We’ve had great fun here at the Franklin County Museum in Pasco watching students tend the heritage grain plots behind the main building. Among the varieties we are growing are White and Red Lammas wheats that owe their enduring folk name to medieval Anglo-Saxon Lammastide (Anglo-Saxon hlaf-mas, “Loaf Mass”) of offerings traditionally held in early August when priests blessed the first ripe wheat. This annual commemoration’s antecedent included the sober rites of Celtic Luhgúhnadh, or the Celtic Sun god “Lugh’s Assembly,” which took place on August 1, when Scottish Gaelic Lùnastal (Welsh Gwl Awst—the Feast of August) was also observed.

Franklin County Museum “Young Farmers” Seeding Lammas Wheats

In ancient Celtic folklore, Lugh established the festival to honor his foster mother, Talantiu, the “Great One of the Earth,” for dying from exhaustion after clearing forest for land to cultivate. By the early Middle Ages the festival came to include tribal assemblies attended by the High King, sporting contests, trade fairs, and other special events. The modern English word “earth” attests to these early peoples’ sacred regard for the land since the term is derived from Hertha, the Celtic goddess of the soil. (The word “harvest” is from Old English hærfest—“autumn,” the time described by the tenth century Menologium as “…[W]ela byð geywed fægere on foldan, or when “Plenty is revealed,  beautiful upon the earth.”)

Harvest Home in Sandomir (Poland)
Jozef Lienkowicz, Les Costumes du Peuple Polonais (Leipzig, 1841)
Franklin County Museum Collection

                Early religious groups adapted these gatherings and vocabulary to the changing conditions of early medieval life and the new faith. Linguists trace the word “bread” (Nordic brøt) to Proto-Indo-European bhreu of northern Europe, a word suggesting the bubbling of leavened bread, the boiling of broth, and the brewing of beer. This northern term implies a process, while Mediterranean Latin’s word for loaf, panis (and derivatives French pain, Italian pane) emphasizes the end product. Medieval harvest festivals were commonly held throughout Europe for several days in late summer or fall depending on local traditions and after the crops had been substantially gathered. Folks of all ages but young people in particular looked forward to these spirited events as a time to don traditional costume, socialize, and engage in amusements after months of toil in the fields. Known in German as Kerbfest or Kirmes (Dutch Kermesse), these joyous times typically featured special church and market fairs with strolling minstrels, fellowship and feasting with family and friends and plenty of drink, and evening dances. The revelry is colorfully and sometimes comically depicted in such paintings as Kermis, Peasants Making Merry (1574) by Lucas van Valckenborch (1535-1597), Village Feast (c. 1600) by Marten van Cleve (c. 1527-1581), Brueghel’s The Kermesse of St. George (1628), and David Teniers the Younger’s Peasant Kermis (c. 1665).

Lucas van Valckenborch, Kermis, Peasants Making Merry (1574)
Oil on panel, 14 ½ inches
Danish National Gallery, Copenhagen

                The beautifully composed painting Harvest Festival Procession (1826) by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841) presents a romanticized view of such an occasion in the German countryside with elements that combine classical and medieval motifs with the artist’s Christian world view. A celebratory peasant throng bearing grain sheaves follow a raised eagle standard as if a Roman legion marching toward a towering statue of Ceres. Other harvesters continue to labor in a distant field beneath the ruins of a medieval castle. Schinkel’s symbolic works characteristically depict historical and topographical detail in reverence to great epochs through the ages meant to inspire contemporary social renewal.

The painting presents the view of a people who appreciate the sacred bounty of the land which is used to uplift individual spirit and elevate overall area culture.  In many Catholic parishes the church consecration day that commemorated the founding of the church or its patron saint came to added sacred elements to the festival’s old folk traditions—often condemned by clerics, but did not greatly displace them in many areas. Catholic services commemorated the transmission of supernatural power upon a place of worship and featured a lengthy liturgical Mass with Holy Communion of wine and white bread. Protestant Kirchwiehen also involved solemn ceremony but as a sacred dedication and without the metaphysical connotations.