Friday, August 14, 2009

Threshing It Out

August page from the Belles Heures August Activity thumbnail The Zodiacal Sign of Virgo

Above, from left to right: Calendar page for August 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 Virgo. See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.

Sometimes busy, bound by rings,
I must eagerly obey my servant,
Break my bed, clamor brightly
That my lord has given me a neck-ring.
Sleep-weary I wait for the grim-hearted
Greeting of a man or woman; I answer
Winter-cold. Sometimes a warm limb
Bursts the bound ring, pleasing my dull
Witted servant and myself. I sing round
The truth if I may in a ringing riddle.

—Anglo-Saxon riddle from The Exeter Riddle Book, translated by Craig Williamson

Dorothy Hartley, in her classic work on the late medieval English agricultural year, Lost Country Life, confidently asserts that the answer to this Old English riddle is a flail. [Further investigations indicate that the matter is by no means settled. The possible solutions to the riddle provided in the link above include both a flail and a bell, among others, and scholars continue to debate the matter. A recent scholarly article has come down on the side of the plough. See the Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 108, No. 3, July 2009, University of Illinois Press.]

The flail is an ancient agricultural tool that was used to free harvested grain from its husk. As Hartley explains, the flail consists of two pieces of wood, a staff that is grasped in both hands, and a free-swinging swipple or swingle, the length of which is brought down hard on a pile of unbound grain. (”Flail” is derived from the Latin word flagella, or “whip,” and “swipple” from the Middle English swepe, or “to scourge.”) The two pieces were usually joined by a short chain, but leather hinges were sometimes used. When the thresher made a swinging stroke, holding the staff in both hands, the swipple swung around behind his head—the head of the staff was brought down to the threshing floor at the end of the stroke. The swipple banged down on the resilient, springy pile of wheat; the resistance of the wheat and the bounce of the swipple made a vibration that shook the kernels out, rather than beating them out, thus preventing any bruising or damage to the grain.

Not all of the harvested wheat would be threshed in late summer, even though grain stores would be low and in need of replenishment at Lammas. (See the July 6 post “Gaining Grain” for more about grain stores.) Despite the calendar convention common to medieval Books of Hours, which shows one or two threshers at work in the open in August, threshing would not ordinarily have been done outdoors, lest the precious grains be scattered and lost, but rather on the floor of large barns that could be opened to sun and wind, providing good light and a draft that would be helpful at the next stage, winnowing.

Wheat sheaves were stored against the day when the grain would be separated from the husks. (The straw was not discarded but was put to other purposes.) Since the task was performed indoors, it could be done in wet weather when field work could not, and threshing could be spread out over the rainy months. While the thresher in the Belles Heures shown above works alone on a small store of grain, threshing was more often done by a circle of as many as eight or ten men working in perfect rhythm and keeping perfect time, lest skulls be cracked. (There was also a danger that the swipple—the business end of the flail—might fly off the staff). Dorothy Hartley provides a wonderful diagram of the circular figures described in the process, which she compares with those described by bell-ringers. As in bell-ringing, a leader called the changes or kept time with a chant. All the threshers brought their strokes to a simultaneous close when the leader called “Flails down!”

—Deirdre Larkin


On Saturday, August 15, at 12:00 and again at 2:00 p.m., I will be giving a special gallery and garden talk related to the feast of the Assumption. The talk, titled “The Garden of the Queen of Heaven,” will focus on the foliage framing the representation of the Coronation of the Virgin on the tympanum of the thirteenth-century limestone doorway from the abbey of Moutiers-St.-Jean, and on the many Marian plants represented in the collection and grown in the gardens of The Cloisters.

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Comments (5)

  1. Lillian de Mauro Says:

    I just found this wonderful site — thank you!

  2. Nancy Heraud Says:

    I visited The Cloisters in May of this year and have become hooked on Medieval gardens. While it was a cool and wet day, it felt very warm and welcoming in the gardens. I am a Virgo. So it was very interesting to see the portrait of Virgo, in Medieval times!

  3. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Hello, Lillian—

    I’m so glad you found your way! Come back, and you’ll find out more about a lot of medieval plants that will look very familiar to you, whether you’ve seen them growing in the fields upstate or in the cracks in the sidewalk down here.

  4. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Hi, Nancy—

    I hope you’ll let me know next time you visit. I’d be happy to show you around the gardens. Do have a happy Virgo birthday, if you haven’t already had one! I hadn’t done very much research on the representation of the signs of the zodiac in the Middle Ages until the blog—it’s a very interesting subject.

  5. Nancy Heraud Says:

    I had a great birthday, Deirdre and I will be sure to let you know when I get to visit again!

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