Sunday 17 January 2010

Turning a team of oxen - any idea how?

Well - that’s the question I was asked by Jannie as she commented on my recent post on Books, books, Glorious books. The time is over - the moment is here no more waiting with bated breath for a posting on how a farmer turns his oxen! Extraordinary question .. but there we are – it’s a rum old world ..

J K Rowling in Harry Potter uses the spelling “baited breath” thus, while Shakespeare uses “with bated breath, and whispring humblenesse” in ‘A Merchant of Venice’ (1596).

Ploughing with oxen. A miniature from an early-sixteenth-century manuscript of the Middle English poem God Spede ye Plough, held at the British Museum

Do oxen get bated breath? The answer is ‘they must’ .. because it was established that a furlong (furrow length) (40 rods) was the distance a team of oxen could plough without resting. (Plough or plow – you takes your pick .. !!)

In the picture above the medieval ploughman on the right appears to carry a goad, a traditional farming implement used to spur the oxen on from time immemorial.

Egyptian goddess Neith - bearing her war goddess symbols, the crossed arrows and shield on her head, the ankh and the Egyptian goad

The emergence of farming as confirmed by the Sumerian Farmer’s Almanac clay tablet (dated between 1500 – 1700 BC) confirms the emergence of urban societies in ancient Mesopotamia. This Ancient Near East civilisation existed for a long period of time from circa 5,300BC until circa 600BC.

Domestication of oxen in Mesopotamia and by its contemporary the Indus Valley Civilisation provided mankind with the pulling power to develop the plough and thus cultivation of more land.

Ancient Mesopotamia
The name furlong derives from the Old English words of furh (furrow) and lang (long). Dating back at least to the 9th century, it originally referred to the length of the furrow in one acre of ploughed open field (a medieval communal field which was divided into strips).

The system of long furrows arose because turning a team of oxen pulling a heavy plough was difficult. An acre (in old usage) is an area that is one furlong long and one chain (22 yards) wide.

The furlong (660 feet) has historically been viewed as equivalent to the ancient Roman unit of measurement “the stadium” (625 feet), which in turn derived from the Greek System. These ancient Roman units of measurement were built on the Hellenic (Greek) system, which had been based on the Egyptian system, and were comparatively consistent and well documented.

After the fall of Rome, Medieval Europe continued with the Roman system, which proceeded to “diversify” leading to serious complications in trade, taxation etc. At the turn of the 14th century (1300), England by decree standardized a long list of measures, including important units of distance and length, for example: foot, yard, rod, furlong and mile.
Ancient Egyptian plough, circa 1200 B.C. Mural in burial chamber of Sennedjem. Scene: Plowing farmer in Osiris’s House. Sennedjem was an ancient Egyptian artisan – one of his titles was “Servant in the Place of Truth” – meaning that he worked on the excavation and decoration of the nearby royal tombs.

The historical rod length is 16 ½ feet and may have originated from the typical length of a medieval ox-goad. 4 rod lengths would be the medieval field strip width of each furlong ploughed.
These farm-derived units of measurement remained in use and were used in the new worlds by the settling immigrants. They were all based around the amount of land an ox, or team of oxen could plough.

There would be differences as different soils in separate countries would make the base unit of medieval land area slightly different – but the principles of standardising measurement remained.

This is probably more clearly explained in Wikipedia’s article on Furrow – and there is an excellent depiction. The farm-derived units of measurement are explained thus:

1. The rod is a historical unit of length equal to 5½ yards. It may have originated from the typical length of a medieval ox-goad.
2. The furlong (meaning furrow length) was the distance a team of oxen could plough without resting. This was standardized to be exactly 40 rods.

3. An acre was the amount of land tillable by one man behind one ox in one day. Traditional acres were long and narrow due to the difficulty in turning the plough.

4. An oxgang was the amount of land tillable by one ox in a ploughing season. This could vary from village to village, but was typically around 15 acres.

5. A virgate was the amount of land tillable by two oxen in a ploughing season.

6. A carucate was the amount of land tillable by a team of eight oxen in a ploughing season. This was equal to 8 oxgangs or 4 virgates.

