Serres, Olivier de

Title Le theatre d’agriculture...
Paris, J. Mettayer, 1600
Paris, BnF (microfilm)
Subject Gardens
Transcribed version of the text


     Olivier de Serres, the “father of French agronomy”, gained the status of “great man” because he rejected the tradition of agricultural knowledge in force during the 16th century. Le theatre d’agriculture et mesnage des champs, published for the first time in Paris at the presses of Jamet Mettayer, was a fundamental step in the formulation of an agronomic science rid of obscurantism and magical and superstitious beliefs. If one analyzes this treatise in its context, it seems to be influenced by a positivist concept of the history of sciences. A comparitive study shows in fact that the experimental method developed by Olivier de Serres, whose foundations are Aristotelian, already existed in the Liber ruralium commodorum (c. 1304-1309) by Pietro de’Crescenzi and La maison rustique (1564) by Charles Estienne and Jean Liébault. Of course, in Le theatre d’agriculture this method became widespread, for obtaining concrete results as a condition of making profits was a consequence of the mercantile objectives of the economic policy of Henri IV, who had chosen agriculture as the cornerstone of national prosperity.
The editorial program of the Théâtre d’agriculture consists of a great number of aims in common with the other writings on agricultural technologies being published at the beginning of the early modern period. Like Charles Estienne and Antoine Mizauld, Olivier de Serres was obsessed by the accumulation of countless marvelous “secrets” stemming from antique and popular knowledge. Nevertheless, the formulae collected in the some thousand pages of his treatise are confirmed and corrected by verifications in concreto undertaken at his estate Pradel. The clarity of Olivier de Serres’ language is another consequence of this extreme attention brought to the reality of rustic things. But the Master of Pradel, a “man with connections” also benefited from the expertise coming from the great specialists of his period. Thus, the flower beds intended for the pleasure garden and the medicinal garden which illustrate Le théâtre come from exchanges with the gardener to the king Claude Mollet I and the “creator” of the medicinal garden at Montpellier, Pierre Richer de Belleval. These particularly innovative plans implemented in the royal gardens were unrealizable for a goodly number of readers. Therefore the topoi of the meraviglia and of the copia had not disappeared.
In the preface to his treatise Olivier de Serres gives his plan explicitly : it is a question of “putting rural household knowledge in the chapters (places) of this Treatise (Theater)”, “in order to treat each subject in its own Chapter”, all of which suggests a method of organizing knowledge inspired by the art of memory. Crucially important before the invention of the printing press, this discipline, pertaining to rhetoric, provides methods of memorization based on the visualization of places and images. The eight “chapters” of the Théâtre d’agriculture correspond to the following themes : “On the duty of the householder”, “On plowing soil for seeding, in order to have Wheat of all kinds”, “On the vineyard”, “On four-footed cattle”, “On the management of the hen house”, “On gardening”, “On Water and the Woods” and “On the use of feed”. According to Olivier de Serres, this series of headings was apparently inspired by the De re rustica by Varron, but it is closer to the thematic plan of the Livre des prouffitz champestres by Crescenzi than to that Roman treatise.
It was frequently reissued ; the first coming out in 1603 is a version that the author revised and enlarged. The Theatre is reissued in Paris between 1605 and 1617, and also came out in Rouen (1623...), Lyon (1675) and Geneva (1611...). Only La cueillette de la soye par la nourriture des vers qui la font, one chapter of the treatise published separately in 1599, was published in Tübingen in 1603 by Erhard Cellius (Seydenwurm : von Art, Natur und großer Nutzbarkeit deß ... Seydenwurms), and in English in 1607 in London by Felix Kingston (The perfect Use of Silke-Wormes, and their Benefit).

Laurent Paya (Centre d’études supérieures de la Renaissance, Tours/
Artopos, Jardin et Paysage, Montpellier) – 2013


Critical bibliography

D. Duport, “La ‘science’ d’Olivier de Serres et la connaissance du ‘naturel’”, Bulletin de l’Association d’Études sur l’Humanisme, la Réforme et la Renaissance, 50, 2000, pp. 85-95.

J. Boulaine & R. Moreau, Olivier de Serres et l’évolution de l’agriculture, Paris, L’Harmattan, coll. “Les Acteurs de la Science”, Paris, 2002.

H. Gourdin, Olivier de Serres. Sciences, expérience, diligence en agriculture au temps de Henri IV, Arles, Actes Sud, 2001.

J. B. Huzard, Notice bibliographique des différentes éditions du Théâtre d’agriculture d’Olivier de Serres, Paris, Huzard, 1806.

L. Paya, Les parterres des jardins à compartiments en France et dans le monde (1450-1650) : entre figures de pensée et ornements de verdure. Doctoral thesis under the direction of Y. Pauwels, Tours, Centre d’études supérieures de la Renaissance, 2012.