21st November, 2020
A symbol of Spring, a harvest prayer, a token of love, a tradesman's badge; the ancient art of braiding a 'corn dolly' is almost as old as wheat itself. Before mechanised agriculture, corn dollies were created all over Europe to celebrate the scything of the last sheaf. According to legend, it was belived that the spirit of the corn - a fertility sprit made homeless by the harvest - must be accomodated if a good crop was to be forthcoming the following year; stalks from the last sheaf would be woven together into a shape or figure, in which the spirit would overwinter and emerge, restored, in the spring. The earliest reference to them dates to the late 1500's, but its orgins are likely rooted in earlier pagan traditions which, much like wheat itself, likely emerged from the Middle East.
Corn dollies are created by braiding the pliable stems of old varieties of wheat, oats, rye and other cereal crops. They can be either abstract or representative. Designs vary by country and region and. In the 20th century in the United Kingdom, the tradition evolved into a creative artform. The most traditional forms are merely pleasing symbolic shapes, while others are fashioned after humanoids, objects, tools or animals. They can vary from simple three stem plaits, to ambitious scultures involving hundreds of wheat segments.
The Harvest Ritual
Much of the traditional ritual element surrounding corn dollies and the cutting of the last sheaf has been lost, swept up in the wave of 20th century enthusiam and and faux-folklore which has elaborated and embellished upon the few surviving anecdotal accounts of the superstitions and observances surrounding this heritage craft. The result, as in so many cases, was that truth and myth have been inextricably mingled, preserving the handicraft at the cost of its original cultural context and customs.
We do know that the associated ceremonies were as varied as the corn dollies themselves; in many parts of England the last sheaf was often ritually prepared by trussing its ears together into a 'mare', before the harvesters would make competitive attempts, sometimes blindfolded, to cut the stalks by throwing their sickles at it. In some regions the woven stems were preserved as a lucky token, kept at home until the following year when they would be burned, fed to the best or weakest livestock or ceremonially ploughed into the field; in others the sheaf or dolly was hastily delivered to a neighbour since, once the crop was felled, it was believed the 'aging' wheat spirit would quickly spoil, turning from a maiden to hag. In Brittany it was always woven into a female idol, in Germany into a puppet called the 'old man', which was then symbolically married to a young woman. In yet other places, the reaper of the last sheaf himself would be wrapped up in the stalks, becoming a human embodiment of the spirit of the corn.
Depending on the local custom, the corn spirit was either revered or despised - sometimes propitious and protected, other times symbolically driven away, abused or 'killed'. It was variously personified as a maiden, an old hag, or a grandfather. In some places it was anthropomorphised by dressing the corn in human clothing, in others the corn itself would be woven into a crown or garment, usually given to a pretty girl to wear. Whatever the particulars, the end of the harvest was a time for great revelry and celebration - symbolising, for many, a temporary reprieve from hard work in the fields and a moment to be enjoyed before the long, cold nights of winter arrived. The corn spirit, whose many names included corn mother, harvest wife, mother-sheaf, hare or mare, had a varied role in these festivities, but the underlying purpose of the ritual was invariably to ensure a good harvest in the year to come.
Tokens of Love
In the early 1800's itinerant harvest gangs travelled from farm to farm, selling their services to land owners in need of manpower and disseminating different corn dolly rituals and designs along the way. Much like sailors in port, it is likely that shortlived love affairs were common. Professions of affection were often said to be accompanied by the offer of a mock ring, woven from the same stalks of corn that likely concealed illicit trysting. Other stories state that particular corn dollies were given to one's paramour to wear as a token of love. It should be noted that the authenticity of these tales is not certain, but they form an important aspect of the corn dolly 'mythology' that exists today. One example of a suposed 'love token' corn dolly, is the 'Mordiford' design, named after the Herefordshire village whence it is said to have originated.
As we move into the 20th century, we find a renewed interest in straw-working as an art form. This was later magnified by a corn dolly exhibition at the Festival of Britain in 1951. Suddenly we are surrounded by the likes of 'Welsh Border Fans', 'Yockleton Dollies' and 'Herefordshire Lanterns', all claiming to be ancient or traditional designs. Many of these relatively recent varities seem to have acquired fanciful backstories, either passed down by previous generations or invented for the sake of a good yarn. We also see the proliferation of larger, more complex designs, woven mainly for their novelty value and often sold at fairs as decorations. They were used by tradesmen at market - worn like a badge and decorated with some small token symbolising their profession, such as poultry feathers, horse-hair or wool.
Contemporary Corn Dollies
Whether or not it remains true to its origins, the art of creating corn dollies has certainly survived. In some ways it is now richer than ever, having merged with other straw-working techniques developed by hatters and thatchers, to produce an ever widening variety of straw-craft. Designs and ideas continue to evolve, keeping the skills alive, but we might also consider that it persists only in a diminished form - that of a decoration - having forfeited much of the magical tradition from which it emerged.
This is the quandry faced by many heritage crafts. When their original purpose is no longer relevant in the modern world, inevitably they must submit to adaptation - at the risk of losing both their meaning and their value - or else face extinction. By reassimilating and repurposing heritage crafts in order to fulfil the fancies of today, we give them the opportunity to survive and thrive. It is, of course, through the process of continual adaptation that folk culture is formed. Its very fabric must be manipulated if it is to flourish; left cold, it withers. However, it is also important that we take care to understand these cultural hand-me-downs in their original context, to record their history and preserve their truth, else we risk, to use a colloquialism, "throwing the baby out with the bath water". It is cultural context that gives traditional crafts their meaning, distinguishes them, connects us to previous generations and gives us insight into the fundamental universality of the human psyche. Lose this, and we risk supplanting our cultural heritage with an appetising, but artificial, 'fauxlore'.
HOW TO PLAIT A CORN DOLLY
Cut four stems of hollow wheat.
Soak them in warm water until pliable.
Bind them under the ears with a clove hitch.
Braid the four stems together with a compass plait.
Leave the ends of stalks unbraided, about the length of the ear.
Bind the two ends of the braid together with a clove hitch, forming a plaited ring.
Arrange the free ends of the stalks between the ears, flattening the dolly out as you do so.
Leave her under a heavy book to dry and stiffen. If you like, finish her off with a ribbon around her waist.
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