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What the Sorbonne Doesn't Know About Scythes

You have no idea how many of these hebdomadal dissertations are commenced by a letter from a reader. All I do is feed in a sheet of paper and sit back. One of the most productive letters in this respect followed my asseveration that the "rabble" of the French Revolution included farmers swinging hand scythes, the hand scythe being a formidable device but useless in combat because of its oblique design and the way it must be handled.

The reader merely says that she attended the Sorbonne and was not informed that the Revolution was turned by farmers using hand scythes. I will not dispute at this late date with the Sorbonne, but I can state with some authority of my own that in general, by and large, if you see somebody, in war or peace swinging a scythe, he's a farmer.

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I attended the Sorbonne myself in a bygone matriculation, taking several centigrade degrees, and spending more than 20 minutes in the bibliothque alone. At the time, I had no idea the Sorbonne taught any agricultural subjects.

In the beginning, the Sorbonne was instructional in the philosophies and dogmas, intended as a theological support. After the Revolution, the first emperor changed its direction and connected it with the University of Paris. It is, we all know, an institution to be mentioned with respect, pronounced "sor-BUN." It lingers archaic among universities for its conservative attitude toward farmers and hand scythes.

Another letter on this subject faults me for not including information about whetstones, as a scythe auxiliary remembered from a girlhood in Switzerland. Farmers, she says, came down off the glaciers each haying season to mow valley grasses and make hay if the sun shone. The whetstone had a thong and hung from the scyther's belt.

I well remember that in the Hollywood version of "Heidi," the grandfather was shown splitting his winter firewood with a chopping ax, so I'm doubtful if a Swiss farmer would know much about whetting a scythe. Also, there is some doubt that Swiss scythes get whetted. This needs clarification.

Scythes in Europe, away back, were made of cutlery steel, and a whetstone applied as we did in Yankee-land would immediately spoil the scythe beyond recovery. Such scythes, when dull, were sharpened on an anvil with a farrier's hammer, the cutting edge artfully thinned by gentle tappings.

Most of the early immigrant farmers who came to live on farms in Maine brought such scythes with them from Germany, Russia, Finland, Sweden, and so on. As a boy I watched them "dress" their scythes. It was delicately done, and as I watched I'd be told the best scythes must never be whetted.

I have looked in my useful desk dictionary, and I do not find the word "rifle" used for sharpening scythes. We had whetstones and used them on many a tool, but for cuffing a new edge on a haymaker's hand scythe we used a rifle. Every mower carried his rifle in his hip pocket, for it was not on a thong, and with the old-day farm overalls you did not wear a belt. Fact is, men seldom wore belts anyway; we had suspenders, called galluses. (Don't tell me, tell the Sorbonne.)

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The rifle was, indeed, a whetstone, but of a finer grain, and with a wooden handle, which a whetstone didn't have.

The mower, having "touched up" his blade, would reach behind and shove his rifle, handle up, in his hip pocket. There was a jaunty manner of carrying a scythe rifle so it was always handy but wouldn't leap out and be misplaced. There was also a way to hold a scythe, by the instep, blade up, and extended away from you. Then you could pass your rifle back and to in rhythmic strokes, tilting it one way out and t'other way back, as you've seen meat cutters do with a blade and steel. But we never used a steel as a rifle.

AN attachment for a hand scythe was called a cradle, and that was for mowing grain. With hay, it can fall any way and it matters not. But ripe grain needs to have the heads all on the same end of the straw, for "stookin'" and threshing (thrashing).

The cradle caught the mown grain as it fell and laid all the heads together in the windrow. The cradle was a contraption of wooden pieces put on the scythe when harvesting wheat, barley, oats, and buckwheat to be hand flailed. With threshing machines, later, a cradle wasn't necessary.

The flail, a concomitant, was merely two stout hardwood sticks tied together to make a hinge. The farmer swung the long one and brought it down so the short one thumped flat on the threshing floor. This batted the grain away from the straw. A flail was also used for podding dry beans, and, now and then, for incapacitating a careless thresher who swung and forgot to duck. A flail would make a far better weapon in a revolution than a hand scythe.

All of which, today, comes under the category of "Who cares?"

As to Heidi's grampie and the cutting ax, this needs Sorbonne attention. European axes were completely unsuited to the huge job of harvesting American timber. The cutting, or chopping, ax was thin in the blade when it was developed for Maine use, and instead of a heavy, unyielding handle it had a helve that sprung and bounced with each stroke. The splitting ax had a thicker "wedge" and was not meant for a chopping ax; it would take two men a week to get someone's ax out of the stick. He couldn't do it alone.

If there's more, I'll be back as soon as I read the morning mail. I'm hoping to hear from the Sorbonne. Je sais lire le franais.

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