A Description of Elizabethan England. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
Of the Air and Soil and Commodities of This Island
[1577, Book I., Chapter 13; 1587, Book I., Chapter 18.]
THE AIR (for the most part) throughout the island is such as by reason in manner of continual clouds is reputed to be gross, and nothing so pleasant as that of the main. Howbeit, as they which affirm these things have only respect to the impediment or hindrance of the sunbeams by the interposition of the clouds and of ingrossed air, so experience teacheth us that it is no less pure, wholesome, and commodious than is that of other countries, and (as Cæsar himself hereto addeth) much more temperate in summer than that of the Gauls, from whom he adventured hither. Neither is there any thing found in the air of our region that is not usually seen amongst other nations lying beyond the seas. Wherefore we must needs confess that the situation of our island (for benefit of the heavens) is nothing inferior to that of any country of the main, wheresoever it lie under the open firmament. And this Plutarch knew full well, who affirmeth a part of the Elysian Fields to be found in Britain, and the isles that are situated about it in the ocean.
The soil of Britain is such as by the testimonies and reports both of the old and new writers, and experience also of such as now inhabit the same, is very fruitful, and such indeed as bringeth forth many commodities, whereof other countries have need, and yet itself (if fond niceness were abolished) needless of those that are daily brought from other places. Nevertheless it is more inclined to feeding and gazing than profitable for tillage and bearing of corn, by reason whereof the country is wonderfully replenished with neat and all kind of cattle; and such store is there also of the same in every place that the fourth part of the land is scarcely manured for the provision and maintenance of grain. Certes this fruitfulness was not unknown unto the Britons long before Cæsars time, which was the cause wherefore our predecessors living in those days in manner neglected tillage and lived by feeding and grazing only. The graziers themselves also then dwelled in movable villages by companies, whose custom was to divide the ground amongst them, and each one not to depart from the place where his lot lay (a thing much like the Irish Criacht) till, by eating up of the country about him, he was enforced to remove further and seek for better pasture. And this was the British custom, as I learn, at first. It hath been commonly reported that the ground of Wales is neither so fruitful as that of England, neither the soil of Scotland so bountiful as that of Wales, which is true for corn and for the most part; otherwise there is so good ground in some parts of Wales as is in England, albeit the best of Scotland be scarcely comparable to the mean of either of both. Howbeit, as the bounty of the Scotch doth fail in some respect, so doth it surmount in other, God and nature having not appointed all countries to yield forth like commodities.
But where our ground is not so good as we would wish, we haveif need besufficient help to cherish our ground withal, and to make it more fruitful. For, beside the compest that is carried out of the husbandmens yards, ditches, ponds, dung-houses, or cities and great towns, we have with us a kind of white marl which is of so great force that if it be cast over a piece of land but once in three-score years it shall not need of any further compesting. Hereof also doth Pliny speak (lib. 17, cap. 6, 7, 8), where he affirmeth that our marl endureth upon the earth by the space of fourscore years: insomuch that it is laid upon the same but once in a mans life, whereby the owner shall not need to travel twice in procuring to commend and better his soil. He calleth it marga, and, making divers kinds thereof, he finally commendeth ours, and that of France, above all other, which lieth sometime a hundred foot deep, and far better than the scattering of chalk upon the same, as the Hedui and Pictones did in his time, or as some of our days also do practice: albeit divers do like better to cast on lime, but it will not so long endure, as I have heard reported.
