It’s August, and while you might not realise that here in London by looking at the weather, we are headed into the month that many Europeans generally associate with time off. As a rule of thumb, here when one is planning a summer holiday, one does so in August. In some places life shuts down specifically for the holidays, as a result, with offices running skeleton staffs. Usually, a lot of us slope off somewhere else for a while, though in the pandemic that is happening less and less of course. Travel plans notwithstanding, August is often the time when we expect people to relax more and work less.
This phenomenon is not exactly newsworthy. If you have every been anywhere in Europe during August I am sure you would have noticed the high proportion of tourists. What is interesting to me is that the association of rest with August is a relatively new idea. If you asked a medieval or early modern European, instead they would likely tell you that August was one of the busiest times of the year.
There is of course, a very good reason for this. In a world that is largely agrarian there is just a lot of work to be doing in August. A great place to look at exactly what that entails is, as ever, in images of the Labours of the Months. These are highly idealised and stylized depictions of the sort of work that people are generally expected to carry out at various times of the year. They are hugely popular trope and pop up in all kinds of places, from stained glass windows in churches, to books of hours. What we tend to see when we look at them is that summer is a very busy time indeed.
In June we tend to see haymaking, an essential activity for feeding animals overwinter. In July, the wheat harvest comes in, and in August that harvest has to be threshed. Even in September the peasants are still at it, harvesting grapes.
Anyway, the threshing is an incredibly important task. It is the process by which the edible grain crop is removed from the straw that it is attached to. This sucks and is hard. In order to make it easier, there are a couple of methods. You can use what is called a threshing sledge, which is like a giant heavy frame on rollers. The rollers sometimes have spikes, and the idea is you get some oxen or horses to drag that over all your hay which is laid out on the ground. This sort of forces the grain out. This is usually accomplished on what is called a threshing floor, which is essentially a built-up and often paved outdoor surface. You can also do it inside if you have the space.
For those without access to farm animals for the process it is common to use a flail. A flail is essentially a pair of sticks used to beat the grain from the straw. (I almost wrote “beat the grain off the straw” there, but caught it. You will not find your girl slipping that easily.) Both of these are time-tested methods, and we have written accounts of the process even from Pliny the Elder (c. 23-79) in the first century, who notes, “The cereals are threshed in some places with the threshing board on the threshing floor; in others they are trampled by a train of horses, and in others they are beaten with flails”.
One way or another, after the grain is beaten out, you need to get to winnowing. In order to do this, first you carefully rake away all of the straw. The next step often requires a bit of a stiff breeze, and essentially what you do is throw the mixture of grain and chaff that is left into the air. The wind will then pick up the chaff and blow it away and you are left with just the grain. No wind? Well then someone is going to have to fan the air in order to create a current. Then you pick up the grains from the area that they cover. This can then be ground down to flour.
So obviously then, this is all very labour intensive, but it is also time sensitive. If you don’t get it done right away you run the risk of the crop spoiling. And if that happens it’s not like you can duck down the road for another bag of flour in the winter. TL/DR for medieval European peasants, and really peasants up until the mechanisation of this process in the eighteenth century, August was not a time for chilling, it was an all hands on deck, we have a lot of work to do type situation.
This is not to say, however, that peasants have absolutely no time to relax. Sure you need to be working when the harvest comes in, but there are much slower times of year as well. In general, that is February when the labour of the month is sitting by the fire.
Especially in this second image, we see that there is still work going on. Wood needs to be brought in, and the animals outside fed, but there is time to chill out. Basically, if there is snow on the ground you can’t really be expected to be doing much of anything other than keeping things ticking over. So you do that, and maybe, spend some quality time with your cute cat. Hell get your junk out by the fire for maximum comfort, I guess. You know – relax. Can’t be told to work when there is no work to do. We see then a pretty nice little difference between the two seasons. High Summer is for work. Deep winter for rest.
Of course, there was a group of people for who this was not true – the nobility. These guys show up in the labours of the months included in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry which is extremely pretty, and which you should go have a look at right now. Anyway as you can see, in the background, we still have peasants working away in the fields, and even some enjoying a nice little swim swim to cool off. The rich, meanwhile, are off on a preferred rich person activity: falconing. This pretty nicely sums up the differentiations between estates in this period. The peasants are doing the work that pays for the lifestyle of the nobility here, while enjoying nowhere near the same level of leisure time.
There is a lesson here for those paying attention. You know how I was talking about Europeans taking time off work in August? Well the thing that allows us to do that is a globalised economy where we have outsourced huge amounts of our, say, manufacturing industry to other places in the world. We get to go on holiday because someone else far away is making all the stuff we need and want to live a nice little life while we ponce about at the beach or whatever. They are also usually being paid a lot less than we would be to do that.
Hell, even here, when we are on holiday there is a veritable army of hospitality professionals that wait on us while we relax. During our little pandemic, these same service people are at a disproportionate risk for contacting COVID, what with people around other people all the time. They are also the people who were looking after us – running grocery stores, doing our deliveries – in the heart of the pandemic winter when people were dying all around us.
I am not saying that one shouldn’t enjoy oneself when the chance presents itself. After all, we live in a society and you can’t put off enjoying life until every single person is free to do so. What I am advocating for here is just some basic awareness. If you are one of the lucky few who get to take some time off, and if while doing that you are maybe gonna go somewhere, or eat out, or hit the pub, I am asking you to be aware of all the people who are working really hard to present you with that opportunity. We are all interconnected, which is a good thing. For someone to enjoy themselves somewhere, someone else usually needs to be working to make that happen. Let’s be grateful that they are presenting us with that opportunity, polite, and you know maybe tip.
Let’s also remember how lucky we are to live in a world that doesn’t require us to spend all August threshing just so we can have bread in February. It’s also important for us to remember that the great majority of us were doing just that for a really long time. We’re lucky to be alive when and where we are. Let’s celebrate that and be kind to each other as a result.
 Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, Liber XVIII (naturae frugum), lxxii – 298.
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