Prose and Poetry of the Soil

In 1503, Spanish writer Gabriel Alonzo de Herrera began a series of extensive travels throughout the continent and visited France, Italy, and Germany. He carefully studied the agrarian works of Virgil, Columella, Varro, and de Crescenzi, as well as the Islamic thinkers Abencenif (Ibn Wafid) and Avicena. Although inherently practical, Herrera’s Obra de Agricultura (1513) may be considered an early work in the canon of Spain’s literary Golden Age and provides enriching insights into rural customs and superstitions. Don Quixote’s rustic landscapes imagined a generation later by Cervantes are those known to the vine dressers and harvesters visited by Herrera in his quest “to undertake the codification of the rules and art of agriculture.”

Herrera further understood the endeavors he described to have theological significance: “…[W]orking to sustain oneself serves God and promotes innumerable virtues of its own…. Indeed, God… promises abundance to those who sustain themselves by the labor of their own hands, not to those who eat due to the sweat of others. The farmer is thus exalted by God…. Moreover, in addition to the fruits of the harvest the land offers great delight to those who reflect on her beauty, such as philosophers and scholars, who contemplate the mysteries of everything.” Herrara’s book also describes many of the exotic fruits and vegetables introduced to Europe by the Moors, and relates substantial information about wheat and barley varieties as well as techniques for cultivation and harvest.

Attributed to Bartholomew Breemberg, Joseph Distributing Grain to the Egyptians (detail, c. 1650)
Woodcut on paper, 11 x 25 inches; Franklin County Museum Collection

Perhaps the first major European work to supplement classical perspectives on agriculture with practical advice on soil and crop improvement was L’agriculture et Maison Rustique (1572) by French Huguenots Charles Estienne (1504-c. 1564) and Jean Liébault (c. 1535-1596). Richard Surflet translated the book into English in 1600 as Maison Rustique or the Countrie Farme and it contained information on reaping, flailing, and storage of grains. The first description of a mechanical thresher is from a patent filed by British inventor John van Berg whose apparatus was to be “agitated by winde, water, or horses for the cleane threshing of corne, whereby much that is now left may bee saved and the strawe made neere as good as haye.” No drawings of van Berg’s machine exist, but further description indicates it consisted of several flails connected to a crankshaft. The first practical mechanical threshing machines would appear in Great Britain in the late eighteenth century.

The simple wonder of grain’s beauty and life-giving vitality continued to inspire writers of the age. A leading Renaissance figure in Eastern Europe and “Father of Polish Poetry,” Jan Kochanovski (1530-1584), elevated the oral traditions of his people to the realm of great literature with affirmation through his prose and poetry of serenely meaningful bucolic existence of rural life. Kochanovski’s rhythmic “St. John’s Eve” (c. 1570) consists of twelve poetic choruses, each sung by a different maiden, celebrating Sabótka, or Midsummer Eve (June 23).  Verses tell of harvest time beauty and joy with reference as well to bonfires, games, and folk music known from the author’s youth that hearken back to pagan times. The veil of Christian respectability bestowed by the day’s association with the Feast of St. John scarcely conceals hints of a primitive eroticism and the ancient primacy of clan and countryside.

                St. John’s Eve—Sixth Maiden

The rye has ripened in the field,
And by its golden hue revealed
That harvest time is here again,
Quick! Plunge your sickles in the grain!

For winter wheat the sickles keep,
The scythe the summer grain will reap.
Ye youths, bring up the sheaves of rye;
Let others fill the ricks on high.

Beloved master, thou shalt wear
A harvest wreath upon thy hair
When all the rye stalks low are laid
Beneath the scythe’s bright, curving blade.

When we have gathered all the grain,
Yet rest from toil we shall not gain
Till we the lofty stack have raised:
Then God must for his gifts be praised.

At that time, guest, with me abide,
When friendly barns doors open wide;
And if thou here my guest will be,
‘Twill give me leave to visit thee.