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Growing grain on poorly drained soils (in the Middle Ages)  RSS feed

 
F Van Roosbroeck
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As a historian with, as of late, way too much time on my hands that I spend in the garden, I've been thinking about whether permaculture can learn from history, and the other way around. That is to say, I get the feeling that permaculture writers (at least, the ones I've read) don't really look at historical solutions, while historians don't pay much attention to present-day applications of the techniques they're investigating. But I think there could be a useful overlap: before the rise of modern agriculture with its chemical fertilisers and plethora of pesticides, farmers had many centuries to experiment with techniques, crop rotations and manuring schemes, which might still be useful to farmers today that want to reduce their reliance on chemicals.

Anyway, to give a concrete example. I saw the following picture recently, which was made in 16th-century Bruges and shows the grain harvest:



Particularly interesting to me was the way in which the field was prepared, with shallow ditches every four feet or so dug annually. From other sources we know that this served a variety of purposes: it improved the drainage of the fields, but also allowed easy access to the fields for inspection of the crop, weeding, and the focussed application of manures (and possibly easier intercropping). This type of agriculture was particularly prevalent in regions of small peasants and plots: to increase their yield maximally, fields were commonly tilled manually, with a spade, rather than ploughed and weeded intensively.

Another way of handling poorly drained soils was to construct a so-called bolle akker (or 'bulging field'). Here, rather than annually digging shallow ditches across the field, fields were prepared by digging out deep trenches on their sides and using the excavated soil to build a shallow 'hill' in the middle. The ditches were then lined by trees, mostly for firewood. Again, commonly these fields were tilled with spades. To some extent, this is still visible in the landscape today:



To me, they seemed like interesting alternatives to swales—but maybe I'm not telling you anything new and this is still how you might prepare a field?
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Great post, I have seen that painting several times.

One of the great things about that type of painting is in the small details the painter puts in.
Notice the foreground field is indeed a crowned field, the "ditches" form the function of draining and irrigating so the soil of the field is able to gather in as much water as possible during a rain.
I have a couple of ancient notebooks that were given to me by my grandfather, these were field notes made by my great, great, great grandfather who was a farmer in Eire, county cork.
He had page after page of each field, how they broke the ground, planted, trapped animal pests and the harvest totals, taxes paid and what quantity was stored for winter use.

One of the most interesting parts of these note books was how they spread the leftovers of the harvest back on the fields for over wintering.
animal manures (cattle and sheep) were stored in piles every time they moved the animals, any manure that was not easy to pickup was left where it lay.
The animals were put into barn like buildings in the harshest weather and that manure was similar to today mixed with straw that was used to cover the floor so the manures were mixed into this carbon material.
These manures were left in these piles until after the harvest, then the oldest piles were taken out and spread over the stubble covered field.

I have always considered my old notebooks as treasures, the information in them is not only a picture of how things were done by an ancestor but they also can teach the methods that were used back then.
Both of my notebooks have dates 1826 and 1831.
 
Skandi Rogers
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I was wondering just a couple of days ago if "ridge and furrow" plouging could be the answer to several issues. you get more land surface to plant, you get a damper and a dryer area, so if it's a wet year the stuff on top will do well, and in a dry year the bits in the bottom will do better
 
Bryant RedHawk
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In my experience ridge and furrow (tilling) has one place and that is on sloped land. The ridge and furrow should follow the contour of the land to help reduce erosion.
Most fields will have some area (s) that are higher than the rest of the field, this is where on contour furrows work best.
It should be noted that water will leave the highest area first so expect plants on the top of a furrow to need to sink roots deep quickly or the moisture will simply leave them high and dry.

This is one of the reasons soil biology is so important, with good soil biology the plant roots will sink deep quickly and then the plants will grow up quicker, regardless of the amount of rain they are receiving.
 
Travis Johnson
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I actually use history a lot to do things around my farm.

Part of that is because I do love history, and part of that is because I am a 9th generational sheep farm, but part of it is that they were frugal back in the day and used their minds more then they used technology (since it did not exist).

