1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Agriculture/Ancient Husbandry

Ancient Husbandry.—The monumental records of Egypt are the source of the earliest information on farming. The Egypt of the Pharaohs was a country of great estates farmed either by tenants or by slaves or labourers under the superintendence of stewards. It owed its fertility to the Nile, Egypt.which, inundating the land near its banks, was distributed by means of canals over more distant portions of its valley. The autumnal subsidence of the river was followed by shallow ploughing performed by oxen yoked to clumsy wooden ploughs, the clods being afterwards levelled with wooden hoes by hand. Next came the sowing, the seed being pressed into the soil by the feet of sheep which were driven over the fields. At harvest the corn was cut high on the stalk with short sickles and put up in sheaves, after which it was carried to the threshing-floor and there trodden out by the hoofs of oxen. Winnowing was done by women, who tossed the grain into the air with small wooden boards, the chaff being blown away by the winds. Wheat and barley were the chief crops, and another plant, perhaps identical with the durra, i.e. millet, of modern Egypt, was also cultivated. The latter, when ripe, was pulled up by the roots, and the grain was separated by means of an implement resembling a comb. To these crops may be added peas, beans and many herbs and esculent roots. Oxen were much prized, and breeding was carried on with a careful eye to selection. Immense numbers of ducks and geese were reared.

Diodorus Siculus, writing of later times, says that cattle were sent during a portion of each year to the marshy pastures of the delta, where they roamed under the care of herdsmen. They were fed with hay during the annual inundation, and at other times tethered in meadows of green clover. The flocks were shorn twice annually (a practice common to several Asiatic countries), and the ewes yeaned twice a year. (See also Egypt.)

The agriculture of the region bordering the Tigris and Euphrates, like that of Egypt, depended largely on irrigation, and traces of ancient canals are still to be seen in Babylonia. But beyond the fact that both Babylonia and Assyria were large producers of cereals, little is known of their husbandry.

The nomads of the patriarchal ages, whilst mainly dependent upon their flocks and herds, practised also agriculture proper. The tracts over which they roamed were in ordinary circumstances common to all shepherds alike. During the summer they frequented the mountainous districts, Biblical accounts among the Israelites.and retired to the valleys to winter. Vast flocks of sheep and of goat constituted their wealth, although they also possessed oxen. When the last were abundant, it seems to be an indication that tillage was practised. Job, besides immense possessions in flocks and herds, had 500 yoke of oxen, which he employed in ploughing, and a “very great husbandry.” Isaac, too, conjoined tillage with pastoral husbandry, and that with success, for “he sowed in the land Gerar, and reaped an hundred-fold”—a return which, it would appear, in some favoured regions, occasionally rewarded the labour of the husbandman. In the parable of the sower, Jesus Christ mentions an increase of thirty, sixty and an hundred fold.

Along with the Babylonians, Egyptians and Romans, the Israelites are classed as one of the great agricultural nations of antiquity. The Mosaic Institute contained an agrarian law, based upon an equal division of the soil amongst the adult males, a census of whom was taken just before their entrance into Canaan. Provision was thus made for 600,000 yeomen, assigning (according to different calculations) from sixteen to twenty-five acres of land to each. This land, held in direct tenure from Jehovah, their sovereign, was in theory inalienable. The accumulation of debt upon it was prevented by the prohibition of interest, the release of debts every seventh year, and the reversion of the land to the proprietor, or his heirs, at each return of the year of jubilee. The owners of these small farms cultivated them with much care, and rendered them highly productive. They were favoured with a soil extremely fertile, and one which their skill and diligence kept in good condition. The stones were carefully cleared from the fields, which were also watered from canals and conduits, communicating with the brooks and streams with which the country “was well watered everywhere,” and enriched by the application of manures. The seventh year’s fallow prevented the exhaustion of the soil, which was further enriched by the burning of the weeds and spontaneous growth of the Sabbatical year. The crops chiefly cultivated were wheat, millet, barley, beans and lentils; to which it is supposed, on grounds not improbable, may be added rice and cotton. The chief implements were a wooden plough of simple and light construction, a hoe or mattock, and a light harrow. The ox and the ass were used for labour. The word “oxen,” which occurs in our version of the Scriptures, as well as in the Septuagint and Vulgate, denotes the species, rather than the sex. As the Hebrews did not mutilate any of their animals, bulls were in common use. The quantity of land ploughed by a yoke of oxen in one day was called a yoke or acre. Towards the end of October, with which month the rainy season begins, seedtime commenced, and of course does so still. The seedtime, begun in October, extends, for wheat and some other white crops, through November and December; and barley continues to be sown until about the middle of February. The seed appears to have been sometimes ploughed in, and at other times to have been covered by harrowing. The cold winds which prevail in January and February frequently injured the crops in the more exposed and higher districts. The rainy season extends from October to April, during which time refreshing showers fall, chiefly during the night, and generally at intervals of a few days. The harvest was earlier or later as the rains towards the end of the season were more or less copious. It, however, generally began in April, and continued through May for the different crops in succession. In the south, and in the plains, the harvest, as might be expected, commenced some weeks earlier than in the northern and mountainous districts. The slopes of the hills were carefully terraced and irrigated wherever practicable, and on these slopes the vine and olive were cultivated with great success. At the same time the hill districts and neighbouring deserts afforded pasturage for numerous flocks and herds, and thus admitted of the benefits of a mixed husbandry. Not by a figure of speech but literally, every Israelite sat under the shadow of his own vine and fig-tree; whilst the country as a whole is described (2 Kings xviii. 32) as “a land of corn and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of oil olive and of honey.”

