‘Adaptive environmental design and the landscape architecture of the British agricultural revolution: a case study of Brassica napus in England and Scotland, 1700-1850’

Amy R Coombs (University of Chicago)

To attend this online event, please register here.


The British Agricultural Revolution fed an urban population without a proportionate expansion in arable acres due to the combining of many technologies.  Yet historians have traditionally focused on the introduction and disbursal of individual technologies while struggling to piece together the evolution of the whole agronomic system.  I return to the often neglected yet versatile alternative fodders to explore the uses of a bright yellow oilseed that still goes by the unfortunate common name of “rapeseed” (Brassica napus).  Though B napus may have been planted at a smaller scale than turnips and clover, its environmental impacts include the diversification and extension of rotation, convertible husbandry, seed drilling, Tullian horse-hoeing and many other defining technologies of the Agricultural Revolution.  The plant was a lucrative oilseed cash crop as well as a drought-hardy fodder, and the cakes left from the oil press were used as a manure to kill pests.  I combine GIS, text mining, and paleography to reconstruct localized integrated designs as they were modified for different soils and climates.  From this, I offer a counter narrative of a more continuous and less progressive Agricultural Revolution rooted in planting design as much as mechanization.   To develop reference points for contemporary sustainable farming and the preservation of vernacular landscapes, I use cradle-to-cradle and integrative-adaptive design theories to trace nutrients and biproducts through historical systems.  This provides important context for recent USDA studies that elucidate the mechanisms of soil pathogen suppression from B napus and test Brassica meals against plots treated with Methyl Bromide and Chloropicrin. 

The seminar in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology is convened by Alex Aylward (University of Oxford), Erica Charters (Wolfson College), Mark Harrison (University of Oxford), Catherine Jackson (Harris Manchester College), and Sloan Mahone (University of Oxford)