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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Classical Journal
Vol. 11, No. 6 (Mar. 1916), pp323‑332.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

 p323  The Crooked Plow​1
By Fairfax Harrison
Belvoir, Virginia

In the midst of some farm lands in Piedmont, Virginia, there is a garden pleasaunce, orderly and pleasantly planted with trees, with blooming shrubs, with a gay profusion of homely flowers in seasonable procession, amid comfortable expanses of trim turf whereon happy children are at play; and on an eminence in the cool seclusion of green jalousies stands what our English ancestors used to call a "shadow house," a refuge from the heat of the day, looking out on rolling acres of growing corn, of legumes, and of pasture where feed horses and cattle and "golden-footed" sheep. Far to the west are blue hills, the same blue hills of the Appalachian protaxis which make the Piedmont horizon from Pennsylvania to South Carolina, while to the south and east near by are green hills clad largely with chestnut and so revealing the geology of a lime-craving soil.

It is a place which is loved with the passionate love which spells home and aloofness from a selfish world, such as Horace had for his Sabine farm, such as inspired even the cynical Martial in memorable verses, such as guided the pen of the great Antwerp printer Plantin in one of the most delightful sonnets of the sixteenth century: such a place in fine as in all ages and in all lands moves a man of wholesome sentiment to do better work, to look up and forward and not down and backward.

On the walls of that shadow house I see four inscriptions, fur inspirations, four aspirations to the practice of a better agriculture as the oldest and the noblest occupation of a free man.

First, there are at verses from our Hebrew Bible (Gen. 1:2): "And God said: Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed and the fruit-tree yielding fruit, after its kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth . . . . and God saw that it was good."

 p324  Next, there are a few noble lines from the Antigone (340) of Sophocles: "Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man. . . . . Earth, the eldest of the gods, the immortal, the unwearied, doth he wear, turning the soil with the offspring of the horses as the plow go to and fro from year to year. . . . . Yea, he hath resource for all . . . . only against Death shall he call for aid in vain."

Then comes a precept from the wise old Roman Varro (R.R I.18): "For nature gave us two schools of agriculture, which are experience and imitation. . . . . We should do both these things: imitate others and on our own account make experiments, following always some principle, not chance."

And, finally, there is an allocution from the gospel of Buddha: "The Blessed One said: 'Faith is the seed I sow; good works are the rain that fertilizes it; wisdom and modesty are the plow; my mind is the guiding rein; I lay hold of the handle of the law; earnestness is the goad I use; and exertion is my draught ox. This plowing is plowed to destroy the weeds of illusion. The harvest it yields is the immortal fruit of Nirvana, and thus all sorrow ends.' "

Meditating the other day, in such an atmosphere and in such surroundings, I saw the inspiring spectacle of a procession of plows fallowing a grain stubble, each turning a deep furrow under the steady quick pull of three heavy Percheron mares, and as I looked my mind went back to Homer's description of the king supervising his fall plowing, which Hephaistos wrought upon the shield of Achilles: "Furthermore, he set in the shield a soft fresh plowed field, rich tilth and wide, the third time plowed, and many plowers therein drove their yokes to and fro as they wheeled about. Whensoever they came to the boundary of the field and turned, then would a man come to each and give into his hands a goblet of sweet wine: others would be turning back along the furrows fain to reach the boundary of the deep tilth. . . . . And among them the King was standing in silence, with his staff, rejoicing in his heart."

Who here cannot sympathize with that king? He had doubtless just come out of the council chamber where he had been listening to the wrangling of his elder statesmen, and it is sheer human understanding which gives us, who have had the same experience, comprehension  p325 of why he rejoiced in his heart as he stood among the plows, leaning on his staff. Not only was he comforted by the sight of them, but doubtless his nostrils were filled, as ours have been, with the sweet savor of the new turned earth, that best of balms for the weary spirit, which Cicero calls "the divine odor of the earth so peculiarly its own, and to which, imparted to it by the sun, there is no perfume however sweet that can possibly be compared."

