August Harvest Horseplay
Today, we are once again pleased to hand over the blog reins to Bluestone’s resident historian and storyteller, Terry John, for another peer at periods past. Here, he recounts the various activities and merrymaking that accompanied the August corn harvest…
Walking through the fields near Castell Coch, on the northern edge of Bluestone, it struck me that the hedge boundaries there outline field shapes that echo the old strip field system prevalent in the medieval era. I might be wrong about this, but the long sweep of the meadows reminded me of illustrations in a medieval manuscript, where people are shown harvesting their corn in vast fields where each family has its own strip marked out by a row of sticks or by raised banks of earth.
The strips allocated to one family were not all gathered together in one block, but were scattered through the different fields on the manor and were mixed with those of the other peasants. This was a very ancient custom and ensured that one family did not have all the poor land, but were guaranteed a fair share of fertile soil. The allocation of the strips was decided annually at the manorial court. The strips ran parallel to one another and generally contained between half an acre to an acre of land. They were usually grouped in furlongs, a term bearing no relation to the modern unit of measurement, and the furlongs were edged with pathways known as baulks.
You can still see some of these old medieval fields, their outlines marked by more modern hedges, on the north side of Angle village or at Cosheston or Manorbier Newton.
Rye, barley, vetches, beans, flax, parsnips and peas were grown in the fields. Wheat was the most important crop and although August was the accepted month for the corn harvest, the exact time depended on the weather. The garnering of the harvest was accompanied by customs which were once ritual in origin, and which lasted well into the 19th century. By then, however, the ritual significance had been forgotten and the traditions were an excuse for what my grandmother would have called ‘a good old shindig’. In other words, lots of drinking, dancing and falling down.
The falling down bit wouldn’t take place until the harvest had been properly gathered in. Neighbouring farmers would often band together, agreeing not to harvest on the same day, so that they could help one another. On a set day, people would assemble on a particular farm in large enough numbers to cut and bind the crop in a single day. The meetings would be repeated on all the neighbouring farms, day after day, until all the corn was harvested.
When a day’s work was completed, a special supper was provided, with beef, mutton, potatoes and puddings made from flour, raisins, currants, treacle and fruit. Gallons of beer and light ale were also provided.
The fun didn’t end there. The harvest gave the reapers a chance to show off their skills with a reaping-hook. As they worked their way across the fields, the reapers always made sure that the last tuft of corn was left standing. The head-servant would carefully divide it into several parts, each plaited together and tied below the ears of corn. This arrangement was known as the corn-mare. In Pembrokeshire it was also known as the gwrach, the hag, though in the south of the county, it was known as ‘the neck’.
The reapers stood around the hag at a specified distance and one-by-one they would throw their reaping-hooks at it. The hooks were intended to fly parallel with the ground and the one that actually cut the hag down was greeted with great cheers.
The successful reaper, man or woman, would then shout:
Early in the morning, I got on her track
Late in the evening I followed her
I have had her, I have had her!
This boast was greeted by a great shout from the other reapers:
What did you have?
To which the reply was:
Gwrach, gwrach, gwrach!
In parts of Pembrokeshire, the successful reaper became master for the day, an honour that was much envied. And it was at this point that the shindig really started!
The successful reaper had to get the hag, or neck, into the farmhouse and to hang it, dry and complete, from a hook in the kitchen ceiling, or it could be thrown onto the kitchen table. So far, so easy – but not if the womenfolk within the farm had anything to do with it. A dozen or more of them might have remained within the building to help with the harvest meal and they now filled buckets, pans and jugs with water and any other liquids, ready to give the hag a good soaking. As the identity of the successful reaper had been kept from them, this usually meant that anyone approaching the house got a thorough drenching. All kinds of diversionary tactics were used by the harvesters to ensure that the hag safely reached its destination.
If the sheaf was eventually hung up unsoaked, the person who managed it could, by tradition, be given as much beer as he or she desired. This was the falling down bit, but as everyone ate and drank as much as they could manage, there was usually quite a heap under the table. Dancing followed, to the music of pipes and fiddles, and as the night wore on, people wandered off into the surrounding fields to indulge in the sort of behaviour that had the local parson fulminating from the pulpit on the following Sunday.
The cornsheaf was often left hanging where it was until the following year, though it could also be used to chastise a neighbouring farmer who had not completed the harvest. Someone would carry it into the field where the corn was still being gathered in. Pretending that he had come on an errand, the bearer would throw it down in front of the head-servant as a challenge. Then, if he was wise, the bearer would leg it as fast as possible, because if he was caught, he could be bound hand and foot and left in the field or even thrown into a nearby river.
Alternatively, the sheaf could be smuggled into the farmhouse, but only if it was in a different parish. If he was successful, and the corn-sheaf was still dry, the bearer could demand a shilling as a reward. If he failed, he was taken back to his own farm, where he had to clean all the old clogs and shoes that could be found.
In Pembrokeshire, the usual custom was to send the mare to a farmer who was behind in his harvest only if his farm was between the sender’s and the sea. It may be that this custom arose out of a recognition of the part that climate played in the harvest, but it also suggested that the framer concerned had been lazy in his work.
Don’t be surprised if you emerge from your lodge or cottage at Bluestone and find a corn ornament over the door. The making of small ornaments like these was widespread in Wales after the harvest and may have been intended to ensure a good crop of corn next year, though it is also said that they had a more practical purpose. Corn was usually stacked up in the fields after harvesting and, whilst the grain was soon transferred to the barns, it had to be protected from possible bad weather. A carefully-made thatch was placed over them, the making of which required a great deal of skill. The corn ornaments – or dollies – were designs made by the thatcher of the stacks, who placed them on the top of the stack as a trademark and to show how many stacks he had covered and how well he had done his job.
Whatever their origin, the dollies were often beautifully plaited into the shapes of animals, birds, even people, or they might be made into a pattern that resembled the plaiting of a mare’s tail.
And if you don’t find one over your door, you could always make your own, for they came to symbolise good luck.