Folk Tunes and Corn Dollies in Merry Olde England

English folk tunes sung during harvest time and other field labors took various forms including ballads with charming melodies and lively tunes of ribald verse. The final cutting of grain after weeks of arduous work was commonly assigned to the youngest girl present. “O’ tis the merry time,” wrote cavalier poet Matthew Stevenson (c. 1654-1684), […]

Western European Folklore—Oat Goats and Rye Hounds

Scandinavian farmers customarily saved the last harvest cuttings for the ceremonial “Yule Sheaf” (Norwegian Julenek, Swedish Julkarve) of oats or other grain. The sheaf was suspended from a pole or barn roof during Christmas week as a blessing to the birds and goodwill offering for a favorable growing season in the coming year. This tradition […]

Harvest Folklore—Mysteries from the East

In Eastern Europe, cutting the last sheaf (Russian dozhinochnym, Ukrainian didukh) was often accompanied by an elder’s petitional prayer so widows and orphans, rich and poor, would all be blessed with a plentiful harvest. (The Russian word for harvest, urozhaí, and Ukrainian zhnýva, derive from a shared root meaning “to cut.”) Fieldworkers festooned the sheaf […]

Plenty is Revealed, Beautiful Upon the Earth

We’ve had great fun here at the Franklin County Museum in Pasco watching students tend the heritage grain plots behind the main building. Among the varieties we are growing are White and Red Lammas wheats that owe their enduring folk name to medieval Anglo-Saxon Lammastide (Anglo-Saxon hlaf-mas, “Loaf Mass”) of offerings traditionally held in early […]

Scythes, Sickles, and Mr. Tusser

Early cradle scythes appeared in the thirteenth century and are depicted in paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (c. 1525-1569). These featured a small half-circle loop attached to the base of the handle that caught the entire mowed gavel that was dropped at the end of each stroke for gathering into piles. Some ten swaths […]

Gleaners and Mowers, Gavellers and Carters

Although few references to gleaning are found in early medieval farm records or literature, the practice was known to parishioners through sermons and readings from biblical texts like Ruth. Agrarian by-laws after the thirteenth century that regulated peasant manorial obligations provide scant evidence that gleaning in the traditional sense was widely practiced. Virtually all able-bodied […]

Piers Plowman and Old World Harvests

William Langland’s medieval allegorical epic Piers Plowman (c. 1370) offers commentary in unrhymed alliterative verse on spiritual aspects of temporal labor. The dreamy landscapes that emerge from Langland’s imagination offer insight into feudal society as dialogue with Reason, Conscience, and Faith guiding Piers’ quest to live courageously as a person of faith. Lines from the […]

The Treasures of Jean, Duke of Berry (Part II)

The colorful pictorial instruction of the Labors of the Months seen in the stained glass windows of cathedrals and manorial homes and in Les Très Riches Heures depicts peasants and aristocrats in commonplace activities throughout the year. They reveal through master craftsmanship the inexorably turning wheel of seasonal toil in uneasy relationship with Nature’s forces. […]

Magnificent Illustration—The Treasures of Jean, Duke of Berry (Part I)

Hildegard of Bingen’s notable monastic contemporary, French abbot St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), led reforms of the Cistercian so monks could more fully live out the Rule of St. Benedict by affirming the value of field labors, improving agricultural lands with the help of affiliated lay brothers, and cooperating with others to mill grains, process […]

An Agrarian Guide to Health and Happiness

The Tacuinum Sanitatus (Almanac of Health) is one of the most richly illustrated fourteenth century Herbals though it is based on an earlier compendium written by the renowned Arab physician Ibn Buṭlān in the eleventh century and translated into Latin. The book  focuses on prevention rather than cures, and is based on the traditions of […]