Measuring the field

By Anne-Marie Culhane

Using a steady pace to walk the field’s perimeter stopping only to follow the flight of a bird or pick up something that catches my eye. 2792 paces in all. 41 minutes walking.


I perform prostrations along the long edge of the Field, pausing occassionally when lying face on the earth, heart beating into the soil or standing still to listen. This takes two hours and twenty minutes.

This action was partly inspired by reading the following extracts from Andrew Jones Harvest customs and labourers – perquisites in Southern England, 1150-1350, Agricultural History Review 25 (1977) 14-22 which I came across during the research period for A Field of Wheat. This touches on some of the physical measurements that were used by the agricultural workforce during the harvest.

*Perquisite (perk) a privilege, gain, or profit incidental to regular salary or wages

Maitland once suggested that a man’s limbs were the things which Nature had endowed him to measure distance and quantity (see F.W.Maitland, Domesday Book and Beyond, Cambridge, 1897 p.428)

The human body was used to provide the standard lengths for the customary binding. On a number of manors in Somerset the circumference of the reeve’s head, or that of the hayward, was the basis. At Stogursey and Rodway, in 1301, the reaper’s perquisite was tied in a binding which stretched twice around the hayward’s head. This measure was also used at Dundon (1287) and North Curry (1314).

Human attributes other than the size of the head and legs were used to determine the size of the sheaves of stubble and reeds.

The sheaf of stubble had to be a size which would fit snugly under an arm, the hand gripping the edge of the tunic. A variation involved the hayward or reeve measuring the sheaf: it was stood in the mud, the hayward then gripped his hair below his ear, and the sheaf was passed through the circle so formed. If it left no mud on the hayward’s face or arm it was too small, and the tenant was under suspicion of shoddy work.

When I was researching the origins of prostrations I also came across these short extracts from Werner Herzog’s film Wheel of Time which follows Buddhists pilgrims travelling to Bodhgaya, India for the Kalachaktra initiation. Many of the pilgrims undertake prostrations to demonstrate their dedication and devotion crossing hundreds or thousands of miles to arrive at their destination.