There are also in this island great plenty of fresh rivers and streams, as you have heard already, and these thoroughly fraught with all kinds of delicate fish accustomed to be found in rivers. The whole isle likewise is very full of hills, of which some (though not very many) are of exceeding height, and divers extending themselves very far from the beginning; as we may see by Shooters Hill, which, rising east of London and not far from the Thames, runneth along the south side of the island westward until it come to Cornwall. Like unto these also are the Crowdon Hills, which, though under divers names (as also the other from the Peak), do run into the borders of Scotland. What should I speak of the Cheviot Hills, which reach twenty miles in length? of the Black Mountains in Wales, which go from (1) to (2) miles at the least in length? of the Clee Hills in Shropshire, which come within four miles of Ludlow, and are divided from some part of Worcester by the Leme? of the Crames in Scotland, and of our Chiltern, which are eighteen miles at the least from one end of them, which reach from Henley in Oxfordshire to Dunstable in Bedfordshire, and are very well replenished with wood and corn, notwithstanding that the most part yield a sweet short grass, profitable for sheep? Wherein albeit they of Scotland do somewhat come behind us, yet their outward defect is inwardly recompensed, not only with plenty of quarries (and those of sundry kinds of marble, hard stone, and fine alabaster), but also rich mines of metal, as shall be shewed hereafter.
In this island the winds are commonly more strong and fierce than in any other places of the main (which Cardane also espied): and that is often seen upon the naked hills not guarded with trees to bear and keep it off. That grievous inconvenience also enforceth our nobility, gentry, and communality to build their houses in the valleys, leaving the high grounds unto their corn and cattle, lest the cold and stormy blasts of winter should breed them greater annoyance; whereas in other regions each one desireth to set his house aloft on the hill, not only to be seen afar off, and cast forth his beams of stately and curious workmanship into very quarter of the country, but also (in hot habitations) for coldness sake of the air, sith the heat is never so vehement on the hill-top as in the valley, because the reverberation of the suns beams either reacheth not so far as the highest, or else becometh not so strong as when it is reflected upon the lower soil.
But to leave our buildings unto the purposed place (which notwithstanding have very much increased, I mean for curiosity and cost, in England, Wales, and Scotland, within these few years) and to return to the soil again. Certainly it is even now in these our days grown to be much more fruitful than it hath been in times past. The cause is for that our countrymen are grown to be more painful, skilful, and careful through recompense of gain, than heretofore they have been: insomuch that my synchroni or time fellows can reap at this present great commodity in a little room; whereas of late years a great compass hath yielded but small profit, and this only through the idle and negligent occupation of such as daily manured and had the same in occupying. I might set down examples of these things out of all parts of this islandthat is to say, many of England, more out of Scotland, but most of all out of Wales: in which two last rehearsed, very other little food and livelihood was wont to be looked for (beside flesh) more than the soil of itself and the cow gave, the people in the meantime living idly, dissolutely, and by picking and stealing one from onother. All which vices are now (for the most part) relinquished, so that each nation manureth her own with triple commodity to that it was before time.
The pasture of this island is according to the nature and bounty of the soil, whereby in most places it is plentiful, very fine, batable, and such as either fatteth our cattle with speed or yieldeth great abundance of milk and cream whereof the yellowest butter and finest cheese are made. But where the blue clay aboundeth (which hardly drinketh up the winters water in long season) there the grass is speary, rough, and very apt for bushes: by which occasion it becometh nothing so profitable unto the owner as the other. The best pasture ground of all England is in Wales, and of all the pasture in Wales that of Cardigan is the chief. I speak of the same which is to be found in the mountains there, where the hundredth part of the grass growing is not eaten, but suffered to rot on the ground, whereby the soil becometh matted and divers bogs and quickmoors made withal in long continuance: because all the cattle in the country are not able to eat it down. If it be accounted good soil on which a man may lay a wand over night and on the morrow find it hidden and overgrown with grass, it is not hard to find plenty thereof in many places of this land. Nevertheless such is the fruitfulness of the afore said county that it far surmounteth this proportion, whereby it may be compared for batableness with Italy, which in my time is called the paradise of the world, although by reason of the wickedness of such as dwell therein it may be called the sink and drain of hell: so that whereas they were wont to say of us that our land is good but our people evil, they did but only speak it; whereas we know by experience that the soil of Italy is a noble soil, but the dwellers therein far off any virtue or goodness.