For instance right now I have the daunting task of moving (3) buildings, one 24 x 48 feet. Well they moved buildings back in the old days, not to mention huge stones like Easter Island, Stone Henge and the Pyramids. Figuring out how they did it, can accomplish what I need done.

So what is the secret to moving buildings? Lard and Lye...otherwise known as SOAP! By soaping down the beams a house sits on, along with the runners, the building will slide with ease. I know of a 60 x 80 barn that moved 5 feet just from the wind resting on wooden beams and soap.
 
David Livingston
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I must admit I had a different inturpreation of the above painting . I was alway told that it was common for the land to be devided into strips , each commoner/ serf  had a number of strips in different fields that way the good and not so good land was devided fairly amongst the people .
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open-field_system
David
 
F Van Roosbroeck
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David Livingston wrote:I must admit I had a different inturpreation of the above painting . I was alway told that it was common for the land to be devided into strips , each commoner/ serf  had a number of strips in different fields that way the good and not so good land was devided fairly amongst the people .
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open-field_system
David


Oh no, definitely not that. Open field arable, to the extent that it was ever much present, was pretty much completely gone from the Low Countries by the sixteenth century (as was feudalism, more or less). These were all private plots, albeit with large tracts of wilderness held in common in some regions.
 
F Van Roosbroeck
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:Great post, I have seen that painting several times.

One of the great things about that type of painting is in the small details the painter puts in.
Notice the foreground field is indeed a crowned field, the "ditches" form the function of draining and irrigating so the soil of the field is able to gather in as much water as possible during a rain.
I have a couple of ancient notebooks that were given to me by my grandfather, these were field notes made by my great, great, great grandfather who was a farmer in Eire, county cork.
He had page after page of each field, how they broke the ground, planted, trapped animal pests and the harvest totals, taxes paid and what quantity was stored for winter use.

One of the most interesting parts of these note books was how they spread the leftovers of the harvest back on the fields for over wintering.
animal manures (cattle and sheep) were stored in piles every time they moved the animals, any manure that was not easy to pickup was left where it lay.
The animals were put into barn like buildings in the harshest weather and that manure was similar to today mixed with straw that was used to cover the floor so the manures were mixed into this carbon material.
These manures were left in these piles until after the harvest, then the oldest piles were taken out and spread over the stubble covered field.

I have always considered my old notebooks as treasures, the information in them is not only a picture of how things were done by an ancestor but they also can teach the methods that were used back then.
Both of my notebooks have dates 1826 and 1831.


That is amazing! I don't know if you have ever shown those to a historian or local archive, but this kind of source is really invaluable, particularly with that level of detail.

Regarding manure, it's not often appreciated (except perhaps by permaculture enthousiasts!) what a rare and valuable resource manure used to be. What you describe is really similar to what peasants on very poor sandy soil here used to do: sods would be removed from uncultured areas and piled on the stable floor to soak up all the animal excrement. Regularly, the resulting mixture was removed and spread on the fields, over time building up a very rich humus layer on the cultivated area (and extensive heather there where the sods were removed...)
 
Travis Johnson
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I am not sure that is really the case. I think farmers know the value of manure as a resource, it is just that for some, availability to the manure they would need is of limited supply. The problem is not really that they do not know its value, it is that they can just farm x amount of land using chemical fertilizers and get x amount in revenue. In other words, chemical fertilizers are a cheap alternative; too cheap.

Here, we use animal manure for our fertilizer needs and years show it. Even when we grew potatoes we used chicken manure since chicken farms were prevalent in the area. As I said in the past, my soil is above optimum in terms of organic matter, iron, zinc and manganese; all properties of animal manures.

I don't think there is any farmer that would argue that animal manures are not better for the soil; the argument is simply...find enough animal manure for them to effectively farm the acres they do.

