Saturday, May 25, 2013

Swidler reviews "Custom, Improvement, and the Landscape in Early Modern Britain"

The latest issue (April 2013) of Environmental History has a number of book reviews that may be of interest to readers. Eva-Maria Swidler reviews a collection of essays edited by Richard W Hoyle, entitled Custom, Improvement, and the Landscape in Early Modern Britian (Ashgate, 2011).
She writes:
The introduction and chapters of this book range across a wide variety of topics including struggles over memory, literacy versus an oral tradition, the intellectual history of the idea of improvement, the urban commons, and two semibiographical case studies of estate management. All of the essays involve detailed archival research, specialist references to English rural history, and a well-fleshed-out political and economic framework. Court cases, laws, property and inheritance rights, riots, fines, prices, sabotage—all figure prominently here.
Most often, “custom” (or claims of received practice and precedent) was the weapon of choice of the rural lower classes to push back against the encroachments of landowners on space, methods, and rents. Interestingly, custom is here portrayed not as inherently conservative but as sometimes creatively deployed to actually expand peasant rights. Most often landowners, in contrast, used an ideology and sometimes vocabulary of so-called improvement to advance their interests of consolidating control and extracting increased profit from the land.
The review concludes:
A collection such as this would provide an essential foundation for an environmental history of the English countryside. This book does not venture into that natural history territory at all, however, with only a handful of pages mentioning the landscape itself. Although “custom” and “improvement” are both exhaustively addressed, the “landscape” of the title is absent almost entirely. 
More reviews to come...

No comments:

Post a Comment