Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 7. Descriptions of the Realm

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XV. Early Writings on Politics and Economics

§ 7. Descriptions of the Realm

A great deal of the literature of the period is concerned with the description of the realm and its actual resources. Very interesting, in this connection, is the Itinerary of John Leland; a more complete account of England as a whole was issued in 1578 by Harrison in his Description of England. Additional information, from a later date, occurs in the admirable descriptions of each county in turn which are to be found in Fuller’s Worthies; there are also accounts of particular counties such as Westcote’s Devonshire and John Aubrey’s Surrey and Wilts, which give vivid descriptions of the conditions of large areas of the country. Very special attention, also, was turned to the condition of the Fens. The rivers which ran through these districts served as convenient channels for navigation; but, at time of high tide or of heavy rain in the midlands, they were apt to flood the adjoining country. During the latter part of the sixteenth and the seventeenth century, great efforts were made to recover the land thus inundated for purposes of pasturage during the summer, if not for tillage. Dugdale’s History of Imbanking gives a clear account of the steps which were being taken for reclaiming fen-land in this and other parts of England, while The Anti-projector puts in an interesting plea for the maintenance of the old conditions and the value of the products which could be obtained in the Fens by those who were acclimatised to life there. It was in these regions that the work of agricultural improvement was most obviously a matter of public concern, to which the private interests both of the fen men and of all those who were busied with internal navigation were opposed. The story of the successive attempts to deal with this problem, through different bodies of undertakers, and under the personal direction of the crown, illustrates not only the physical obstacles which had to be encountered, but the difficulty of reconciling conflicting interests and the public good. Improvement in the practice of tillage was also urged, not merely as a means of successful estate management, but because of its bearing on the prosperity of the realm. It was in this spirit that Gervase Markham and others directed attention to the agriculture of the Dutch, and indicated that, in regard to the conditions of tenure, the treating of the soil and the crops which it was well to cultivate, England would profit by studying Dutch experience. Much was to be learned from the Low Countries in regard to the development of English resources, both by sea and by land. The success of the Dutch in fishing off the English coasts roused a patriotic sense of the expediency of ousting them from this encroachment by copying their methods. Lord Burghley had been particularly keen in regard to the importance of encouraging the fishing trades as a school for seamanship. With his enormous grasp of detail, he set himself, both by precept and by example, to increase the consumption of fish; and numerous writers—Jeninges, Keymor, Hitchcock and others—insisted on the advantages which would accrue to the wealth of the realm from attention to the harvest of the sea.