A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture


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Hand Harvesting

Some things are just meant to be, and this scythe sharpener is one of them. I just had to buy it, no question. It took me right back to a late summer afternoon in my early teens. I was sitting with an old farm hand, Mr. Caley, whose body was bent with years of toil: it was impossible to tell how old he was, but to me he looked like Methuselah.

He told me that in his youth he had belonged to a gang of half-a-dozen men with scythes who mowed their way northward from the southeast of England, where I lived, all the way up to Yorkshire, in the north east. They followed the ripening hay northward for 200 miles, one six-inch swath at a time. When the haying was all done, they put their scythes over their shoulders, and walked back home.

Mr. Caley tried to teach me how to use a scythe, and while I did learn to cut some grass at least, I never got within a mile of the rhythmic swing that he had -- his body and scythe were all one, a perfect economy of motion that flowed from his rear foot to the tip of the scythe. (Note, by the way, how the medieval version of Mr. Caley has an identical sheath hanging on his belt.)

And then, would you believe it, I came across something almost as compelling, though without the personal connection. It is a finger guard and stalk holder that was worn on the left hand of a man harvesting cereals (barley, oats, wheat) with a sickle. The long, curved prong held the stalks against the sickle, and his fingers tucked neatly inside to protect them from any errant stroke that might have included his fingers with the stalks.

Neither of these is the sort of farm implement that anyone would think of saving, once they'd been superseded by the horse-drawn mower. But they both survived, and we now have two quirky, interesting and very rare reminders of our agricultural past. They're worth a look -- they're both posted in Objects of Interest.

Adam and Eve

In the 16th and 17th centuries, images of Adam and Eve were popular decorative motifs. The naughty couple whom we can blame for all the problems of the world appeared frequently on chair backs, delft chargers and brass alms dishes (like the one currently in our inventory), particularly in the Protestant nations in the north of Europe. (Catholic nations went to the New, rather than the Old, Testament for their decorations.)

But Adam and Eve are rarely seen in the 18th century. We wonder why. The Adam and Eve story is really two myths: one is about the origin of mankind, and the other about the origin of sin. We suspect that it was the first story that resonated with 16th- and 17th-century Europeans. The coming of the Renaissance must have felt like to coming of a new world, a new world that emerged from old medieval Europe. The more we think about it, the more we believe that in that period, the Adam and Eve story was really a myth of origin -- so Milton, that old Puritan, got the emphasis wrong when he called his 1667 poem Paradise Lost.

There was a political angle to the myth as well: The Garden of Eden preceded the feudal system, so that Adam and Eve could be called upon to inspire revolution and serve as the emblem of equality. During the English Peasant Revolt of 1381, one of the rallying cries was the verse

When Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then the gentleman?


Obviously, caqueteuse is a French name, and it refers to a French form of chair that originated in the 16th century. As we know, many Scots, particularly the Jacobites and the Catholics, felt much closer to France than to England, and they preferred the French influence to the English. A caqueteuse is a gossiping woman, after caqueter, to cackle! Sorry, ladies. The wide, out-swept arms and narrow backs were said to accommodate the voluminous farthingales that were then in fashion. Ladies would pull their caqueteuses in front of the fire and would caqueter away to their hearts' content.

It looks as though the gossip who used this chair habitually leaned to the left, for that side of the back is far more worn than the other, and the initial R has been practically worn away.

The date on the back is clear: 1669. But the letters are a little more baffling: "I (or J) R" and then "II."

In his book on Scottish Vernacular Furniture, Bernard Cotton says that dates on Scottish chairs sometimes commemorated an earlier event, not the year in which the chair was made. So here's a long shot guess: The initials are actually JR II, King James II, a Scot who followed his brother Charles II onto the English throne in 1685. He had a short reign, he was deposed in 1689 because he was a Roman Catholic and was replaced by his daughter Mary and her Protestant husband William, the Dutch Prince William of Orange. James was converted to Catholicism in 1669. Was this chair made during his short reign, 1685-89, to commemorate his conversion -- remember that the Scots who opposed English rule and who preferred France to England were Catholics. So 1669 could have been a big date for them. Just a thought ....

Whatever, it's a wonderful chair, made, as many Scottish chairs were, of pine, probably in the Aberdeen area in northeast Scotland. It's a pity that the two rear legs needed ending out (pine does not withstand damp as well as oak), but in its favor is that the grain of pine ages very graphically, and the passing centuries produce a wonderful surface. (The chair sold just as we were preparing this newsletter, but full details and more pictures are still on our website under Recently Sold.)