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?