This is a challenging problem, almost insurmountable for the farmers in the mid-west. Another issue is the cost of spreading that much volume of manure. This was brought up on another topic regarding biochar. There is no denying it is good stuff, but scaling up biochar production for even the amounts I would need on my small farm is so great that all the replies here on Permies said not to even try...in other words, an insurmountable issue. I even have this problem on my farm with PH levels. I can get seaweed for $1.90 a ton, but need 10 tons of the cheap stuff to equal 1 ton of real lime. At $22 a ton for real lime, it is actually cheaper for me to spread the real lime then the seaweed because I have so much more cost in moving 10 times more of it! (Sometimes I use seaweed and sometimes I use real lime depending on the field and how the micronutrients are).

An alternative solution that would be best is, if we (as society) could somehow stop the current system of farm more acres to make more money. If we could get beyond that mindset, then we (as a society) might be able to have a host of small farms again.

Another area that needs addressing is the constricting regulations regarding manure spreading on farmland for large farms. As a society we should not make it harder for a farm to do the right thing by spreading manure, but rather make it easier. That is just not happening.

I do the right thing on my farm, but it is a field by field, year by year, basis and is extremely slow. Its a better way, but a slower way, and I can see why Permies people would tell the big farmer to "do the right thing", but I can also see why a big farmer is reluctant due to a host of factors. So yes I see both sides.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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an alternative solution that would be best is, if we (as society) could somehow stop the current system of farm more acres to make more money. If we could get beyond that mindset, then we (as a society) might be able to have a host of small farms again. 
It's a huge problem in Canada as well, mostly in the prairies but also in the large semi forested cattle ranches here.   Luckily in my valley, where land is limited and a lot more expensive than say the prairies, many of the local landowners got together to petition the regional district for a meeting.  They had noticed that a lot of young people were coming by the valley looking for land, but there is no way that they can afford a 250 or 500 acre piece as a startup.  The idea is to be able to subdivide, but my province created a system called the (A L R) Agricultural Land Reserve which specifically negates subdivision of agricultural land as a possibility (Put in place so that people were not creating subdivisions for real estate instead of farming).  The thing is the face of farming is changing (instead of 500 head of cattle you got a guy with turkeys, lamas, and quinoa), as is the scale (you can do that on 10 acres instead of a 500 or a 1000), and the local landowners recognized it, and the regional district listened and agreed that it might be possible.

It might put the breaks on the current trend: Wealthy banking conglomerates from the U.S. buying up all the old working farms as the homesteading families die off or retire.  Name your price and we'll pay it so we have a clean place to put our dirty money.  The conglomerates 'farm' the land by hiring someone to make hay, and/or till the more remote land to plant barley and oats.  The  grizzly bears and elk come down to get the sweet grain, and the conglomerates privately advertise to their wealthy buddies to come and shoot a trophy for a few grand from a safe elevated tree stand.  It's sick.  That's why the locals want to be able to subdivide and get the land back into real farming.  
 
Roberto pokachinni
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I've been thinking about whether permaculture can learn from history, and the other way around. That is to say, I get the feeling that permaculture writers (at least, the ones I've read) don't really look at historical solutions, 
  I'm not sure that that is accurate.   What permaculture books are you reading, F Van Roosbroek?   The one that counts the most in my mind, The Permaculture Designers Manual, has plenty of information from historical cultures which had created successful long term food growing, housing, or landscape systems. 

There are definitely more dots to connect, for sure, but from my understanding historical solutions to living on and with the Earth are the foundation of Permaculture.  The history tends to go back, though, to a time that precedes many of the historical practices which degraded land and societies, or were made by societies which learned through their own mistakes that degrading land was a suicide mission for their society and took corrective actions.  The Ahupua A system of Hawaii, the Chinampa system of the Aztecs, the three sisters system of Indigenous Americans, and the terraced rice paddies with ducks in South East Asia, come immediately to mind as things mentioned in permaculture texts which come from historical contexts. 

We should remember, as collective historians, that one of the best reasons for keeping history is that we don't repeat the mistakes of our ancestors.  Just because something has been done in a particular way for centuries does not necessarily mean it was a good idea.  When looking at the long term consequences, many times they aren't necessarily noticed with year to year changes or even over decades.     
 
