Saturday, May 8, 2021

Sickles, Scythes, and the Conundrum of Slow Technological Change

When humans started harvesting wheat on a large scale the tool everybody used was the sickle. The earliest sickles had cutting edges made of stone blades or just a row of small flakes.

When bronze came along, people immediately started making metal sickles; these were such important tools for people who lived on grain that the cost was worth it.

And then iron. In Europe and the Middle East people kept using sickles to cut wheat until the Middle Ages, and they continued to do so in parts of Africa and South Asia until modern times.

But honestly a sickle is a terrible tool for harvesting wheat. It swings horizontally, so to cut the wheat near the bottom you have to swing it along the ground, which means working on your knees or in a squat. It's horrible for your body. It's also slow. There is a much better tool for this task, which Europeans have known for the past 1500 years: the scythe. With a modern scythe, a skilled harvester can work about three to five times as fast as someone using a sickle. (See video here for a side-by-side comparison.) And there is nothing very complicated about a modern scythe, which is just a longer, angled blade attached to a longer, curved handle, with a little side grip stuck on.

Which brings me to today's question: when was the scythe invented and why did it take so long for it to replace the sickle?

Carolingian scythe, c. 850 AD

Wikipedia has this about the history of the scythe:

The scythe may have dated back as far as c. 5000 BC, and seems to have been used since Cucuteni–Trypillia settlements, becoming widespread with agricultural developments.[citation needed] Initially used mostly for mowing hay, it had replaced the sickle for reaping crops by the 16th century, as the scythe was better ergonomically and consequently more efficient.

That's quite a leap, from the middle Neolithic to the 16th century, with no data in between.

This Neolithic rock art is said to depict scythes 5,000 years ago, but I am not convinced.

Britannica has this:

The exact origin of the scythe is unknown, but it was little used in the ancient world. It came into wide use only with agricultural developments of the Carolingian era (8th century AD) in Europe, when the harvesting and storing of hay became important to support livestock through winters.

The question of whether people had scythes in Roman times is much debated, but anyway there are about 10,000 Roman sickles in European museums and not one object that everyone agrees is a Roman scythe. So if they did have them, they didn't use them very much.

So here is a puzzle. A scythe, which is not a very complex tool, is vastly superior to a sickle for cutting grass. Wheat and barley are grasses, and the scythe works better for them, too. So why is there next to no evidence for the use of scythes before 500 AD? 

And why was it first used only for cutting grass for hay, with some people going on cutting wheat with sickles for centuries? This images is from the Luttrell Psalter, c. 1330, and it can stand for hundreds of medieval images of people harvesting wheat with sickles. And these are people who already knew about and possibly owned scythes, which are, remember, 3 to 5 times as fast.

I have no idea, and so far as I can tell, nobody else knows, either. 

It is possible that sickles had some advantage we are missing. I wonder if maybe using a sickle led to less wastage of grain, which would have been a lot more important to ancient peasants than it was to 19th-century farmers. But if that is true, nobody I can find has documented it.

So I am left with thinking that people used sickles because they had always used sickles, and had invested years of their lives in getting skilled with sickles, and considered harvesting grain such a vital task, or even such a sacred task, that no risky innovations could even be attempted. Not until we crazy moderns came along, constantly obsessing about speeding everything up, willing to try a hundred experiments on the chance that one might work, did the scythe replace the sickle as the grain harvester's tool of choice.


G. Verloren said...


My thoughts.

First up, economy of materials. Sickle blades are smaller, requiring less metal.

This makes them cheaper, obviously, which is a bonus - but it also has a practical effect in terms of making them more economical to craft. A local blacksmith can make and sell many more sickles than they can scythes with a given amount of iron and a given period of time. Scythes may be better tool for tool, but if many different customers all want their own tools for their own personal usage, it makes more sense to outfit everyone with a cheaper, simpler, less effective tool than make a superior product that uses up more of your limited metal and leaves some people who want tools without any tool at all, either because they can't afford it, or because there are fewer tools to go around.

Sickles also have the benefit of being easier to craft - making a larger blade requires larger tools in a larger workshop. A smaller blade can be heated in a smaller forge, shaped on a smaller anvil with a smaller hammer, quenched in a smaller oil or water bath, and is generally less likely to shatter or break at any point during the crafting process. If you are working with substandard metal, smaller tools are VASTLY preferable because the crafting process itself is far less likely to fail while working on smaller pieces, simply due to the physics involved.

Then there's the actual nature of the blade to consider. Scythes and sickles may look very similar, and in function they are, but as I understand it the actual blade geometry is quite different. Sickles seemingly tend to be thicker and sturdier blades, more akin to a knife, while scythes are deceptively thin and fragile, almost more akin to a very long razor blade. As a consequence, a sickle isn't sharpened to the same degree as a scythe - nor is it sharpened in the same manner.

