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Five hundred points of good husbandry by…

Five hundred points of good husbandry

by Thomas Tusser

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Subtitled as “being a calendar of rural and domestic Economy for every month of the year and exhibiting a picture of the Agriculture, Customs, and manners of England in the sixteenth century.
First published as a hundred points of Good Husbandry in 1557, it started with an admonishment:

“A hundred good point of husbandry,
Maintaineth good household, with huswifery.
Housekeeping and husbandry, if it be good:
Must love one another like cousinnes in blood.
The wife to, must husband as well as the man,
Or farewell thy husbandry do what thou can."

Tusser’s husbandry meant farm management and huswifery was the wife’s management of the household, however reading this today I was immediately struck with the play on words making it seem like a marriage of husband and wife, but I do not know if that was Tusser’s intention. Whatever he intended; he hit the spot with Elizabethan England, because his book was reprinted numerous times and in 1573 expanded to Five hundred points of Good Husbandry.

The first thing to note is that it is all written in verse and Tusser uses so many different forms that he could lay claim to being one of the most original poets of the sixteenth century. Much of it is in rhyming couplets, but there are sonnets, acrostics and even a poem of ten lines: ten words for each line and each word beginning with the letter T. Nothing if not inventive, but the various verse forms can make the explanatory text more difficult to follow and of course over the 300 or so pages there is much repetition.

The majority of the book is taken up with the 500 points of good husbandry and this is set out in a month to month formula. The first poem for each month he calls an abstract and its pithy four/five syllable lines gives an overview of the longer poem that follows. Together they describe the work that needs to be done on the farm during the month in question. The version I was reading is an 1812 edition with modernised spelling and commentary by William Mavor LL. D. (honorary member of the board of Agriculture). Mavor’s commentary for the most part concerns the advice that Tusser gives to his readers, and it appears that Mavor is concerned that early 19th century farmers might go astray if they follow Tusser’s 16th century guidelines for example Tusser tells his readers how to cure loose teeth in bullocks:

“poor bullock with browsing, and naughtily fed,
Scarce feedeth, her teeth be so loose in her head
Then slice ye the tail. where ye feel it so soft
With soot and with garlick, bound to it aloft.”

Mavor points out the more obvious outdated methods, he is also critical of Tusser’s advice on following the phases of the moon for sowing, but this advice has now come full circle with some modern day horticultural guides being based on the lunar calendar. Here is Mavor's commentary on Tusser’s advice on attracting swarming bees.

“the custom of entertaining bees with the rough music of the key, the warming pan, or the fire shovel, in order to make them settle, has probably little effect: except as far as it ascertains property, by giving notice to the neighbours that a swarm is in the air, which may be claimed wherever it alights.”

Tusser is concerned with the economics of farming, his advice is as much biased towards making profit as to good farming methods. He takes the view that the total family unit must be involved full time in the work on the farm. Children as soon as they are strong enough should be put to work clearing stones or scaring the birds, although he is careful to say that their education should also be taken into account. Tusser does have a social conscience, certainly a christian social conscience and he advises that the family has a duty not only to look after their servants, but also to help the poor when they are able.

“At this time and that time, some make a great matter,
Some help not, but hinder the poor with their clatter.
Take custom from feasting, what cometh then last?
Where one hath a dinner, a hundred shall fast.”

“At christmas be merry, and thankful withall,
And feast thy poor neighbour, the great with the small;
Yea all the year long, to the poor let us give,
God’s blessing to follow us, whiles we do live.”

The second longest section of the book gives a summary; again in verse form, of the work to be carried out by the housewife in managing the domestic domain. He assumes that there will be servants to supervise and this takes up a fair proportion of the advice. It would seem that corporal punishment of servants was common place and Tusser acknowledges this, but does not encourage it. There are fascinating sections on the use of herbs for cooking and medicine and the management of the cottage garden. A good idea of domestic arrangements in an Elizabethan farmhouse is evoked in these poems and that is perhaps the main reason for reading Tusser’s book. Much of the poetry is quaint and although Tusser is skilled enough to stop it becoming mere doggerel, I don’t think the modern reader would be thrilled by the poems themselves. Tusser was an educated man whose patron was attached to the court of Queen Elizabeth. He was wealthy enough to own a farm in Norfolk and being something of a business man set himself the task of retiring to the country. However he was unsuccessful in his farming ventures and proved to be much better and more successful in writing about it than in actually doing it. He moved back to a more suitable urban environment.

Concluding the book are more poems in a sort of miscellaneous section on the principle points of religion, the author’s beliefs, departing from the Elizabethan court to the country and some translations from St Augustine. There are also small sections on enclosures and their advantages over common land as well as a dialogue on the advantages of taking a wife (mostly economic). All in all a picture emerges of country life in Elizabethan England from this virtual primary source and so provides much enjoyment for anybody having an historical or literary interest in the period - 4 stars. ( )
  baswood | Aug 10, 2017 |
In his day the most popular and now the most overlooked Elizabethan Poet, an excellent and lovely book. ( )
  kend | Jul 3, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0192860402, Paperback)

This book is a facsimile reprint and may contain imperfections such as marks, notations, marginalia and flawed pages.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:48 -0400)

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