David Livingston
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Peter
I hear what you are saying but I know fields where the signs of the open field system are visable  today . They must been visible in the 16th century too
it is another possibility
David
 
Travis Johnson
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I have to agree with David regarding this, because when Moldova became its own nation in the 1990's, fearing some people would get the better soils, they broke the fields up in this way so that the same field may be farmed by several area farmers.

Since I know it is practiced today, why would it not be practiced in the 1600's?
 
David Livingston
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I had a chat with a friend in the UK , who told me that many open field traces only disappeared with the event of mechanical deep ploughing, horse ploughing not being deep enough to remove the typical landscape features that were common for hundreds of years.

David
 
Skandi Rogers
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:In my experience ridge and furrow (tilling) has one place and that is on sloped land. The ridge and furrow should follow the contour of the land to help reduce erosion.
Most fields will have some area (s) that are higher than the rest of the field, this is where on contour furrows work best.
It should be noted that water will leave the highest area first so expect plants on the top of a furrow to need to sink roots deep quickly or the moisture will simply leave them high and dry.

This is one of the reasons soil biology is so important, with good soil biology the plant roots will sink deep quickly and then the plants will grow up quicker, regardless of the amount of rain they are receiving.


Historicaly in europe it ran the other way. because here water retention is not the problem water removal is. putting them accross the contour where I live would drown half the field.
 
F Van Roosbroeck
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David Livingston wrote:I had a chat with a friend in the UK , who told me that many open field traces only disappeared with the event of mechanical deep ploughing, horse ploughing not being deep enough to remove the typical landscape features that were common for hundreds of years.

David


Well, you have to be very careful with examples from the UK, because it is in many ways quite different from the rest of Europe. In England, particularly in the south, you had open fields up until the nineteenth century and even later, but this is in no way a representative situation. Open field systems are characterised by, essentially, a large infield without (permanent) boundaries between individual plots, which was to some extent collectively worked but of which the most important characteristic was a fixed and mandatory crop rotation ('Flurzwang'). But it's important to note that the exact characteristics of the system would vary from region to region, so that you can't really say that there are landscape elements that are definitely associated with open field systems at every time and place.

Regardless, such a system disappeared from the Low Countries—I'm not a medievalist (although I'm married to one) so I can't really go into all the detail, but essentially there was a rather intensive competition for labour between different lords during the high middle ages, so that feudal obligations were much less far-reaching and property rights stronger than in other parts of Europe. From a very early period you got a very splintered landscape in which the boundaries between plots were marked with hedges and hedgerows. To the extent that there were some open fields in very early settlements, the evidence for them is mostly toponymic—with the additional difficulty that even if there were open field systems, we can't really say much about them because there aren't any written sources that tell us how they were managed.

On the other hand, we can say with considerable certainty that grain was grown in fields in which shallow ditches were dug at regular intervals: that is to say, there is both archaeological evidence and written evidence that this occurred at the time and place in which this image was painted, and in way that must have looked rather like the depiction of the field. Hence, to me, it seems the most likely interpretation.
 
F Van Roosbroeck
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Travis Johnson wrote:I am not sure that is really the case. I think farmers know the value of manure as a resource, it is just that for some, availability to the manure they would need is of limited supply. The problem is not really that they do not know its value, it is that they can just farm x amount of land using chemical fertilizers and get x amount in revenue. In other words, chemical fertilizers are a cheap alternative; too cheap.

Here, we use animal manure for our fertilizer needs and years show it. Even when we grew potatoes we used chicken manure since chicken farms were prevalent in the area. As I said in the past, my soil is above optimum in terms of organic matter, iron, zinc and manganese; all properties of animal manures.

I don't think there is any farmer that would argue that animal manures are not better for the soil; the argument is simply...find enough animal manure for them to effectively farm the acres they do.

