A guest post by Andy Crow
“As to the bindings, the plain crushed levant looks all right, but when you send me my copy, I would like it, please, in sheep—about the tint of a ripe chestnut. That is fittest for Tusser.”
Rudyard Kipling, “Benediction” to Thomas Tusser, Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (London: James Tregaskis & Son, 1931)
Rudyard Kipling’s request for a sheepskin-bound copy of Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry was a request for a piece of the land. Spurning elegant but foreign-sounding crushed levant in favor of a humbler material sourced from the quintessential English farm animal, the sheep, points to a populist nativism behind Kipling’s interest in Tusser’s rhymed sixteenth-century husbandry manual. The desired sheepskin binding is a way of framing Tusser’s Points as an outgrowth of the land, the substance of the book fed on the grass of England itself.
The sensory experience of handling Tusser’s Points is a perennial theme in the hundreds of years of Tusser editions housed by the Folger Shakespeare Library. The fact that the Points would elicit attention to a reader’s physical connection to the land is, for the text’s early modern audience, unsurprising. Tusser aims to shape how his readers labor on their farms. The first portion of the text is divided into twelve poems, one for each month of the year, indicating what the husbandman must accomplish; the poems of the second section, grouped according to the hours of the day, walk the housewife through her daily tasks.
Readers’ marks from numerous sixteenth- and seventeenth-century editions of the Points (which was a bestseller in the period) indicate that readers were interested in drawing out the knowledge Tusser had learned from farming, and putting that knowledge back into the land by applying his methods. This 1586 edition indicates the scale of the material impact reading Tusser might effect. The reader has marked out for themself not only advice about how to grow hops, relevant primarily to their own farm, as well as portions of Tusser’s poem in defense of enclosure—the privatization of farmland formerly held in common, a fraught topic with community-wide implications regarding how the land would be used and who could lay claim to it.
What’s striking—and what the scope of the Folger’s Tusser collection, which includes editions of the Points from 1573 to 1973, allows us to see—is that long after Tusser’s advice had outlived its usefulness to English farmers, readers continued to approach the Points with a special attention to its materiality as a book.
The frontispiece of the 1812 edition represents the Points as mediating the readers’ relationship to the land in a manner like the farm tools depicted at the top of the image. Yet these tools lie outside of the picture, and it is the book instead that the farmer reclining at the bottom of the image takes in hand. His hand mimics a manicule—the pointing hand symbols inserted into texts to mark out important sections. Though reclining, he points to the orderly tables within the book, suggesting that, in reading, he is still at work. The image implies that, by taking up the Points, a nineteenth-century audience can occupy the farmer’s position of intimacy with the land, without ever putting hand to plow.
The 1848 edition similarly emphasizes readers’ physical handling of the text. Commenting that prior nineteenth-century editions were “too large and too expensive,” the introduction indicates that this version was designed “with the desire of placing Tusser’s works within reach of … general reading” (A2r-A2v). The Points are to be held in the hand and easily carried, designed to fit the reader’s body and thereby connote a natural relationship between the reader and the agricultural world the Points describe. The book design tacitly serves nationalist ends: that the English are innately and transhistorically connected to their country at a physical level. The editor’s comments make this ideology clear: “Of Tusser’s general principles every true-hearted Englishman will approve, and we will hope that the old, honest, straightforward and religious spirit which shines forth in this book, may still remain the characteristic feature of the British ‘Husbandman’” (A2v). The Points serve as a material, tactile affirmation of the insidious belief that geographic boundaries give rise to differences in “national character,” expressed at a physiological level.
It is unsurprising, then, that Kipling—author of the jingoistic, pro-imperialist poem “The White Man’s Burden” (1899)—saw something in Tusser he wanted. In his introduction (which he terms a “benediction”) to the 1931 edition, he writes that Tusser is hard to find because copies have been “worn threadbare by the thumbs of men,” adding that an old copy of Tusser that he has managed to obtain “after all these years, still reeks faintly of midden,” that is, a dunghill, “and the brewery” (v). The appeal of the physical text is akin to what theorist Walter Benjamin would call in an essay printed just four years later the “aura” of a work of art: its uniqueness and connection to the time and place of its production.1 Kipling hoped to reproduce Tusser in a way that would convey the marks of hands and the scents of manure and beer that made the text an object able to give the ideological connections he hoped to make a material reality.
The editor of another 1931 version, the historian Dorothy Hartley, characterizes Tusser’s verse as “hav[ing] the feel of the land between every line … between the uncouth lines we hear the year pass, as [Tusser] heard it … the song of the birds in the dawning, the bleating of lambs, and the lowing of cattle” (8-11). The natural wood cover of her edition conveys no less than Kipling’s this characterization of the book as means of time-traveling, putting a piece of the land in the reader’s hands and making it theirs.
As I write this in 2020, I have had to draw on photos I took a year ago in December 2019, the last time I was able to visit any archives before the COVID-19 pandemic put a pause on research travel. However, the frustration of being unable to handle the objects I’m studying has thrown into relief for me the significance of touching Tusser. His Points served later readers’ desire to lay claim to land, not by teaching them farming, but by acting as a tangible sign of ownership that they could hold in their hands.
Andy Crow is an assistant professor in the English department at Boston College and a 2020-21 Folger Research Fellow. Their forthcoming book, Austerity Measures: The Poetics of Hunger in Early Modern English Literature, traces the relationship between food scarcity and poetic form in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Anglophone literature.