And so I was led to think most of all of plows and plowing, and now bring you my thoughts as I have endeavored to bring you my environment.

As good plowing is ever the newest so also is it the oldest of the arts, my thesis today will be that for all our boasted progress we have not greatly improved upon the best practice of those who followed the crooked plow when it was first developed from the bent stick which gave it its name, that even two thousand years ago men knew how to plow well and tend their soil intelligently, for all that their example has been forgotten and their teachings remain unheeded by the average farmer.

Let us, then, examine briefly the plowing practice of the ancient Romans.

First, as to the kind of plow they used. Those who are curious in such matters have doubtless studied the commentaries of the scholars on the two classical descriptions of the ancient plow, that of Vergil (Georgics I.169‑75), and that of Hesiod (Works and Days 425). Vergil, in mellifluous verse, sings: "From its youth up, in the woods, the elm is bent by main force and trained for a plow stock, taking the form of a crooked plow: to suit this a beam is shaped stretching eight feet in front, while behind are attached two mold boards resting on the slade (or sole piece) with a double ridge." Hesiod tells pithily of two kinds of plows, one, what he calls αὐτόγυος, of a single piece of wood serving at once as a share and beam, which was doubtless the original crooked plow, and the other (in a descriptive word pregnant of progress long before Vergil's day) πηκτός, or "built up."

From these meager descriptions, suggestive as they are to the farmer, the learned men, who know more of etymological than of vegetable roots, have discoursed upon the "rude" plows of the  p326 Greeks and the Romans with an Olympian condescension to the benighted men who used them. They have even, in elaborately engraved illustrations of what they imagine the crooked plows to have been, produced for the modern student weird and wonderful pictures which have sorely puzzled the practical experience of many a college lad fresh from the tail of the paternal plow. Such youths cannot be blamed in their bewilderment, for in all candor it may be said that the descriptions and illustrations of the crooked plow in the dictionaries of antiquities​a would have puzzled Triptolemus himself, the inventor of the crooked plow, that cheerful and noble youth with the large brow and benign eye whom we see represented in the winged chariot presented to him by Demeter, on a red-figured vase by Hieron dating from 480 B.C. and now preserved in the British Museum.

The truth is that the very plows we use today had in all essentials their proto­types in the ancient fields of Italy, of Greece, of Egypt, and, who knows, even by the waters of Babylon. Throughout the ages there have been many improvements in the plow, but no fundamental changes. The ancients had in fact all the kinds of plows we have today, except gang plows, which is mere multiplication, and disk plows, which are not plows at all. They had plows with wooden socks for light soils, and plows with iron shares for stiff soils: Cato calls them respectively, from the territories in which they were used, campanicus and romanicus, and recommends the latter with the iron share as much the better. They had mold-board plows, plows with coulters (you will recall that the Hebrews under the domination of the Philistine were required to go to the land of the Philistines to get their shares and coulters sharpened); they had wheel plows; plows with broad pointed shares and plows with narrow pointed shares; they had plows with sharp points and sides, and plows with high raised cutting tops. One who can distinguish a plow from a hoe when he reads about it, as some of the learned commentators on the classics do not, can recognize them all in Varro and Vergil and especially in the eighteenth chapter of Pliny's Natural History. The ancients even had two-handled plows, though those we read about in the Latin authors had only a single hand-hold, what they called the maniculata.  p327 There lived during the Fifth Dynasty in Egypt, say at least 2,000 years before Christ, a gentleman farmer named Ti whose tomb or mastaba at Sakkara, near the ancient city of Memphis, has been explored in our own time. Among many beautiful decorations there is a fine tablet of agricultural scenes, including that of a plow with two handles over which the plowman is bending to make a deep furrow, and this plow is of the general shape of our modern plow, except that the share is straight and without a curved mold board. The plowing practice of Ti could not be illustrated by a picture of the primitive plow still used by the Portuguese peasant, which the handbooks cite so glibly. Ti knew a better tool than that.

