The August calendar image from the Da Costa Hours, Morgan Library showing peasants harvesting wheat

Labors of August

The typical labor or occupation of the month depicted in books of hours for the labors of August is threshing grain, (most often, wheat, though sometimes the calendar image for the labor of August shows rye or barley in a field). Threshing is the task of beating the stalks of grain to remove the ripe grains from the stalk as well as remove or loosen the husks that protect the individual grains. In some areas, threshing as the August labor may be replaced by reaping, cutting down the stalks of ripe grain, that often takes place in July. The anonymous Middle English lyric regarding the labors of August says “and here I shere my corne full lowe,” a reference to reaping grain. The calendar image for August may show reapers using a sickle (a short-handled tool with a curved blade) to cut down the stalks of ripe grain, often with with some people stacking the mown wheat in small sheaves or horizontal bundles to dry, and others collecting the bundles of dried wheat upright in vertical shocks for later threshing. Both the Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours  calendar page for August and the Hours of Henry VIII show threshing as the labor for August.

August images typically show one or two men are shown threshing or beating the the grain with a flail to loosen the dry grains from the stalk. Threshing images for the labors of August sometimes show threshing inside a threshing barn or shed, since a roofed threshing area prevents the ripe grain from blowing away. The poor might be allowed to enter the field and glean any remaining grains, if the birds didn’t get there first. In some climates and regions the wheat or rye was dried in kilns since the weather didn’t always cooperate by allowing the grain to dry in the fields; damp grain can become moldy and unusable, so it was very important to dry the grain before storing or milling into flour. Once all the grain was removed from the field, cows or other livestock might be allowed to eat the remaining stalks, simultaneously clearing and manuring the field for the next crop.

The first of August was celebrated by the Christian feast of Lammas and the Celtic feast of Lughnasad. Lammas or “Loaf mass” was a harvest festival, wherein the first loaf made from the newly harvested wheat was a thanks offering. Lughnasad (Modern Irish Lúnasa), the feast of Lugh, was also a harvest festival among the Irish, and a traditional date for celebrating marriages.

Some books of hours feature alternative occupations for August instead of wheat-threshing or reaping; they may illustrate harrowing the field after the harvest, and others like the Très Riches Heures, feature a summer pastime, like hawking, with reaping taking place in the background of the aristocratic scene of hawking from horseback.