John Fitzherbert – The Book of Husbandry (1523)

The Book of Husbandry

In 1523 either John Fitzherbert (d. 1531) or his younger brother, Sir Anthony Fitzherbert (1470-1538) published a short manual on husbandry, that was simply called The Book Of Husbandry. This little book contained advice on various agricultural processes, such as:

  • Using ploughs;
  • growing fruit, seeds, and vegetables;
  • following rotations;
  • sowing oats;
  • looking after sheep, horses, and cattle;
  • advice on carrying wood and managing trees.

It also contained advice for the wife of the husbandman to take heed and, additionally, a short chapter on managing bees.

This book might well be the first to offer guidance on beekeeping printed in the English language, beating Thomas Hill’s treatise on bees (the first full ‘how-to’ manual on beekeeping printed in England) by some forty years. In their study of 2000, on beekeeping in English gardens, Penelope Walker and Eva Crane certainly believed this to be the case, although no evidence is presented as confirmation by them. In print, there is certainly no other book entitled for either bees or husbandry, which immediately stands out as a likely alternative.

Bees in The Book of Husbandry

It is quite surprising just how much Fitzherbert fitted into a section of only 528 words. He started the account with advice on the placing of a hive in a garden or orchard; he then followed up with advice on how to deal with swarms. The account ends with advice on how to protect the hive from pests such as mice, wasps, and other bees. One final sentence identifies the drone and the fact that it is ‘greater’ than other bees as it does not work, but eats all the honey. In later editions, Fitzherbert (or perhaps his printer?) adds the advice that such drones should be killed for the good of the hive.

The inclusion of a chapter on beekeeping in this book of husbandry is interesting. It would appear to be one of the few topics that Fitzherbert himself is not highly knowledgeable about. His other advice is detailed, exacting, and obviously based on local knowledge and practices. The chapter on Bees could easily have been extracted out of a classical agricultural book (Walker and Crane have noted the similarity to Palladius) or perhaps borrowed from someone else with more knowledge (a beekeeper perhaps?). At the least, the suggestion that June and July are the months when a swarm is most likely is true of the English situation.

At the very least we can say something about why the chapter was included in the book. The inclusion of beekeeping is explained by Fitzherbert in the proceeding chapter on swine. Fitzherbert suggests that a landlord could gain the most profit, for minimal space and cost if he kept sheep, swine, and bees. Yet he neglects to say anything about the products of the hive that might achieve that profit: the honey, the beeswax, or propolis. On these subjects Fitzherbert is silent.

Who wrote the book?

There is some doubt over the authorship of The Book of Husbandry first published in 1523 and republished many times after. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, several arguments were made, some favouring John Fitzherbert, and some favouring his younger sibling, Sir Anthony Fitzherbert. The book itself only describes the author as ‘Master Fitzherbarde’. Mid-sixteenth-century writers assumed that the reference was to Sir Anthony, who was known to have written various legal writings, including Magnum abbreviamentum (1514-1517), La novel natura brevium (1534), and The New Boke of Justices of the Peas (1538).

Sir Anthony (c. 1470-1538) was the youngest son of Ralph Fitzherbert of Norbury and became a well-regarded judge in his time. However, around the turn of the nineteenth century, both Reginald H.C. Fitzherbert and Edwin F. Gay opted for John, the older brother, as the correct author. The original Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) entry, by J.M. Rigg, still argued for Sir Anthony, as did an editor of the work in 1882, Walter W. Skeat, but the more recent version of ODNB, by J. H. Baker, states categorically that John is correct.

Less is known about John. He is Sir Anthony’s older brother and appears to have inherited most of the lands from their father. According to evidence supplied by Reginald H.C. Fitzherbert, John inherited these lands around 1483, having married three years earlier. It is therefore quite possible that he could have written both the Book of Husbandry and the Book of Surveying.

Essentially, Fitzherbert’s goal was to improve English agricultural practice. Whether he succeeded in any way with this goal is difficult to judge, but the book itself appears to have been popular, reaching eleven editions between 1525 and 1598. It is therefore possible that his beekeeping advice was read and used, although this was a minor part of the whole.

Further Reading

Reginald H.C. Fitzherbert, ‘The Authorship of the “Book of Husbandry’ and the ‘Book of Surveying’, The English Historical Review, 12:46 (1897), pp. 225-236.

Edwin F. Gay, ‘The Authorship of the Book of Husbandry and the Book of Surveying’, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 18:4 (August 1904), pp. 588-593.

E. Fussell, The Old English Farming Books from Fitzherbert to Tull, 1523-1730 (London, 1947), pp. 5-6.

Penelope Walker and Eva Crane, ‘The History of Beekeeping in English Gardens’, Garden History, 28:2 (Winter 2000), pp. 231-261.

M. Rigg, ‘Fitzherbert, Sir Anthony (1470-1538)’, ODNB [Archive Version]. DOI: 10.1093/odnb/9780192683120.013.9602

J.H. Baker, ‘Fitzherbert, Sir Anthony (c. 1470-1538)’, ODNB, 23 September 2004. DOI: 10.1093/ref:odnb/9602.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *