Sunday 4 May 2014

Summertime and the living is easy. Or is it? - by Katherine Langrish

This is my copy of the book I couldn’t find for my last month’s post – an Elizabethan farmer’s almanack in doggerel verse, providing a year’s supply of farming hints for the original readers, and a fascinating window into 16th century rural life for us moderns. This edition is Oxford University Press, 1984.

Thomas Tusser's book was a Tudor best-seller, a do-it-yourselfer's delight, full of useful stuff like this set of memorable 'no-no's for the appearance of home-made cheese. (The list below is cribbed from wiki, for the sake of the links: but some of the puns go right over my head.  I have no idea why a bishop should have any connection with burnt milk.)

Not like Gehazi, i.e., white, like a leper
Not like Lot's wife, all salt
Not like Argus, full of eyes
Not like Tom Piper, “hoven and puffed”
Not like Crispin, leathery
Not like Lazarus, poor
Not like Esau, hairy
Not like Mary Magdalene, full of whey or maudlin
Not like the Gentiles, full of maggots
Not like a Bishop, made of burnt milk

Do you, like me, remember the Rupert Bear annuals of childhood?  With their brief summary of the story at the top of each page, followed by rhyming couplets under the pictures, and a longer, more detailed prose story at the page foot?  Like this? 

Well, Thomas Tusser’s almanack follows a similar pattern.  Each month opens with a brief abstract in short couplets, a rhymed list of contents of the advice to follow.  

May’s Abstract

Put lamb from ewe,
to milk a few.

Be not too bold
to milk and to fold.

Sheep wriggling tail
hath mads[1] without fail.

Beat hard in the reed
Where house hath need.

Leave cropping from May
To Michaelmas Day.

Let ivy be killed
Else tree will be spilled.

To weeding away
As soon as ye may… etc.

Then he expands into quatrains and explains things in more detail:

At Philip and Jacob, away with the lambs
that thinkest to have any milk of their dams.
At Lammas leave milking, for fear of a thing
lest (requiem eternam) in winter they sing.

To milk and to fold them is much to require
except ye have pasture to fill their desire
Yet many by milking (such heed do they take)
not hurting their bodies, much profit do make.

If sheep or thy lamb fall a wriggling with tail
Go by and by[2] search it, whiles help may prevaile:
That barberlie handled I dare thee assure
Cast dust in his arse, thou hast finisht thy cure.

Where houses be reeded (as houses have need)
Now pare off the moss and go beat in the reed.
The juster ye drive it, the smoother and plain,
More handsome ye make it to shut off the rain.

From May to October leave cropping, for why?
In wood sere, whatever thou croppest will die.
Where Ivie embraceth the tree very sore
Kill ivie, or else tree will addle no more. 

1520-1530 Woman shearing sheep in book of hours by Jehan de Luc
So – if you were an Elizabethan smallholder, this is what you would be doing right now at the beginning of the merry month of May. You thumb open Tusser’s fat little book and frown over the black-letter print as you decide how many of the lambs to wean so you can milk their mothers and make valuable cheese.  You’ve got three months of ewes’ milk ahead of you, if you’re lucky – but Tusser reminds you not to carry on beyond Lammas, the beginning of August, or you’ll be putting too much of a strain on them, and they may not survive the winter.  You nod wisely in agreement, grinning slightly at the idea of sheep baaing ‘requ-ie-emmm eter-namm’, and go out to take a look at your flock.  Do any of them have those wriggling tails Tusser talks about? That’s a sign of ‘flystrike’ – maggots from flies’ eggs laid in the soiled wool below the tail: and it can kill your animals if not dealt with. Shearing off the infested wool is the solution, and you throw lime-dust on the area to help cleanse it and discourage further attacks.

Now you’re outside, you squint up at your thatched roofs over house and barn.  There are a few thin places, you know that, you’ve been putting buckets under the leaks all winter. Better climb up and scrape off the moss, and beat more reeds in.  And this is the growing time. If you want wood for next year, you’ve got to stop cutting it, but on the other hand, the ivy is really vigorous now – time to hack it back before it strangles your trees…

There’s more! You read on and scratch your head. Tusser reminds you to weed your pastures, rake the furrows of the winter-set wheat, dig ditches to drain your marshy places, set someone to watch your bees in case you miss a swarm (a swarm in May, as the old rhyme tells, is worth a load of hay).  You’ve got to ‘twifallow’ or plough for a second time your unseeded land, and spread it with muck ‘if you will, to the knees’, and then sow it with peas or beans.  You need to hire the local children to pick up and clear away stones from the fields.  It’s time also to put your calves out to grass and make sure they have plenty of water. And you’d better start collecting fallen wood for winter fuel now, while the ways are dry and it’s easy to carry or cart it.  If there’s a surplus, you may even be able to sell some to the citizens of the nearest town!  Finally, in May your herb garden is at its best.  You make a mental note to tell Margery and Cicily to get on with distilling herbal drinks and remedies, for as Thomas Tusser says,

The knowledge of stilling is one prettie feat,
The waters be wholesome, the charges not great,
What timely thou gettest, while Summer doth last,
Think Winter will help thee to spend it as fast.

It’s summertime, and the living is easy, but the work never stops.  And you always, always have your eye on the end of the year and the oncoming winter.  Still, it's encouraging for his hard-working readers to see Tusser's prediction of a lifespan going well beyond the Bible's threescore years and ten.

"Man's age divided here ye hath, by prenticeships from birth to his grave":

The first seven years bring up as a child,
The next to learning, for waxing too wild,
The next, keep under Sir Hobbard-de-hoy,
The next a man no longer a boy, 
The next, let lusty lay wisely to wive,
The next, lay now or else never to thrive,
The next, make sure for term of thy life,
The next, save somewhat for children and wife,
The next, be staid, give over thy lust,
The next, think hourly whither thou must,
The next, get chair and crutches to stay,
The next to heaven God sends us the way.

[1] Mads: maggots
[2] by and by – straight away


Sally Zigmond said...

What a treasure trove. Just what I need to research sheep-rearing for my WIP. I shall hunt out a second-hand copy. Thank you!

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Really enjoyed the post. I've come across Tusser before but only as a brief reference so it was great to read this. Re your burnt milk bishop. I'm almost sure 'the bishop' is a form of drink rather than an actual bishop. I've seen it in a recipe book somewhere - Katie Stewart I think!

Katherine Langrish said...

Thankyou Elizabeth - that's intriguing! Sally - you're welcome and I'm sure you'll enjoy him!

Becca McCallum said...

This link has the bit about bishop (drink) :

Another place said it was from an old English phrase meaning that the milk would be burnt because the housewives rushed to their front doors to see a bishop going by and left the milk on the fire.