This is a challenging problem, almost insurmountable for the farmers in the mid-west. Another issue is the cost of spreading that much volume of manure. This was brought up on another topic regarding biochar. There is no denying it is good stuff, but scaling up biochar production for even the amounts I would need on my small farm is so great that all the replies here on Permies said not to even try...in other words, an insurmountable issue. I even have this problem on my farm with PH levels. I can get seaweed for $1.90 a ton, but need 10 tons of the cheap stuff to equal 1 ton of real lime. At $22 a ton for real lime, it is actually cheaper for me to spread the real lime then the seaweed because I have so much more cost in moving 10 times more of it! (Sometimes I use seaweed and sometimes I use real lime depending on the field and how the micronutrients are).

An alternative solution that would be best is, if we (as society) could somehow stop the current system of farm more acres to make more money. If we could get beyond that mindset, then we (as a society) might be able to have a host of small farms again.

Another area that needs addressing is the constricting regulations regarding manure spreading on farmland for large farms. As a society we should not make it harder for a farm to do the right thing by spreading manure, but rather make it easier. That is just not happening.

I do the right thing on my farm, but it is a field by field, year by year, basis and is extremely slow. Its a better way, but a slower way, and I can see why Permies people would tell the big farmer to "do the right thing", but I can also see why a big farmer is reluctant due to a host of factors. So yes I see both sides.


Oh sure—I think 'valuable' was perhaps the wrong word to use; I should have said 'expensive'. What you describe is actually very similar to the historical situation in which manure was generally a very sought-after commodity (to the extent that there was a very lively trade in urban excrement and other sources of nutrients). The lack of manure was a limiting factor on agricultural productivity to a much larger extent than is sometimes realised in the historical literature. I'm sure this is a much more self-evident point for farmers, of course...
 
Travis Johnson
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Very true and just like today, those in Europe in the early 1800's sought to get cheap fertilizer. They found it in New England, my Great Grandfather (some 7 generations ago) had a Potash factory here and did well regarding what is know as Potash Fever. That was where land was cleared here in Maine, the wood converted into potash, and then sent to Europe for great profit.

I looked into doing this on my farm as I have plenty of unwanted wood, but at a NPK of 0-1-3, it would have taken 1600 cords to get my fields fertilized...once. Yikes, I got better things to do then cut 1600 cords of wood!

They also said that when the Pilgrims first came here they were amazed at the fertility of the soil. They said whereas in England grass would grow to knee high, here it would grow to well over a mans head.

I am going to soon find out how true this is. I am clearing 2 areas of forest into field that have never been cleared. We can tell because there is a lot of iron in the soil, something that would have been churned up years ago if it had been tilled or pastured.

I'll keep you informed on how the growth goes.
 
F Van Roosbroeck
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Roberto pokachinni wrote:I'm not sure that that is accurate.   What permaculture books are you reading, F Van Roosbroek?   The one that counts the most in my mind, The Permaculture Designers Manual, has plenty of information from historical cultures which had created successful long term food growing, housing, or landscape systems. 

(...)

We should remember, as collective historians, that one of the best reasons for keeping history is that we don't repeat the mistakes of our ancestors.  Just because something has been done in a particular way for centuries does not necessarily mean it was a good idea.  When looking at the long term consequences, many times they aren't necessarily noticed with year to year changes or even over decades.   


I'm glad to stand corrected. I haven't read the Designer's Manual yet (it seemed very ambitious in scale and my garden is anything but), but I'll have to put it on my list.

Regarding your last point, I disagree to some extent. I certainly agree that we shouldn't romanticise the past, but I wouldn't look at the past as a static entity. On the contrary, farmers have been incredibly innovative in terms of designing tools and introducing new crops or new types of manure, although often there were social, economic or institutional constraints that limited how quickly those innovations could spread (in fact, much like the situation you are describing in Canada).

