Shakespeare, Sickles, and Scythes

Gleaning in Medieval Art

A few years ago my longtime Tri-City photographer friend, John Clement, and I found ourselves in the pleasant Hessian village of Schotten, Germany, about forty miles north of Frankfurt, a. M. We were helping to lead a tour of that scenic region and I had special interest in learning about farming practices there past and present. John, who is National Photography Hall of Famer, was quite taken by the colorful exhibits in the towns “Homeland” museum which presented information on rural life in past centuries. Liana Vardi (1993) has documented that since the Early Middle Ages gleaning was one of several essential steps in efficient communal harvest for lord or landowner. The process included cutting grain with sickles (or scythes more commonly after the twelfth century), tying and piling sheaves to dry and gather, gathering lost stalks with rakes, and finally carting the crop by wagon to a barn or shelter. Threshing the stalks to remove the nutritious kernels might take place soon after harvest or during winter.

John Clement, Early Modern Harvest Art and Tools Exhibition (2014) Vogelsberg Heimatmuseum; Schotten, Germany
John Clement, Early Modern Harvest Art and Tools Exhibition (2014)
Vogelsberg Heimatmuseum; Schotten, Germany

That evidence of gleaning in the biblical sense is little known in medieval art or literature is not as much a matter of peasants understanding the ancient concept as the era’s cultural paradigm of communal sufficiency. Although substantially denied prospect of improved economic conditions, serfs nevertheless could expect the essentials of shelter and sustenance, and access to nearby pasture “commons” provided forage for cattle and sheep. Families and small groups could roam “open” forests beyond manorial fields to gather wood for fuel and gather berries, mushrooms and other resources to supplement diets.

Disruption of European cultural patterns during the fourteenth century took place in the wake of periodic crop failures from 1313 to 1321 due to changes in climate, followed by the Black Death of the 1340s. Famine, plague, and pestilence ravaged throughout the continent to render apocalyptic significance to reaper and scythe as harbingers of death, metaphors since ancient times for widespread loss of life. These conditions raised new considerations during the Middle Ages of mortality and the human condition in this present life. The “bending sickle compass [swath]” of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 119 claims all mortal lovers as if stalks of ripened grain, and elsewhere the bard uses sickle and scythe (e.g., Sonnets 100 and 106) to represent Time.