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 poem’s “Autobiographical Episode” offer some of the earliest literary references in English to the process of medieval harvests:

 

“Can you serve,” he said, “or sing in a church,

Put the hay into haycocks or pitch it into carts

Mow or stack or make bindings for the sheaves,

Reap or oversee the reaping and rise early,

Or have a horn and guard the hay and sleep out at night,

And keep my grain in my croft from cadgers and thieves?”

…“Surely,” I said, “so God help me,

I am too weak to work with the sickle and scythe,

And too tall, trust me, to bend over low.”

The tall, ripened grain was typically cut and the stalks deftly tied into a half-dozen sheaf bundles for shocking to prevent damage by wind or rain. The leathered hands that knew this work then usually threshed the wheat, barley, and oat cuttings using wooden flails made of thorn, yew, or other tough wood. In some instances, horses were led in a circle around a hard threshing floor, often inside a barn during winter, to “tread” or “tramp” out the kernels from the golden mass of piled stalks. The straw was then removed with pitchforks and the precious kernels carefully shoveled with as little dirt and roughage as possible into sacks. The grain was eventually dumped and winnowed to separate the kernels from any remaining residue. An entire family might harvest only a couple acres in a day and hope for favorable winds from which might be taken fifty to sixty bushels of grain.

Association of grain sheaves with the Nativity in Italian and Early Netherlandish art is evident in paintings like Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard (c. 1515) by Gerard David (c. 1455-1523) and the influential Early Flemish masters Robert Campin (c. 1375-1444) and Roger van der Weyden (1400-1464) whose works show immobile figures in exalted calm. St. Francis of Assisi began the Christmas crèche (Italian presipio) tradition when he visited the Italian community of Grecio in 1223 and found the local chapel too small to accommodate the expected throng of worshippers for Midnight Mass. Location of the service was moved to a rocky niche near the town square where an altar was erected along with a scene that included a manger, hay, and livestock to represent Christ’s Nativity. Word of the arrangement soon spread and such scenes became popular displays for worship and witness in churches and public places throughout Europe. In the Byzantine tradition the manger scene is generally depicted in a grotto, while the Catholic Church tended to feature a ruined stable to represent the receding Old Covenant of life under the Mosaic Law to be miraculously replaced by the New Covenant of grace symbolized by the Christ Child.

Gerard David, Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard (c. 1515)

The mystery of the Incarnation is often seen in art with details showing the impoverished conditions of the Holy Family contrasted with the magnificent offerings of the kings that attest to the divinity of Christ and the nobility of humble, devout living. Related early Renaissance paintings of Mary and Jesus feature sheaves to signify the gift of communion bread as seen in such works as Virgin and Child with Goldfinch and Sheaf (1379) by Pisan altarpiece master Cecco di Pietro (c. 1330-c. 1400). The painting shows the divine infant holding the bird, symbol of Christ’s Passion, and sheaf of millet against a background of lustrous gold denoting the heavenly realm.