The great improvement of the plow, the great labor-saver, which apparently the Romans never imagined, is the curved mold board. The books tell us that a short convex mold board was introduced into England from Holland early in the eighteenth century and was there developed into the so‑called Rotherham plow with a concave mold board, which in turn is the immediate ancestor of our plow of today. The modern iron plow dates only from 1819, when it was perfected by that true successor of Triptolemus, Jethro Wood of New York, who gave us the inestimable boon of interchangeable parts and is rewarded by being ignored in every biographical dictionary to which I have had access; while all the American authorities proudly but inconsistently parade the tenuous and impractical theories about plow construction which were entertained by Thomas Jefferson and Daniel Webster.

The "crooked" plow — the ancient plow — had a straight share, though it also had an attachment of two mold boards which stuck out behind on either side like ears, whence their Latin name aures. Anyone who has ever plowed corn with a double-shovel plow (a practice to be mentioned only in a whisper, for the agricultural colleges now tell us it is anathema, though I venture to say most of us who have ever plowed at all, have done it) will realize what would be the difficulty of turning a furrow in a stiff sod with such an implement, and yet that is what the commentators on Vergil's Georgics, from the grammarian Servius down to some of our contemporary schoolmasters, would have us believe the Romans did.  p328 The fact is that the Romans did not do their heavy plowing or breaking up with the kind of mold-board plow they had, but used the mold boards not plow for their second or third plowing. This was equivalent to our harrowing, when the soil was sufficiently mellow to admit of the use of such an instrument, just as it is possible to use the double-shovel plow in cultivating a planted crop. The heavy plowing or breaking of a sod was done by the Romans with a straight share. This may seem incredible, but they did it and did it well, if with the expenditure of much more labor, than we use today in the same operation.

I can perhaps best explain this by quoting to you here Columella's discourse on plowing and then comment upon it.

Columella was a Spanish gentleman who lived in the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius and wrote the largest and perhaps the most complete, as it certainly is the most agreeable, of the ancient works on agriculture which have survived the tooth of time. Columella is full of good sense, of good literature, and of real wisdom founded on the combination of a lively intelligence and what was evidently a thorough practical experience in the direction of actual farming operations. So far as I know, he has never been translated into English,​b but I will venture a version of what he says on the preparation of a seed bed, both because of its intrinsic interest and because he explains what no other surviving Roman writer does, how the Romans plowed so well with the straight share. In his second book, Columella says:

The more the land is prepared with care and intelligence the more fertile it will be. The most ancient authors have, therefore, set forth in their books the immemorial rules of plowing which plowmen should still follow in preparing a seed bed. First of all the cattle: they should be yoked evenly so that they shall step together, but not too close to prevent their going forward easily with a slow and steady progress, bodies in line and heads well up; thus their necks will be less tried and the yoke will pull evenly on their shoulders. This method of hitching is that most generally adopted. As for the method which is adopted in some provinces of hitching the cattle to the plow beam by the horns, it is properly condemned by all those who write on agriculture, because the strength of a draught animal lies in his neck and shoulders and not in the horns; in the proper position they pull with all the weight of their bodies, while in the other they are worried and suffer greatly, having their heads constantly bent backward. Furthermore, by this bad practice one can use only small plows which  p329 cannot turn a deep furrow: and a deep furrow is necessary to stimulate vegetation, for the deeper the soil is stirred the more the crop derives nourishment from it. In this connection, I do not agree with Celsus, who, to reduce the cost of plowing, advises that a plowman use a small and light share which can be drawn readily by small and light cattle. Doubtless the cost increases in proportion as one uses cattle of heavier draught, but our author has not realized that there is more to be gained by the harvest than there is to be lost in the purchase of good cattle. . . . . The plowman should walk in the open furrow and guide the plow so as to make alternately a straight furrow and a sloping one, without leaving anywhere what the country people call skips [scamna] that is to say, balks of hard earth. He must take care that the cattle hold their line and are under control when they come to a tree or a rock for fear that if the plow shall strike against such an obstacle the cattle may be sweenied [colla commoveat]. The plowman should guide them more by his voice than by blows, which should be employed only in the last resort in case the cattle are stubborn. He should never use a goad because that makes the cattle restive and inclined to balk; he can, however, make use of a whip from time to time. He should never stop his cattle midway in a furrow, but let them rest only at the end; this will stimulate their energy to pull through and they will do their work more quickly. It is dangerous to the cattle to drive a furrow longer than 120 feet, because they tire if more than that is demanded of them. When they reach the turn the plowman should stop and push the yoke forward to refresh their necks, for if this precaution is not taken regularly the neck will be rubbed and end by being covered with raw sores. When the plowman has unhooked and unyoked his cattle, he should rub them down, working the skin loose with his hand to prevent its adhesion to the body: neglect of this may cause a dangerous malady. He should curry particularly the neck and shoulders and give them a taste of wine if they are overheated — a trifle will suffice. But he should not tie them to their manger until they have cooled off and recovered their breath. Nor should he give them a large supply of forage at first, nor give them all their allowance at once, but a little at a time. When they have eaten moderately, they should be taken to the water trough and encouraged to drink by whistling to them. After they have drunk, they should be led back to the stable, and then, and then only, should the remainder of their feed be put before them. We have now said enough about the duties of the plowman and will proceed to discourse upon the plowing of a fallow.

