Transmitting Agricultural Knowledge - From Gutenberg to YouTube | Carolina Gerwin
20 July 2020
My research interest lies in new media and communication technologies and specifically how they are transforming the way knowledge is produced and circulated in contemporary societies. I've become interested in this topic as nowadays the Internet is a primary source of information, being so quick and easy to use, and I have caught myself, and others, more and more often checking Google or YouTube whenever a question comes up. To some of you this might sound familiar. Unsurprisingly, a growing number of academic studies have recently examined how, due to its speed and accessibility, the internet has indeed become a popular information source -- even more so than friends or one’s own memory (Ward 2013, 2) -- and thus increasingly operates as a 'transactive memory partner' (Fisher, Goddu and Keil 2015, 682; Ward 2013, 88).
When I joined gloknos as a visiting research assistant earlier this year, I began to delve more into this topic and became particularly interested in two research projects. The first was to further explore the historical parallel between the Internet era and the age of Gutenberg (Glotz 2002, 213; Kapr 1996, 290; Wenzel 2008, 21-23; Schuurman 2013, 369), and the second was to examine YouTube as a manifestation and medium of the knowledge culture of our digital age. The latter idea was inspired by Daniela Pscheida's analysis of Wikipedia in her 2010 book Das Wikipedia-Universum: Wie das Internet unsere Wissenskultur verändert. I had also attended a talk at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas by journalist Chris Stokel-Walker, on his book YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars, which triggered my interest in this platform and its role in the formation and diffusion of contemporary knowledge and culture.
As I engaged with gloknos' research team and their research project The Global as Artefact, which examines the emergence and diffusion of agricultural revolutions in four different historical periods, we decided that it would be fruitful to combine my two research topics by investigating the similarities and differences between online platforms and older technological innovations of knowledge-transmission, such as the printing press and the book, and to take the transmission of agricultural knowledge as my case-study. I eventually narrowed down my investigation to a comparison of British treatises on agriculture and estate management from the 13th to 17th century with contemporary gardening and farming videos on YouTube. My guiding questions were: who is producing and diffusing knowledge in each case, who is the audience, and how is agricultural knowledge conveyed?
I decided to focus on British agricultural treatises from 1200 to 1700 as England had fairly successful agricultural writers such as Walter of Henley that were quite rare in Europe (Dyer 1997, 306), and because British agricultural and estate management directives experienced a shift from oral to written media of knowledge transmission (Tebeaux 2010, 352), which is, as I will show later, an important point for my research. Moreover, based on what I had read so far and considering that 1.9 billion users are registered on YouTube (Stokel-Walker 2019, 12) and that it is now the second most visited website on the Internet (behind only Google), being by far the most successful video service in the world (Stokel-Walker 2019, 13), I decided to take YouTube as the online platform to work with.
After taking a look at the books Agricultural writers: from Sir Walter of Henley to Arthur Young, 1200 to 1800 from McDonald and Oschinsky’s significant work Walter of Henley and Other Treatises on Estate Management and Accounting as well as Tebeaux’s article “English Agriculture and Estate Management Instructions, 1200–1700: From Orality to Textuality to Modern Instructions”, I came up with a selection of agricultural treatises to focus on, namely Seneschaucie (author unknown; 13th century), Walter of Henley’s Husbandry (13th century), John Fitzherbert’s  Book of Husbandry (16th century), Gervase Markham’s Farewel to Husbandry (17th century) and Leonard Meager’s The English Gardner, or, a Sure Guide to Young Planters & Gardners (17th century). As I do not have green fingers and had never looked at agricultural videos on YouTube, I found two informative articles that were very useful in providing an overview of the best British gardening (Perrone, n.d.) and farming channels (Harris 2020) on YouTube from which I could choose the most interesting ones for my research.
