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Serres, Olivier de

1. Dates
Born: Villeneuve de Berg, 1539
Died: Villeneuve de Berg, 2 July 1619
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 80
2. Father
Occupation: Lawyer, Gentry
His father, Jacques de Serres and his mother Louis de Leyris came from established families of small landowmers and lawyers in Vivarais. One of Serres' brothers was Jean de Serres, a historiographer of France.
Serres inherited an estate on which he lived all his life. I think one must say that the family was affluent at the least.
3. Nationality
Birth: French
Career: French
Death: French
4. Education
Schooling: Valence
His classic education is uncertain because his father died when Serres was still young. He studied for a while at the University of Valence. There is no evidence that he graduated. By nineteen he appears to have had a liberal education. He was versed in Greek and Latin. He studied all that was written about agricultural practices.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Catholic, Calvinist
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. He was a deacon of the church of Berg. He was sent by his congregation to find a minister. During the civil war the parish church vessels were entrusted to Serres for sale. In 1562 he was appointed by the 'Etats particuleurs' of Vivarais to a position under Count Crussol. He commanded forces from 1560-70 in local campaigns. He was driven from his family estate, Pradel, more than once during these years. He also participated in the conferences to arrange local peace.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Botany, Entomology
Serres spent time at the end of the century in Paris presenting plans to Henry IV for expansion of sericulture and the diffusion of the mulberry tree. He is largely responsible for the mulberry craze and inspired the King to make extensive plantings in France. He is sometimes given the title of father of French agriculture.
Serres' Théatre d'agriculture (1600) was a very popular work appearing in several editions throughout the century. The work aimed to present a complete survey of all aspects of agriculture starting with advice on running a household. He discussed domestication and cultivation of all the plants and animals he knew. He was an enthusiastic advocate of the use of irrigation to improve meadows, of careful drainage, and of conservation of water. He was among the first agriculturist north of the Alps to argue for innovation and experimentation. He supported the sowing of artificial grasses. He introduced hops to France and was the first agricultural writer to desrcibe and encourage the cultivation of maize and potatoes. I have categorized this under botany; it is the only similar case I have met.
Serres acquired a national reputation as an authority on the silkworm and sericulture. Two sections of his book were published separately. La cuillette de la soye, which appeared as a preprint in 1599, gave the first detailed accounts of the life cycle of silkworms. La seconde richesse du meurier-blanc promoted a method of manufacturing course cloth from the bark of the mulberry trees.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Personal Means
Secondary: Patronage
Serres lived his entire life on his estate, Pradel, where he practiced many of the methods presented in his Théatre. Henry IV instructed Serres to oversee the planting and care of the mulberry trees in the Tuilleries and in other areas of France.
8. Patronage
Types: Court Official, Government Official
Serres dedicated his Théatre to Henry IV; La seconde richess to M. de Believre, Chancelier of France; and La cueillette to members of the Hostel de ville de Paris.
9. Technological Involvement
Type: Agriculture
Serres introduced sericulture to France. He also proposed a method manufacturing coarse cloth from the bark of the mulberry tree.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
  1. M. de Fels, Olivier de Serres, (Paris, 1963).
  2. H. Vaschalde, Olivier de Serres, seigneur du Pradel, sa vie et ses travuaux, (Paris, 1886).
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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©1995 Al Van Helden
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