To give you an example: the tools that are used for the harvest in the image, the 'pikhaak' and the 'zicht' (I have no idea what these tools are called in English, so please do let me know if you know) are supposed to have raised productivity considerably. The pikhaak allowed the mower, in one fell swoop, to gather bushels of grain (including grain that had been knocked to the ground by rain), cut them with the zicht, and then to put them aside so they could be easily bound into sheafs (what the woman in the image is doing). The permaculture enthusiast in me wonders whether these tools would still be useful to people in a similar situation (and if they are in fact still being used); as a historian, I'd be greatly interested in hearing from users today to see how their experiences could help us understand the past a little better.
 
David Livingston
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The second tool looks a bit like a sickle to me still used today in many parts of the world particularly on rice  bit hard on the back though I find . It was superseded  by the scythe mostly and that's easier on my back I know that plus I can cut much faster . Not sure if the height of the grain is important here as rice is a bit shorter than wheat/barley etc .
 
Travis Johnson
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To me anyway, there is (3) tools in the picture. The guy on the right is using a Hand Scythe, while the guy on the left has a Billy Hook in his right hand, and a sickle in his left hand.

The Billy Hook is still used today, and in fact there is an article this month in "the New Pioneer" magazine on how to make one by homemade black-smithing.

I know from my ancestors writings and oral stories, a person mowing fields was considered praiseworthy if they could knock down 5 acres per day, and they would not hire anyone who could not at least mow down 3 acres per day; these acres being American sized acres.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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...but I wouldn't look at the past as a static entity. On the contrary, farmers have been incredibly innovative in terms of designing tools and introducing new crops or new types of manure,
  Certainly.  I completely agree with everything you wrote.  History, or the past, is made on a moment by moment basis behind our present actions; hardly static, but still an entity that should be learned from with due discernment, rather than accepted as the only way to go.  Farmers are a bounty of many great innovations/inventions, and we certainly have much to gain from historical sources/examples, as we continue the process of experimentation, innovation, and invention. 

Innovation, like history, is an ongoing process.  While we might romanticize a certain time period and it's tools, there are occasionally still further innovations that will make a tool or process better.  Now I'm saying occasionally, not always, certainly an innovation on a tool that has been used for centuries is bound to be rare.  I have a Ho Mi digger, for instance.  It is a tool that found it's design in the Korean bronze age, and has never needed to have any change in it's design.  I also use a hand sickle, 3 different shaped scythes, and numerous other hand tools that have stood the test of time and practice in my hands.  I'm very interested in a two person shovel that was used in ancient times near lake Titicaca.  I'm also interested in Chinese wheelbarrows, which are a much better design innovation than the European design that we are more familiar with.  

In no way that I have ever been lead to believe has Permaculture sought to distance itself from history.  It has, however, distanced itself from the wrongs of history (... and with that I mean not a static entity but a living document that is brought forward by and as a part of the existing culture or is evidenced by the damage {deforestation, deserts, erosion, unplanned urban sprawl, exploitive resource use...} that they or other cultures have caused in the past).  Discerning the wrongs of history is directly related to the design and creation of a permanent human culture that does not harm the Earth, while repairing the damage that our past cultures have caused.  It does not mean that we do not learn from history, or the we should not seek to find the very best methods and tools from history; in fact the opposite is true.  We need to celebrate history, and it's tools, but we need to do so without romanticism or emotional attachment to a particular time, tool, or technique until it has proven it's worth in regards to the ethics of permaculture, balanced with our particular personal needs. 
The permaculture enthusiast in me wonders whether these tools would still be useful to people in a similar situation (and if they are in fact still being used); as a historian, I'd be greatly interested in hearing from users today to see how their experiences could help us understand the past a little better.
  I'd say that we have much more in common than we differ in this regard. 
 
