harvest customs


harvest customs
   Numerous customs and traditions clustered around harvest time, the vital climax of the agricultural year in arable areas. Many were extremely localized, and much could depend on the character of the farmer, the type of crop, and other individual circumstances, but some broad patterns can be discerned. While some farmers kept personal control of the work, on many farms the harvest was supervised by an experienced worker (often the farm foreman) who was elected by his fellow workers and 'contracted' with the farmer for the job. He usually bore some honorary title - Lord of the Harvest, for example, and his Deputy was the Lady of the Harvest. Once a contract covering payment (in money, food, and drink) had been agreed between employer and workers, the men were left to get on with the job. The harvesters regulated their work with traditional voluntary rules, some serious and some playful or par-odic, and also claimed the right to levy a fine ('largesse') on anyone else who entered the field, and even on strangers who passed by on adjacent paths or roads. On many farms they also exacted monetary contributions from the main tradespeople who dealt with the farmer. The Lord would normally lead the mowing, dictate the pace of the work, and decide when breaks were to be taken.
   On many farms there were ways of marking the approaching end of the harvest, and the consequent release from the hard work and tension involved. Some customs focused on the last sheaf or last patch of crops still standing, and the cutting of this was made into a game, or was accompanied with a degree of ceremony. 'Crying the Mare' in Herefordshire is an example of a game, in which the last patch of standing corn was tied up and the men tried to cut it by throwing their sickles from a distance (Leather, 1912: 104-5). In other areas the 'mare' was fashioned into a rough figure and sent to taunt a neighbouring farmer who had not yet finished his harvesting. 'Crying the Neck' is the generic term for customs in which the last sheaf is greeted with a triumphant shout (The Times (28 Sept. 1934), 10).
   There are a widespread references to images or figures being made and paraded around, although this was far from universal and again the examples vary considerably from place to place. It was called the Harvest Queen, Kern Doll, Kern Baby, Ivy Queen, and so on. 'Their last load of corn they crown with flowers, having besides an image richly dressed . . .' (Paul Hentzer, 1598; quoted in Hutton, 1996: 333-4). The figures could be small crafted shapes, or semi-human effigies, paraded around the field or placed on the waggon with the last load. Sometimes, the figure was hung up in barn or farmhouse till next year. These figures were often not made from 'the last sheaf', as many writers assume, as they were manufactured in time to accompany the cutting of the last sheaf. Modern *corn dollies are a revival and extension of these figures.
   A major focus of attention was the triumphant bringing in of the last load from the fields, called by a local name such as Horkey Load or Hock Cart. The waggon and horses were usually highly decorated, children would ride on top, the farmworkers would accompany the load with much shouting and cheering. A recurrent feature was the use of water - thrown over the cart and workers by others waiting in hiding, or from the upstairs windows of cottages as they passed through the village (N&Q4s:10 (1872), 286-7, 359, 524).
   The most important post-harvest event was the Harvest Supper, variously called the Harvest Home, Mell Supper, Horkey Supper, and so on. The farmer would provide a feast for the workers - and usually for their families as well - in celebration of their achievement. The feast was an integral part of the package of remuneration expected by the workers. The exact nature of the event would vary from place to place, with one key variable being whether the farmer and family stayed for the whole evening or left after the meal, and in many cases local dignitaries would also be invited. Writers from Victorian times onwards have tended to romanticize the Harvest Home, stressing the egalitarian nature of employer and worker sitting down together with no class distinction, but this is only partly accurate, as the rigid social hierarchy of farm-work could not be laid aside so easily. Arthur Beckett (Spirit of the Downs (1909)) summed it up as an '... event, celebrated for heavy feeding, curious songs, and big drinking feats'. The Supper had its traditional songs and games, such as that addressed to the farmer
   Here's a health unto our master The founder of this feast ...
   which in many versions neatly combines sycophancy with calls for more drink, while others were the type of song/game which gets funnier as participants get more drunk (e.g. Sussex Archaeological Collections 14 (1862), 1868). There were numerous other local variations, such as a visit from the *guisers - men in heavily disguised costumes who would turn up and gatecrash the *mell suppers in the north of England. At a Lincolnshire farm in the early 19th century, the 'Old Sow' would pay a visit. This was two men dressed in sacks, but the sow's head would be filled with furze cuttings which would prick the people it approached (N&Q 8s:9 (1896), 128). One last activity in the field remained, as women and children were permitted to go gleaning, or collecting whatever leftover crops they could find in the fields. This was an extremely important economic customary right, with strict local control over who was allowed to glean, and for how long, and in many areas a church bell was tolled (the 'gleaning bell') to signal the start, or the farm bailiff stood by the field gate, watch in hand, to announce the time and ensure nobody got an unfair start on the others.
   Numerous descriptions of harvest customs exist, but the material is piecemeal, and still awaits detailed attention from competent scholars. The harvest effigies, for example, were made and treated in very different ways in different areas, and 'crying the mare' could mean cutting the last sheaf or sending a horse to mock your neighbours. For nearly a century, the study of harvest customs has been stultified by the tacit acceptance of J. G. *Frazer's theories about 'corn spirits'. Few folklorists have bothered to analyse this material as they all assume that the origin and background has already been demonstrated. Frazer's ideas have long been discredited (see Hutton, 1996: 335-6), but we still need to move on to a post-Frazer era.
   ■ Wright and Lones, 1936: i. 182-90; Hutton, 1996: 332-47; Evans, 1956: 85-96; Evans, 1969: 69-70, 80-2, 124-5; Jenkin, 1934: 149-64; Bushaway, 1982: 107-66.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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