The first point that I recognised is that lay people have become both additional producers of agricultural knowledge and a new audience. While the authors of famous British agricultural treatises were professionals, i.e. people who earned their money with gardening and farming, and published their works for the owners and managers of estates or farmers, agricultural videos on YouTube are posted by and for professionals and lay people, i.e. those who are into gardening and farming just for fun. This point is best illustrated by giving some examples:
Regarding the authors and audiences of main British agriculture and estate management manuals, Sir Walter of Henley (ca. 1200-1283), for example, was an “educated man, who appears to have served the office of bailiff, or perhaps monk in charge, at one of the manors connected with Canterbury Cathedral” (McDonald 1908, 11). John Fitzherbert (ca. 1460-1531), the twelfth Lord of Norbury, who is often seen as the “father of English husbandry” (McDonald 1908, 13-14) was a professional too as he was a gentleman farmer (Gay 1904, 590). And Leonard Meager, the author of one of the first modern books about gardening (Tebeaux 2010, 372), lived from around 1670 to 1720 and worked for a considerable time as a gardener at Warkworth in Northamptonshire (McDonald 1908, 148).
And although their works all had a different target audience, all of the manuals share the characteristic that they were written for professionals in the field of agriculture. Henley’s book was “written for a rising profession of estate administrators who, together with all lawyers practising in common law, received their theoretical training outside the university by the study of practical manuals” (Oschinsky 1971, 3). While Fitzherbert published the first British manual on practical husbandry in 1523 (McDonald 1908, 13) and wrote the “earliest published English husbandry manual written for English country farmers to help them improve their crop yields” (Tebeaux 2010, 359), Meager published his work for managers and owners of large agricultural estates (Tebeaux 2010, 369).
How is the situation for British gardening and farming channels on YouTube? In contrast to the treatises, the examples of Huw Richards, Richard Cornock and Tony O’ Neill show that agricultural knowledge on YouTube is produced and diffused as well as retained by both professionals and lay people.
Huw Richards is a popular individual in Britain in the field of agriculture as his HuwsNursery YouTube Channel has 234,000 subscribers (YouTube, n.d.a) and he aims to supersede Alan Titchmarsh (Express Digest n.d.). Richards is a gardener (The Guardian 2018) who also appears on TV and has secured deals with seed providers and gardening tool companies (Express Digest n.d.). Moreover, DK published a book of Huw Richards in 2019 (Onwuemezi 2018). Another professional with a famous YouTube channel is Richard Cornock. He is the man behind the YouTube channel The Funky Farmer on which he posts videos about his daily life on his dairy farm (Harris 2020). The channel has 120,000 subscribers (YouTube, n.d.b). The farmer from Gloucestershire has also published a book, has written for magazines, given radio interviews (Cornock, n.d.a) and gives regular talks to a wide range of audiences (Cornock, n.d.b). In contrast to Richards and Cornock, Tony O’Neill is an example of a famous lay person who posts gardening videos on YouTube as he is a fulltime firefighter with a passion for gardening (Simplify Gardening, n.d.a). He publishes instructional videos on his YouTube channel, which was called UK Here We Grow and has been renamed Simplify Gardening, and has 88,700 subscribers (YouTube, n.d.c). O’Neill also has a blog (Simplify Gardening, n.d.b) and writes posts on his website (Simplify Gardening, n.d.c).
Regarding their audiences, the viewers are as diverse as the YouTubers themselves. Richards and O’Neill seem to especially focus on lay people. According to Richards, his channel is “dedicated to helping you grow an abundance of food no matter what size garden you have” (YouTube, n.d.d) and he is of the opinion that he can inspire young people to get involved in gardening (Express Digest, n.d.). Similar to that, Tony O’Neill states that the idea behind his YouTube channel and his website is to “inspire you to try and grow your own nutrient-dense foods or get that garden of your dreams, while simplifying the gardening processes” (Simplify Gardening, n.d.a). Cornock’s intention for his channel and his audience are different as Cornock’s channel is dedicated to his life on Cornock’s dairy farm in Gloucestershire, England, which is run by his family (YouTube, n.d.e), and is intended to “show farming from the farmers point of view and give you a hands on experience of life on a small family farm which you rarely get to see” (Cornock, n.d.c). In a video the farmer mentions that he got feedback from farmers around the world and that even children watch his videos (The Funky Farmer 2016, 2:40), i.e. that his videos are watched by professionals as well lay people. It is interesting to note that Cornock’s videos were also used by Channel 4 television and the Open University (Cornock, n.d.c).
A further interesting and surprising observation that I want to present here is that agricultural YouTube videos seem to represent a return to the teaching style of listening and observing (while now being no longer regionally restricted and accessible at any time) that was dominant before and even during the Gutenberg era in the field of agriculture and that YouTube videos are therefore more similar to early British manuals on agriculture and estate management (e.g. the works of Walter of Henley and Fitzherbert) than to younger ones (such as Markham’s or Meager’s books). What exactly do I mean by that?