Our meadows are either bottoms (whereof we have great store, and those very large, because our soil is hilly) or else such as we call land meads, and borrowed from the best and fattest pasturages. The first of them are yearly and often overflown by the rising of such streams as pass through the same, or violent falls of land-waters, that descend from the hills about them. The other are seldom or never overflown, and that is the cause wherefore their grass is shorter than that of the bottoms, and yet is it far more fine, wholesome, and batable, sith the hay of our low meadows is not only full of sandy cinder, which breedeth sundry diseases in our cattle, but also more rowty, foggy, and full of flags, and therefore not so profitable for store and forrage as the higher meads be. The difference furthermore in their commodities is great; for, whereas in our land meadowslwe have not often above one good load of hay, or peradventure a little more in an acre of ground (I use the word carrucata, or carruca, which is a wain load, and, as I remember, used by Pliny, lib. 33, cap. 2), in low meadows we have sometimes three, but commonly two or upwards, as experience hath oft confirmed.
Of such as are twice mowed I speak not, sith their later math is not so wholesome for cattle as the first; although in the mouth more pleasant for the time: for thereby they become oftentimes to be rotten, or to increase so fast in blood, that the garget and other diseases do consume many of them before the owners can seek out any remedy, by phlebotomy or otherwise. Some superstitious fools suppose that they which die of the garget are ridden with the nightmare, and therefore they hang up stones which naturally have holes in them, and must be found unlooked for; as if such a stone were an apt cockshot for the devil to run through and solace himself withal, while the cattle go scotfree and are not molested by him! But if I should set down but half the toys that superstition hath brought into our husbandmens heads in this and other behalf, it would ask a greater volume than is convenient for such a purpose, wherefore it shall suffice to have said thus much of these things.
The yield of our corn-ground is also much after this rate following. Throughout the land (if you please to make an estimate thereof by the acre) in mean and indifferent years, wherein each acre of rye or wheat, well tilled and dressed, will yield commonly sixteen or twenty bushels, an acre of barley six-and-thirty bushels, of oats and such like four or five quarters, which proportion is notwithstanding oft abated toward the north, as it is oftentimes surmounted in the south. Of mixed corn, as peas and beans, sown together, tares and oats (which they call bulmong), rye and wheat (named miscelin), here is no place to speak, yet their yield is nevertheless much after this proportion, as I have often marked. And yet is not this our great foison comparable to that of hotter countries of the main. But, of all that I ever read, the increase which Eldred Danus writeth of in his De imperie Judæorum in Æthiopia surmounteth, where he saith that in the field near to the Sabbatike river, called in old time Gosan, the ground is so fertile that every grain of barley growing doth yield an hundred kernels at the least unto the owner.
Of late years also we have found and taken up a great trade in planting of hops, whereof our moory hitherto and unprofitable grounds do yield such plenty and increase that there are few farmers or occupiers in the country which have not gardens and hops growing of their own, and those far better than do come from Flanders unto us. Certes the corruptions used by the Flemings, and forgery daily practised in this kind of ware, gave us occasion to plant them here at home; so that now we may spare and send many over unto them. And this I know by experience, that some one man by conversion of his moory grounds into hopyards, whereof before he had no commodity, doth raise yearly by so little as twelve acres in compass two hundred marksall charges borne towards the maintenance of his family. Which industry God continue! though some secret friends of Flemings let not to exclaim against this commodity, as a spoil of wood, by reason of the poles, which nevertheless after three years do also come to the fire, and spare their other fuel.
The cattle which we breed are commonly such as for greatness of bone, sweetness of flesh, and other benefits to be reaped by the same, give place unto none other; as may appear first by our oxen, whose largeness, height, weight, tallow, hides, and horns are such as none of any other nation do commonly or may easily exceed them. Our sheep likewise, for good taste of flesh, quantity of limbs, fineness of fleece, caused by their hardness of pasturage and abundance of increase (for in many places they bring forth two or three at an eaning), give no place unto any, more than do our goats, who in like sort do follow the same order, and our deer come not behind. As for our conies, I have seen them so fat in some soils, especially about Meall and Disnege, that the grease of one being weighed hath peised very near six or seven ounces. All which benefits we first refer to the grace of goodness of God, and next of all unto the bounty of our soil, which he hath endued with so notable and commodious fruitfulness.
