Wheat harvesting, a popular tradition and a how-to chart

Updated: Nov 15

The wheat has been harvested, so time to check out a few of the ways that might have been done, but first, a taste of a wheat product not meant to be eaten, in past or present, in a current interpretation of a tradition – “corn dollies” by Claire Nouvellon, a French straw artist who takes inspiration from many traditions for her own original pieces (Sodoyez).

Various corn dollies by Claire Nouvellon (private collection)

As anyone familiar with folklore and traditional practices might remember, the English term “corn dolly” usually represents an object made from wheat straw. So why “corn”? As we have already noted, “corn” is the word in English often used for whatever is the dominant grain crop in an area, just as Korn in German (König 203), and is itself a “doublet” of the term “grain” in English (Skeat 112). If ever there was a popular custom that has made pails of ink flow onto reams of paper, the corn dolly in Europe and beyond is surely it, just look at any of the Wikipedia articles (“corn dolly”) in a host of languages. This is because these straw objects were often associated with cutting (or, at times, not cutting) the last sheaf harvested, which might be left as such or plaited, and carried into the house to bring good luck. In Wales, this custom involved the reaper trying to get it dry into the farmhouse past the stout opposition of the ladies who were defending the threshold with pails of water to douse him (Gwyndaf 102).

Corn dollies might be made of different varieties of wheat straw, but also with oat or rye straw, even with touches of barley as decoration (Straw Craftsmen). Current wheat varieties generally do not lend themselves well to this handling process and Claire’s husband has long grown a fieldful of a particularly cooperative rustic wheat entirely for her work making these bouquets de moisson and other articles (Pers. comm.). When she wanted to “expand” her scope to models closer to those in museum, school or private collections, it was easy to find illustrations from classic Welsh, Irish, Scottish and English folklife studies, where we discover still more names – “corn maidens”, “harvest knots”, as well as the usual terms in Welsh (caseg fedi, the “harvest mare”, and gwrach, “hag” or “witch”, parallel to the Irish cailleach “witch”). Nota bene that some of these objects were simply unplaited tufts of wheat, while others were literally “complex” artefacts (Owen 1987, 115-121, Pl. 7 & 8; Jenkins 1976, Pl. 95; Grant 1997, 110-111, Evans 1989, 162-164).

Making corn dollies is still widely practiced, if no longer necessarily associated with the harvest (Shaw-Smith 2003, 134-135) and, in England, they are often named by the part of the country they are recorded to have come from. For example, the Barton turf dolly for Norfolk, the Cambridgeshire handbell, Essex terrets (several), on to lanterns, horseshoes, and spiral or drop dollies, all illustrated in the Wikipedia article, where there is a long list of further names set into the even broader traditions of European straw festival figures or objects.

Just a few words from the artist here, Claire Nouvellon. “To make harvest crosses (croix de moisson), the Gaulish fans and various bouquets, like the seven-ear spiral, I harvest wheat with a sickle before it is ripe, to retain the keeping quality of the grain. A bouquet can last for years, says this artist with golden hands who, for each piece, lets herself be guided by one of the thirty varieties of straw available” (Sodoyez). So, Claire has some thirty varieties of wheat at her disposal! a helpful hint at both the older and recent traditions, of many “wheats”.

For a brief taste of this wealth in “wheat” words, check out the GPC, The University of Wales Dictionary online and type in the entry gwenith. The etymological section at the beginning is in Welsh, so scroll down beyond the literary references to the list of terms that includes the following – English stone-crop (Sedum anglicum), followed by terms for original bearded wheat of the Welsh countryside, red wheat (a variety of common wheat with reddish grain), small and then large varieties of red wheat, plus! twenty-two other terms probably including wheat varieties as well as entirely different plants such as quaking grass (perhaps Briza maxima), as well as any variety of wheat that is sown in good soil, beardless wheat and so on. What impressive diversity in terminology recalls is that plants may well be named locally for their resemblance to others, their outstanding features such as color or even the quality of soil they are planted in, a useful reminder of the multifold ways of valuing and thinking about them.

