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“To Multiply Corn Two-Hundred-Fold”

The Alchemical Augmentation of Wheat Seeds in Seventeenth-Century English Husbandry

In: Nuncius
Author:
Justin Niermeier-Dohoney Max Planck Institute for the History of Science Germany Berlin

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https://orcid.org/0000-0001-7074-5022
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Abstract

Agricultural reform movements proliferated in seventeenth-century Europe. For many who sought to make farming more economically productive, the practices of chymistry offered a way to accomplish these goals. Placed in the context of the development of a “vegetable philosophy,” or a theory of generation and growth across mineralogical and botanical domains, this article examines the application of chymical techniques in the attempt to enhance wheat seeds through seed-steeping and “fructifying” experiments among seventeenth-century agricultural reformers, particularly in England. I focus on three main sources: instructional husbandry manuals describing how to create “fructifying waters” to fertilize these seeds, the writings of Hugh Plat and Francis Bacon detailing their experiments on wheat seed germination, and the manuscript notebooks and correspondences of the Hartlib Circle, a group of natural philosophers, alchemists, and agricultural reformers who attempted to put these ideas into practice in the 1640s and 1650s. Their attempt to develop an artificial fertilizer regime for important cereal crops like wheat played a small but crucial role in the origins of the British Agricultural Revolution in the seventeenth century.

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