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"There's Husbandry in Heaven"

What is husbandry, and what does it mean in Shakespeare's plays? Intern Elena Porter refers back to Thomas Tusser's "Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry" to expound upon the subject.

Elena Porter

‘Husbandry’ is a term that developed from the word ‘husband’ to refer to the ordering and management of the household. It had several broader meanings in Shakespeare’s time, applying to animal and agrarian management and implying thrift. The latter, broadest meaning was frequently used by Shakespeare in his plays, as were agricultural metaphors. When Banquo says, ‘There’s husbandry in heaven; Their candles are all out' in Macbeth, he means that the angels are illuminating few stars in order to economise.

There's Ulysses and old Nestor, whose wit was mouldy ere your grandsires had nails on their toes, yoke you like draught-oxen, and make you plough up the wars.

Troilus and Cressida Act 2 Scene 1

One of the most popular among many sixteenth-century works on husbandry was Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, expanded from his 1557 A Hundreth Points of Husbandrie. The manual went through twenty-three editions between 1557 and 1638, [1] and was something of a bestseller. It was written in verse, covering many topics that fell under a broad definition of husbandry as self-management in the home and in the field, including recipes and marital advice. Most of Tusser’s audience were probably yeomen, but there is reason to think that country gentleman would also have consulted the book. There are four copies of this fascinating volume in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust library collection.

Thomas Tusser husbandry manual
A 1599 title page from one of the copies of Thomas Tusser's husbandry manual.

If children increase, and no stay of thine to owne
what afterwards followes, is soone to be knowne

Tusser warns of the dangers of failing to set up house for the newly wed, 1610 edition

Tusser (c.1524–80), born in Essex, was not only a poet, but a singer and a farmer. He brought all his strengths to bear in this manual. Of particular note is the layout of the volume; agricultural advice is structured around the farming calendar, and that on ‘points of huswifery’ (i.e. household management) is organised around the working day. Interestingly, Tusser emphasises the benefits of land enclosure.[2]  Enclosure meant consolidating fields into larger blocks of land, and was a process popularly associated with hardship, unemployment, and displacement. You can read about Shakespeare’s personal involvement with enclosure in a previous post.

It has been suggested that the verse format of the book was intended to aid rural readers in recalling the volume’s advice. It enabled them to recite its contents in the same way they might vocalise one of Shakespeare’s works.

When Christmas is ended bid feasting adue,
go plaie the good husband, thy stock to renue:
Be mindful of rearing, in hope of a gaine,
dame profit shal give thee, reward for thy paine.

The introduction to Tusser’s advice for the month of January, 1710 edition

A sixteenth-century watering jug for garden husbandry.
A sixteenth-century watering jug for garden husbandry.

In the 1710 edition Tusser’s verses are accompanied by explanatory notes, expanding and updating the advice for a contemporary readership. Tusser’s volume remained influential as a practical guide throughout the 1500s and 1600s. However, in the 1710 edition his writing is presented as a subject of greater historical than practical use for the modern reader.

Good husbandry was a theme that groundlings at the theatre would have considered at length. It was essential to health and prosperity for a largely agricultural population. Gardening and agricultural metaphors appealed strongly to the English particularly. For many, daily and yearly fortunes depended on the vagaries of England’s agricultural systems and seasons – and of course, on hard work!

For our bad neighbour makes us early stirrers, Which is both healthful and good husbandry.

Henry V, Act 4 Scene 1

[1] Scott, C. (2014). Shakespeare’s Nature: From Cultivation to Culture, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.16

Other sources:
Fussell, G. E. (1947). The Old English Farming Books from Fitzherbert to Tull 1523 to 1730, London: Crosby Lockwood & Son, Ltd.