Serres, Olivier De (or Des)

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(b. Villeneuve-de-Berg, Ardèche, France, 1539; d. Villeneuve-de-Berg, 2 July 1619)


Serres’s father, Jacques de Serres, and his mother, Louise de Leyris, came from families long established as small landowners and lawyers in Vivarais; it is uncertain at what point the estate of Pradel, which was to be Serres’s home, passed into their hands. Since his father died while Olivier was still a boy, it is uncertain what his education was; he may have studied for a while at the University of Valence, but presumably he did not graduate. In 1559 he married Marguerite d’Arcons; they had seven children. Although he had to travel from time to time, possibly to Germany and Italy, Pradel and its improvement were his life’s work. As a young man he was converted to Protestantism; as early as 1561 he seems to have been regarded as a leader of the local Huguenots, obtaining a preacher for them from Geneva.

Much of the little that is known of Serres’s life relates to his position in the Reformed community in time of civil war. In 1562 the parish church vessels were entrusted to him for sale. He also commanded forces in local campaigns of the various wars of the 1560’s and 1570’s and played a leading role in the capture of Villeneuve by the Huguenots in 1573, although he should almost certainly be exonerated of all blame for the massacre that followed. In fact, he was driven from Pradel more than once during these years and participated at least three times in conferences to arrange a local peace. At the end of the century he spent some time at Paris, where he presented his plans for the expansion of sericulture and diffusion of the mulberry to Henry IV.

At the same time Serres saw to the publication of his book Théâtre d’agriculture (1600). Since he was by then over sixty, the work can be regarded as the fruit of his life’s experience. His aim was to present a complete survey of all aspects of agriculture, starting with advice on the proper way to run a household and proceeding, by way of discussions of various types of soil, to describe all the domesticated animals and plants known to him and to give useful hints on their cultivation. He also was an improve meadows, of careful drainage, and of the conservation of water.

Unlike most books of that periods on farming and estate management, which tended to limit themselves to the codification and dissemination of the best current practice, Serres’s was among the first at least north of the Alps, to argue for widespread innovation and experiment. By the time his book appeared, he had acquired a national reputation as an authority on the silkworm, so much so that the relevant portion of his book appeared as a kind of preprint, La cueillette de la soye, the year before the main body, and translated into German and English, In it he gave one of the first detailed accounts of the life cycle of the silkworm. although he did not eliminate the possibility of spontaneous generation (but acknowledged that he had never observed it). He believed that the silkworm could be reared much farther north than was then accepted. Serres also devised, or promoted, a method of manufacturing coarse cloth from the bark of the mulberry trees, the leaved of which fed the worms. His work on this,La seconde riches du meurierblanc, also was printed independently and was translated. Within this new motive added to the needs of the silk industry, Serres bore a large part of the responsibility for the mulberry craze of the next decades and , in particular, inspired the king to make extensive plantings at Paris.

Serres was also keen on introducing crops previously unknown to France. An advocate of the sowing of artificial grasses. he devoted a chapter of his Théâtre to sainfoin. the use of which was then spreading north from Italy and Spain. Serres introduced hops to France and was the first French agricultural writer to describe and encourage the cultivation of maize and potatoes. Among exotic barnyard fowl—which gave some difficulty in distinguishing one species from another– he appears to gave known the turkey.

But the proportion of novelty in the whole should not be exaggerated. Although it is a treatise of agricultural improvement, his Théâtre is also a depiction of the old ideal of the self-sufficient and patriarchal small estate, whose master. while trying to increase his patrimony, seek above all to be content with his lot and holds fast to the simplicity of rural life.


I. Original Works. Serres’s main work is Théâtre d’ agriculture et mesanage des champs (Paris, 1600), of which at least nineteen eds. had appeared by 1675; there is also an annotated ed., 2 vols, (Paris, 1804–1805). Sections of it that were published separately are La cueillette de la soye (Paris, 1599) and La second richesse du meurier-blanc (Paris, 1603).

II. Secondary Literature. See M. de Fels. Olivier de Serres(Paris, 1963); G. Lizerand. Le régime rural de l’ancienne France (Paris, 1942), 79–80; and H. Vaschalde, Olivier de Serres, seigneur du Pradel, Sa vie et ses travaux (Paris, 1886)

A. G. Keller