Rich land which holds moisture a long time should be broken up [proscindere] at the season when the weather is beginning to be warm and the weeds are developing, so that none of their seed may mature; but it should be plowed with such close furrows that one can with difficulty distinguish where the plowshare has been, for in that way all the weeds are uprooted and destroyed. The spring plowing should be followed up with frequent stirring of the soil until it is reduced to dust, so that there may be no necessity, or very little, of harrowing after the land is seeded; for the ancient Romans maintained that a field was  p330 badly plowed which had to be harrowed after the seed had been sown. A farmer should himself make sure that his plowing has been well done, not alone by inspection, for the eye is often amused by a smooth surface which in fact conceals clods, but also by experiment, which is less likely to be deceived, as by driving a stout stick through the furrows. If it penetrates the soil readily and without obstruction, it will be evident that all the land thereabout is in good order; but if some part harder than the rest resists the pressure, it will be clear that the plowing has been badly done. When the plowmen see this done from time to time, they are not guilty of clodhopping.

Hence wet land should be broken up after the Ides of April, and when it has been plowed at that season it should be worked again after an interval of twenty days, about the time of the solstice, which is the eighth or ninth day before the Kalends of July, but not again the third time until about the Kalends of September; for it is not the practice of experienced farmers to till the land in the interval after the summer solstice unless the ground shall have been soaked with a heavy downpour of sudden rain, like those of winter, as does sometimes happen at this season. In that event there is no reason why the fallow should not be cultivated during the month of July. But when you do till at this season, beware lest the land be worked while it is muddy, or when, having been sprinkled by a shower it is in the condition, which the country people call varia and cariosa, that is to say, when, after a long drought, a light rain has moistened the surface of the upturned sod but has not soaked to the bottom of the furrow. Those plow lands which are cultivated when they are miry are rendered useless for an entire year. They can be neither seeded nor harrowed nor hoed, but those which are worked when they are in the state which has been described as varia remain sterile for three years on end. We should, therefore, follow a medium course and plow when the land neither lacks moisture nor yet is deep in marsh.

As for lands which have been baked by the sun, they can never be properly plowed in that condition; they are often so hard, indeed, as to prevent the share from cutting into them; or, if they are not as hard as that, they do not pulverize, but turn up in great clods which are of no use but prevent the land on which they lie from being properly harrowed; clods even cause a plow to jump from the furrow as if it had struck a rock. Add to this that all lands, even the most fertile, being leaner at the bottom of the furrow than on the surface, these clods as they come to the surface bring with them portions of the subsoil which are thus distributed on the surface. The result is that by mingling the subsoil with the top soil the field will for some time yield a smaller crop. Furthermore, the plowman working cloddy land works slowly and cannot, because of the condition of the land, perform his expected stint in the time allowed. These are my reasons for thinking that fallow lands should not be worked during hot weather; one should wait for rain to break down the furrows into condition for proper cultivation.

 p331  In plowing a hillside let the furrow follow the contour of the land, for in this way the difficulty of the slope can best be met with the least tax on man and beast, and washing will be avoided; but on the second plowing let the furrow run slightly oblique that is to say, now uphill and now down, so that the land may be turned over and the plow avoid its original track. . . . .