Roberto pokachinni
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I could not find any images of a pikhaak that match any of the tools in the image you posted above, F.VR, but the images I found do seem to match the description you gave for it's use.  Do you have any modern images or links that you could show of these dutch tools?  The zicht, I am confident is a scythe.  The hand sickle in the right hand of the man on the left, is an interesting design that I am not familiar with.  It seems that there is a wooden plate extending from the handle which looks as though it was meant to gain stability from the forearm, which might help the arm to not tire while using the tool for extended periods... or is this the tool that you are calling a zicht?  At any rate, I've never seen one like it, but would like to try it on a few things.  If you have any modern images ( a photo from a museum? ) of this tool, I would be very interested in seeing them.   It appears (though the image is truncated on the right) that the man on the right is using a standing, or walking scythe. 
 
David Livingston
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Nomenclature is good fun
I called the sickle a sickle because I assumed it was cutting the corn to me a billy hook is a similar shape but lacks a cutting edge and is used for gathering .
Scythes have handles and you do not move your hands a long handled sickle means you have to move your hands whilst using it by sliding them along the handle .
 
F Van Roosbroeck
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Roberto pokachinni wrote:I could not find any images of a pikhaak that match any of the tools in the image you posted above, F.VR, but the images I found do seem to match the description you gave for it's use.  Do you have any modern images or links that you could show of these dutch tools?  The zicht, I am confident is a scythe.  The hand sickle in the right hand of the man on the left, is an interesting design that I am not familiar with.  It seems that there is a wooden plate extending from the handle which looks as though it was meant to gain stability from the forearm, which might help the arm to not tire while using the tool for extended periods... or is this the tool that you are calling a zicht?  At any rate, I've never seen one like it, but would like to try it on a few things.  If you have any modern images ( a photo from a museum? ) of this tool, I would be very interested in seeing them.   It appears (though the image is truncated on the right) that the man on the right is using a standing, or walking scythe. 


Interesting—I hadn't considered that the man on the right might be using a different instrument. It's a bit unclear, but you might be right... Anyway, I've only found photos of a more modern zicht and pikhaak:



You're quite right to point out the wooden plate thingy. I've found another image that shows it a bit more clearly (the modern ones seem to lack it). You might be right that it would make it easier to swing for extended periods—I would totally urge you to experiment!



I wouldn't call the zicht a scythe or a sickle :p, since it replaced (in some regions) the sickle and existed concurrently with the scythe (which, to me at least, refers to a two-handed instrument). It was first introduced during the fifteenth century, a period of great labour shortage (due to Black Death). It must have saved labour, but I'm not sure which mechanism was more important: on the one hand it is supposed to have been faster than the sickle, and on the other hand less people were required in total to prepare sheafs because the pikhaak allowed you to gather up the bushels as you mowed. It also mowed closer to the ground than the scythe, so you got more straw for your buck, so to speak. So I imagine the choice between zicht and scythe was determined mostly by the availability of labour and the desire for straw.
 
F Van Roosbroeck
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Travis Johnson wrote:Very true and just like today, those in Europe in the early 1800's sought to get cheap fertilizer. They found it in New England, my Great Grandfather (some 7 generations ago) had a Potash factory here and did well regarding what is know as Potash Fever. That was where land was cleared here in Maine, the wood converted into potash, and then sent to Europe for great profit.

I looked into doing this on my farm as I have plenty of unwanted wood, but at a NPK of 0-1-3, it would have taken 1600 cords to get my fields fertilized...once. Yikes, I got better things to do then cut 1600 cords of wood!

They also said that when the Pilgrims first came here they were amazed at the fertility of the soil. They said whereas in England grass would grow to knee high, here it would grow to well over a mans head.

I am going to soon find out how true this is. I am clearing 2 areas of forest into field that have never been cleared. We can tell because there is a lot of iron in the soil, something that would have been churned up years ago if it had been tilled or pastured.

I'll keep you informed on how the growth goes.


Hmm, interestingly fertilisation with ashes, also in the form of potash, was especially associated (in these regions, at least) with clover cultivation, as it was supposed to help both its growth and the growth of cereals that succeeded it in the crop rotation. But it's certainly not a task I'd relish doing on my own!

Yeah, I wonder what your result is going to be. There's this big discussion in the historical literature, with some people claiming that most of the Americas were  depopulated by waves of disease even before the arrival of European colonists. So from this perspective the land that the Pilgrims encountered would have been abandoned relatively recently rather than pristine nature (explaining the high fertility, perhaps).
 
