Gaining Grain » July Activity: Cutting and Binding Wheat

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July Activity: Cutting and Binding Wheat

Unlike the taking of the hay in June by a solitary mower with a scythe (see “Making Hay,” June 5), the reaping of the grain in July is undertaken by two workers—one cuts the standing wheat with a sickle while the other binds the cut ears into sheaves. Like the mower, the harvesters are anonymous, their faces concealed beneath broad-brimmed hats (Timothy B. Husband, The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry, 2008). Medieval wheat was cut short, high up on the stalk near to the head, and bound in small sheaves that could be easily carried. The long straw left standing in the field was later cut for fodder or turned back in to feed the soil (Collins and Davis, A Medieval Book of Seasons, 1992). It might also be used for thatching, or as kindling.

Allusions to the heat and thirst of the summer’s field work are part of a literary tradition that goes back to antiquity (Teresa Pérez-Higuera, Medieval Calendars, 1998). In the scene above, it is hard not to empathize with the binder, who must thrust his bare and sweating arms and legs again and again against the dry and prickly straw of the sheaves, although his limbs show no evidence of his sufferings.

The grain harvest frequently appears as a summer activity in the calendar tradition, although the month with which it was associated might vary with the locale in which a given Book of Hours was produced. (The harvest took place earlier on the Continent than in England.) In the July calendar page of the Très Riches Heures, two reapers cut a field of grain threaded with scarlet poppies and blue cornflowers—two ancient and ubiquitous weeds of European grain fields—while a woman and a man shear sheep in the foreground.

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