Before harrowing poor land it should be manured, for manure is a sort of food for the land and fattens it. To do this small heaps of manure should be distributed evenly over the land, wider apart on bottom land than on hill land, that is to say, at intervals of eight feet on the flat and of six feet on the hill. Manure should be distributed on the wane of the moon, which is most important to protect the land from weeds. For a iugerum [three-quarters of an acre] of flat land eighteen cart loads of manure are required, twenty-four on the hill.

As soon as the manure has been scattered it should be harrowed in so that the force of the sun may not waste its strength, and also so that it may become incorporated with the soil. For this reason no more manure should be hauled out on the land in a day than can be scattered and harrowed in the same day.

I venture to say that, in the short chapter which I have given you, Columella has given more sound and immediately applicable instruction in agriculture than is contained in any two publications of the scientists who discourse to us today in farmers' bulletins issued from Washington.

But let us come back to the Roman plowing with the straight share. You will remember that Columella says that the plowman must run alternate furrows, one straight and one sloping; in other words, do, all the time, something equivalent to what we call back furrowing. The purpose of this is obvious on a moment's reflection. With a straight share the ancient plowman, skilled in the mystery of his craft, accomplished in two operations what our plow with its combination of a straight land side and a curved mold board does for us in one; that is to say, it first cut and then turned over the furrow slice. With a straight share laid sloping the furrow slice will turn, because the breadth of the share lifted up on the land side will raise the earth to the opposite side, which, meeting with the flat of the buris or stock of the plow, would be turned over by it. This explanation of Columella is clearly sustained by a sentence of Pliny which has puzzled many scholars: Latitudo vomeris caespites versat, "the breadth of the share turns the turf" — for what Pliny asserts to be the Roman experience is possible with the Roman plow only when it is laid sloping in a furrow the slice  p332 of which has already been cut, as Columella recommends. Furthermore, it would not be possible, except by following Columella's practice of the alternate furrow, to realize the opinion of the ancient Romans, to which Columella refers and which is so often quoted throughout the whole body of Roman agricultural literature, that the mark of good plowing is that no sign of the plow should appear on the land. This is something the mechanics of the modern plow with the curved mold board could not accomplish even in the mellowest of soils.

My point is, then, that with a less perfect implement than that we now have the Romans plowed well and probably plowed better than many of us do today; at all events they despised the man who laid a crooked furrow and invented the word "prevarication" to describe his act. The witty old Cato, with the barbed tongue, said that the crime of prevarication originated in the field and was translated to the forum, but, however much committed elsewhere, should still be avoided in the field. Unfortunately, many of us who travel through the United States today see evidences that this crime is still practiced in the field, whatever may be the case in the modern forum.

Let us, then, take off our hats to the Roman plowman and to the crooked plow with which he did his work.

The Author's Note:

1 A paper read at a joint meeting of the American Philological Association and the Archaeological Institute of America at Princeton University, December 29, 1915.

Thayer's Notes:

a Among them, one of the most prominent at the time was Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities; Prof. Harrison may very likely have been thinking of its article Aratrum, which does, however, have the merit of collecting the sources in ancient literature.

b The Loeb edition of Columella (p. xxix) lists a lone English translation of him: Curtius, M. C., L. Iunius Moderatus Columella of Husbandry in Twelve Books and His Book Concerning Trees, London, 1745. Since Prof. Harrison wrote, another English translation was prepared for that Loeb edition (1941‑1955); it is widely available.

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