Old English Harvest Customs

by Unknown

Hoaky is brought
Home with hallowin'
Boys with plumb cake,
The cart followin'.
From Poore Robin, 1676.

IN one of the fine old Homes of England, the tapestry lining the Withdrawing Room represents a scene which must have been very familiar to the ladies whose diligent fingers accomplished this large piece of handiwork. It is a "Harvest Home" of more than a hundred years ago; and as the light from the huge logs burning on the hearth flickers on the figures it almost seems as if the gayly decorated horses are drawing on the cart laden with sheaves, as if the girl enthroned on the top of the corn is waving the small sheaf she holds overhead, and as if the harvesters are really dancing around; that in another moment the lad riding the leader must sound his pipe, and the old man following the dancers make a merry tune come out of his fiddle-strings. The Harvest is over, and the "last neck" is being carried home in triumph, held on high by the Queen of the Harvest, until it can be deposited in the centre of the supper-table in the big farmhouse kitchen.

This tapestry hangs in a house in Cornwall, a county in which, from its remote southerly position, many traditions have lingered. Among such traditions those connected with the harvest are probably some of the most ancient; handed down from generation to generation from the days when the Romans first brought civilization to England and left their stamp on the harvest as well as on the language, laws, numerals and the roads of this county.

Until the beginning of this century, Ceres was the name given as a matter of course to the queen of the harvest; and in Bedfordshire two figures made of straw were formerly carried in the harvest procession, which the laborers called Jack and Jill, but which were supposed to represent Apollo, the Sun God, and the beneficent Ceres, to whom the Romans made their offerings before reaping began.

The merry queen of the harvest, worked in the tapestry, had no doubt been chosen after the usual Cornish fashion. The women reaped in Cornwall, while the men bound, and whoever reaped the last lock of corn was proclaimed queen. As all were ambitious of this honor, the women used to hide away an unreaped lock under a sheaf, and when all the field seemed cut they would run off to their hidden treasures, in hopes of being the lucky last. When a girl's sweetheart came into the field at the end of the day, he would try to take her sickle away to finish her work. If this was allowed, it was a sign that she also consented to the wedding taking place before the next harvest.

The last lock of corn being cut, it was bound with straw at the neck, just under the ears, and carried to the highest part of the field, where one of the men swung it round over his head, crying in a stentorian voice, "I have it, I have it, I have it!" And the next man answered, "What hav-ee, what hav-ee, what hav-ee?" Then the first man shouted again, "A neck, a neck, a neck, hurrah!" This was the signal for the queen to mount the "hoaky cart," as it was called, and the procession started for the farmhouse.

Over the borders in Devonshire, the custom of "crying the neck" varied a little. The men did the reaping and the women the binding. As the evening closed in, the oldest man present collected a bunch of the finest ears of corn and, plaiting them together, placed himself in the middle of a circle of reapers and binders. Then he stooped and held it near the ground, while all the men took off their hats and held them also near the ground, and as they rose slowly they sung in a prolonged harmonious tone, "A neck, a neck, a neck!" until their hats were high over their heads. This was repeated three times; after which the words changed to "We have-'en, we have-'en, we have-'en!" sung to the same monotonous cadence. The crying of the neck, as it echoed from field to field, and from hill to hill, on a fine evening, produced a beautiful effect, and might be heard at a great distance.

A musical cry of this sort was also common in Norfolk, Suffolk and Gloucestershire; but the words sung were "Hallo, largess!" One of the men was chosen lord of the evening and appointed to approach any lookers-on with respect, and ask a largess, or money, which was afterwards spent in drink. Meanwhile the other men stood round with their hooks pointed to the sky, singing:

Hallo! Largess!

In Gloucestershire, Ceres rode the leader of the Hoaky Cart, dressed in white, with a yellow ribbon round her waist.

The last in-gathering of the crop,
Is loaded and they climb the top;
And then huzza with all their force,
While Ceres mounts the foremost horse.
"Gee-up," the rustic goddess cries,
And shouts more long and loud arise,
The swagging cart, with motion slow,
Reels careless on, and off they go.

Stevenson in his Twelve Moneths, date 1661, goes on to describe the arrival of the procession at the farmhouse:

The frumenty pot welcomes home the harvest cart, and the garland of flowers crowns the Captain of the reapers. The battle of the field is now stoutly fought. The pipe and tabor are now briskly set to work, and the lad and lass will have no lead on their heels. O! 'tis the merry time when honest neighbours make good cheer, and God is glorified in His blessings on the earth.

In Herefordshire "crying the neck" is called "crying the maze;" the maze being a knot of ears of corn tied together, and the reapers stood at some distance, and threw their sickles at it. The man who succeeded in cutting the knot won a prize and was made Harvest King for that year. In the same county there was a rough custom of the last load being driven home by the farmer himself at a furious rate, while the laborers chased the wagon with bowls of water which they tried to throw over it. In the more stately processions the horses that drew the Hoaky cart were draped with white, which Herrick, the Devonshire parson-poet, describes in his poem of Hesperides, 1646:

Come, sons of summer, by whose toil
We are the lords of wine and oil;
By whose tough labours and rough hands
We rip up first, then reap our lands.
Crowned with the ears of corn now come
And to the pipe ring Harvest Home.
Come forth, my lord, and see the cart
Dressed up with all the country art.
See here a maukin, there a sheet
As spotless pure as it is sweet;
The horses, mares, and frisking fillies
(Clad all in linen, white as lilies:)
The harvest swains and wenches bound
For joy to see the hock-cart crown'd.
About the cart hear how the rout
Of rural younglings raise the shout;
Pressing before, some coming after—
Those with a shout, and these with laughter.
Well, on, brave boys, to your lord's hearth
Glittering with fire, where for your mirth
You shall see, first, the large and chief
Foundation of your feast, fat beef;
With upper stories, mutton, veal,
And bacon (which makes full the meal;)
With sev'ral dishes standing by,
And here a custard, there a pie,
And here all tempting frumenty.

