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Archaeology and History

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Dr James Fisher

Lecturer in Early Modern History


01392 727438


I am a historian of early modern Britain (c.1500-1800), exploring the histories of work, knowledge, books, poverty, agriculture, capitalism and the environment.

I began my current role as Lecturer in Early Modern History in July 2023. I am also a Co-Director of the Centre for Early Modern Studies at Exeter.

My first book is titled The Enclosure of Knowledge: Books, Power & Agrarian Capitalism in Britain 1660-1800 and was published with Cambridge University Press in July 2022. It was shortlisted for the Royal Historical Society Whitfield Prize 2023, awarded for the best first monograph in British and Irish history.

Previously, I was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow (2020-23) on the project FORMSofLABOUR, led by Prof Jane Whittle and funded by the European Research Council. Mr project studied pauper (or parish) apprenticeships in England (c.1600-1750), focused on its distinctiveness as a form of coerced labour at the intersection of the poor and labour laws.

I was previously Lecturer in Early Modern British Economic and Social History here at Exeter. Before joining Exeter, I taught at King's College London, Royal Holloway, and the University of East London.

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My current research on pauper apprenticeships is a study of freedom at the intersection of work, poverty and youth in early modern England. I am investigating pauper apprenticeships as a form of coerced labour as well as a device of poor relief. Major themes include freedom and power, training and socialisation, and labour discipline. See FORMSofLABOUR.   My broader research sits at the intersection of histories of knowledge, books, labour and agriculture, centred on the early modern period, including:
  • Social history of agricultural knowledge
  • Early modern 'how-to' books and almanacs
  • Agricultural literature
  • Rise of agrarian capitalism
  • Environmental knowledge
  • Division of mental and manual labour
  • Circulation of farming books & knowledge in the Atlantic World
  • Georgic as a literary mode

Book Summary

The Enclosure of Knowledge: Books, Power & Agrarian Capitalism in Britain 1660-1800

The rise of agrarian capitalism in Britain is usually told as a story about markets, land, and wages. The Enclosure of Knowledge reveals that it was also about books, knowledge and expertise. It argues that during the early modern period farming books were a key tool in the appropriation of the customary art of husbandry possessed by farm workers of all kinds. It challenges the dominant narrative of an agricultural ‘enlightenment’, in which books merely spread useful knowledge, by showing how codified knowledge was used to assert greater managerial control over land and labour. The proliferation of printed books helped divide mental and manual labour to facilitate emerging social divisions between labourers, managers and landowners. The cumulative effect was the slow enclosure of customary knowledge. By synthesising diverse theoretical insights, this study opens up a new social history of agricultural knowledge and reinvigorates long-term histories of knowledge under capitalism.

Watch 5 min video summary

Read blog summary 'Controlling Knowledge of the Land'

Publications Book Reviews
  • 'Erasmus Darwin’s Gardens: Medicine, Agriculture and the Sciences in the Eighteenth Century. By Paul A. Elliott. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2021', Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 45 (2022), 279– 281.
  • ‘Servants in Rural Europe 1400-1900. Edited by Jane Whittle. Boydell. 2017’, History, 103:358 (2018), 867-70.
  • 'Making a Living, Making a Difference: Gender and Work in Early Modern European Society. Ed. Maria Ågren. Oxford University Press. 2017', History, 103:354 (2018), 141-3.

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External impact and engagement

I enjoy sharing my research with different audiences.

Recent public talks include:

  • 'Child Labour Under The Old Poor Law in Devon' with Exeter U3A, a local organisation for those who have finished full time employment or raising a family. 16 May 2023.
  • 'Rural Poverty and Change' at Ilchester Heritage Day, Somerset. TBD October 2023.

I have contributed to numerous public history projects. I helped create the metadata for the Georgian Papers Programme in 2018, a ten-year interdisciplinary project to digitise, conserve, catalogue, transcribe, interpret and disseminate 425,000 pages or 65,000 items in the Royal Archives and Royal Library relating to the Georgian period, 1714-1837. I also contributed to the Yerusha Project in 2019, an online platform which unites Jewish archival heritage held in hundreds of archives, libraries and museums across Europe.

Contribution to discipline

I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 2022.

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I completed my PhD in History at King's College London in 2018, supervised by Prof. Arthur Burns and Dr. Alexandra Sapoznik.

I am trained in disciplines across the humanities and sciences. I have an MA in Modern History (King's College London, 2014), an MA in Political Philosophy (University of York, 2008) and a BSc in Physics (2006).

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