No, its not an extract from a Frankie Howard or Kenneth Williams script [giving my age away there] but something to do with the traditional centrepiece of most English gardens: the lawn.
Nowadays its a relatively easy job to cut a lawn. We jump on our sit-on mower and ride up and down, or pull the rip-cord on the strimmer and stroll backwards and forwards until the job is done. But how were lawns managed in the days before such newfangled technology? The simple answer is either by grazing animals or by people holding nibs on the side of snaths [or sometimes sneads] which were fixed, by way of a tang, to a chine which had a very sharp dengle edge… or in plainer language… by scything.
You might assume that such a “primitive’ method of cutting meant lawns were relatively unkempt, with much longer grass compared with the close cropped stripey velvet look we are used to today. After all how surely a manually operated blade however sharp can’t compete with sophisticated machinery, but you’d probably be mistaken.
Where did the idea for having cut grass as part of the garden come from anyway? Read on to find out and to discover more about the ways in which the grass, lawns, turf, greensward and the sods in our gardens and parks were created and cared for in the past….￼
Perhaps the first and most obvious question is when and how does grass become lawn? Terminology is always difficult to interpret. Some early manuscripts refer to open grassland that’s controlled or cropped in some way calling it by the Latin pratum which is usually translated as mead from the old English medwe but we have no real idea of what that implied. But almost certainly it didn’t mean what we’d think of as a lawn.
However we do know how the word lawn itself evolved. The Oxford English Dictionary shows that originally it implied an open area or glade in woodland. In 1548 it appeared as “a place voyde of trees, as a laune in a parke or forrest”, and by 1615 as “A goodly forrest..intermixed with fruitfull and flowry lawnes.” Which is redolent of those mediaeval paintings and tapestries depicting flowery meads. There was also an obvious overlap between “man-made” lawns and “natural” ones where continual grazing of pasture land by stock – sheep, cattle,horses, or even rabbits- can create a very short, dense grassy sward that is like a modern lawn in distant appearance.
The first record I can track down about the existence of a lawn refers to the gardens at Clarendon, the royal palace in Wiltshire where Queen Eleanor had a ‘grass-plot’ made in 1245. This was probably done in conjunction with other garden works, including creating herbers of mown turf. Clarendon also had very early garden terraces too – see post on Mounts 12th Sept 2015. https://parksandgardensuk.wordpress.com/2015/09/12/mounts-and-mounds/
For more on Clarendon see Tom Beaumont James & Christopher Gerrard’s Clarendon: Landscape of Kings, 2007.
The archaeology at Clarendon was done after the death of the great garden historian John Harvey and takes the story back earlier than what he considered to be the earliest representation of a large and truly leveled lawn. This was a drawing of a game of bowls dating to the reign of Edward I, but unfortunately I can’t find an image of this. It is well documented however that the royal palaces of Windsor and Westminster had large level areas laid with turves and carefully maintained by rolling and mowing from the mid-13thc onwards. For more on this see Sylvia Landsberg, Medieval Gardens, 2003 & Teresa Maclean, Mediaeval English Gardens, 1981.
Bowls seem to have played a significant part in establishing ‘lawns’ since the game can’t really be played on anything other than short grass. In turn that implies that the sward of such bowling greens was cropped by animals or, more likely, deliberately cut by man. The oldest surviving green – The Old Bowling Green at Southampton – is known to have had been in continual existence since 1299.
The mid-13thc also sees the first proper written description of the creation of what we would probably recognize as a lawn in ‘On the planting of pleasure gardens’ a section of De Vegetabilibus et Plantis, a widely circulated manuscript written by Albertus Magnus, a Saxon nobleman in about 1260. He wrote…
“The sight is in no way so pleasantly refreshed as by fine and close grass kept short. It is impossible to produce this except with rich and firm soil; so it behoves the man who would prepare the site . . . first to clear it well from the roots of weeds, which can scarcely be done unless the roots are first dug out and the site levelled, and the whole well-flooded with boiling water, so that the fragments of roots and seeds remaining . . . may not by any means sprout forth. Then the whole plot is to be covered with rich turf of flourishing grass, the turves beaten down with broad wooden mallets and the plants of grass trodden into the ground . . . . For then little by little they may spring forth closely and cover the surface like a green cloth.” [taken from the translation by John Harvey in Medieval Gardens, 1981.]
