Workers of the Week: Harvesters

Mark Hailwood

Although it officially wrapped up in autumn of last year, recent months have been very productive for the Women’s Work in Rural England project, with major publications coming out and new funding coming through. This means we will be starting up again in September, which we are very excited about, and to whet the appetite for our return I thought I would take the opportunity to revive our old blog series looking at seasonal patterns of work (this also completes a set of four posts, one on each of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, which are intended as a neat teaching resource. You can link to this set from here:

As Clare Leighton put it so elegantly in her 1933 The Farmer’s Year, it is that time of year when ‘summer begins to tire’. For centuries of farmers it has been the time when ‘the supreme moment of his year is upon him’, and across the ‘vast sweep of landscape there is the golden glow of harvest.’ It is August, and ‘harvesting is due’.

Of course, it is not only the supreme moment of the year for the individual farmer: for our preindustrial forebears the harvest was, as Steve Hindle has put it, ‘the heartbeat of the whole economy’.[1] The economic fortunes of early modern societies were bound up with the quality and quantity of grain gathered from the fields at summer’s end.

The importance of the early modern harvest, a process so evocatively captured by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1565, can hardly be overstated, and when the time came to set it in motion it dominated men’s work schedules above all else: ‘the harvesting draws all men to it. Ploughboy and cowman, carter and shepherd, all are in the fields’ (Leighton again). But what of the role played by women in the ‘supreme moment’ of the agricultural cycle? It is another question our project can shed some light upon.


Women undoubtedly did take to the fields during the grain harvest: of the 180 work activities relating to the grain harvest in our database, women undertook 25.8% (for the early summer hay harvest, though, it was 37.4%). It is a proportion that varied over time and space: in a sample from 14th century Norfolk 53% of hired harvest workers were women, but one from 15th century Essex shows women undertaking a third of the person-days worked at harvest time.[2]

If there is plenty of evidence that women made up at least a sizeable minority of harvest workers, there is more of a debate about the gender division of harvesting tasks – a key unit of analysis for our project, of course. One hypothesis, put forward by Hassell Smith in an article on labourers in late 16th century England published in Continuity and Change in 1989, was that ‘women who engaged in day labouring specialised in jobs which complemented those done by men’, and that ‘men’s and women’s work was “sexually exclusive”’.

Applied to the harvest, we might therefore expect men to be involved in the ‘main’ and more physical tasks of cutting and carting the grain, and for women’s efforts to be confined to some of the separate ‘complementary’ activities of raking it up, binding it into sheaves, and arranging it into ‘stooks’ or ‘pooks’ to dry out. Such a model suggests that the fields at harvest time may have been mixed gender work spaces, but that the actual work tasks involved in harvesting followed a strict gender division.

Followers of our project will be well aware by now that the division of labour in our records is rarely as neat as this, and that applies to harvest work too. For a start, the ‘complementary’ harvest tasks were not sexually exclusive. Raking – the task most likely to seen as women’s work by historians and conduct book writers – was routinely undertaken by men at harvest time, such as John Catford and Andrew Crewse who were hired by Aldred Crewse of Dulverton, Somerset, in 1632, to rake all of his oats together and make them up into heaps. But that is not to say it was seen as exclusively men’s work: in Pewsey, Wiltshire, in 1672, Alice Gibbons and her labourer husband, William, both 30 years of age, were jointly hired in ‘harvest time’ by Anthony Godman to ‘rake and pook’ 14 acres of oats together.

As the experience of the Gibbons implies, binding could also be done by both men and women. In 1556 the wife of Richard Hore of Moretonhampstead, Devon, gave testimony in a tithe dispute that she had ‘bound oats all this harvest’ for one Mr Warnell; and in 1581 the 50 year old Robert Carman of Hambledon, Hants was hired by Hugo Foster ‘for the whole harvest’, which involved helping to reap and bind 6 acres of wheat. The gender division of these ‘complementary’ harvest tasks was clearly a blurred one.

Clearer lines do emerge in relation to other tasks though. For instance, the job of loading and carting grain back to rick-yards was done exclusively by men in our records. As for the cutting of grain, the gender division of labour was actually dependent on what was being cut – or rather, what it was being cut with. In a fantastic article on men’s and women’s harvest work, published in History Workshop in 1979, Michael Roberts argued that women did participate in the cutting down of grain when the single-handed sickle was used (‘reaping’), but were excluded when the heavier two-handed scythe was deployed (‘mowing’). In our period, both tools were in operation, depending on the desired balance between speed and care: the scythe was the faster implement, but created more waste, so tended to be used for cheaper crops such as oats and barley (and grass), with the sickle favoured for cutting wheat and rye (Jane also discusses some images of reaping and mowing in this previous post).


Reaping with sickle

Unlike Hassell Smith’s, this model does align with the evidence we have found: women undertook 35% of the reaping activities in our database, but none of the mowing. The aforementioned wife of Richard Hore had a busy summer in 1556, for as well as binding oats all harvest for Mr Warnell she – along with his servant Cicilia Kingdon and one Matilda Sentill – had helped their employer to reap rye. Over a century later in Ludgershall, Wiltshire, in 1678, Elizabeth Parie, Mary Thomas and Ann Cooke, all married women, were ‘reaping together in the field’ when a defamatory exchange occurred between the latter two as they made their way homeward.



Mowing with scythe

Men would also reap, of course, as we have seen in the case of Robert Carman, but when it came to wielding the scythe to mow barley and oats, all of our examples were undertaken by men like the Cornishman Robert Cornyshe, who in the harvest of 1557 was employed by one Roberts to ‘mow his corn’ in Landrake in that county. The same pattern can be found in Yorkshireman Henry Best’s famous Farming Book of 1641: that year he paid for 32 days of work by women and 32 days of work by men to reap his wheat, but paid only for the work of men to mow his oats (74 days) and barley (63 days).[3]


As our project moves into its next phase – focused on increasing the number of work activities in our database and expanding our geographical range beyond the South West – we will be able to explore the gendered patterns of harvest work in greater depth, thinking more carefully about regional variations and changes over time. What is already clear from this brief delve into our database though is a conclusion that runs throughout the results of our project: there were clearly gendered patterns to the work undertaken in rural England in the period 1500-1700, but these rarely map neatly onto broad categories such as ‘harvest work’ – which was clearly mixed – or even more specific categories such as ‘cutting grain’ – which was mixed when the sickle was used, but sexually exclusive when the scythe was. These complexities serve as a reminder that we need to harvest (sorry!) more data to help us deepen our understanding of how and why early modern work was gendered.

[1] See his chapter on ‘Rural Society’ in Kümin (ed), The European World, 1500-1800 (2009).

[2] These are taken from Jane’s work on Hunstanton and Larry Poos on Porter Hall’s farm.

[3] This is taken from Roberts’ article.


About manyheadedhailwood

Mark Hailwood is a Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Bristol
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