Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain

By Ronald Hutton | Go to book overview

33
HARVEST HOME

IN pre-industrial British society, the cereal harvest, whether of wheat, oats, barley, or rye, represented the most important and most concentrated period of labour in the entire year. It was carried on through the month of August until the early nineteenth century, when an increase in production pushed it both backwards into July and forwards into September 1. Arrangements for it feature in the first surviving records to provide a detailed view of local economic life, the manorial papers of the high Middle Ages. Earlier than that nothing substantial is known. Bedecommented that September was known to the pagan Anglo-Saxons as Haleg-Monath, 'Holy Month', and it can be surmised that this was derived from religious ceremonies following the harvest; but of these apparently no testimony remained by the time of Bede himself. 2 The manorial records (virtually all thirteenth-century) were primarily concerned with the problems of which tenants were required to reap the lord's corn, and what reward they would receive. In most cases the recompense took the form of food and drink given during the process, while certain estates also had the custom of a communal meal at the end, as well as, or instead of, the refreshments at the time. On the east midland estates of Ramsey Abbey, for example, a tenant who was obliged to bring his whole family to the reaping, excepting his wife, was rewarded with a repast at the end consisting of a loaf, ale, meat, and cheese. 3 This system may well have existed ever since substantial landowners first emerged, back in prehistory: the Roman writer Macrobius noted that farmers feasted their field-hands at the end of harvest. 4

During the early modern period, information upon harvesting increases, and most of it is summed up in three different sets of verses, spread across the span between 1570 and 1650. The earliest is Thomas Tusser's famous rhyming treatise on farming, the first edition of which appeared in 1573. He described how a good employer gave gloves to his field-hands, how the latter cried for 'largesse', and how a 'harvest lord' was appointed to lead and supervise the work. Tusserattached especial importance to the food and drink given during the reaping and the entertainment at the end:

In harvest time, harvest folke, servants and all,
should make all togither good cheere in the hall:
And fill out the black boule of bleith to their song
and let them be merie all harvest time long.

-332-

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Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface vii
  • Acknowledgements and Note xiii
  • Contents xv
  • List of Plates xvii
  • List of Maps xx
  • 1 - The Origins of Christmas 1
  • 2 - The Twelve Days 9
  • 3 - The Trials of Christmas 25
  • 4 - Rites of Celebration and Reassurance 34
  • 5 - Rites of Purification and Blessing 42
  • 6 - Rites of Hospitality and Charity 54
  • 7 - Mummers' Play and Sword Dance 70
  • 8 - Hobby-Horse and Horn Dance 81
  • 9 - Misrule 95
  • 10 - The Reinvention of Christmas 112
  • 11 - Speeding the Plough 124
  • 12 - Brigid's Night 134
  • 13 - Candlemas 139
  • 14 - Valentines 146
  • 15 - Shrovetide 151
  • 16 - Lent 169
  • 17 - The Origins of Easter 179
  • 18 - Holy Weekz 182
  • 19 - An Egg at Easter 198
  • 20 - The Easter Holidays 204
  • 21 - England and St George 214
  • 22 - Beltane 218
  • 23 - The May 226
  • 24 - May Games and Whitsun Ales 244
  • 25 - Morris and Marian 262
  • 26 - Rogationtide and Pentecost 277
  • 27 - Royal Oak 288
  • 28 - A Merrie May 295
  • 29 - Corpus Christi 304
  • 30 - The Midsummer Fires 311
  • 31 - Sheep, Hay, and Rushes 322
  • 32 - First Fruits 327
  • 33 - Harvest Home 332
  • 34 - Wakes, Revels, and Hoppings 348
  • 35 - Samhain 360
  • 36 - Saints and Souls 371
  • 37 - The Modern Hallowe'En 379
  • 38 - Blood Month and Virgin Queen 386
  • 39 - Gunpowder Treason 393
  • 40 - Conclusions 408
  • Notes 428
  • Index 519
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