Friday, June 5, 2009

Making Hay

June page from the <em>Belles Heures</em> June Activity: The Reaper The Zodiacal Sign of Cancer

Above, from left to right: Calendar page for June from The Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry, 1405–1408/1409. Pol, Jean, and Herman de Limbourg (Franco-Netherlandish, active in France, by 1399–1416). French; Made in Paris. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1); detail of the activity for the month; detail of the zodiacal symbol Cancer. See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.

‘Tis all enforced, the fountain and the grot,
While the sweet fields do lie forgot . . .

—Andrew Marvell, “The Mower, Against Gardens”

The scythe supplanted the sickle, an ancient hand tool that continued to be used to harvest grain throughout the Middle Ages, in the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Originally used for cutting hay, the scythe came to be used for grain in the sixteenth century. The form of the medieval scythe varied from place to place, and many variations on the basic form can be seen in Books of Hours produced in different periods and locales. (See www.hayinart.com for some examples.) The snath, or handle, of the scythe shown in the Belles Heures is curved, but straight-handled scythes are not uncommon.

The reaper armed with a scythe moves forward, swinging the tool from right to left in an almost semicircular movement. At the end of the swing, the center moves from the left heel, and the scythe is drawn closer to the  wielder. The blade of the scythe is kept parallel to the ground, and the mower leans forward toward the end of the stroke in order to compensate for a tendency to lift the blade. As each strip is cut by a stroke, the mown grass forms a “swath” or “swathe” at the left-hand side of the mower (Dorothy Hartley, Lost Country Life, 1979).

The importance of hay as fuel in an economy based on animal husbandry and the labor of horses and oxen can’t be overestimated. There has been a revival of interest in the use of the scythe as a green technique. In 2001 a second edition of David Tresemer’s The Scythe Book: Mowing Hay, Cutting Weeds, and Harvesting Small Grains with Hand Tools, a comprehensive treatment of the history and technique of scything first published in 1991, was issued. The work has inspired many, and the politics, poetics, and practice of this medieval technique occupy a significant niche in cyberspace. There are websites devoted to the art and science of scything, as well as the sale of scythes, sharpeners, and accessories, and a goodly number of videos demonstrating the proper use of the tool can be found on YouTube.

I took a scything course a few years ago, but haven’t kept my hand in. Do any of you scythe?

—Deirdre Larkin

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Comments (8)

  1. Ron Patterson Says:

    As a child on the farm, my older relatives–born before 1900 talked about the scythe as a tool for mowing hay and what hay making was like when they were children. My great-grandfather scythed the lawn of the farm house quite neatly. One other tool was the cradle–which was a short handled scythe with a very long blade and straight handle and a series of wooden teeth which when used as you describe, caught the grain and when tipped, droped just enough mown wheat to make a single bind–which would then be bound and then gathered to set up sheeves….the exact number I forget. We had one of these hung high in our barn and one of my elderly relatives demonstrated its use once–the cradle was used long before the binder and Thrashing machine–and was still around when my grandparents were little because our farm fields were so steep in some places that a horse drawn binder–much less tractor and combine could not operate in a few areas–the same areas I had to hoe as a child when the field was sown with corn….

  2. Adriana Says:

    I scythed at my mother’s summer house. It took several attempts till I got a hang of it. She has a large garden that trails into a steep hill where she grows fruit trees and grass. I am sure that the medieval peasants would have loved to ease their chore with engine powered agro machinery but for a city dweller like myself, manual work feels gratifying and cleansing. The spoiled nobles idealized pastoral life (I think it’s evident in du Berry’s illuminations). Some of them yearned to trade their courtly life with that of shepherds or peasants whose life in their eyes was pure and simple. I am sure if they spent a whole day scything they would realize it wasn’t that simple ;)

  3. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    And you have to get up so very early as well!—while the grass is full of moisture and before it relaxes in the heat of the day. And it isn’t at all simple—I regret not keeping it up after my class (I have plenty of meadow to mow upstate) but it is important that the scythe fit you, and I never did get one made to measure. I think I will go ahead and order one. Does your scythe have a curved snath or a straight one? I think the curved English ones are beautiful, but I understand that the straight-handled Austrian ones are easier to use.

    The class I took was taught by a Swiss man whos said that he knew mowers who could cut every blade of grass around the rock outcroppings in an alpine meadow without touching the stone with the scythe.

    Today is St. Barnabas’s day, the traditional date for haymaking in England, according to the Oxford Book of Days, although the day might well have varied from place to place

    Happy mowing!

  4. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Hello, Ron—I’ve read that American farmers in the 19th century assiduously scythed every bit of the roadside verges on their properties, and around every outbuilding—as well as lawns, meadows, and grainfields—in order to keep down weeds. I found a broken cradle in the mid-19th century dairy barn on our old farm in the Catskills, and a snath, and a scythe blade or two, but none seemed to fit together. We too have old hayfields too steep to safely cut with tractors. I’ve read that the hay is generally taken weeks later today than in the past, although the nutritive value is lessened by the delay, simply because the ground is still too wet to drive the heavy machinery we use into the fields when the hay is in its prime.

  5. Ron Patterson Says:

    That is certainly true. I once entered some hay in a contest and cut it by hand earlier than our fields were mown so that it might impress the judges…. There was another tool I used as a young person–it was a brush hook and it was used along the roads–a somewhat shorter, heavier blade than the mowing scythe. As I recall there was a stout metal band on the back side of the blade to give it more strength and cutting power when it was swung–I was never very good at it, but it did cut brush and woody plants. I am sorry that I was not able to be present for the Garden Day last week-end–we are entering our humid season in Florida now and I am looking forward to being in NYC in July!

  6. thea mcginnis Says:

    After watching the youtube demonstration of how to mow hay with a scythe, I now understand how those mysterious crop circles are done. One talented scythe-wielder with a puckish sense of humor…

  7. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    You have a point, Thea. I never stopped to think that the crop circler’s instrument might be a scythe.

  8. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Hello, Ron—the brush hook does sound tricky! I knew you were a gardener, but not that you’d grown up on a farm. I too look forward to your arrival in July. Most people quail at the prospect of August in NYC, but all things are relative and I suppose it will be a good deal drier here than in Florida. I read the “Swamp Things” piece in the April 20th New Yorker, about Burmese pythons and other aliens that have made themselves at home in Florida, with horror. I hope you haven’t had any encounters—whatever else you find in the gardens at The Cloisters, I’m pretty sure we have no snakes in residence. Garden Days were a great success.

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