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The angles of the zicht and the way it is held look "odd"  to me as though you hold it with the stick vertically when you cut the corn more like a scythe movement than a sickle
 
F Van Roosbroeck
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David Livingston wrote:The angles of the zicht and the way it is held look "odd"  to me as though you hold it with the stick vertically when you cut the corn more like a scythe movement than a sickle




This image shows how it was used (if the mechanics of the movement remained more-or-less the same over the centuries, at least).
 
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mmm interesting picture I assume you bring your arm in a vertical motion  . Cutting a sheaf at a time  or chopping a sheaf at a time . I wonder how often it was required to sharpen this tool ? I dont see any sharpening stones in the picture or paintings
 
F Van Roosbroeck
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David Livingston wrote:mmm interesting picture I assume you bring your arm in a vertical motion  . Cutting a sheaf at a time  or chopping a sheaf at a time . I wonder how often it was required to sharpen this tool ? I dont see any sharpening stones in the picture or paintings


According to http://www.hetvirtueleland.be/items/show/36930/ you'd have a small whetting stone or a 'strekel' (a kind of stick coated in sand or grit) with you in the field—but yeah, the painters don't seem to have included that particular detail...
 
David Livingston
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Been thinking about this and how it would work .
The technique of holding a tool  high and bringing it down I have only seen used on a chain gang in the USA for chopping weeds and I suspect for obvious reasons they were not provided with the sharpest tools . and I wonder how much follow through there would be and would that not get in the way .  I also wondered if money is an issue here . Scythes are made to measure  to the person using them and more complicated to build with the snaith etc . The sickle and the Z can be swapped with your neighbour no problem  and are much easier to build .
As for how much work you would get in a day A good scythe person can keep two persons busy stacking the corn  whist this tool with I see as intermediate between the sickle and the scythe from the picture hints at one person stacking a person doing both I would suggest will cover less ground in a day.
Also a scythe need to be very very sharp to be efficient and I have been told that getting good whetstones in the past was an issue and a cost    I dont know the geology of the area you describe could this be an issue ? references to stones being smuggled here https://onescytherevolution.com/whetstones.html

David
 
F Van Roosbroeck
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David Livingston wrote:Been thinking about this and how it would work .
The technique of holding a tool  high and bringing it down I have only seen used on a chain gang in the USA for chopping weeds and I suspect for obvious reasons they were not provided with the sharpest tools . and I wonder how much follow through there would be and would that not get in the way .  I also wondered if money is an issue here . Scythes are made to measure  to the person using them and more complicated to build with the snaith etc . The sickle and the Z can be swapped with your neighbour no problem  and are much easier to build .
As for how much work you would get in a day A good scythe person can keep two persons busy stacking the corn  whist this tool with I see as intermediate between the sickle and the scythe from the picture hints at one person stacking a person doing both I would suggest will cover less ground in a day.
Also a scythe need to be very very sharp to be efficient and I have been told that getting good whetstones in the past was an issue and a cost    I dont know the geology of the area you describe could this be an issue ? references to stones being smuggled here https://onescytherevolution.com/whetstones.html

David


Hmm, interesting point. I hadn't really though about whetting as a factor. I imagine that the availability of whetting stones wouldn't be much of a problem (the region was thoroughly commercialised and scythes were used in neighbouring regions), but their cost (which I don't really know) might be an issue...

As for labour costs, this particular region was characterised by small peasant farms, mostly on sandy/sandy loam soil, on the one hand and larger firms on the other, especially in the clay soils near the coast. Those peasant farms would engage in mixed farming strategies. Larger firms would tend towards commercial cattle breeding. So in neither case you would have especially large fields of grain to harvest. I imagine that it's these circumstances as well that would lead them to prefer these tools over the scythe (preferred in arable regions to the east) or the sickle (preferred in arable regions to the north).
 
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