But how do you “cut” wheat… and do you? Claire Nouvellon does it with a sickle, but there are so many ways to “harvest” grass-like plant food. You can just pull it out, roots and all (ouch, but done selectively, it may encourage abundant regrowth). This is an archaeologist’s delight, or challenge, as it often makes the process nearly invisible (Anderson & Peña-Chocarro, 2014, 93-97) You can pick up the fallen ears or grain – think of the Biblical gleaners in Deuteronomy or Leviticus and even the injunction there to leave a part of fields unharvested to allow the passage of widows, strangers and orphans afterwards (De 24:19; De 24:20 and 21; Le 19:10; Le 23:22) as for Ruth and her mother-in-law (Ru 2:2). You can beat it off, as is done with “wild rice”, Zizania palustris, (not at all in the Oryza species) by native peoples in North America (Wikipedia “Wild Rice”) or strip it off, a technique often associated with the use of mesorias in the Iberian peninsula (Peña-Chocarro 2014), 103-105), also widely done for fodder such as ivy leaves. You can simply (if it is ever that simple) break off the ears with a harvesting knife (Anderson & Sigaut 2014, 89), if the stems are fragile at the base of the rachis, as for hulled wheats. When you “cut” with a striking motion, this is usually termed mowing or scything, as usually opposed to sickle harvesting that does not strike but cuts by friction, not to mention the quite different gestures involved in using a reaping hook (Mane 2006, 11 Pl.VI) . Among people who have actually tried doing some or all of this, discussion about exactly what is going on and what traces of this might be left on the implements used has been rife. Many of these questions are covered in van Gijn, Whittaker and Anderson (85-132), while others remain warmly debated. Here is a French/English summary of the above with some added remarks.

This document was compiled on the basis of François Sigaut’s 4 March 2005 seminar at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, France, from the group discussion and my seminar notes. A partial rendering is also available in Anderson & Sigaut (2014, 87)

To top this chart off with just one more touch of harvesting technique and gesture, you might enjoy the description of how to harvest esparto grass for flexible basketry by twisting the stems around a stick-like implement and uprooting (M’Hamdi & Anderson, 2013, 75-88).

Perhaps what is most striking about this chart, when we look closely at all its meticulous detail, is how much had to be left out, and this includes the various immediate wheat by-products such as stubble for grazing or straw for its multiple uses, from temper to thatching, as well as the all the issues of ergonomics. Passionate scythe-wielders will swear to you that nothing is better to keep your back in shape and your breathing deep than scything (Scythe Connection). Even the posture we see in sickle-harvesting can seem effortless to the well-practiced, although we also have some signs that backache was a chronic affliction, as we see twice in the handsome illustrations of the 14th-century Luttrell Psalter that you can page through at the British Library’s interactive “Turning the Pages” (Luttrell Psalter and Backhouse 19, 22-23).

Alas, we have not even touched on who was actually doing the harvesting, in what numbers, how they scheduled their days of intense work, often aimed at beating the threat of wet weather, nor a single word about what they wore (or did not). Here, we might recall a note that will strike a chord with what Claire Nouvellon mentioned above about rustic wheat varieties possessing good grain-keeping qualities. People harvesting protected themselves or adapted their clothing. Even if they long did not wear shoes against the stubble, they usually had headwear to shield from the sun, or took off their outer garments, and ladies might wear robes deeply slit from hip to ankle, because the precision of movement affected the quality of straw produced (Mane 11, Pl. V). Certainly, the harvest is over, but understanding it well may not be. For example, Ireland was long renowned for the dearth of something now considering typical of harvesting – scythes. Why in the world might that be true? (Kelly 1998, 47-48, 480)


Anderson/Sigaut 2014 P. C. Anderson and F. Sigaut “Reasons for variability in harvesting techniques and tools” in P. C. Anderson and L. Peña-Chocarro, eds. EARTH 2 Exploring and Explaining Diversity in Agricultural Technology (Oxbow, 2014).

Anderson/Peña-Chocarro 2014a P. C. Anderson and L. Peña-Chocarro “Harvesting by pulling up the crop by hand: an ‘invisible’ method?” in P. C. Anderson and L. Peña-Chocarro, eds. EARTH 2 Exploring and Explaining Diversity in Agricultural Technology (Oxbow, 2014).