But, as I mean to intreat of these things more largely hereafter, so will I touch in this place one benefit which our nation wanteth, and that is wine, the fault whereof is not in our soil, but the negligence of our countrymen (especially of the south parts), who do not inure the same to this commodity, and which by reason of long discontinuance is now become inapt to bear any grapes almost for pleasure and shadow, much less then the plain fields or several vineyards for advantage and commodity. Yet of late time some have essayed to deal for wine (as to your lordship also is right well known). But sith that liquor, when it cometh to the drinking, hath been found more hard than that which is brought from beyond the sea, and the cost of planting and keeping thereof so chargeable that they may buy it far better cheap from other countries, they have given over their enterprises without any consideration that, as in all other things, so neither the ground itself in the beginning, nor success of their travel, can answer their expectation at the first, until such time as the soil be brought as it were into acquaintance with this commodity, and that provision may be made for the more easiness of charge to be employed upon the same.
If it be true that where wine doth last and endure well there it will grow no worse, I muse not a little wherefore the planting of vines should be neglected in England. That this liquor might have grown in this island heretofore, first the charter that Probus the Emperor gave equally to us, the Gauls, and Spaniards, is one sufficient testimony. And that it did grow here (beside the testimony of Beda, lib. 1., cap. 1) the old notes of tithes for wine that yet remain in the accounts of some parsons and vicars in Kent, elsewhere, besides the records of sundry suits, commenced in divers ecclesiastical courts, both in Kent, Surrey, etc., also the enclosed parcels almost in every abbey yet called the vineyards, may be a notable witness, as also the plot which we now call East Smithfield in London, given by Canutus, sometime king of this land, with other soil thereabout, unto certain of his knights, with liberty of a Guild which thereof was called Knighton Guild. The truth is (saith John Stow, our countryman and diligent traveller in the old estate of this my native city) that it is now named Portsoken Ward, and given in time past to the religious house within Aldgate. Howbeit first Otwell, the archovel, Otto, and finally Geffrey Earl of Essex, constables of the Tower of London, withheld that portion from the saidhouse until the reign of King Stephen, and thereof made a vineyard to their great commodity and lucre. The Isle of Ely also was in the first times of the Normans called Le Ile des Vignes. And good record appeareth that the bishop there had yearly three or four tun at the least given him nomine decimæ, beside whatsoever over-sum of the liquor did accrue to him by leases and other excheats whereof also I have seen mention. Wherefore our soil is not to be blamed, as though our nights were so exceeding short that in August and September the moon, which is lady of moisture and chief ripener of this liquor, cannot in any wise shine long enough upon the same: a very mere toy and fable, right worthy to be suppressed, because experience convinceth the upholders thereof even in the Rhenish wines.
The time hath been also that woad, wherewith our countrymen dyed their faces (as Cæsar saith), that they might seem terrible to their enemies in the field (and also women and their daughters-in-law did stain their bodies and go naked, in that pickle, to the sacrifices of their gods, coveting to resemble therein the Ethiopians, as Pliny saith, (lib. 22, cap. 1), and also madder have been (next unto our tin and wools) the chief commodities and merchandise of this realm. I find also that rape oil hath been made within this land. But now our soil either will not, or at the leastwise may not, bear either woad or madder. I say not that the ground is not able so to do, but that we are negligent, afraid of the pilling of our grounds, and careless of our own profits, as men rather willing to buy the same of others than take any pain to plant them here at home. The like I may say of flax, which by law ought to be sown in every country town in England, more or less; but I see no success of that good and wholesome law, sith it is rather contemptuously rejected than otherwise dutifully kept in any place in England.
