How Turnips Made the Modern World



We hear a lot about the great women, the right-thinking men, the powerful machines and liberating ideas which built the world we inhabit today. It’s a source of heated debate – not just about which individuals should be commemorated, but about the fact we limit ourselves to commemorating individuals in the first place. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of putting some certain people on a pedestal as founders of the modern age, though, you’d be hard pressed to find someone advocating that all the statues and busts be swept aside, and a small, purpley-white vegetable enshrined in their place. But the humble turnip has done more to shape the society we live in than just about any single person I can think of.

The Hectic Life and History

As a History student, my week largely involves eating carbohydrates and watching re-runs of shows I didn’t even like the first time around. On the rare occasion that I stir from my bed, there’s a course of lectures which run from Monday to Friday each week given by some of the leading historians out there. You’ll attend lectures on up to four papers at a time, waltzing from a class on the meaning of power to a seminar on the status of women in Homeric Greece.

The main substance to the working week, however, is not the lecture course but the independent reading and writing you do outside of the History Faculty, an imposing building designed to look like an open book made of glass and brick (you be the judge). I probably read between eight and twelve items a week, whether they’re books, chapters or online articles, in preparation for writing an essay on a fairly specific topic – past examples include the witch trials of Early Modern Europe and the gender of citizenship in eighteenth-century England. The day after handing in the essay comes perhaps the best part of studying History at Cambridge: the supervision. A one-on-one session for an hour with a leading expert in the field, the supervision is an immense privilege and a really rewarding way to have your opinions challenged and knowledge broadened.

At Immerse Education, the unique flavour of the supervision system is reproduced on a more welcoming scale. Learning in very small groups, students are encouraged not to hold back with their own views, as well as thinking through the arguments of their friends. Just like undergraduates, they’re taught by Oxbridge academics who are up to date with the latest trends in scholarship. Trips to the Fitzwilliam Museum or the Botanical Gardens help the programme live up to its name and truly immerse the pupils in the experience of the Cambridge learning environment.

If there’s one thing that Immerse Education attendees are lucky to miss out on, it’s the occasional sense of relentlessness that accompanies the short but densely packed Cambridge University term. Each week, you go from being completely ignorant about your essay topic to feeling like a know-it-all capable of confidently pouring out 3000 words and taking an original stance on the issue. The next week, you do the same thing, with little time to rest in between. Usually, I relish the challenge, but sometimes the topic itself seems a little dull. In a way, though, the very experience of learning about it, and engaging with the arguments to produce your own, makes it interesting in a way you might not have considered beforehand.

The Dreaded Turnip

I remember rolling my eyes with a groan when my supervisor recommended I write an essay on the agricultural revolution last year. I knew what was coming: seed drills, crop rotations… the dreaded turnip. After a few days and countless books about eighteenth-century agriculture, I seriously considered dropping out of college and setting up a farm (albeit an antiquarian one in which the phrase ‘combine harvester’ would be mistaken for bad French). But then something miraculous happened: I found myself drawn into the magical world of the turnip. They’re superheroes.

By introducing turnips into a new crop rotation, farmers in England were able to massively increase their yields in the off-seasons, and to feed many more livestock than before. With raised agricultural output, England could support many more inhabitants, and the population rose well above anything it had reached in the millennia before. In turn, this surplus population began to head into the towns. A big pool of urban labour was created which would be crucial to Britain’s labour-intensive industrial revolution – a revolution which was to transform the globe and kick off the phenomenon of economic growth as we know it. No doubt this is a simplified narrative, but the point remains: turnips are awesome.

I’ve even started asking the catering staff at my college to start buying more turnips for our meals, in the hope that this spike in demand will kick off a second economic revolution and propel us out of the impending Eurozone crisis. Always worth a try. Regardless of whether the Chancellor will turn to the neep as an escape route from economic disaster, perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned from the agricultural revolution is this: nothing is boring if you take the time to learn about it. On the surface, root vegetables might look (and taste) uninspiring. But if you apply yourself to your studies, you might find that they’re a little more special than you gave them credit for.

To discover more about the Immerse Education History programme, click here. 

Immerse Education Session 1 Dinner Photo

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