Ploughs were pulled by oxen until the domestication of draft horses suitable for slow heavy work, but oxen continue to be used in subsistence arable farming, and were even used here in Sussex until the early twentieth century.
Ploughing in the Nivernais, France by Rosa Bonheur: Musee d’Orsay in Paris.

It appears that to turn the oxen, a decent space is required, hence strip farming – whereby the oxen team can go up one furlong length, turn at right angles for 4 rod lengths, enabling the turn to be made, before ploughing the reverse furlong length, and so on.

So as I mentioned in my post on Books, Books, Glorious Books ... written text originally copied the method of driving an ox when ploughing a field – so alternate lines of writing read in opposite directions!

It has been an interesting subject – and one that has taken me from writing texts, to standards of measurement through the ages, and that I certainly did not expect when I started researching ‘How a Team of Oxen turn when ploughing’.

Measurements are a quagmire subject to discuss – but I love the old names and their derivations .. Chain, Rod, Ell, Hands, Fathoms, Stones ..

Here are two short videos on Ox Ploughing – amazing what you find! The American one has hill-billy music included (if that’s right?), while the Ugandan reflects life as it is and was for thousands of years – except now there’s a camcorder around!
You Tube: (1 min 24 secs) Plowing (American spelling) a Field with Oxen – Old Sturbridge Village. Historian Emily Pawley tries her hand at ploughing a field 1830s style behind a team of Red Devon oxen at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts.
You Tube: (1 min 13 secs) In January 2004, on Mt. Elgon, eastern UGANDA. The Sabiny is a Southern-Nilotic people living on the north slope of the mountain and the population is about 110,000. Many of them said that their ethnicity is related Kalenjin who have many branches in Kenya. In the last decades of the 20th century, hybrid maize growing became more popular and nowadays fields of maize and bananas cover the landscape. In recent years, maize has become the main crop. They use usually four oxen, sometime when the soil of the field very hard they use six (not only two like other ethnic groups), for tilling their maize field. They call this system as "sbaidit ak yeeyik". This movie I (Slystonester) took near from Cheminy centre

An additional note 2 Oct 2011 - Historical measure of land area equal to a quarter of an acre of 40 square perches is a Rood.

Dear Mr Postman – thank you for visiting .. at least the snow has almost gone. My mother still hasn’t quite got over her throat chesty cold, but we had a chat for half an hour and had a look at some iphone photos .. which she has taken to her heart. We’re going to do a revamp of the decorations this week – so I shall be kept busy – I needed to warn her, as it will interrupt her quietness, and she will be prepared.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories


Betsy Wuebker said...

Hi Hilary - Fascinating! I don't think we appreciate how hard farming was until quite recent improvements made things somewhat easier. My father and his brother lost their dad during the Great Depression while they were boys. Worse, the horse died a few days later and the crops needed putting in. They hitched the Ford Model T up to the plow. My uncle drove because he could reach the pedals, and dad (12 years old? I believe) followed behind to cut the furrows. I am ashamed to say we laughed at this when we were children. I can't imagine how difficult that would have been now that I know better. Thanks.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Betsy .. thank you. As you say I'm sure we don't realise how hard life was for our forefathers.

What an interesting story - sad about your grandfather and the horse - but hitching up the Model T and ploughing the lands! They were narrow those early cars - I remember my Dad driving round our house and garden in Surrey with out disaster, as the wheel base was quite narrow.

Great to hear from you -
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspiratonal Stories

Jannie Funster said...

Yay!!! The oxen post, whoo-hoo.

My dad talks about rods, furlongs and acres too. Old school farmers. Pecks in a bushel too.

Did you run into cubits anywhere in yous oxen travels? Biblical, of course but not sure if or when the cubit became outmoded.

It is interesting the baited and bated breath juxtapositions.

My Mom's brother, George used oxen all his life instead of horses, plodding but steadfast like Uncle himself. Mom has some wonderful pictures of him and his teams.

p.s. Your parcel all packed, wrapped and ready to post tomorrow! Bank holiday today, MLK day.


Blue Bunny said...

wen i hellping my jannie move firnicher, she say i strong like a ox!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Jannie .. yes I did it!! Much to my surprise!!

All those old names I love .. I’m so interested to hear your Dad talk about rods – not sure I’ve heard them used in my lifetime .. but knew a rod was a measure. Pecks and bushels too.