To understand this it is important to know that in pre-industrial societies, agricultural knowledge was conveyed from generation to generation and children became familiar with the agricultural lifestyle from a very young age (Anderson, van Gijn, Whittaker and Sigaut 2014, 5). The “process of imitative learning by observing and doing” plays an important part in this regard as well as the oral transmission of knowledge and the teaching of farming tasks from relatives (Smerdel 2014, 256). In early modern England learning by routine remained a common practice and farming techniques often continued to be spread orally, e.g. in the form of rhymes or proverbs (Thomas 1986, 108). This remained the case even later as in Northumberland between 1780 and 1815, for example, the “neighbourhood was the core of agricultural life and popular agricultural experience” and most farmers did not read or write much, mostly stayed at home and learned from their neighbours (MacDonald 1979, 37).
With this in mind, it was fascinating for me to read Tebeaux’s text “English Agriculture and Estate Management Instructions, 1200–1700: From Orality to Textuality to Modern Instructions” from 2010 as she demonstrates that the oral way of transmitting agricultural knowledge can still be recognised when analysing the style of famous British agricultural treatises as they “illustrate the embedding of oral instructions into text” (356) while the oral style had decreased over time (374) and younger works such as Meager’s The English Gardner, or, a Sure Guide to Young Planters & Gardners showed almost no sign of oral substance anymore (372). Let us take a look at some examples.
Early treatises on agriculture and estate management, such as those written by Walter of Henley and Fitzherbert, showed characteristics of orality as Henley “presented his instructions, often known simply as Walter, as a sermon, the advice of a father to his son” (Tebeaux 2010, 357) and Fitzherbert, who based some of his content on Henley’s book (Tebeaux 2010, 356) “echoed the sermon style and oral qualities” of Henley’s Husbandry, although they were not as pronounced as in Henley’s book (Tebeaux 2010, 359). This can be exemplified by the observation that both authors used simple sentences and started their sentences with “and” (Tebeaux 2010, 359). Like Seneschaucy, Fitzherbert’s Book of Husbandry was thoughtfully organized and the chapters were divided into tasks, all divided again into smaller units (Tebeaux 2010, 360-61). Therefore, we can record that while the style of the book suggests that Fitzherbert wrote down what he would teach people face-to-face, the work showed the first signs of technical writing (Tebeaux 2010, 360-61). Tebeaux exemplifies the influence of Henley’s Husbandry on Fitzherbert’s work by comparing their sections about the ploughing of peas and beans (Tebeaux 2010, 359-60).
“Allowing do not plough large furrows, but little and well laid together, that the seed may fall evenly; if you plough a large furrow to be quick you will do harm. How ? I will tell you. When the ground is sown, then the harrow will come and pull the corn into the hollow which is between the two ridges, and the large ridge shall be uncovered, that no corn can grow there. And will you see this ? When the corn is above ground go to the end of the ridge, and you will see that I tell you truly. And if the land must be sown below the ridge see that it is ploughed with small furrows, and the earth raised as much as you are able. And see that the ridge which is between the two furrows is narrow. And let the earth which lies like a crest in the furrow under the left foot after the plough be overturned, and then shall the furrow be narrow enough” (Henley 1890, 15).
„Howe to plowe for pees and beans, were necessarye to knowe. Fyrst thou muste remember, whiche is mooste cley-grounde, and that plowe fyrste, and lette it lye a good space, er thou sowe it: bycause the froste, the rayne, the wynde, and the sonne may cause it to breake smalle, to make moche molde, and to rygge it. And to plow a square forowe, the bredthe and the depenes all one, and to laye it close to his felow. For the more forowes, the more corne, for a generall rule of all manner of cornes. And that may be proued at the comynge vp of all manner of corne, to stande at the landes ende and loke toward the other ende; And than may ye se, howe the corne groweth” (Fitzherbert 1882).
