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), “wherein honest neighbours make good cheer and God is glorified in his blessings on the earth.” In some parts of Scotland the last sheaf was called the Cailleach (Old Wife), on the Isle of Skye the Boabbir Bhacagh (Crippled Goat), and the “Gander’s Neck” in western England. Cutting the last sheaf was considered unlucky in some folk traditions, perhaps a relic of pagan memory since the dwindling patch of standing grain was seen as a sanctuary for the field’s fertility spirit sometimes represented by a hare, bustard or crane, or other creature seeking refuge among the stalks. For this reason, workers might simply toss their sickles at the hallowed last stand in half-hearted effort to complete the harvest and begin celebrating.

Wheat Wreath and Solomki Straw Art Overlay
Franklin County Museum Collection

Harvesters typically adorned a young girl with a wreath of woven stalks and wildflowers and carried her in a jubilant procession led by a boy carrying the hallowed last sheaf. A “Kirn Baby” deftly woven of straw—the “Harvest Queen,” “Harvest Maiden,” or “Harvest Child,” depending on regional tradition, and honored sheaf typically served as table centerpieces for the annual Harvest-Home feast. Afterward the effigies of these “dollies,” which could also be made from barley, oats, and rye, were hung in the farmhouse or barn as a talisman to provide safe haven for the spirit of fertility until threshed for release with the seeding of spring crops. Scottish classicist and folklorist Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941) identified such mother-maiden traditions that continued into modern times as personifications of the ancient Demeter and Persephone myth without the elements that typically perpetuate such beliefs—a priestly class, designated holy places, or rites of propitiation. In parts of Scotland, Silesia, and Saxony, the maiden was chosen as the Wheat-Bride, Oat-Bride, or Rye-Bride according to the crop, and was joined by a respective Grain-Bridegroom to represent the productive powers of vegetation. The pair was honored at the local harvest celebration to which they came gaily dressed and tended by friends to imitate a festive marriage procession.

Old World traditions honoring the grain’s vitality by weaving “Kirn Babies” (“Corn Dollies”) of artfully twisted shapes have endured since medieval times and has been revived for exhibition at rural county fairs and craft displays. Popular traditional designs include the Cambridge Umbrella, Norfolk Lantern, Durham Chandelier, Devon Cross, Worchester Fan, and Irish Countryman’s Favor. The related agrarian folk art of solomki still popular in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine involves the meticulous design of grain straw marquetry overlay on wooden boxes bowls, plates, and other objects. Among the most magnificent and monumental examples of golden straw weaving and wickerwork are three sets of Orthodox Holy Gates appropriately located in a restored nineteenth century church which serves as the Belarus Museum of Folk Art in Raubichi near Minsk. Dating from the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries, these exquisitely crafted panels served as centerpieces for Orthodox cathedral iconostases which formed the high wall of framed icons that divided the sanctuary from the nave where worshippers assembled. Skillfully drawn gold-colored thread fashioned from wheat stalks was also for exquisite decoration of white silk religious fabrics. Among these treasures’ earliest extant examples are The Good Shepherd and Jesus and the Samaritan altarpieces (c. 1650) that were deftly embroidered by nuns of the seventeenth century Order of Celestial Annunciades in Nozeroy, France, and preserved in the city’s Collegiate Church of St. Antoine.