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Threshing Wheat in Gambatesa, Italy

The picture is was taken in 1947. It shows the old way to séparer les grains de blé des épis ("separate the wheat from the chaff").

Wheat being threshed in Gambatesa, 40 KB


Gambatesa on the map of Italy, 2 KB
Gambatesa is a village in central southern Italy between Naples and Rome.

Looking at this photograph, I am reminded of a comment one of the ladies at the 6 to 8 Club in Geneva made when she saw the photograph of Carmina Valente at the village fountain in Gambatesa (from September 1960). "How old is that picture?" she asked me. When I told her the date she was astonished and said that the picture looked like a 19th Century picture. She was sure that the image was much older: "It looks 100 years old!"

And I am reminded of what my father told me once while we were looking at some images of the war devastation in Afghanistan (2002): "After the war [WW2] we were living like them!" Assaia meserie e poca sold' (La miseria era molta e i soldi erano pochi, "Of extreme poverty there was much, and of money there was little"), the elderly people in Gambatesa would say. The Valente living at the Masseria Valente ("Valente Farm") said to me once, "I know what I tell you looks strange or unbelievable to your generation, but it was like that." This photograph gives a little idea of what "that" was.

The Wheat Harvest

First the wheat had to be cut down using hand sickles; there were no machines to do this work. Then the threshing and storing of wheat in Gambatesa used to take about one month. The wheat had to be threshed in a particular way that must be very old and that is still done by the poor farmers in the Middle East (e.g. in Jordan).

Preparing the Threshing Floor

For that purpose a place called a l'aie ("the threshing floor", in Gambatesa's dialect) about 10 meters (33 feet) in diameter was prepared in a flat area a few meters from the masseria (i.e. farmland under cultivation). It was from one year to the next more or less always the same area. All the stones had to be removed from the surface and the ground had to be cleaned of all kinds of grasses. After that people used to pour water on the ground and start to beat the ground with all kinds of tools that could turn the ground into a very hard surface, like a kind of natural concrete. After that the aria was covered during the night with some straw in order to keep it humid. The next morning the ground would be just like concrete.

Tramping the Wheat

Then people would cover the aia ("threshing floor") with wheat, and, with horses and oxen pulling a large stone, the threshing of wheat could start. The horses used to walk in circles for hours. The aim was the separate the wheat from the straw (chaff).


Once this work was done the second part ("winnowing") could begin. To separate the wheat from the straw (that is, to remove the chaff from the mix the horses and oxen had made by pulling the large stone), there was a need for wind, not too strong of course. With large forks (pitchforks, homemade out of wood) the mix was thrown up and the wind would take away the straw and the wheat would fall back to the ground.

Storing the Grain

Hours later it was possible to fill large bags with wheat that would be stored in wood silos on the masseria. These wood silos looked like large cupboards -- that is, like a big clothes closet, squarish in shape, not round. They were quite small, less than 2 meters tall. You loaded the grain from the top, so they couldn't be too tall; the tallest were about 2.5 meters tall. There was a small window lower on the silo and there was a cascade of wheat when it was opened: this window is where they loaded the wheat into bags (The grain was not stored in bags inside the silo).

Dry Weather and Wind

Once the process was over they had to do the same again and again until the whole harvest was processed. That is when the weather was good and there was wind! Because if there was rain and / or a lack of wind, the process could take ages!

There had to be grain enough to last one year to make bread with.

The Threshing Stone

I have never seen the harvest. I have seen many old wood silos (u cascone; in Italian, il cassone or il cassettone, but I am not sure if the Italian means the same as the dialect word). I have never seen the stone which was pulled by the animals.

The people used to quarry the stones themselves from the sandstone banks of the Fortore River. The stones were about the diameter of a thick tree: if you tried to hug a tree and your finger tips just touched, that was the size of the stone. They had to make a hole in the stone to put a rope through so that the animals could drag it over the straw. It was an ancient, primitive method.