However, the writing style in agriculture had changed over the years, which can be exemplified in the works of Gervase Markham, one of the first British technical writers (Tedeaux 2010, 367). Just as the authors before him, he based some of his material on the work of earlier authors, such as Walter of Henley (Tedeaux 2010, 356), but he had a different writing style as Markham’s works “exemplified mature instructional style - extensive technical description, incorporation of useful drawings, […] that help readers ‘see’ a specific agricultural device, and logical organization of text” (Tebeaux 2010, 367). Whereas Markham also taught by explaining as Fitzherbert and Henley, he came to the point without any literary ornamentation as Fitzherbert and was more concise (Tebeaux 2010, 367). Markham’s works became the basis for similar 17th century treatises (Tebeaux 2010, 367).
At the end of the 17th century, works “became more fact oriented; paragraphs and sentences were more coherent and detailed” (Tebeaux 2019, 373). Meager’s The English Gardner, or, a Sure Guide to Young Planters & Gardners exemplifies this change in the instructional writing style in the field of agriculture as he used a “plain style —unadorned sentences with brief but informative titles, lists, and tables” in order to make his information easily accessible for his broad readership (Tebeaux 2010, 372). The oral substance that was, as shown above, still observable in earlier works such as Walter had almost completely disappeared in Meager’s publication (Tebeaux 2010, 372).
Having noticed that a common topic these treatises all dealt with is the ploughing or planting of peas and beans, I decided to focus on videos that addressed these topics too in order to have a basis for a comparison. With all the above information in mind, I was struck by the observation that YouTube videos, whether they are didactic or less instructional and more entertaining, seem to represent a return to the learning style of listening and observing that was dominant before and even during the time of the printing press, and that these videos are therefore more similar to early British agricultural treatises than to younger ones. The reason for this is that in the videos knowledge is predominantly transmitted orally and via filming, allowing the viewer to listen to the instructions of the YouTubers and to observe (and copy) their actions. This is similar to early British agriculture and estate management manuals, which, as shown by Tebeaux, still showed signs of oral elements as their writing style was less technical.
This point is best illustrated by comparing the manuals to videos about the growing of beans and peas posted by Charles Dowding, Tony O’Neill and Huw Richards, as their videos are didactic (just as the treatises) and teach viewers how to grow these vegetables. Especially the videos of Dowding (Charles Dowding 2017, Charles Dowding 2018) and O’Neill (Simplify Gardening 2018a, Simplify Gardening 2018b) show similarities to a personal lesson in gardening in the sense that the (hobby) gardeners (most of the time) explain in detail what they are doing and give an explanation for it while at the same time demonstrating their actions. Richards’ videos (Huw Richards-Grow Food Organically 2016a, Huw Richards-Grow Food Organically 2016b) are also instructional but they are much shorter as he shows in short frequencies all the steps from planting to harvesting and explains in detail via voice-over what he did and why. As the videos are based on orality and the hosts explain their methods as if they would teach the viewer face-to-face, they resemble the sermon style and oral elements of early agricultural works such as Henley’s and Fitzherbert’s books. This is also the reason why the language of the YouTubers is conversational and their explanations and instructions are very detailed, thought out, and easy to follow. This supports the point that they made and posted the videos for lay people. However, in contrast to the manuals but in accordance with the observation that the videos represent a return to the (previous) learning style of listening and observing, the (hobby) gardeners sometimes only film what they do without explaining it, letting the images/videos speak for themselves. This is for example the case when O’Neill (Simplify Gardening 2018b, 3:12) is building a support structure, or when Dowding is harvesting his peas (Charles Dowding 2017, 12:42). In the latter case, it is interesting to note that he incorporated a little bit of text explaining what he is doing to give the viewer more information (Charles Dowding 2017, 14:00).
There are also agricultural videos on YouTube that are less instructional and are first and foremost posted to inform and entertain viewers (professionals and lay people) by showing them what it is to live and work on a farm. To this category belong videos that have been posted by professional farmers, such as Tom Pemberton (Tom Pemberton Farm Life 2019), Richard Cornock (The Funky Farmer 2013a, The Funky Farmer 2013b, The Funky Farmer 2014a, The Funky Farmer 2014b, The Funky Farmer 2017) or George Saunders (George Saunders 2019). Cornock’s videos about the harvesting of his neighbour’s peas (The Funky Farmer 2014a, The Funky Farmer 2014b) or Saunders’ video about the ploughing in of beans (George Saunders 2019), to give some examples, are different from the instructional gardening videos analysed before as the videos are intended to show the work on a farm rather than teaching how a task is done. This is also the reason why the videos are less didactical and more improvisational, the language of the farmers is casual and conversational and the farmers are mostly filming while working.
