Summer Harvesting and Farming in History

With tossing and raking, and setting on cocks,

grass lately in swathes, is hay for an ox:

That done, go and cart it, and have it away,

the battle is fought, ye have gotten the day

This piece of advice for farmers was written by Thomas Tusser in the 16th century and formed part of a farming calendar he had devised called A Hundred Points of Husbandry. It gave farming instructions in verses that could be learnt and enjoyed by people who were unable to read or write.

The verse for July made it clear that, before the month was too far advanced, the haymaking should be finished. Any visitor to the fields where Bluestone now stands would probably have seen haystacks dotted across the landscape, either finished or in the last stages of construction.

The animals that had grazed on the fields during the winter would have been turned off by late March in order to let a healthy growth of grass appear by June. As July approached, the meadows were mowed, those with the thickest growth first.

Cutting the hay was a skilled job. The first day’s cut was left lying in swathes which were then turned over. This task was traditionally carried out by women, who would toss it upwards to loosen the heavy swathes and ensure an even drying. The hay was then raked into small mounds and the space between each row of mounds was just enough to allow a farm cart or haywain to pass up and down the field.

The hay was then lifted and shaped into sheaves or cocks, with the hay slanting down and outwards to allow dew and rain to run off into the ground. The last forkful of hay was laid across the top to make a protective thatch.

For the haymakers, the work was long and hard. They began as soon as the early morning dew had evaporated and remained in the field all day. There was an hour’s rest at noon, when the workers could snooze in the shade or eat their bread and cheese. There was liquid refreshment too – usually, light ale or herbal drinks. The scythes were often re-sharpened during the break, using hones dipped in sand and oil.

Hay was cut whilst still full of sap, but was only harvested when dry, as damp hay when close-packed can heat up and spontaneously combust. For that reason, most haystacks were small rather than large. Farmers often ensured that their stacks had a good foundation. A layer of still-green bracken was provided in medieval times, which can stay dry even in damp conditions. Its sturdy stems and leaves do not pack tightly and allows air to circulate.

The hay, once ready, was piled onto carts and taken to the farm. In some areas, it was thought to be unlucky to meet with a load of hay upon the road, though in other places it meant exactly the opposite. Until quite recently, which end of the wagon you saw first was important; the front was a lucky sighting, the back of it was not.

Much of the hay that was cut was fed to the farm animals, but some of it was woven into ropes and collars for horses and oxen.

A plant that was gathered at this time of year was meadowsweet. Its soft, creamy flowers were collected by Tudor housewives, who scattered it through their houses to disguise unpleasant smells. In some parts of the country, however, the sweetness of its smell became associated with death and it was regarded as unlucky to bring it indoors.

According to Welsh legend, meadowsweet was one of the flowers used by the wizards Gwydion and Math to create the maiden Blodeuwedd as a wife for Prince Lleu. Beautiful though she was, Blodeuwedd was unfaithful to her husband and plotted with her lover to murder him. Lleu escaped death but was turned into an eagle and flew away. As a punishment Gwydion turned Blodeuwedd into an owl, a bird hated by all other birds.

Another plant that flowered during June, July and August was agrimony. Its five-petalled yellow flowers, rising to a spire above dark green leaves, gave it the alternative name of church steeples.

Because the leaves when crushed give off a fragrant smell and the flowers have a faint apricot smell, agrimony was often hung indoors as an air freshener. When placed in a bouquet with rue, broom, maidenhair and ground ivy, it enables anyone carrying it to recognise witches.

Agrimony was thought to be one of the most magical of plants, with many medicinal uses. In particular, it cured insomnia, as the following medieval rhyme suggests;

If it be leyd under mann’s head

He shall sleepyn as he were dead

He shall never dred ne wakyn

Till fro under his head it be taken.

A traditional custom practised in some parts of Wales was well dressing. This took place at various times of the year according to location. The Priest’s Well near Narberth was decorated with cowslips and twigs of rowan on May Day to keep witches away. At other holy wells, bonfires were lit and dancing might take place.

The summer months were the best times to visit wells because the healing waters were at their most potent. St Govan’s Well, just below St Govan’s chapel on Pembrokeshire‘s south coast, was thought to heal injured limbs and eye complaints and people flocked there in great numbers throughout July. Although the water drawn from it was famous for its medicinal properties, it was most efficacious when taken in a limpet shell. There is no shortage of empty limpet shells on Pembrokeshire beaches, but don’t bother to find one – the waters of the well dried up long ago!

Incidentally, it was believed that wishes made at a well during July were most likely to come true. Why not stand beside the stream that runs from Bluestone’s own holy well and make a wish and see if it comes true?

Categories:Environment, History

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