Once the grass had started growing, it should, Albertus said, be cut twice a year . He also thought it would be necessary to repeat the whole process by returfing every three or four years. Eventually Albertus’s advice made its way into print, almost verbatim, in Pietro Crescenzi’s Opus Ruralium Commodorum, in 1471 [which then had many subsequent editions and translations].
For more on the medieval use of scythes a good place to start is the website of The Historic Gardener. Michael Brown used to be the head gardener at the Prebendal Manor, Nassington, a recreation of a medieval garden and writes from experience.
Such grassy spaces were a feature of both monastic and secular gardens. The 12thc cleric Hugh of Fouilloy considered that the green turf in his abbey cloister not only refreshed the beholders eyes, but reminded them of paradise. [See Paul Meyvaert, “The Medieval Monastic Garden” in Medieval Gardens, ed. Elisabeth MacDougall, 1986]
For more on green lawns and paradise see “The Greatness of Green” a post on the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s mediaeval garden blog site:
Much the same story is told by Gervase Markham in The Countrie Farm 1616 [This was his enlargement/translation of Maison Rustique by Charles Estienne ]. The digging, clearing, scalding beating are all necaessary “so that within a short time after, the grasse may begin peepe vp and put forth like small haires; and finally, it is made the sporting green for Ladies and Gentlewomen to recreate their spirits in, or a place whereinto they may withdraw themselues if they would be solitarie and out of sight.” For Markham’s full account see:
But none of these areas of close-cropped grass which we would probably recognize as a lawn, were referred to as lawns. Lawn as a description in this sense arrives only late, and even then gradually. Before then such features are referred to by a whole variety of names: herbers, turf, parterres, grass-plots or grass-plats or, following the French example, tapis vert or green carpet. For example, I looked in vain in Evelyn for references to lawn or even grass but the nearest I could find is in Kalendarium Hortense where he suggests that October is the right time “to Beat, Roll and Mow Carpet-walks”. There is actually not a great deal written about ‘lawn’ care anywhere.
Of course one reason for this maybe quite simply that as Stephen Switzer says in his Chapter “Of Grass and Gravel” in Iconographia Rustica (1718): “There seems to be little occasion to say much to this point, they being what are so well known and understood by all that profess anything of gardening and country business.” But luckily Switzer then goes on to talk about grass walks saying that he “could not, without injustice and deficiency… pass them over, they being those natural ornaments of our country seeks, by which we much excel all other nations, and indeed are the glory of all our gardens.” He explains carefully the best way of finding lifting and relaying turf, and from his comments it’s clear that, when selecting the turf to be laid in the garden, the best was from areas where sheep traditionally grazed. However, even if it was “cut from the rankest pasture ground… coarse as it seemed to be at first” it “came afterwards, with often Rolling, Mowing, and Cleaning, to be as fine as the best Sheep-walk Turf, and not so apt to grow mossy, and abound with daisies, plantain, mouse-ear, and other large growing herbs, that unavoidably spoiled the fineness of the Carpet.” Using the rough turf from fields that were going to ploughed could thus lead to substantial economy for the garden-making landowner. For Switzer’s full instructions see:
Later in the book Switzer begins to use the term ‘lawn’ in a sense closer to our modern understanding. He explains how “to measure and cast up any uneven ground in a Parterre, Lawn or such like Division’, of ‘lawn parterres’, and of ‘the Lawn or lower Parterre of Grass’. But he also uses it in the traditional sense implying open spaces in wooded areas arguing that “Wood is misplac’d …when it crowds so close….as to admit no open Lawn or Breathing”. But is also clear that these ‘lawns’ are vast – at least a quarter of a mile in length and should be designed to create views.
