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Related TopicsSamuel Hartlib Hartlib Circle Francis Bacon John Beale Robert Sharrock Robert Boyle Walter Blith Natural history Fruit-tree cultivation Grafting
Natural historian, gardener, puritan radical, and supporter of the Parliamentarian party, Ralph Austen’s (1612–1676) work is a good example of how experimental sciences mingled with philosophy in the seventeenth century. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography presents various aspects of his life, from his being a nurseryman with significant achievements in gardening, to being a businessman involved in the production of cider, to being a puritan political activist who believed that his practical and theoretical schemes could help Parliament in establishing a national program for fruit-tree plantation that would also bring economic and moral advancement, and to being a Register of the Visitors of Parliament at Oxford, a chief administrative position in the process of the reformation of the University (James Grantham Turner 1975). Further research is necessary to understand just how these various roles all related to each other.
Austen’s Work and Networking
Although Austen was involved in politics and economic activities, he apparently had no university education. This, however, in no way prevented him from becoming a reader of the Bodleian Library and from building his own collection of books, and writing on the subject of natural history for the sake of improving natural philosophy. In the mid-1640s, he established himself in Oxford where he became involved with husbandry, gardening, fruit-tree cultivation, grafting, cider production, timber, and the raising of silkworms (James Turner 1978). An important aspect of Austen’s activity as a gardener, experimenter, and natural historian was his desire to be in contact with groups of people who were already practicing the “new science,” such as the Hartlib Circle as well as the Royal Society. Samuel Hartlib encouraged Austen to pursue his experimental activities in gardening (Austen sent to Hartlib, in early 1652, via Benjamin Martin, a copy of his manuscript of the Treatise of Fruit-Trees, with the desire to receive Hartlib’s comments and suggestions of improvement (HP 41/1/2A-3B). The Hartlib Circle worked as a platform for Austen to be involved not only with people sharing his interests in experimentation, natural history, and natural philosophy (i.e., Robert Sharrock, Walter Blith, John Beale, and Robert Boyle) but also to collaborate with them. Apart from the exchange of practical knowledge regarding husbandry and agriculture, Walter Blith offered to help Austen publish his first work entitled The Treatise of Fruit-Trees (HP 41/1/10A-11B). Blith encouraged Austen to have the book published in London but, in the end, the Treatise was released in Oxford in 1653. Two other editions were published in 1657 and 1665 (Feola and Mandelbrote 2013). From his interest in grafting and cider production, Austen came into contact with John Beale (HP 41/1/129A-130B; HP 52/169A-172B), while a common passion for plants and the natural history of plants led Robert Sharrock to sign the letter addressed to the reader in Austen’s Observations upon some part of Sr Francis Bacon’s Naturall History (1658). Austen’s interests in experimentation, grafting, fermentation, the preparation of liquors, and cider production were shared by Robert Boyle, who was also living in Oxford in the mid-1650s (HP 45/2/1A-2B; HP 51/61A-64B). In addition to sharing information with one another, Austen attempted to get Boyle’s help in his bids for patronage (HP 45/2/5A-6B; HP 45/2/7A-8B; HP 45/2/9A). Austen also believed that his association with Boyle could facilitate his access to influential groups, such as the Royal Society (HP 41/1/131A-132B; HP 41/1/133A-134B; HP 41/1/137A-138B). While Austen was an insider in the Hartlib Circle, he was much more of an outsider in the Royal Society, in spite of his attempts to seek access to some of its earliest members, such as John Beale (Hall and Hall 1965–1986) and Henry Oldenburg (Turnbull et al. 1960–1977).
Austen’s Projects of Natural History
Concerned with the study of flowers, fruit-trees, timber, and grafting, Austen enlarged his efforts to observe and experiment in the garden, which he integrated with more theoretical attempts to compile natural histories (Matei 2017). Although his works are not specifically called “natural histories,” some of them display a clear Baconian influence, such as his Observations, a work constructed on Austen’s discussions and criticism of about 100 of Bacon’s experiments in Sylva Sylvarum, Centuries V, VI, and VII. In a very Baconian fashion, Austen regarded Bacon’s experiments in Sylva as incentives to get involved in direct experimentation with the ambition of searching for the causes of natural things and the provision of the true axioms and general laws of nature, thereby supplementing Baconian theories and even contradicting them, when experience proved to the contrary. This was the case in the sap controversy, when Austen opposed Bacon’s (and later Robert Boyle’s) findings, claiming that sap never descends within a tree, but always ascends, being transformed into bark, leaves, and fruits.
Apart from his theoretical aims in natural history, Austen considered projects in the field to be economically advantageous (through material findings) and important for religious salvation. Thus, the first two editions of the Treatise of Fruit-Trees were accompanied by The Spirituall Use of an Orchard, or Garden of Fruit-Trees, a text emphasizing the multiple similarities between the cultivation of spiritual and natural fruit trees. The association of the Treatise of Fruit-Trees and the Spirituall Use is not accidental but deliberate. Austen’s intention was to publish a natural history that would cover two aspects, namely, the gathering of facts about the natural world based on observations and experience and as well as the necessary material for bringing salvation in economic and religious domains. Austen remained loyal to this interest throughout his life: making experiments for the sake of the common good.
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