They went on using this method for wheat until 1950-54. But after that they still used it for other cereal grains. And for a type of large bean in a hard black shell. But this bean mash was only to feed the pigs. (When these beans are green people also eat them; but only a few in a bowl of soup, because they are quite large. But to people who are not used to them, they have a disgusting taste.)

Farm Cats watched the Grain

Then the cats were in charge of the security of the wood silos, to stop "the rats from going dancing" (Da ce fà balla i zoccle) on the wheat.

Milling the Grain

They used to take some wheat from the silos to the mill to grind into flour; they went to the mill every month or 15 days. There were two mills, one was on the toppo (Contrada Carestia). The other mill was at Dietro gli orti ("behind the potatoes", my father said to translate it; "Behind the vegetable gardens" is a district in the village of Gambatesa, near the Church of San Nicola).

These mills were used by the whole village; some people went to one, others to the other. The older mill was run by water, the newer mill by electricity. The mills were privately owned, one by the Mignogna family. Some people used to pay the miller with money, others with flour.

Fodder - Food for the Animals

There were no barns or haylofts (fienili) in Gambatesa. The winters were not so cold, so that animals were kept in the stable (which was the lowest floor of the house or a room dug out of the tufo).

To make the fodder, grass had to be planted and allowed to grow long and then it was cut and dried under the sun. This grass is a type of clover that grows about 30 cm. (1 foot) tall; it is called luzerne in Switzerland, which is alfalfa in Italian. Then the straw was made into a haystack (il muchio). This haystack was kept outside during the winter.

In Gambatesa, cattle were kept just to work in the fields, like a tractor, not for milk and cheese like in Switzerland. They were not kept in a barn but in the stable, like the horses and donkeys.

Ancient Sources

The following passage from Homer's Iliad (Book xx, between lines 490-503) shows that the Gambatesan's method for separating the grain from the chaff dated from pre-history. The translation is by C.E. Robinson in his book Everyday Life in Ancient Greece (Oxford, 1933, p. 23-24).

And, as when broad-browed bulls are yoked
White barley for to tread,
Upon a threshing-floor well-lain
And 'neath the feet of lowing kine
Is lightly sifted out the grain ...

The same passage, translated by Robert Fitzgerald (1974), follows.

As when a countryman
yokes oxen with broad brows to tread out barley
on a well-bedded threshing floor, and quickly
the grain is husked under the bellowing beasts ...

Hephaestus in his forge made a shield for Achilles, and on it he placed scenes of agricultural life, among them the grain harvest (Book xviii, between lines 550-560).

And next a lord's domain deep-soiled
He set thereon and in it toiled
Hireling reapers; in their hands
Sharp sickles they were plying.
And down the furrow feel the swathes,
Some well in order lying
And some the binders bound with straw;
For binders there were three,
And boys behind them plucked and bore
By armfuls for to give them store
And the work went on unceasingly. (tr. Robinson, op. cit. p. 17)

In E.V. Rieu's translation:

... showed a king's estate, where hired reapers were at work with sharp sickles in their hands. Armfuls of corn fell down in rows along the furrow, while others were tied up with straw by the sheaf-binders. Three of these were standing by, and the boys who were gleaning behind came running up to them with bundles in their arms and kept them constantly supplied. (Penguin, 1950, p. 351)

He put there, too, a king's field. Harvest hands
were swinging whetted scythes to mow the grain,
and stalks were falling along the swath
while binders girded others up in sheaves
with bands of straw -- three binders, and behind them
children came as gleaners, proffering
their eager armfuls ... (tr. Fitzgerald)

Related Pages:

Photograph from the collection of Rosaria VENA, who grew up at the Taverna Vena in Gambatesa and married Francesco Valente's brother Salvatore Valente, Forlì (FO).

The URL of this Web page: https://www.roangelo.net/valente/oxgamba.html
Written by Angelo Abiuso (Geneva). Last revised: 29 February 2008 : 2008-02-29 by Robert [Wesley] Angelo.

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