page  from encyclopedia on the “twelve sciences”

Caption: A book page taken from the sixteenth-century encyclopedia on “twelve sciences”, written by Nev'î Efendi.

Source: open access, Open Collections Program at Harvard University, Houghton Library, Harvard University (


Working Group (2020-2027)

Agriculture and the Making of Sciences (1100–1700)

“The science of farming is a science full of benefits; it is the origin of all industries.” ʿ ilm-i filāḥat ʿ ilm-i pür menāfiʿ ve aṣl-ı cemi-i ṣanāyıʿ, Nevi Efendi (1533/4–1598)

If philosophy and mathematics constituted the major achievements of early modern scientific thought, agricultural practices grounded premodern scholars in their approaches to such topics: Shen Gua 沈括 (1031–1095) spoke of constants (chang 常) and variables (bian 變) in the principles of things (wuli 物理) by observing farming rhythms; Al-Ghazali (1058–1111) discussed man’s rational faculty and geometry by observing the hexagonal shape of bee hives. This project scrutinizes how “working the soil” informed scientific, technological, and medical change from the shores of Bahr al-muhit al-gharbi (the Atlantic) to Donghai (East China Sea) from the twelfth to seventeenth centuries. We invite scholars to look at practices such as grafting, manuring, hydraulic engineering, seed production, and study how knowledge about the natural world was defined and systematized from there: what was deemed relevant for medical purposes; what constituted a food, and what became mechanics. By examining concrete practices of agriculture, we look from the “ground up” at the formation of different fields of knowledge and knowledge cultures in which these practices found expression, and from there the production of farming knowledge. Our comparison has two reference points: the Sinographic and the Arab and Turko-Persian literary traditions.

We address these questions:
  1. What bodies of knowledge were abstracted from people's experiences in the complex realities of agricultural practice, and how?
  2. How such bodies of knowledge were categorized into different epistemic fields, and negotiated between discrete epistemic subjects?
  3. How some bodies of knowledge were generalized, universalized, and became “the orthodoxy” that created social and material realities, whereas others were discussed only within a narrow field (for instance, farming manuals maintained a stabilized body of agricultural knowledge, whereas what was excluded went into other fields and became organized in other forms)?
  4. How were new epistemic fields formed when various bodies of knowledge were negotiated and reconnected to reproduce heterodox alternatives?
  5. In times of increasing global interconnections, how did authors make sense of “new things” (for example, American plants, etc.), incorporating them into established bodies and forms of knowledge? What were the mechanisms of keeping the established forms of knowledge as the orthodoxy?
  6. How did genres such as farming manuals evolve and their contents change over time?

The project puts emphasis on the study of agricultural practices documented in Classical Chinese (used in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam), Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish. In addition to farming manuals and treatises, we will examine diverse forms of agricultural knowledge that did not conveniently fit into the discrete scholarly categories of their respective times: legal writings, cosmographies, dictionaries, materia medica, manuals of mechanical art, as well as artifacts and visual representations.  

A chain-pump depicted in Wang Zhen’s Nongshu

A chain-pump depicted in Wang Zhen’s Nongshu (“The Book on Agriculture”), first published in Yuan-period China. Source: open access, the Naikaku Bunko Collection, National Archives of Japan Digital Archive (


News & Press

Applications open for pre- and postdoctoral positions in Dept. III (Deadline Jan. 3, 2021)


Past Events

Agriculture and the Making of Sciences


Agriculture and the Making of Sciences