The harvest supper in Northumberland was called the "Kern Supper," from a large figure dressed and crowned with flowers, holding a sickle and sheaf, which was named the "Kern Baby," and, being carried by the harvesters on a high pole with singing and shouting, was placed in the centre of the supper table, like the Devonshire and Cornish Neck. Rich cream was served on bread at the Kern Supper, instead of meal; a custom which was reversed in a sister northern county, where the new meal was thought more of than cream, and the feast was called the "Neck Supper," in its honor.

There was one more quaint ceremony for the laborers to accomplish, after the feasting was over, connected with the completion of the rick or stack. This was formed in the shape of a house with a sloping roof, and as the man placed the last sheaf in the point of the gable he shouted, "He's in, he's in, he's in!" The laborers below in the stackyard, then sang out, "What's in?" and the rickmaker answered with a long harmonious sound, "The cro' sheaf," meaning the cross sheaf.

It has been thought that there used to be one universal harvest song used throughout England, but the words and music are not preserved as such. Some curious songs are performed by the laborers, where harvest suppers are kept up. A very popular one has a chorus ending with:

And neither Kings, Lords, nor Dukes
Can do without the husbandman.

The majority are drinking songs, and there is reason to fear that the ale and cider that flowed at harvest-time, conduced in no small degree towards the unbounded revelry of these old celebrations.

At the same time the country people of England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were for the most part very simple and ignorant, and their childish exuberance of spirits may have been but the natural expression of life in a perfectly unartificial state. They were men and women who could live for the hour while the sun shone, who could laugh and dance like children who have no fear, and, as George Eliot says, who "cared not for inquiring into the senses of things, being satisfied with the things themselves."

But the change was coming. The old women of Cornwall lamented loudly when their sickles were taken away, and the corn was "round-hewed" by the men with a kind of rounded saw.

"There was nothing about it in the Bible," they said; "it was all reaping there."

The round-hewing was but a step, to be speedily followed by the scythe, and then by the steam reaper. And it often happens that the steam engines do not leave the field until the corn is carried to a temporary rick in the corner and threshed on the spot.

Farewell to the Hoaky Cart, the crowns of flowers, the Kern Baby, and the Cro' Sheaf!

With the puffing snort, the whirr and smoke of the engine, came the downfall of the ancient ceremonies. If the corn is threshed in the field and carried away in sacks, there is no time for the triumph of Ceres, or the decking of "Necks."

The laborers are no longer "satisfied with the things themselves." They are keen for the shilling they will earn for overhour work, and in some counties prefer it to the gathering of master and men round the harvest board; and the drink makes them envious instead of merry.

Times are hard. The great iron rakes clear the fields and there are some farmers who no longer say with Boaz:

Let her glean even among the sheaves, and reproach her not, and let fall also some of the handfuls of purpose for her, and leave them that she may glean them, and rebuke her not.

It seems as though the old happy gleaning days were also numbered. Those days to which the villagers look forward from one year's end to another! The hour at which gleaning may begin is made known in some parishes by the church bell tolling at eight o'clock, after which the children troop off with their mothers to the wide fields. The sun may shine with fierce August fervor, the children's arms and the mothers' backs be weary to breaking, and the corn gathered be only enough for two half-peck loaves—yet there are charms in the long days in the fields, in the strawberries picked in the hedge, and the potato pasties eaten under the rick, and when the church bell tolls again at nine o'clock there are still many lingerers in the fields.

The world is growing grave and old, and it is sad to think that many of the simple old-fashioned enjoyments of past years are fading away. Still there is another side to the inevitable law of change; for out of the relics of the worship of Ceres, out of the ashes of the ancient customs of revelry, a phœnix has arisen, grand and hope-inspiring, and that carries back our memories to days before the Romans were conquerors of the world, and when the most ancient of all nations, the Jews, used to celebrate their yearly feast of Ingathering.

When first Harvest Festivals in Churches were proposed they were looked on with suspicion, for somewhat similar services had been swept away by the iron hand of the Reformation. But thankful hearts and good common-sense have worn out the suspicion, and the day comes now in each year, when every Church in England is decked with sheaves of corn, grapes, torch lilies, dahlias, sunflowers, and all the splendors of autumn, and when glorious Te Deums, and hearty Harvest Hymns rise in thanksgiving for the blessings on the fields.

Once more the ancient cry of "Largess" is, as it were, revived. But now it is largess for the poor, beloved by God, it is largess for the suffering ones, who watch in pain, it is largess for home and foreign missions, that all may be safely gathered in to the great final Harvest.

It is also customary for a Festival to be held in the Cathedrals of the principal county towns. And there are few nobler sights than to see the Nave of one of these magnificent old buildings, on a market day, so full of men and women of every position in life, that they are sitting on the bases of the pillars, and standing in the aisles; and there are few nobler sounds than to hear that mighty congregation burst into singing:

Come, ye thankful people, come!
Raise the song of Harvest Home!