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Book Review: Manure Matters: Historical, Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives by Richard Jones (ed)

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The “new books” section at the London Library throw up many weird, wonderful and exciting possibilities. Not many readers might have picked up Manure Matters: Historical, Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives, but since it combines my interest in soils and history, how could I resist?

And I found parts of this collection of academic essays by different authors absolutely fascinating – and even a reader without my special interest would, I think, also do so.

Even the introduction, with its brief skip through the 20th-century organics movement, told me things I didn’t know, particularly the debt that this Western knowledge owes to the East. It identified a key text, published in 1911, Farmers of Forty Centuries, by Franklin King, who had made a research trip to China, Japan and Korea. “Critically, King was able to demonstrate that organic manures in the East enabled more to be grown per hectar.. than contemporary methods used in the West which were becoming ever more reliant on artificials [fertilisers]”. And India also contributed through the work of Sir Albert Howard, who eventually established the Institute of Plant Industry in Indore, where he established a manuring method, the Indore Process, that involves mixing vegetable and animal waste with chalk, limestone, wood ash, earth or claked lime, to neutralise the acidity produced by fermentation. His An Agricultural Testament (1940) informed Soil Association work.

But mostly, we’re going an awful lot further back in history – or more correctly prehistory. “Middening and manuring in Neolithic Europe” sets out much of the ground – the fact that stall manure is rarely spread more than 500 metres  from its source, even with animal transport available, greatly raising the value of land in immediate proximity of human/animal housing. And that manuring is a slow investment – only 5-25% of the nutrients being usually available in the year after its spreading – which immediately raises questions of land tenure and inheritance. There’s a tension if new households are added – if they are to be in close proximity to existing ones, then this land will be encroached. This may explain areas such as central and northern Europe where dispersed settlements tend to be the norm.

I learnt that until the Sixties, scholars tended to assume that Neolithic farmers had followed shifting, slash-and-burn type agriculture, and some today continue to assert that, particularly on the basis that it would be a natural development from Mesolithic hunter gathering, but the authors assert that weed seed evidence from central Europe suggest more intensive farming – as does the fact that herding and agriculture seem to go together. There’s yet, however, to be direct evidence of manuring, although all of this is definitely suggestive.

I found a chapter by Kate Waddington on “(Re)cycling of life in Late Bronze Age Southern Britain” particularly fascinating. She’s looking at the period from the 10th to 6th century BC, which “marks a movement away from a reliance on the manipulation of complex material culture to a period when settlement monumentality becomes of critical importance”. This coincides with a climatic deterioration which may well have had a negative impact on agriculture and food supplies. At least 30 “midden” sites have been found in southern England – large accumulations of manure and rubbish, which may sometimes have been farmed, but generally weren’t. But it seems these weren’t a sign of plenty.

The use of modern parallels is fascinating…

“Periods of crisis or dramatic social change may … trigger an increase in the consumption of food and materials. Such behaviours have been well demonstrated in the United States through the work of the Garbology Project. … The excavations demonstrated frequent episodes of over-consumption during periods of shortage. For example, a national beef shortage in 1973 coincided with a dramatic rise in its consumption by at least three times the normal. Similar patterns were evident during the national sugar shortage of 1975, when some people stockpiled sugar in quantities that they could not consume. … at the end of the late Bronze Age … it is possible that specific rises in sheep, pig or cattle bones in the sequences actually demonstrate a perceived shortage of this meat, rather than a rise in consumption.”

The accumulation of dung and its mixing with other rubbish – a waste in agricultural terms – clearly made some kind of sense.

The chapter “Understanding Medieval Manure” throws up a fascinating class difference – peasants, lacking space and large quantities of manure, combined all of their household and farmyard waste into a single composite mix. This, when spread on the fields, has left us with a highly identifiable archaeological “signature” – potsherds and other surviving material, that has been used to identify medieval manuring. But high-status households were different. Animal dung, vegetable manure, animal bone and pottery and hearth ashes were kept separately, and used for different purposes – possibly leaving no obvious archeological trace. Yet this difference would also have been visible in medieval times – in open or commonfield systems where peasant and lord’s land strips were mixed, these “must have helped to define social and economic, individual and communal, space”.

Author Richard Jones is also interesting in his tracing of the development of what might be called the stigma of the dungheap. (Which probably had an echo in our decision to go for modern sewerage systems.)

“…by the end of the middle ages those elements of medieval society not directly engaged in agriculture, those of seigneurial rank and town authorities, were already taking steps to distance themselves from the dunheap. Borough by-laws and Assizes of Nuisance sought the speedy removal from city streets of noisome build-ups of organic waste… which in agricultural settings would form the basis of the manure stock and be highly prized. It is not surprising , therefore, across the literature of the period, a clear association being drawn between peasant culture and manure.”

So you mightn’t think a book about the history of manure is to your taste – but you might be surprised if you have an interest in social history.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.