The 17th Century is the Best Century

Back at my desk in Indiana, I have been reading and taking notes on a really lovely chapter in a book called A Pleasing Sinne: Drink and Conviviality in Seventeenth-century England.  The chapter “Drinking Cider in Paradise: Science, Improvement, and the Politics of Fruit Trees”, by Dr. Vittoria Di Palma, has lots to offer the historically minded and those cider and orchard enthusiasts who have delved into the texts on the subject by the likes Evelyn, Beale, Worlidge, and Austen.  I had the opportunity to go to the British Library during my stay in England, and I signed up for a reading room card, checked out a period copy of Eveyln’s Pomona, and spent a lovely afternoon turning its seventeenth century pages, replete with beautiful fonts and prints.  Di Palma’s chapter analyzes the many works on cider in the 17th and 18th centuries within the context of the larger discourse of “Improvement.”  Citing one of the earliest tracts during this era advocating the planting of fruit trees, a letter by Sir Richard Child written to Samuel Hartlib, Di Palma says:

“…fruit tree cultivation and the production of fruit wines became central to the advancement of English husbandry.  In the 1650s, Child’s letter acted as a spur to other publications by members of Hartlib’s circle; in the 1660s it was used as a blueprint for early scientific efforts to describe, understand, and exploit the English landscape by Fellows of the Royal Society.  And although orchards and cider had only formed a small part of Child’s enterprise, they soon became subjects of a plethora of specialized publications, recognizable components of the seventeenth century discourse of improvement.” (Di Palma,164)

I’ve always thought the 17th century was one of the most interesting periods in English and North American history – arguably the birth of modernity as social and political life transitioned out of the medieval era and towards the world as we know it today, a world which privileges individualism, scientific method, and representative government. 

Many authors who write on cider today often refer back to this era as a golden era for cider, when it was the drink of gentlemen, a subject to be discussed in the high circles of scientific inquiry.  In my studies, I am interested in teasing out the meanings embedded in the way we talk about and represent cider.  As Di Palma’s lovely paper shows, the 17th century writers were invested in a rhetoric of improvement, a rhetoric which ultimately positioned “England as Eden”:

The widespread cultivation of apple trees would mean, in effect, recreating paradise in England, redeeming the country’s sins, and populating it with moral, healthy, and wealthy denziens, drinking cider in their very own Elysium Britannicum.  Not merely fit for Adam and Eve, or the heathen gods for that matter, through the discourse of improvement, cider was proclaimed the tipple of choice for the English citizen” (Di Palma 177)

It’s interesting to think about how similar the 17th century discourse of improvement is to many of our modern concerns about sustainability, localized economies, and ecologically sensitive agriculture.  There are many differences, of course, but that is where interesting analysis can be made.  Just how do people who want to make arguments about these contemporary issues borrow from older texts to make their points?  But also, how does this obscure some of the differences between contemporary and historical realities?  This is something I will be looking at in greater depth as I write the dissertation. 

Take a look at the rest of the articles in this book for other scholarly approaches to drinks of all sorts in 17th century England.

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