The older use of the word, persisted intermittently right through into the mid-18thc. Philip Miller for example in his Gardener’s Dictionary has a lengthy entry for ‘Lawn’. But, like Switzer, he is talking on a much larger scale.
Miller discusses where the lawn should be placed in relation to the house and what trees should surround it. but you can see from the opening paragraphs he is not concerned with anything remotely resembling a suburban patch of green velvet but something more substantial, and thus less ‘perfect’. You can read the full entry at:
Luckily we dont have to just rely on dictionaries and gardening books for information because we have the evidence for paintings and prints. The famous pictures of Chiswick by Rysbrack include one showing one of Lord Burlington’s new garden areas being scythed.
Even more informative are the series of 8 paintings by Balthazar Nebot of Hartwell House, which depict the gardeners at work in almost every major area of the garden.
There are many other 18thc images of gardeners working on lawns, including some showing the grounds of Stowe, West Wycombe, Hall Barn & Carlton House.
Scything was obviously a regular and continuous task for all the grassy areas within a garden, as was rolling and sweeping. It presumably occupied teams of workers much of their working lives.
Just before the lawnmower was first patented by Edwin Budding in 1830, John Claudius Loudon in his Encyclopaedia of Gardening explained the process of mowing in his usual wonderfully verbose way and saying that it is amongst the hardest work there is in the garden. Since I’m not a scyther and don’t have the technical expertise or knowledge I can’t say whether or not that’s true but I suspect it would be disputed by members of the Scythe Association. [and no I’m not making that up, it was founded as recently as 2011 & its a very lively and enthusiastic group as you will see shortly]
You might be forgiven however if you thought that scything the lawn died a rapid death with the arrival of Edwin Budding’s new invention. That’s very far from the truth. Scything continued almost unabated well into the 20thc.
Charles McIntosh, a great friend of Loudon, wrote about lawncare at great length in The Book of the Garden of 1855, but his recommended treatment differed according to the importance and positioning of the lawn. Although he still includes the large expanses of grass stretching away from the house as ‘lawn’ its clear that the modern meaning of lawn was in general use “by universal consent”. And we see the first real evidence of the beginning of the cult of perfection. In the most prestigious places, such the flower garden, MacIntosh asserts the lawn should be nothing but pristine grass with everything else ruthlessly removed.
For MacIntosh’s full 8 pages of advice see:
All the lawns could be maintained by machine or scythe, and scything was apparently still used to good effect even on the largest areas. At Bowood in Wiltshire “60 acres are devoted to the flower garden and pleasure ground on which the scythe and the rake keep a continual polish” [Gardeners Chronicle 1843] but the writing was on the wall. MacIntosh had earlier seen the advantages of technology and written about the antiquated way of cutting with a scythe. [ The New and Improved Practical Gardener, 1839]
For MacIntosh’s full section on lawncare in that on that see:
But the rise of the lawnmower and the strimmer was inevitable…. or so everyone thought until the the revival of interest in scything in the late 20thc and today the scythe is undergoing a small-scale ‘craft’ renaissance.
It might have been helped a little recently by Aidan Turner whose scything in Poldark seems to have prompted considerable interest on social media. This is adding a new chapter to the long and complex history of the scythe and its use and you can find out more at:
To see champion scythers in action take a look at:
and to see the scythe taking on the power of technology and winning see:
so….as financial and environmental pressures increase local authorities, stately homes, allotmenteers and home gardeners are, according to the Scythe Association, increasingly turning to the scythe, particularly the lightweight Austrian type rather than the traditional English one [don’t tell Mr Farage] as a zero-carbon alternative to garden & grounds management…. and scythes are even being used to cut lawns again!