I’ve recently come home from holiday in Northumberland. This coincided with the start of the harvest period and what early modern people called Lammas. From the start of August, halfway through my two weeks among the fields of north east England, the combine harvesters appeared and the scenery turned from wheat fields to stubble before our eyes. This rhythm has been the same for centuries. The 2nd of August has traditionally marked the change from an anxious wait for the crops to the process of gathering them (see my Midsummer post on the anxious waiting period). As with all festive periods and seasonal rhythms, this was another liminal point in the year of change and transformation. It was another chapter in the annual calendar that opened with Lammas and continued until late September with Michaelmas.
Lammas has a long history stretching back to Anglo-Saxon times. Then bread made from the freshly harvested grain would be cut into four and a quarter placed in each corner of barns to protect the grain that would feed people for the next year. We don’t know if this practice continued into the early modern period but, in the 1940s, decorated loaves featuring braids or formed into the shape of wheat sheafs started to be presented at church on the first Sunday of the month. Seeing as the word Lammas could have derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘hlaef-mass’ (loaf mass), this link between the harvest and bread seems a long one.
Early modern people gathering in the harvest would braid corn dollies that they made from the last bits of wheat remaining in the fields. This was believed the trap evil spirits that could threaten harvests or food stores (the anxiety over crops never really abated, it just morphed into anxieties about the newly gathered dry goods). As communities raced to finish harvesting the grain crops, corn dollies were either thrown into neighbouring villages barns by way of sabotage or kept for good luck.
Bringing in the harvest was hard work and so labourers might benefit from cold drinks provided by employers in the form of whig (made from whey, a by-product of cheese production). Gervase Markham features, in his English Housewife of 1615, instructions to store whey in a ‘sweet stone vessel’ to cool it for whig which could ‘slake the thirst of any labouring man…’ They might also be given food, and a celebratory meal when the work was over at the end of the season to mark ‘harvest home’. The Moretons of Little Moreton did this for their workers in 1621 and left a record in their accounts of the extra food they prepared for the feast.
Harvest was also the time to prepare other items such as rush mats for flooring or refresh straw on earthen floors which would be combined with sweet smelling herbs. Both of these were combined in the ‘rush bearing’ celebrations where the community would gather and present rushes for the local church. The church would also be given fresh and dried herbs as part of the redressing of the floors.
Harvest home was time to celebrate and breathe a sigh of relief after the hard work of sowing, growing, protecting, and gathering the crops. The hungry gap before the harvest was over and there was reassurance that the annual process of securing food until next summer was complete. Failed harvests were a real possibility in the early modern period and there were several widespread failures, particuarly in the 1590s. This was a time when famine was always a potential risk on the horizon. This fear makes the rejoicing and celebrations all the more understable. These times of community festivity also included the wakes which were local holidays tied to the local church’s saint and their feast day. Thomas Tusser in 1573 described the wakes as a time when ‘…every wanton may dance at her will/Both Tomkin with Tomlin, and Jankin with Gill.’
The UK has been experiencing unprecedented hot weather this summer (2022) and as I write this, we are struggling in 32 degree heat. Satellite images show a parched eastern England which is a dry yellow compared to the greener and more hilly western side. The country is officially in drought. Whilst this is not a cause for panic today, climate change is a real concern when the UK’s hottest ten days on record have all been in the 21st century, according to the Met Office. We are largely protected from crop failures in our modern lives, but the changes to the UK climate may affect what happens in the fields around us.
The UK is also experiencing what has been called a ‘cost of living crisis’ this summer as a result of spiralling energy costs. Many people are worrying about their ability to heat their homes in the winter, as we swap fans for central heating. Thus, there is a perfect storm caused by the experience of climate change and our reliance still on fossil fuel. Perhaps it is this new precarity that has heightened my feelings of connection with the land this year, together with the challenges of food supply chain issues over the past few years. I also feel a greater empathy with early modern people for whom this time of year was deeply meaningful, whether because of the process of garnering food for the coming months or due to the need to protect themselves from evil influences which could threaten both crops and the community’s very survival.
Hutton, R. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (1996)
Markham, G. The English Housewife (1615)
Roud, S. The English Year: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Nation’s Customs and Festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night (2006)
Tusser, T. Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandrie (1573)