Some say that our great number of laws do breed a general negligence and contempt of all good order, because we have so many that no subject can live without the transgression of some of them, and that the often alteration of our ordinances doth much harm in this respect, which (after Aristotle) doth seem to carry some reason withal, for (as Cornelius Gallus hath)
But very many let not to affirm that the greedy corruption of the promoters on the one side, facility in dispensing with good laws and first breach of the same in the lawmakers and superiors and private respects of their establishment on the other, are the greatest causes why the inferiors regard no good order, being always so ready to offend without any faculty one way as they are otherwise to presume upon the examples of their betters when any hold is to be taken. But as in these things I have no skill, so I wish that fewer licences for the private commodity but of a few were granted (not that thereby I deny the maintenance of the prerogative royal, but rather would with all my heart that it might be yet more honourably increased), and that every one which by feed friendship (or otherwise) doth attempt to procure ought from the prince that may profit but few and prove hurtful to many might be at open assizes and sessions denounced enemy to his country and commonwealth of the land.
Glass also hath been made here in great plenty before, and in the time of the Romans; and the said stuff also, beside fine scissors, shears, collars of gold and silver for womens necks, cruises and cups of amber, were a parcel of the tribute which Augustus in his days laid upon this island. In like sort he charged the Britons with certain implements and vessels of ivory (as Strabo saith); whereby it appeareth that in old time our countrymen were far more industrious and painful in the use and application of the benefits of their country than either after the coming of the Saxons or Normans, in which they gave themselves more to idleness and following of the wars.
If it were requisite that I should speak of the sundry kinds of mould, as the cledgy, or clay, whereof are divers sorts (red, blue, black, and white), also the red or white sandy, the loamy, roselly, gravelly, chalky, or black, I could say that there are so many divers veins in Britain as elsewhere in any quarter of like quantity in the world. Howbeit this I must need confess, that the sand and clay do bear great sway: but clay most of all, as hath been and yet is always seen and felt through plenty and dearth of corn. For if this latter (I mean the clay) do yield her full increase (which it doth commonly in dry years for wheat), then is there general plenty: weereas if it fail, then have we scarcity, according to the old rude verse set down of England, but to be understood of the whole island, as experience doth confirm
I might here intreat of the famous valleys in England, of which one is called the Vale of White Horse, another of Evesham (commonly taken for the granary of Worcestershire), the third of Aylesbury, that goeth by Thame, the roots of Chiltern Hills to Dunstable, Newport Pagnel, Stony Stratford, Buckingham, Birstane Park, etc. Likewise of the fourth, of Whitehart or Blackmoor in Dorsetshire. The fifth, of Ringdale or Renidale, corruptly called Kingtaile, that lieth (as mine author saith) upon the edge of Essex and Cambridgeshire, and also the Marshwood Vale: but, forsomuch as I know not well their several limits, I give over to go any further in their description. In like sort it should not be amiss to speak of our fens, although our country be not so full of this kind of soil as the parts beyond the seas (to wit, Narbonne, etc.), and thereto of other pleasant bottoms, the which are not only endued with excellent rivers and great store of corn and fine fodder for neat and horses in time of the year (whereby they are exceeding beneficial unto their owners), but also of no small compass and quantity in ground. For some of our fens are well known to be either of ten, twelwe, sixteen, twenty, or thirty miles in length, that of the Girwies yet passing all the rest, which is full sixty (as I have often read). Wherein also Ely, the famous isle, standeth, which is seven miles every way, and whereunto there is no access but by three causies, whose inhabitants in like sort by an old privilege may take wood, sedge turf, etc., to burn, likewise hay for their cattle and thatch for their houses of custom, and each occupier in his appointed quantity throughout the isle; albeit that covetousness hath now begun somewhat to abridge this large benevolence and commodity, as well in the said isle as most other places of this land.
Finally, I might discourse in like order of the large commons, laid out heretofore by the lords of the soil for the benefit of such poor as inhabit within the compass of their manors. But, as the true intent of the givers is now in most places defrauded, insomuch that not the poor tenants inhabitating upon the same, but their landlords, have all the commodity and gain. Wherefore I mean not at this present to deal withal, but reserve the same wholly unto the due place, whilst I go forward with the rest, setting down nevertheless by the way a general commendation of the whole island, which I find in an ancient monument, much unto this effect