Fire, Scythes and Superstition: the Medieval Harvest

Despite so many aspects of life virtually grinding to a halt this year, one thing I have observed advancing unaffected over these past six months is the growing crops. From vast expanses of golden wheat to fields of delicate purple flax flowers, it’s been quietly reassuring to see at least something progressing normally. And now it’s harvest time again, when the crops are reaped and fruits gathered as the waning summer breaths its last.

Nowadays we barely notice the harvest going on. We might see the great combines zipping up and down the fields as we drive past on our way to buy constantly available produce from a globally-supplied supermarket, but other than a few token harvest festivals in schools and churches we’re largely detached from the farming year. But back in the Middle Ages life revolved around the agricultural cycle, and a successful harvest could mean the difference between survival and starvation. August and September were, therefore, vitally important months to medieval folk, so it’s not surprising that this was a time steeped in customs and superstition, and even a bit of fun along with the relentless hard graft.

It’s harvest time again…

There were two main harvests in the Middle Ages. The first, earlier in summer, was when the hay was gathered in to feed the animals over winter. In medieval times haying was quite an occasion in itself as it coincided with the summer solstice and it began with the important Festival of St John the Baptist. Rooted in pagan tradition, this was a big, blazing bash held on the eve of St John’s Day (24th June), when humans were believed to be magical and evil spirits and dangerous dragons roamed free. Amid much drinking, reveling and dancing huge fires were lit, often entailing the gathering of collected bones and rubbish to make a ‘bone fire’, or bonfire. The pungent aroma from the flames was thought to ward off the evil spirits and scare away the dragons. Sometimes groups of boys would carry brands around the fields to make sure the pesky beasts got the message. Then a cartwheel was set on fire and rolled down the hills to represent the sun turning back after reaching its highest point. It was also believed that jumping through the fire could bring good luck, although I’m yet to be convinced on that one…

Fire was at the heart of the festival on the eve of St John’s Day

Harvesting the hay

The gruelling work of the main harvest was preceded on 1st August by Lammas Day, a feast of fruits and the welcoming of the new grain. The name derives from the Anglo-Saxon half-mass, or ‘loaf mass’, when the first bread made from the new wheat was blessed at a mass in church. Then it was all hands to the pump for the harvesting of crops. At this time the lord could command all the tenants and peasants who dwelt on his land to reap his corn, a feudal service known as the bidreaps. This was back-breaking manual labour when your only cutting tool was a scythe or a sickle, and men, women and children were all involved in gathering the crops each day from dawn ‘til dusk with only a short break for lunch. Timing was crucial, as if the harvest wasn’t completed on time crops were vulnerable to ruin from the cold and rain of the changing seasons, leaving the village facing  starvation.

The bidreaps: peasants were conscripted to work on the lord’s land

On the last day of reaping at the end of September, the final push often involved elements of competition, when teams of workers would race each other to complete a ridge, while the last stand of corn might be cut by a nominated pretty girl or the reapers threw their sickles at it until it fell. The last sheaf of corn was often decorated or made into a harvest doll representing the spirit of the field, the forerunner to our corn dollies. It was then taken to the barn to a herald of music and merriment, drenched in water as a rain charm and kept for replanting the following year. In the evening, the end of the harvest was joyfully marked with the ‘Harvest Home’, another big celebration in which the lord would throw a party for his workers with feasting and ale. Sometimes the village would be decorated with boughs and there would be much singing, shouting and revelry. In some places, the villeins, or peasants bound to the lord, would be summoned to come to the lord’s court and “sing the harvest home” at the feast.

Time for some fun after all the hard work

The Harvest Home would have been a welcome break from all that toil in the fields, and it marked the end of the agricultural cycle of the medieval world. The customs varied from region to region and even manor to manor, but the common theme was a dedication to a successful harvest in everyone’s interests. Hard graft it certainly was, but I can’t help thinking we’ve lost something of the sense of community and heritage with our heavily mechanized reaping and our modern, modest version of the Harvest Home that features so low down on our calendar of annual events.

So next time you see a combine harvester lumbering around the fields, spare a thought for the hardy medieval folk who did the same work with blades and muscle power alone. Let’s raise a glass to their relentless labour and their community spirit at this critical time of year, and to the lost customs, the fun and celebrations that eased their burden at the heart of their harvesting world.