Anderson/Peña-Chocarro 2014b

P. C. Anderson and L. Peña-Chocarro, eds. EARTH 2 Exploring and Explaining Diversity in Agricultural Technology (Oxbow, 2014).

Backhouse 1989 J. Backhouse, Medieval Rural Life in the Luttrell Psalter (The British Library, 2000).

“Corn Dolly” in Wikipedia URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corn_dolly leads to the Czech, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese articles with further references.

Evans 1989 E. Evans, Estyn Irish Folk Ways (Routledge, 1989).

GPC GPC, The University of Wales Dictionary online, URL: https://welsh-dictionary.ac.uk/gpc/gpc.html?cogor entry gwenith

Grant 1997 I. F. Grant, Highland Folk Ways (Birlinn, 1997).

Gwyndaf 1995 R. Gwyndaf, Welsh Folk Tales (National Museums & Galleries of Wales, Cardiff, 1995) on “The Harvest Mare” (y gaseg fedi), the last sheaf, also called gwrach (“hag”) p. 102, parallel to the Irish and Scottish Gaelic, cailleach (hag or witch).

Jenkins 1976 J. G. Jenkins, Life & Tradition in Rural Wales (Alan Sutton, 1976).

Kelly 1998 F. Kelly, Early Irish Farming (Dublin Institute, 1998).

König 1985 W. König, “Die Bedeutung des Wortes Korn” in dtv-Atlas zur deutschen Sprache, (Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1985).

Luttrell Psalter Luttrell Psalter at the British Library’s interactive “Turning the Pages” URL: https://www.bl.uk/turning-the-pages/?id=a0f935d0-a678-11db-83e4-0050c2490048&type=book (see p.24 for f.172 verso).

M'Hamdi/Anderson 2013 M. M’Hamdi et P. Anderson “Approche ethnoarchéologie d’outils et techniques de moisson de l’alfa (Stipa tenacissima) dans la region des Hautes Steppes en Tunisie” in P. C. Anderson, C. Cheval et A. Durand, dir. Regards croisés sur les outils liés au travail des végétaux / An interdisciplinary fodus on plant-working tools (Editions APDCA, 2013), 75-88.

Mane 2006 P. Mane, Le travail à la campagne au Moyen Âge, étude iconographique (Picard 2006), 158, 11 Plate V).

Owen 1987 T. M. Owen, M. Welsh Folk Customs (Gomer, 1987).

Peña-Chocarro 2014 L. Peña-Chocarro, “The use of mesorias to harvest hulled wheat by stripping: an ancient tool?”, in: P. C. Anderson & L. Peña-Chocarro. EARTH 2 Exploring and Explaining Diversity in Agricultural Technology (Oxbow, 2014).

Scythe Connection URL: http://scytheconnection.com/

Shaw-Smith 2003 D. Shaw-Smith, Traditional Crafts of Ireland (Thames & Hudson, 2003), 134-135 text and illustrations.

Skeat 1967 W. W. Skeat, Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (Clarendon Press, 1967).

Sodoyet 2016 M. Sodoyez, ‘Les bouquets de moisson, un art ancestral’ in the online newspaper L’Echo Républicain, URL: https://www.lechorepublicain.fr/cloyes-les-trois-rivieres-28220/loisirs/les-bouquets-de-moisson-un-art-ancestral_12039687/ 19/08/2016, with a photo of Claire Nouvellon’s craftwork.

Straw Craftsmen URL: http://www.strawcraftsmen.co.uk/faq_straw.php for a list of wheat varieties (and other cereal sources) commonly used in straw arts. For even higher-quality pictures, visit their webpage, URL: https://www.strawcraftsmen.co.uk/

Van Gijn et al. 2014 A. Van Gijn, J. C. Whittaker and P. C. Anderson, eds. EARTH 2 Exploring and Explaining Diversity in Agricultural Technology (Oxbow, 2014)

“Wild rice” in Wikipedia URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_rice

Cozette Griffin-Kremer

18 rue Gambetta, 78120 Rambouillet, France

Associate Researcher, Centre de recherche bretonne et celtique, Brest