The autumn harvest of winter squash, gourds and pumpkins. Image: LLS

COME, sons of summer, by whose toil
We are the lords of wine and oil :
By whose tough labours, and rough hands,
We rip up first, then reap our lands.
Crowned with the ears of corn, now come,
And to the pipe sing harvest home.

Robert Herrick (1591–1674)

 

According to the OED, until about 1600, harvest was preferred over autumn to describe the season between Summer and Winter. Harvest as a noun is

1. The act or process of gathering a crop.

  • 2a. The crop that ripens or is gathered in a season.
  • b. The amount or measure of the crop gathered in a season.
  • c. The time or season of such gathering.

3. The result or consequence of an activity (AHD).

In earlier eras, when life was more closely tied to an agricultural and pastoral calendar and rural living, it made sense for autumn to be seen as the season of harvest when we cut down crops and livestock and prepared food for winter storage.

In that context, the etymology of harvest is very telling. Modern English harvest is from Middle English, via Old English hærfest. Harvest has a proto Indo-European root of *kerp-, which, the AHD tells us, means “To gather, pluck, harvest.” The same PIE root also gives us carpet; excerpt, scarce, all of which are derived from Latin carpere, to pluck. These are all words that have to do with cutting, or removing something from a larger whole. You might already be familiar with Latin carpere, to pluck, from the expression carpe diem. Herrick’s poem “The Hock-Cart or Harvest Home” is all about the seasonal plucking of crops in the fall. The Hock-cart was the final cart carrying home the last of the harvest. The carrying of the final harvest marked the end of the season, and thus the hock-cart was frequently decorated and served as a ceremonial center piece for various traditional English harvest celebrations.

The Hock-Cart Or Harvest Home
By Robert Herrick (1591 – 1674)

COME, sons of summer, by whose toil
We are the lords of wine and oil:
By whose tough labours, and rough hands,
We rip up first, then reap our lands.
Crowned with the ears of corn, now come,
And to the pipe sing harvest home.
Come forth, my lord, and see the cart
Dressed up with all the country art:
See here a maukin,1)Maukin: a cloth there a sheet,
As spotless pure as it is sweet:
The horses, mares, and frisking fillies,
Clad all in linen white as lilies.
The harvest swains and wenches bound
For joy, to see the hock-cart crowned.
About the cart, hear how the rout
Of rural younglings raise the shout;
Pressing before, some coming after,
Those with a shout, and these with laughter.
Some bless the cart, some kiss the sheaves,
Some prank them up with oaken leaves:
Some cross the fill-horse2)Fill-horse the shaft horse, the horse between the shafts of the cart., some with great
Devotion stroke the home-borne wheat:
While other rustics, less attent
To prayers than to merriment,
Run after with their breeches rent.
Well, on, brave boys, to your lord’s hearth,
Glitt’ring with fire, where, for your mirth,
Ye shall see first the large and chief
Foundation of your feast, fat beef:
With upper stories, mutton, veal
And bacon (which makes full the meal),
With sev’ral dishes standing by,
As here a custard, there a pie,
And here all-tempting frumenty.3)Frumenty:Hulled wheat boiled in milk and flavored with sugar and spices.
And for to make the merry cheer,
If smirking wine be wanting here,
There’s that which drowns all care, stout beer;
Which freely drink to your lord’s health,
Then to the plough, the commonwealth,
Next to your flails, your fans, your fats,4)Fats: vats; f for v for alliterative purposes, as well as dialect.
Then to the maids with wheaten hats;
To the rough sickle, and crook’d scythe,
Drink, frolic, boys, till all be blithe.
Feed, and grow fat; and as ye eat
Be mindful that the lab’ring neat,
As you, may have their fill of meat.
And know, besides, ye must revoke
The patient ox unto the yoke,
And all go back unto the plough
And harrow, though they’re hanged up now.
And, you must know, your lord’s word’s true,
Feed him ye must, whose food fills you;
And that this pleasure is like rain,
Not sent ye for to drown your pain,
But for to make it spring again.

— 1648 Hesperides

References   [ + ]

1. Maukin: a cloth
2. Fill-horse the shaft horse, the horse between the shafts of the cart.
3. Frumenty:Hulled wheat boiled in milk and flavored with sugar and spices.
4. Fats: vats; f for v for alliterative purposes, as well as dialect.