Yep – cubits I know – they’re from Egyptian times .. a forearm length .. yours, mine, Jim’s, Michael Phelps – he’s tall isn’t he? .. his arm must be twice the length of ours nearly?!

I couldn’t think how to spell it .. and up came the answer in my googling! So bated/baited deserved a mention, I thought.

How interesting that Uncle George used oxen .. so the video is true and still continues – is he still alive? What wonderful memories to have and the pictures to go with it .. now you and Kelly can see how far back in history his working traditions go .. and where they’ve stemmed from: the links of history.

Excellent – thanks .. I must find out which of Jan’s posts it appears from and acknowledge winning the prize! Looking forward to its travels across the Ocean and receipt this end .. grand news!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Blue Bunny ...If she say zee strng lyke ox .. is she using the goad on U .. Eyes hope not. It’s gud of U to help move firnicher .. ‘nd the pine needly tree???

She’s got mooore wrk fur U I tinks .. those pesky decrshns.

Keep eeting ‘em karrits for Xtra Strungth ...

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Patricia said...

Oh I love this post Hilary, My great Uncle did all his plowing with horses and never had a gasoline run tractor....I still do not understand "stones" as many of the folks on weight loss blogs write about losing "stones" and I can only guess the equivalents.

I probably should google it?

And words and old words are such good sounds to roll around in the mouth and enjoy with the ear..

not all this "yah" and "like, like, like" really now! what is all that supposed to mean?

Thanks for this great post Jannie and Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Patricia .. it was a fun post to write. Interesting that your great uncle used horses, rather than gas tractors.

Stone are Imperial weights - often used for weighing potatoes - hope you'll laugh .. 14 pounds ..6.35 kgs .. I can't manage kgs .. real struggle.

Words - I agree are so important and so interesting as to their derivation .. defining their roots back to their meaning ..

I sincerely hope that law and regulations will not be interspersed .. with yah, like, like you know .. etc etc .. ? as to what it means ..

Yes - good question to pose from Jannie ..especially as her uncle only ever used oxen to plough (plow) ..

Glad you enjoyed it .. good memories ..

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

T. Powell Coltrin said...

Oh my goodness this was so interesting. I come from a long line of farmers.

You are a great article writer.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi JW .. thanks for that .. amazing how many Americans come from a long line of farmers .. I suppose that shows how lands were cultivated and thus the country was born.

Good to see you here .. bringing back some of your family memories from those early days.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Blue Bunny said...

my jannie leeving this link to jan's posting yoo have in yor minde.

no my jannie wonting yoo to kno that her unkil is ded like a doornob. but he wuz reel reel nise of a persin.

and my jannie did mails yor fabbuliss paarsil today!


Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Blue Bunny - a thinking and considerate bunny - thanks for the link - now I can go straight there!

Sry to hr tht yur Jannie's unkil has died, bt tht U rmembr him 'nd hs kndnez ..

Hey .. parsley fabbuliss paarsil on its way ..
XXXXXX tank U ... lukng frwrd to its arrval ..

Mark said...

You provide a wealth of information. Thanks for sharing.

Megan "JoyGirl!" Bord said...

Okay, now THIS is fascinating to me, and more so than I ever thought farming or measurements could be. I love knowing where all the terms originated from and also, as Jannie wondered, how to turn a team of oxen. (smile)

Thank you, Hilary!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Mark - glad you appreciate the info - & hope some of the gems appropriately will inspire your teaching -

Good to see you - Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Megan .. it is fascinating I agree .. how life began all those years ago - all those little quirks, twists and turns .. who on earth would have thought oxen would have influenced how we actually wrote?!

Glad you enjoyed it and it brought a smile of wonder to you ..
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Liara Covert said...

This is about stepping out of the known and choosing to explore the mystery of unknown. To contemplate possibilities, reflect on documented history, expands awareness and sparks new levels of reflection and remembering.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Liara .. thanks for coming by .. it certainly opened my eyes and was really interesting to find out about. As you say - things pop into the conscious mind now that relate to the posts I've written and certainly I look at things differently. The world is so informative from those days gone - it's all been done before.

Great to see you - Hilary

Anonymous said...

Great post.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Thank you for the comment. Hilary