If you downloaded our free French Genealogy Calendar, Dear Readers, you will know that the month of Prairial is upon us. Prairie has just about the same meaning in French as it has in English, though the prairie that goes on forever in all directions of North American understanding would engulf with terrifying voraciousness the hedge-bound meadow that is a French idea of a prairie.
Our guide to the year of Republican calendar month, Eugène Le Roy, devotes his entire chapter on Prairial to hay-making. As our little place in the country is so swamped in grasses at the moment that the roof is almost invisible, we can vouch for the veracity that informs this emphasis.
Your rural French ancestors would have seen the engagement of the reaper for a tiny fee. The following day, he would begin work at the very first hint of light, long before dawn. Swinging his scythe rhythmically, steadily, and with great strength, he would work his way across a field, cutting down everything that grew, producing a heady perfume of grasses and wildflowers. Le Roy spares a few sentences of pity for those with hay-fever and none of sympathy for the moles that create the hills that knock the scythe's swinging out of sync. (Apparently "you miserable mole-boy" was a vicious bit of name-calling once.)
Finishing by eleven in the morning, the reaper went to the farmhouse for his pay and for a bowl of soup. Soup being so associated with the peasantry that, even today, no French hostess would dream of serving it, ever, at a dinner party. However, it was all a reaper could expect and perhaps all his hosts had to offer. Soup consumed, the reaper went home to sleep. His work was done.
Then, the real work began. The entire family and all farm labourers went out to the field to rake the hay to dry. For days they had to rake it and turn it to dry it. When it was dry, they had to stack it. Hay poles had been erected in the field. Branches were laid down first, then the hay stacked as high as possible, men stacking it, while women, atop the stacks, stamped it down as firmly as possible. Le Roy states that it is a hard job for all but especially for the women, "les pauvres diablesses".
Rewards were odd in days of yore, to be sure. By the end of Prairial and of the hay-making, the fields would have been filled with glow worms (while we may still have tall grasses, modern practices and products have pretty much wiped out those pretties). The evening custom, Le Roy assures, was for young men to fill a maiden's hair with glow worms, which he seems to have found charming but which calls to our imagination the poor girl being turned into a greenish Medusa.
Read some wonderful reminiscences and comments on this post here.
©2014 Anne Morddel