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.

65 thoughts on “Fire, Scythes and Superstition: the Medieval Harvest

  1. On my walks I have watched the fields spring to life and, my goodness, some of the crops are so high shooting straight up to the sky. I can’t see across them anymore (and wonder what is bristling inside). I can’t imagine clearing the crops by hand. What hard work! And it would take so many. I would celebrate too if I were working the fields like this. I never knew about the superstition. Always fun to learn something new! Another great and informative post, Alli! 🙂

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    • Thanks, Robyn! I think being forced to slow down has enabled us to tune in with nature more and observe the changing seasons and the growing crops much more closely. It’s been the one thing about this year I’ve really appreciated. We’e been doing one walk locally that takes us through a field of maize. It began as tiny sproutlings on the surface of the soil and now they’re nearly 10ft tall and it’s like walking through a jungle! Fascinating, isn’t it? I’ve loved it. 🙂

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  2. A very interesting post Alli and I love the pictures you chose to illustrate harvest. It was great read about the derivation of some very common words we use today – some I know, most I didn’t. I found the derivation of bonfire particularly interesting but must ask, what bones do you refer to? I can also assure you that, bar the clothing style and the castle, the scene of ‘Harvesting the Hay’ is not very different to how it looked in country Ireland in the 1960s. I remember my wooden rake very well when I was barely big enough to use it!

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    • Thanks Albert, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I was saying to someone else earlier that I’m amazed at how quickly farming (and everything else, for that matter) has come on so far in such a short space of time. We’ve been farming since prehistoric times and yet I regularly wander around a nature reserve near us where there’s also museum of farming, and the machinery from as recently as the 1930s looks so primitive compared to the great, flashy combines of today! Such massive and swift developments in technology just in the last century, but I reckon it’s also lost its charm along the way. 🙂

      Regarding the bones, they’d have been animal bones, which would make sense as they often used other rubbish too on the fire, and bones from butchery etc. would have been a part of that. So don’t worry – the ancestors would have been safe! 🙂

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  3. It’s funny how religions all celebrate festivals on the same dates. The names of the festivals change, but they are the same. Our June holiday is blatantly pagan, celebrated by dancing in the fields, gathering wildflowers before the first cutting of the wheat. Not exactly biblical. Every festival is built on top of another festival celebrated by an earlier religion. That’s why I found myself so intrigued by religion. It wasn’t belief — it was the obvious point that they are all the same, no matter WHAT they are called.

    We’re not getting much of a harvest this year. Too dry. Everything is withering.

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    • I’ve always found it fascinating that the Catholic church came along and imposed a religious day on each of the pagan festivals. Still, it’s good to know that pagan traditions have survived and still play out under the guise of Christianity, and that they have even jumped across the pond to your part of the world.
      Sorry to hear the harvest is suffering over there. Hope they can salvage enough of use. 🙂

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      • Richard is right, that’s exactly why they did it. However, I can’t help wondering how many pagans actually felt their religion had been hijacked.

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      • Quite possibly. I’ll have to see if I can research how they reacted and felt about having to change to Christianity in the course of my studies. That’d be really interesting. 🙂

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      • I’m certain that’s right. It’s a bit like the later Reformation when Catholics kept their religion going in private. It’s hard to break habits of a lifetime, especially at a time when religion was such a central part of life.

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    • Thanks John. You must have some fond memories of harvest time, even if it was hard work. We sometimes walk around a big nature reserve in Tring, where they’ve got a little museum of farming and a load of old farming equipment as far back as the 1930s or so, and I’m always surprised how advanced the machines have become in a relatively short time. The 1930s stuff looks so primitive, yet we’ve been farming since prehistoric times. Such a big acceleration in technology in the last 100 years. I think it’s lost its charm somewhere along the way though. 🙂

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  4. Another smashing post Alli. Full of information and observations. How true it is to remind ourselves how harvest time should never be taken for granted Even harvest in this country is a poor one this year, but we probably only need to worry about the price of bread and not starvation..

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, especially as I regard today as the first day of Autumn when plants and trees start to wither and die. Is this when the Grim Reaper arrives I wonder?

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    • Thanks again, Malc fo the lovely comments. Glad you enjoyed this one, and I’m glad I managed to get the post out just as autumn began (no thanks to the new WP editor – a nightmare!). As for the Grim Reaper, he is rather associated with the darker months and Halloween, isn’t he?

      I guess that’s the point with the harvest this year. Even if it isn’t one of the best yields, we don’t have to worry about it as much nowadays as we did then. It’s all relative. But I’m still sorry we’ve lost so many customs associated with what was the most important time of year back then. And many others, for that matter. 🙂

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  5. I really did enjoy it Alli, but maybe the Grim Reaper’s come early this year bringing the block editor with him, and I totally agree with you about the human connection with the harvest, and nature in general. Like you said in your post, this year has had some unexpected benefits in re-connecting with some of the more important things in life. Something I’ve always tried to never lose sight of.

