John Clement

Shakespeare, Sickles, and Scythes

A few years ago my longtime Tri-City photographer friend, John Clement, and I found ourselves in the pleasant Hessian village of Schotten, Germany, about forty miles north of Frankfurt, a. M. We were helping to lead a tour of that scenic region and I had special interest in learning about farming practices there past and present. John, who is National Photography Hall of Famer, was quite taken by the colorful exhibits in the towns “Homeland” museum which presented information on rural life in past centuries. Liana Vardi (1993) has documented that since the Early Middle Ages gleaning was one of several essential steps in efficient communal harvest for lord or landowner. The process included cutting grain with sickles (or scythes more commonly after the twelfth century), tying and piling sheaves to dry and gather, gathering lost stalks with rakes, and finally carting the crop by wagon to a barn or shelter. Threshing the stalks to remove the nutritious kernels might take place soon after harvest or during winter.

John Clement, Early Modern Harvest Art and Tools Exhibition (2014); Vogelsberg Heimatmuseum; Schotten, Germany

John Clement, Early Modern Harvest Art and Tools Exhibition (2014); Vogelsberg Heimatmuseum; Schotten, Germany

That evidence of gleaning in the biblical sense is little known in medieval art or literature is not as much a matter of peasants understanding the ancient concept as the era’s cultural paradigm of communal sufficiency. Although substantially denied prospect of improved economic conditions, serfs nevertheless could expect the essentials of shelter and sustenance, and access to nearby pasture “commons” provided forage for cattle and sheep. Families and small groups could roam “open” forests beyond manorial fields to gather wood for fuel and gather berries, mushrooms and other resources to supplement diets.

Disruption of European cultural patterns during the fourteenth century took place in the wake of periodic crop failures from 1313 to 1321 due to changes in climate, followed by the Black Death of the 1340s. Famine, plague, and pestilence ravaged throughout the continent to render apocalyptic significance to reaper and scythe as harbingers of death, metaphors since ancient times for widespread loss of life. These conditions raised new considerations during the Middle Ages of mortality and the human condition in this present life. The “bending sickle compass [swath]” of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 119 claims all mortal lovers as if stalks of ripened grain, and elsewhere the bard uses sickle and scythe (e.g., Sonnets 100 and 106) to represent Time.

Sickles and Sheaves — Farming, Faith, and the Frye (Part 5)

This blog post is part of a series I (Richard) am writing about my past life experiences that helped develop a love and appreciation for agricultural heritage in general and landrace grains in particular. The series is called "Sickles and Sheaves - Farming, Faith, and the Frye" and you can view the other parts of this blog series here.


Home, Church, School

Our mother was an avid reader and may have been among the few 1960s Book-of-the-Month farm wives in the vicinity which provided us with early access Steinbeck’s The Red Pony, Catherine the Great’s Memoirs, and other beautifully illustrated and bound volumes. Thanks to Mr. Yenny, our formidable school principal and eighth grade teacher, more thorough study of Grandpa’s poets came our way with agrarian relevance. We read every word of Longfellow’s Evangeline aloud in class, and my hexametric memories of “Acadie” remained evermore vivid not only because the heroine’s evocative if peculiar name was the same as my maternal grandmother’s middle name, but because the epic made recurrent reference to words familiar to our rural experience. In just the opening lines we met “goodly acres,” “harvest heat,” and “reapers at noontide.”   

Hans Franke (1935), Harvest Scene (detail)

Hans Franke (1935), Harvest Scene (detail)

Apart from a large mirror and family pictures on our living room walls, our home had little in terms of framed decor. But lack of popular country scenes by Millet or Brueghel did not limit the colorful and meaningful existence of a threatened agrarian lifeway. We were immersed in it. The “Northwest Drylands” popularized on calendars and canvas a generation later by photographer John Clement surrounded us in every direction. I enjoyed periodic visits to the home of an elderly relative and storyteller, Clara Schmick Litzenberger, not only to listen to tales passed down about Old Country living but also because of her wide-ranging interests in music and art. The copy of a large harvest time painting hung in her living room that, except for the distant woodlands, could have been of fields surrounding nearby Steptoe Butte. The artist was an obscure German, Hans Franke, and I learned many years after Clara’s passing that he favored scenes in the very vicinity of our ancestral Hessen homeland. We did not know the place existed back then, but my boyhood interest in these topics must have evidenced some indication of kindred spirit. Upon her passing in 1979, I learned that Clara had willed the painting to me. 

Edwin Molander, Grain Sheaf Window Panel (1949),   Trinity Lutheran Church, Endicott, Washington

Edwin Molander, Grain Sheaf Window Panel (1949), Trinity Lutheran Church, Endicott, Washington

Dad also kept a 1930s English translation of the German Ohio Lutheran Synod’s Gebets-Shatz, or Treasure of Prayers—probably a confirmation gift, with a “Harvest Festival Prayer” that reminded listeners of forces beyond mortal control known to farming folk: “O Give thanks to the Lord; for He is good; because His mercy and truth endure forever…. O, how we took we feared the destruction of the precious grain in the fields! O, how we took thought and troubled ourselves, lest the bread which God has yet given us… might be snatched away. Thou has given us the early and the later rain in due season, and has faithfully and annually protected our harvests.” Confirmands in my day were customarily presented a similar small volume containing a “For Fields and Crops” prayer: “…Teach me, dear Lord, to know that Thou dost supply, in due season, daily bread for us and all mankind. Give us the needed diligence and necessary skill in the sowing and gathering of our harvests. Protect our fields from hail, fire, and floods, and let the earth yield its increase. Make us a thankful people as we enjoy working amid growing things, and open our eyes to behold the beauty of Thy creation.”