Friday, 1 June 2018

June Labours: "scents, like a new-made haycock"

As the Labours of the Months are frequently linked with the zodiac signs, here for June, accompanying the mower scything is Cancer the Crab, .  Was this strange humanoid figure copied from a church carving, or a confusing description?  The face suggests that it was a stock image from a copy of a bestiary of the period, when many 'foreign' creatures (like the crocodile) were given these stylised faces.


Charite sur Loire Psalter c. 1175  BL. Hartley 2895 © British Library

Some cycles show the shearing of sheep, another important June activity providing a cash crop and warm clothing for the cold winter months.


June: Book of Hours of Agnes le Dieu, Bourges, 1500s
Utopia armarium codicum bibliophilorum, Stanford collection

The Cancer sign marks the summer solstice, when harvesting the hay crop would be at its height,  absolutely essential fodder for horses and cattle through the winter.  While the central figure is working, the man on the right is hammering the chine (blade) of his scythe, ready to fix to its long handle, the snaithe. The forked sticks the women are holding could be used for separating out weeds, or for raking up the mown hay.  Because the hay had to be cut and dried while the weather stayed fair,  traditionally for centuries women join with the men to get the harvest in.  The mowers are often shown barelegged or with stockings rolled for such hot work, but normally wearing shoes for protection. Is the fully dressed man with the large hat and puffed sleeves the owner of the meadow,  also hoping to make hay while the sun shines?  

French Book of Hours,  Nantes? fifteenth century,  Library of Geneva

Then here we can see the mowers, with legs bared and a variety of hats, working in rhythm while  women rake the dried grass into heaps, or mows, with the cart ready for loading later.  They are also well supplied with ale in wooden flasks.  In many areas haymaking traditionally began on St Barnabas Day, 11th June, but depending on region and weather, haymaking was also done in July.



                           Hours of Henry VIII, c. 1500  by Jean Poyer    Morgan Library

Centuries later haymaking was still a social occasion, although perhaps not quite so imperative a crop as in the past.  Mary Mitford writes (in 1832) about haymaking in Berkshire as "more of an innocent merriment, more of the festivity of an outdoor sport, and less of the drudgery and weariness of actual labour, than any of the other occupations of husbandry."  All the neighbours come to enjoy the party: 

 " Farmer Bridgwater set six men on to mowing by a little after sunrise, and collected fourteen efficient haymakers by breakfast time.  Fourteen active haymakers for our poor three acres! not to count the idle assistants; we ourselves, with three dogs and two boys to mind them, advisers who came to find fault and look on, babies who came to be nursed, children who came to rock the babies, and other children who came to keep the rockers company and play with the dogs; to say nothing of this small rabble, we had fourteen able-bodied men and women in one hay-field, besides the six mowers who had got the grass down by noon, and finding the strong beer good and plentiful, magnanimously volunteered to stay and help to get in the crop."

Our Village Mary Russell Mitford 

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