Spanish Sheep and Anonymous Witnesses: The Anglo-Merino Controversy, c. 1800

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 11:30 AM
Thurgood Marshall Ballroom South (Marriott Wardman Park)
Rebecca Woods, Columbia University
When Spanish merino sheep were introduced to Great Britain at the turn of the nineteenth century, it sparked a long and vociferous controversy in British sheep-breeding circles. Elite and wealthy agriculturalists promoted its adoption in the British Isles as a necessity for British woolen manufacturing, while defenders of the “practical farmer” claimed the spread of the merino—prized for its very fine wool, but not for its capacity to fatten—was a threat to the nation’s food supply. Part of a wider culture of “improvement” in agriculture, the merino question quickly reached a boiling point, not only because these differing views of its value prevailed, but because it brought to light the issue of what counted as reliable evidence in the nascent realm of agricultural science. Grounded in a close reading of the Agricultural Magazine and Farmer’s Monthly Gazette, the pages of which served as the forum for this debate, this paper will demonstrate how such exchanges were part of a widening of the gentlemanly culture of experimental science, so ably described by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer in the classic Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (1985), from the laboratory to the paddock. This expansion brought two regimes of evidentiary evaluation into conflict: the first an elitist measure that was based on personal recommendation and parole; the second more democratic, and which had room for anonymous submissions and opinions. For contemporaries, it was an opportunity to debate the authority of the eyewitness, as well as the influence of science upon practical agriculture. For the historian, the record of this debate is an opportunity to analyze the significance of this moment of transition for the production of scientific knowledge.
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