalists and Parliamentarians beating their swords into ploughshares (as instructed in Isaiah 2:4) in much the way that Blith himself had done. Under the arms of the Commonwealth, and a banner proclaiming ‘Vive la re publick’, it showed the action of the trenching spade, used for constructing drainage trenches, a plough team, a man using a level for surveying, and a collection of other useful tools (a pick, a trenching gouge, a turving spade, and an English ploughshare). All of these were described at greater length in the text, as well as being illustrated in greater detail. In his enlarged work, Blith also paid tribute to ‘my good friend M. Samuell Hurtlip’ (sig.C3recto), and added his voice to that of Robert Child (in Hartlib’s Legacie, catalogue no. 10), criticizing the de ficien cies of contemporary English husbandry and agricultural writing. Blith’s book was much taken up within the Hartlib circle. His ideas about orchards and fruit trees helped to encourage Ralph Austen in his work (to which Blith himself alluded); Cressy Dymock (see catalogue no.62 ) enquired about Blith’s success in using turnips as fodder for cattle; both Child and Dymock discussed Blith’s techniques for drainage, and John Beale sought out trees whose wood could be used to make Blith’s trenching plough. At least until the Restoration, The English Improver Improved was therefore one of the most successful manuals for husbandry.
Although Blith couched much of his work in the secular terms of profit and improvement, and was often harsh in his discussions of the causes of poverty, both The English Improver and its sequel also carried a spiritual message. ‘Improvement’, the running head in both works asserted, was the ‘Reducement of Land to pristine Fertility’. The labour of agriculture was a way to redeem people from idleness and debauchery, the historical means which God had given man to alleviate the barrenness of the earth. Only the continued apostasy of human beings, and their false pride in their own achievements and traditions, Blith argued, prevented people from embracing improvements wholeheartedly: ‘were ingenuitie the Fashion of the Times, This Kingdom would be the Paradice of the World’ (English Improver, sig.a2recto).
To counteract such errors, Blith held up the examples of biblical husbandmen and improvers, from Adam to Solomon, as well as that of God himself, ‘the great Husbandman’ (English Improver, p.4) who had first made plants and trees come forth upon the earth. God intended the preservation of his creation, Blith suggested, and mankind was the instrument by which he would achieve this. For Blith, therefore, the historical examples of the Bible taught the lesson that individuals had a duty to God to practise a reformed husbandry, and that only by doing this might their country be redeemed from sin, famine, and warfare into a new Eden of peace and plenty.
G.E.Fussell, The Old English Farming Books from Fitzherbert to Tull 1523–1730 (London, 1947), pp.52–3; Charles Webster, The Great Instauration (London, 1975), pp.469–83; Joan Thirsk, ‘Plough and Pen: Agricultural Writers in the Seventeenth Century’, in T.H. Aston, P. R. Coss, Christopher Dyer, and Joan Thirsk (eds.), Social Relations and Ideas (Cambridge, 1983), pp.295–318; Andrew McRae, God Speed the Plough: The Representation of Agrarian England, 1500–1660 (Cambridge, 1996), pp.161–5&226–8; Simon Schaffer, ‘The Earth’s Fertility as a Social Fact in Early Modern England’, in Mikulaš Teich, Roy Porter, and Bo Gustafsson (eds.), Nature and Society in Historical Context (Cambridge, 1997), pp.124–47; HartlibPapers, 15/5/12A–13B, 28/2/63A, 41/1/8A–13B, 52/162A–65B, 55/21/3A–4B, 66/23/1A–2B.