‘The reapers leave their beds before the sun
And gleaners follow when home toils are done
To pick the littered ear the reaper leaves
And glean in open fields among the sheaves’
From ‘August’ by John Clare (1793-1864)
The first of August is half way between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox. This is when the agricultural cycle moves from growing to ripening and harvest. In pre-Christian times this was celebrated at the pagan festival of Lughnasadh and Lammas is its Christian successor.
Lammas marks the gathering in of the first summer harvest. In Saxon and medieval societies, when the first grain crop of the year was ready to cut it was an occasion of enormous importance and relief. There were two main times when starvation threatened in agricultural societies - early spring and immediately before harvest time. At Lammas the medieval housewife could bake new bread from the first cut of the grain. No wonder it was a time to celebrate.
When Lughnasadh became Lammas, the first bread was offered at a special mass. The word Lammas derives from the Anglo Saxon ‘hlafmaesse’ - meaning ‘loaf mass’ so technically people were celebrating not the raw grain but the bread made with it - which may distinguish Lammas from Church’s Harvest festival, when all is safely gathered in later in the season, and which is actually a Victorian innovation. Its origin is in Morwenstow in Cornwall when in 1843 the extremely eccentric Rev R.S. Hawker reinvented it . The country custom of ‘crying the neck’ marks the other end of harvest time and we’ll get there in September.
This is Samuel Palmer's picture 'The Harvest Moon' clearly showing women gleaning and painted in 1833. I just love Palmer's pictures.
Lammas Day was a traditional day for feasting and craft festivals. It was also a quarter day when rents fall due. No question that it has to be bread then. So I’ve made what in our house is always called ‘Dinkelsbuhl Bread’, for the simple reason that I first saw it in a baker’s window there sometime in the 1980s, and I’ve made it for special occasions ever since. Dinkelsbuhl is a fabulous mediaeval town on the Romantischerstrasse in Germany . You can vary the toppings according to what you have in store. I usually use caraway, sesame, poppy seeds, oats and bran.
This might be a good time to mention some of the numerous superstitions associated with bread making. My Grandmother made four loaves of bread a week, on Tuesday and Friday. She always marked the dough with a cross before putting it to rise, and Friday bread was regarded as much more likely to go wrong, Friday not being an auspicious day for most undertakings. Two loaves stuck together produce a ‘kissing crust’. Bread must never be thrown in the fire - it’s the staff of life - don’t burn it. Bread is a symbol of wealth and welcome, something to be worked for and fought for and every new loaf is a small kitchen miracle.
It was on a Lammas night,
When corn rigs are bonie,
Beneath the moon's unclouded light,
I held away to Annie:
The time flew by, wi tentless heed,
Till 'tween the late and early;
Wi' sma' persuasion she agreed
To see me thro' the barley.
From ‘Harvest Moon’ by Robert Burns (1759-1796)