Sunday, 1 August 2010

Lammas-tide and Harvest Home

August 1 marks the beginning of the grain harvest in Britain, a period of intense labour and also celebration. In our age of convenience foods perhaps it's hard to imagine how important the harvest was in centuries past. The harvest could be poor, or fail entirely. If a community suffered two bad harvests in a row, entire families would starve.

The word "Lammas" derives from the Anglo-Saxon "hlaef-mass" or loaf mass. The first grain of the year would be reaped and then baked into a bread, which was consecrated in the church upon the first Sunday of August. A number of researchers have speculated that the origins of Lammas may be connected to the pre-Christian Irish celebration of Lughnasad. I highly recommend Waverly Fitzgerald's fascinating essay on the subject.

17th century poet, Robert Herrick offers us a window into how the Harvest Home was celebrated in his day.


by Robert Herrick

COME, sons of summer, by whose toil
We are the lords of wine and oil :
By whose tough labours, and rough hands,
We rip up first, then reap our lands.
Crowned with the ears of corn, now come,
And to the pipe sing harvest home.
Come forth, my lord, and see the cart
Dressed up with all the country art :
See here a maukin, there a sheet,
As spotless pure as it is sweet :
The horses, mares, and frisking fillies,
Clad all in linen white as lilies.
The harvest swains and wenches bound
For joy, to see the hock-cart crowned.
About the cart, hear how the rout
Of rural younglings raise the shout ;
Pressing before, some coming after,
Those with a shout, and these with laughter.
Some bless the cart, some kiss the sheaves,
Some prank them up with oaken leaves :
Some cross the fill-horse, some with great
Devotion stroke the home-borne wheat :
While other rustics, less attent
To prayers than to merriment,
Run after with their breeches rent.
Well, on, brave boys, to your lord's hearth,
Glitt'ring with fire, where, for your mirth,
Ye shall see first the large and chief
Foundation of your feast, fat beef :
With upper stories, mutton, veal
And bacon (which makes full the meal),
With sev'ral dishes standing by,
As here a custard, there a pie,
And here all-tempting frumenty.
And for to make the merry cheer,
If smirking wine be wanting here,
There's that which drowns all care, stout beer ;
Which freely drink to your lord's health,
Then to the plough, the commonwealth,
Next to your flails, your fans, your fats,
Then to the maids with wheaten hats ;
To the rough sickle, and crook'd scythe,
Drink, frolic, boys, till all be blithe.
Feed, and grow fat ; and as ye eat
Be mindful that the lab'ring neat,
As you, may have their fill of meat.
And know, besides, ye must revoke
The patient ox unto the yoke,
And all go back unto the plough
And harrow, though they're hanged up now.
And, you must know, your lord's word's true,
Feed him ye must, whose food fills you ;
And that this pleasure is like rain,
Not sent ye for to drown your pain,
But for to make it spring again.

Maukin, a cloth.
Fill-horse, shaft-horse.
Frumenty, wheat boiled in milk.
Fats, vats.

Herrick's portrayal of Harvest Home reveals no religious feast centered around the church, but a feudal tradtion in which peasants toil to harvest their overlord's grain. A decorated cart carries the last load of grain from the fields, forming the front of a secular procession followed by reapers crowned in grain and a piper playing a harvest song. The lord rewards his workers with a feast featuring plenty of meat (a rare treat for the labouring classes) and beer. After first toasting the landowner, the merry company toasts the "maids with wheaten hats." Just who were these maidens?

In his book, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Robert Hutton wonders if Herrick's maids with wheaten hats were young women crowned in chaplets of wheat and flowers as Harvest Queens, or if they were decorated Corn Dollies--sheaves of wheat decorated to look like maidens.

In 1598, the German traveller Paul Hentzer observed the following scene in Windsor:

We happened to meet some country people celebrating their Harvest home; their last load of corn they crown with flowers, having besides an image richly dressed, by which perhaps they would signify Ceres; this they keep moving about, while men and women, men and maidservants, riding through the streets in a cart, shout as loud as they can till they arrive at the barn.

Although Herrick's poems contains an admonition against excess merriment, lewdness, and drunkenness, some landlords went out of their way to make the harvest celebratory for their reapers. Ronald Hutton mentions Sir Patricius Curwen of Workington in Cumberland, a landlord of such largess that, in each year between 1628 and 1643, he not only paid his harvesters with food and wages but provided a piper to play in the fields for the nine to seventeen days that the grain harvest required.