It's easier to maintain a sickle, because you can maintain it with nothing more than a whetstone. You simply grind the blade to an edge, as you would with a knife. But sharpening a scythe requires an addition step.

The thinner and sharper blade of a scythe wears down more quickly, and it needs sharpening more frequently - but before you sharpen it, you often also need to "peen" it. Peening is a form of hammering - whenceforth we get (for example) ball-peen hammers, which have a ball head on them meant to be used for... you guessed it... peening. Peening involves hammering out the "body" of the scythe blade on an anvil and drawing out the metal, thinning it out, and "rebuilding" the edge of the scythe that has worn away with use. This is necessary because the body of the scythe blade is thicker than very thin edge, and you need the edge to be thin to get is as sharp as a scythe needs to be to work properly.

A scythe has to be VERY sharp to do its job well, and it must also only be used on suitable types of plants. It's fantastic against soft grasses, but it will struggle with anything much tougher than that - woodier, rootier, knottier plants are a nightmare for a scythe to deal with and potentially with damage it's very sharp, very thin, very delicate blade.

G. Verloren said...


A scythe is a highly specialized tool - it is intended for a very specific kind of role, and it inherently lacks flexibility in how it can be used. It costs more to make, it takes more skill to make, it takes more work to maintain, and it only really is useful in a very specific context and need.

In contrast, sickles are cheap, easy to make, easy to maintain, and perhaps most importantly are general purpose tools. Poor peasants would quite naturally have preferred tools that could be applied to several different purposes, even if they sacrificed efficiency or effectiveness in performing those purposes.

If you asked a peasant family if they would rather have one scythe that they can only use on grasses and which takes more work to maintain, or two to three sickles which they have multiple people using at once, which they don't have to work as harm to maintain, and which can be used on tougher plants besides grasses as well, potentially even woody ones... it seems obvious that they would take the sickles.

And of course, if the town blacksmith didn't have a large enough forge or enough personal skill or a reliable enough supply of high quality enough steel to make scythes reliably anyway, they wouldn't have a choice to begin with. Sickles would be all that was readily available or affordable.

And let's not forget simple logistics! Yes, a scythe is a more ergonomical design for the individual wielder, when it comes to actually cutting a crop. But there's more to harvesting than just cutting! Scythes require you to employ both hands for the purpose of cutting alone, and to leave what you cut on the ground, either for you to pick up later, or for someone else to pick up behind you as you progress.

A sickle has the advantage of requiring only one hand, allowing you to use the other hand to grasp and manipulate the plants - both before you cut, allowing you to pick specifically where you want make the cut on the plant; and after the cut, allowing you to take the cutting you already have in your grasp and do something with it.

You can grasp a plant, cut it, grasp another, cut it too, collect as many cuttings as you can in a single hand, then deposit them somewhere (into a basket, or hand them off to a helper, etc); or even tuck your sickle into a belt or other convenient place on your person to free up your other hand, tie off the cuttings into a bundle, dispose of the bundle, then retrieve your sickle and continue without interruption. None of that is possible with a scythe, where you will have to set the entire thing down to free your hands, and pick it back up again. It's just less "handy".

Scythes are simply more of a luxury item than sickles are, and they seem to appear in times and places where people are generally better off; where people can afford to own both general purpose tools and specialized tools; where it is desirable to have a single person performing labor with a specialized tool rather than several people performing the same labor with generalized tools; where metal is easier to come by and higher quality; where common village smiths have better tools and workshops and skills; etc.

John said...

It's certainly true that scythes are larger and harder to make than sickles. But major medieval estates had a very large investment in equipment; some of them had multiple moldboard plows, multiple wagons, multiple harrows, and so on. They could afford scythes. In fact some of them had scythes, but used them only for cutting hay.

The process of harvesting was different, but bundling the wheat was not an issue on a medieval estate with lots of workers. One person could have cut, with others coming behind to bundle. That's how it was sometimes done in the 19th century.

G. Verloren said...


I guess the meat of the question really is the exclusivity of use, huh? Why hay, but not other suitable grains?

You already suggested culture / tradition, as well as using sickles to minimize waste, but could there perhaps be other factors?

Might the later usage of scythes with wheat have coincided with some later change in the wheat itself, made possible through 19th breeding innovations? Were wheat stalks and the like tougher and more fibrous in the past, and therefor less suitable to cut using a thinner, sharper, more fragile blade on? Or perhaps the plants didn't change, but some new metallurgical method or smithing technique changed scythes themselves and made them more suitable for use on wheat closer to the present?

szopen said...

Ditto for what Verloren said - I work with a sickle in my garden sometimes and it's very efficient tool when you work alone.

ANother factor might be an inherent traditionalism of the pastoral life. There was socrealist POlish movie about a peasant who iintroduced scythe into some backward village. Can't remember much except that everyone was cursing him because he has no respect for the tradition and for the wheat. Maybe there is something to that too?