Considerable debate arises today regarding the pros and cons of technological developments in the wake of climate change, employment rates, and related issues. One thing I find for sure upon recalling my grandfather’s stories of year-round farm labor here in the Northwest is that life was hard back in the day. I have done some work comparing numbers on productivity but will save most of that for another time. One aspect I will share here is that a Columbia Basin farmer equipped in 1900 with horse-pulled gang plow, harrow, and drill could produce about 20 bushels of grain on one acre in about ten hours of total annual labor. An experienced crew operating a mechanical reaper and steam-powered thresher at that time could cut about forty-five acres a day for some 1,200 bushels (31 tons) of grain. Yields today of a hundred bushels per acre are common along with diesel-powered, satellite-guided equipment that make crop rows of linear perfection. Modern farmers invest scarcely fifty minutes in total annual per-acre labor, and can harvest three hundred acres in a ten-hour day with a combine header forty feet wide to yield some 30,000 bushels (900 tons) of wheat. All of this while inside an air-conditioned cab!

The appearance of an animal-powered reaper with adjustable height in early medieval times suggest the machine’s significance to its owners for reduced labor. Flanking Rheims’ third century AD Porte de Mars’ depiction of a worker tending this remarkable device are also the first known images of long-handled scythes. These are seen on the July panel both in use and being sharpened by Roman reapers. Archaeological evidence shows the advent of the scythe in Western Europe as early as the second century, though typically in the context of mowing hay. The earliest known picture of a scythe in a written work is from the Calendar of Salzburg (c. 820 AD) in which a barefoot worker is shown holding the tool across his shoulders. Archaeological remains of the heavy iron blades in the Rhine Valley, however, date to the late Roman period.

“July” and “August,” Calendar of Salzburg (c. 820 AD) Wikimedia Commons
“July” and “August,” Calendar of Salzburg (c. 820 AD)
Wikimedia Commons

This cluster of locations suggests a core heartland of agricultural innovation during the late Roman period on the fertile eastern plains of the empire’s Gallia Belgica province. A principal artery of the Roman Via Agrippa highway network led from its capital at Reims (Roman Durocotorum) to Trier (Augusta) where it divided into routes further eastward to Koblenz (Confluentes) and Mainz (Moguntiacum). This panoramic region between the Marne and Rhine rivers, where the boundaries of present Belgium, France, and Germany converge, became a strategic Roman “bread basket” much as Ukraine’s black earth steppes and America’s Midwest prairie lands would supply their peoples. Historians attribute the Gallic-Roman reaper-stripper’s disappearance by early medieval times to such factors as inefficient cutting design, especially in times of high humidity, and the collapse of Roman administration in the wake of fifth century invasions by the Franks. But dispersion outward of technological advancements is evident in the appearance of an array of distinct sickle and scythe designs adapted to local conditions in places surrounding the Reims-Trier corridor to Germany, France, the Low Countries, and in southern Britain.

Mediterranean landrace grains spread throughout western and central Europe along Roman military and trade routes, and often grew together in such field cultures “mixes” as maslin (winter wheat and rye—French metail, Dutch masteluin, or sometimes meslin in Early American accounts), beremancorn (winter barley and rye), and dredge (spring barley and oats). Many farmers of late Roman and early medieval times planted single grain crops in two-year rotations (winter- and spring-sown) along with soil-enriching legumes like peas, beans, and peas that improved soil fertility and also provided cheap sources of protein. Farmers periodically rested, or fallowed, lands to conserve moisture, and these were kept as weed-free as possible by livestock, and periodic tilling. Depending on the area, rotations generally divided grains into higher valued bread cereals wheat and rye which were cut with the sickle for the most efficient harvesting, while the “lesser cereals” (French menus grains, Italian minuti) like barley, oats, and buckwheat that were sometimes harvested with a long-handled scythe. These latter grains could be used for food and fodder and while scything risked some loss from the shattering of stalks, use this larger tool made harvesting faster and easier.