At certain times of the year in the medieval rural landscape, it would have been common to see plump sheaves of grain standing in sunny fields like so many golden tokens of agricultural wealth and prosperity, as numerous depictions—even in some of the most sumptuous manuscripts of the Middle Ages, such as the Belles Heures of the duke of Berry—attest. At harvest, the wheat was cut at the base of the stalk with a sickle and then gathered up in large armfuls and tied about the middle. The resulting bundles were left spaced and standing upright in the fields, which allowed them to dry even if it happened to rain before they could carted off for threshing.
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Above, from left to right: Calendar page for July 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 Leo. See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.
“No tempest, good Julie,” said Thomas Tusser. In Tusser’s sixteenth-century English, “July” rhymed with “truly”—as it did until the mid-eighteenth century. (The Oxford Companion to the Year, 1999). If the midsummer storms did not spoil the crops, the farmer could count himself lucky. (For charms against bad weather, see “Midsomer Magick,” June 23.)
The great event of the medieval summer was the harvest. A poor yield meant privation for the whole cycle of the year to come. By July the grain stores of the last harvest were depleted. In the great fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman, Piers speaks of staving off hunger with a vegetable diet of parsley, leeks, and cabbages, supplemented with a little cream and some cheese, until the grain in his barn can be replenished at Lammas, the first of August. Read more »