In order to demonstrate their work on the farm, the farmers use tools such as a drone (e.g. Pemberton Farm Life 2019, 3:36; George Saunders 2019, 4:49) or they film the working machines from the inside and outside (e.g. The Funky Farmer 2014a), illustrating that Pemberton and Saunders, for instance, attach great importance to filming actions rather than always explaining in detail what they are doing. By filming what is happening and explaining what they do (while less detailed than in the didactic videos), the farmers convey agricultural knowledge by informing their viewers about the work and life on a farm. Indeed, Tom Pemberton, for instance, states in a video that “we are learning together” (Tom Pemberton Farm Life 2019, 2:00), while Cornock talks to another farmer in his video to get more information on the plough and how it is working (e.g. The Funky Farmer 2013a, 2:30). This gives the impression that the farmers (indirectly) intend to reach other farmers and interested people in order to teach and learn from each other. Considering that Cornock got feedback from other farmers around the world telling him how they are working (The Funky Farmer 2016, 2:45), knowledge exchange obviously takes place in these instances. Therefore, while the videos show a different way of diffusing agricultural knowledge that is less didactic and less direct in knowledge transmission than the gardening videos analysed above, the viewers are still learning about agriculture in the “old” learning style of listening and especially observing what is happening. And the YouTubers might also learn from the feedback of their viewers.
What can we learn, then, from comparing British agricultural treatises from 1200-1700 with gardening and farming videos uploaded on YouTube with regard to the overall topic of how new media and communication technologies are transforming the way knowledge is produced and circulated in contemporary societies?
According to Pscheida, the Internet, as the leading medium of the digital age, functions not only as a tool for the acquisition of information and knowledge but also as a medium for communication, transmission, and recently also participation (Pscheida 2014, 246). This includes the involvement of more actors, coming from different backgrounds and disciplines, in the process of knowledge production (Pscheida 2010, 222-223). In this regard, YouTube has encouraged the establishment of an "amateur culture," allowing ordinary people to post material that is seen by millions of people (Jones and Cuthrell 2011, 76). As shown in this blogpost, this also applies to the transmission of agricultural knowledge as professional gardeners and farmers but also lay people such as Tony O’Neill share their experiences and knowledge on YouTube.
Moreover, due to the invention of the Internet, the presentation of knowledge is changing as static figures and linear texts are replaced by hypertexts and dynamic media, such as videos, and things that one could not properly describe before can now be illustrated by videos and animations (Zhao and Resh 2001, 104). As a consequence, it was already mentioned in 1995 that our culture is “making a transition from literacy and print to electronic communication, which combines literate and near-oral modes”, leading to a withdrawal of literacy (O’Toole 1995, 98). The observations presented in this blogpost support this point as agricultural videos on YouTube can be seen as a return to the teaching style of learning by listening and observing as (hobby) gardeners and farmers explain in a conversational way their actions as if they would teach face-to-face and give the viewers the chance to observe and copy what they do by filming their acts.
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The Funky Farmer. 2013b. “ploughing the maize field. part 2.” February 26, 2013. YouTube Video, 8:57. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMftNjpOTSg.
The Funky Farmer. 2014a. “Combine harvesting peas. Part 1.” August 12, 2014. YouTube Video, 6:48. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrebYyrW5NQ.
The Funky Farmer. 2014b. “Combine harvesting peas. Part 2.” August 12, 2014. YouTube Video, 7:20. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=75uN7NdN8zA.
The Funky Farmer. 2016. “Talking about The Funky Farmer channel.” March 11, 2016. YouTube Video, 7:06. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VxyhhAy4Jjc.
The Funky Farmer. 2017. “Ploughing for Maize 2017.” May 4, 2017. YouTube Video, 10:33. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7dLuwPNyaQ.
Tom Pemberton Farm Life. 2019. “PERFECT FIELD FOR HAY?...LET’S GET IT PLOUGHED.” April 26, 2019. YouTube Video, 14:29. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0iMYHCWjVrw.
 The authorship of this book is contested (Gay 1904, 588) but many scholars agree that John Fitzherbert is the author rather than his brother Sir Anthony Fitzherbert (Gay 1904, 593; McDonald 1908, 13; Tebeaux 2010, 359).
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