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    • It’s a credit to you that you’ve tried not to lose sight of these things. So many people don’t give them a second thought now, and its a shame because at the end of the day we’re an organic life form, just like everything else in nature. We’re just overblown and arrogant. I just hope humanity will eventually realise this and get over itself. 🙂

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  6. Harvest is happening all around me — potatoes are being dug (the main crop) and some fields of barley have been cut. When I watch the big machinery out there I think of how this must have been in medieval times. Of course the fields were mostly narrow strips, not vast circles as there are here in Colorado. It must have also been a huge relief for them to know there was food for the winter and maybe, if they were lucky, well into spring. We’re in drought here in Colorado and even with our huge mechanized farming, you can tell. Fields have been left fallow that would normally be tilled and crops have been shifted around — more farmers are growing hemp.

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      • Glad you said that. We sell CBD (same thing more or less) at work and we’re not allowed to advise on it but are allowed to report customer feedback and suchlike. I could do with trying it on my mother but I’m not sure the doctor would allow it with all the medication she’s now on unfortunately. She’s always in terrible pain with her arthritis.

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      • Oh, your poor mum. It would be worth talking to a medical herbalist if you have one near you. They’d be able to give you some good advice, and I’ve always had a lot of faith in herbalists. In my experience they can treat stuff effectively that conventional medicine can’t.

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      • We have quite a lot of remedial type stuff for arthritis in our health shop which we’re qualified to advise on. But it’s whether the doc will let her take things like that on top of all her other medications (for various things including TIAs (mini strokes) which she keeps having).

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      • I don’t think she’s in as much pain as she was in her 60s and 70s. My Dad is now though – he literally shouts every time he has to move. I did tell him to get his hip replaced (he needed it doing around the time I had mine done so he had my example to give him confidence as my op, and after, went very well indeed really). Anyway, I don’t think he’ll have it done now.

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    • Yes it would have been a huge relief for the medieval folk to get the harvest all in on time, to know they should be ok for food through the precarious winter months. What a huge relief that would be indeed. Hardly surprising they did so much celebrating when it was all done! 🙂

      I hope the drought passes soon where you are. It must be bad if you’ve noticed so much change. I know hemp is on the up in many countries though, and it has quite a lot of uses. Thanks for reading, Martha. 🙂

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  7. A great read – and superb illustrations. I had to laugh at the jumping through the fire thing – it certainly wouldn’t bring good luck if you burnt your bum! And thanks for the explanation of the word Lammas – I’d never really thought about the actual meaning of the word but now I know! 🙂

    Around here, it is pretty much farming-based. We don’t grow many crops up here as such as it’s too cold and wet this far north and the land isn’t great. But silaging goes on most of the night on the nights they have to get it in – we’re totally used to machines going around the fields most of the night outside our houses cutting and carting. I actually like it – it makes me feel everything is right with the world hearing it.

    I actually think the world would have been more fun when you did more manual labour and less sitting at computers and so on (I know we do that voluntarily to blog but you know what I mean). I prefer a more manual job. It makes you feel a nice sort of tiredness at the end of the day – certainly more relaxed – and you feel you’ve been doing something useful and achieving things. I used to love working with horses – I ended up eating like one as the work was so hard, but it was extremely satisfying.

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    • Thanks, Carol, glad you enjoyed the medieval harvest and found out a bit as well. 🙂

      I’m absolutely with you on the manual jobs and less sitting at computers (blogging notwithstanding, of course!) I know exactly what you mean about feeling you’ve achieved something useful and feeling a better quality of tiredness… I reckon it’d help us all sleep better too if we’d been out in the open being more active. I used to do a fair bit of riding too – I trained for my AI at one stage – and it was very therapeutic in many ways, even if it was hard work. I do think much of society is missing out now, being chained to a desk and travelling to and from it in a metal box on wheels all the time. Life’s lost its soul.

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      • I’m sure it is, Carol. I see loads of people out riding around here. Have done for months. I’ve been thinking I might go for a ride again one day too. Another good connection with the Middle Ages! 🙂

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      • Possibly the people you’re seeing are people with their own horses who’ve just met up though? I’ll need to go to the nearest trekking centre or whatever. I must try to contact them soon and see if they’re back open again…

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      • Good idea. I should imagine they’re open by now as it is an open-air activity after all, and its pretty easy to keep apart on horses. Let me know how you get on, and enjoy being back in the saddle! 🙂

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      • I didn’t know that. I hope you can get to go riding again before long though. I’m sure the riding centres will have the relevant information.

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  8. You are so right, it is indeed reassuring to see something progressing as normal.. Really interesting and informative blog and am so glad that after all the hard labour everyone enjoyed the feasting and revelry.

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