The earliest known forms of intensive husbandry were based chiefly upon the proximity of rivers and irrigation. The agriculture of classical ages was slightly more developed in so far as the husbandman of Greece and Rome was less likely to leave to nature the fertilization of the soil. Greece being Greece.a mountainous land was favourable to the culture of the vine rather than to that of cereals. Scanty information on its agriculture is to be derived from the Works and Days of Hesiod (about the 8th century B.C.), the Oeconomicus of Xenophon (4th century B.C.), the History of Plants and the Origin of Plants of Theophrastus (4th century B.C.)The latter is the first writer on botany, and his works also contain interesting remarks on manures, the mixing of soils and other agricultural topics (see also Geoponici.) Greek husbandry had no salient characteristics. The summer fallow with repeated ploughing was its basis. The young crop was hoed, reaping was performed with a sickle, and a high stubble left on the ground as manure. The methods of threshing and winnowing were the same as those in use in ancient Egypt. Wheat, barley and spelt were the leading crops. Meadows were pastured rather than mown. Attica was famous for its olives and figs, but general agriculture excelled in Peloponnesus, where, by means of irrigation and drainage, all the available land was utilized.

In the early days of the Roman republic land in Italy was held largely by small proprietors, and agriculture was highly esteemed and classed with war as an occupation becoming a free man. The story of Cincinnatus, twice summoned from the plough to the highest offices in the state, illustrates the status Rome.of the Roman husbandman. The later tendency was towards the absorption of smaller holdings into large estates. As wealth increased the peasant-farmer gave way before the large landowner, who cultivated his property by means of slave-labour, superintended by slave-bailiffs. The low price of grain, which was imported in huge quantities from Sicily and other Roman provinces, operated to crush the small holder, at the same time as it made arable farming unremunerative. Sheep-raising, involving larger holdings, less supervision and less labour, was preferred by the capitalist land-holder to the cultivation of the wheat, spelt, vines or olives which were the chief crops of the country. Lupine, beans, peas and vetches were grown for fodder, and meadows, often artificially watered, supplied hay. Swine and poultry were used for food to a greater extent than oxen, which were bred chiefly for ploughing. The following epitome of Virgil’s advice to the husbandman in the first book of the Georgics suggests the outline of Roman husbandry: “First learn the peculiarities of your soil and climate. Plough the fallow in early spring, and plough frequently—twice in winter, twice in summer unless your land is poor, when a light ploughing in September will do. Either let the land lie fallow every other year or else let spelt follow pulse, vetches or lupine. Repetition of one crop exhausts the ground; rotation will lighten the strain, only the exhausted soil must be copiously dressed with manure or ashes. It often does good to burn the stubble on the ground. Harrow down the clods, level the ridges by cross ploughing, work the land thoroughly. Irrigation benefits a sandy soil, draining a marshy soil. It is well to feed down a luxuriant crop when the plants are level with the ridge tops. Geese and cranes, chicory, mildew, thistles, cleavers, caltrops, darnel and shade are farmer’s enemies. Scare off the birds, harrow up the weeds, cut down all that shades the crop. Ploughs, waggons, threshing-sledges, harrows, baskets, hurdles, winnowing-fans are the farmer’s implements. The plough consists of several parts made of seasoned wood. The threshing-floor must be smooth and rammed hard to leave no crevices for weeds and small animals to get through. Some steep seed in soda and oil lees to get a larger produce. Careful annual selection by hand of the best seed is the only way to prevent degeneration. It is best to mow stubble and hay at night when they are moist.”

In addition to the use of several kinds of animal and other manures, green crops were sometimes ploughed in by the Romans. The shrewdness which, more than inventiveness, characterized their husbandry comes out well in the following quotation from the 18th book of the Natural History of Pliny:—“Cato would have this point especially to be considered, that the soil of a farm be good and fertile; also, that near it there be plenty of labourers and that it be not far from a large town; moreover, that it have sufficient means for transporting its produce, either by water or land. Also that the house be well built, and the land about it as well managed. They are in error who hold the opinion that the negligence and bad husbandry of the former owner is good for his successor. Now, I say there is nothing more dangerous and disadvantageous to the buyer than land so left waste and out of heart; and therefore Cato counsels well to purchase land of one who has managed it well, and not rashly to despise and make light of the skill and knowledge of another.”

Roman writers on agriculture (see Geoponici) are more numerous than those of Greece. The earliest important treatises are the De re Rustica of Cato (234–149 B.C.) and the Rerum Rusticarum Libri of Varro. More famous than either are the Georgics of Virgil, published about 30 B.C., and treating of tillage, horticulture, cattle-breeding and bee-keeping. The works of Columella (1st century A.D.) and of Palladius (4th century A.D.) are exhaustive treatises, and the Natural History of the elder Pliny (A.D. 23–70) contains considerable information on husbandry. Under the later empire agriculture sank into a condition of neglect, in which it remained throughout the Dark Ages. In Spain its revival was due to the Saracens, and by them, and their successors the Moors, agriculture was carried to a high pitch of excellence. The work on agriculture[1] of Ibn-al-Awame, who lived in the 12th century A.D., treats of the varieties of soils, manuring, irrigation, ploughing, sowing, harvesting, stock, horticulture, arboriculture and plant diseases, and is a lasting record of their skill and industry.

The subsequent history of agriculture is treated in the following pages primarily from the British standpoint. Doubtless Flanders may claim to be the pioneer of “high farming” in medieval times, other countries following her lead in many respects. It is not, however, necessary to deal with the agricultural evolution of continental Europe, the gradual progress of agriculture as a whole being well enough typified in the story of its development in England, which indeed has led the way in modern times. After sections on the history and chief modern features of British agriculture, a separate account is given of the general features of American agriculture.

  1. Translation by Clément-Mullet (Paris, 1864).