While Christianity was central to English civil life in the 16th and 17th centuries, the time in which the novel takes place, the village conspicuously lacks a church. Instead of formal religion, it relies on quasi-pagan rituals to celebrate its few festivals. Formal Christianity arrives only with Edmund Jordan, who says he’s going to promote religion as an act of charity towards the village but actually intends to use it to enforce his own authority. By contrasting the rituals that precede Jordan with the harsh Christianity he brings to the village, the novel suggests that organized religion hastens the decline of the community, and argues against embracing religious dogma, especially when that dogma is used as a coercive mechanism.
At the outset of the novel, the villagers are generally indifferent to Christian tenets; more important are rituals that celebrate agricultural milestones and emphasize their equality and security within a natural order. The village lacks a church; instead, it has a cross-shaped pillory, where both punishments and celebrations take place. Walter notes that both his marriage and Master Kent’s took place there, showing that the town’s rituals bind together its lowly and lofty residents. The absence of a church or a priest thus contributes to the town’s egalitarian character, because there’s little enforcement of outside doctrines and few divisions of rank between villagers.
Prior to the introduction of more formalized Christianity, the villagers already have a strong sense of ritual. The gleaning ceremony, which marks the end of a successful harvest, is tied to the sanctity of the earth. Notably, the ceremony is centered around the selection of a female Gleaning Queen, whose youth and fertility corresponds to the abundance provided by the land. The importance of the Earth and the primacy of female figures makes the ritual similar to pagan rites and contrasts it to the more male-centered Christianity. At each year’s ceremony, Master Kent’s speech also describes the mutual dependence of landlords, peasants, and animals on the earth, highlighting the natural equality of everyone in the village.
When Jordan arrives, his abolition of the village’s egalitarian culture coincides with his promise to introduce organized religion. Jordan objects to the fact that there’s no real church, and especially no bell. His announcement that he’ll find and finance a preacher is ostensibly a gesture of goodwill, but really a desire to standardize town life and introduce another source of authority who will reinforce Jordan’s capitalistic, profit-oriented vision for the village.
While Jordan never actually builds a church, he does introduce witchcraft hysteria (one of Christianity’s worst byproducts during this era) into the village. Moreover, he does so not out of any genuine belief or fear of a moral threat, but simply to frighten the inhabitants and tighten his control over them. Rather than face accusations of witchcraft, the entire village flees, allowing Jordan to bring the land completely under his own control. Jordan’s pious rhetoric about Christian values is deeply ironic given his ruthless and self-centered behavior toward the villagers; the novel’s portrait of him as an individual character isn’t an indictment of Christianity as a whole, but it does argue that those who claim to represent Christian values may be doing so to polish their own image while acting in their own interest.
Always lingering on the narrative’s periphery, the Beldams emphasize the extent to which the introduction of Christianity to the village proves fatal. For the novel’s duration, the Beldam husband and father are languishing in the pillory. While it’s the villagers who put them there, it’s Jordan’s negligence and suspicion that allows the older man to die of exposure, punishing them out of proportion to their crime of trespassing. There’s a clear parallel between the two scapegoated men hanging on a cross-shaped pillory and the narrative of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. Such a comparison implicates Jordan (especially since he refuses to bury the man in consecrated ground, adding bodily humiliation to punishment just as Roman soldiers did during Christ’s crucifixion), but also the villagers, who instigated the punishment. Moreover, while the elder Beldam dies for sins he didn’t commit, nothing is accomplished or redeemed by the old man’s death, just as nothing positive is accomplished by Jordan’s introduction of Christianity.
While her menfolk expose the hypocrisy of Jordan’s Christianity, Mistress Beldam represents a distorted version of the powerful female entities on which the village’s rituals rest. When she first arrives, she seems to possess the attributes of a Gleaning Queen; all the villagers note her youth and potential fertility, and Walter describes the almost totemic fascination that the village’s men feel for her. However, Mistress Beldam doesn’t contribute to the village’s renewal but instead accelerates its destruction.
After killing a horse, Willowjack, in the middle of the novel, she breaks everything she can in the manor house and burns all the cottages. Her destructive behavior contrasts with the abundance and regeneration initially promised by her similarity to Gleaning Queen, but it’s informed by the fact that she’s been pushed out of her own village by enclosure and enforced religion. In light of her history, Mistress Beldam’s association with rituals of renewal and her fundamentally anarchic actions show the extent to which the fulfilling culture of ritual is disrupted by enclosure and the modern religion it brings.
Harvest shows that for the village, earth-based, informal rituals reinforce positive values and facilitate a secure and cohesive communal life. In contrast, the brand of organized Christianity that Jordan attempts to impose on the villagers is characterized by fear and emerges as a mechanism to enforce external domination. This dichotomy shows the hypocrisy of those, like Jordan, who use Christianity to increase their own power; moreover, it suggests that religious dogma is detrimental, rather than useful, to a strong and egalitarian civic life.
Religion and Ritual ThemeTracker
Religion and Ritual Quotes in Harvest
Our work is consecrated by the sun. Compared to winter days, let’s say, or digging days, it’s satisfying work, made all the more so by the company we keep, for on such days all the faces we know and love […] are gathered in one space and bounded by common ditches and collective hopes.
The moment is always a rousing one. Our labors are condensed to this: a dozen tokens of our bread and drink, each tucked and swaddled in the oval of a grain, and sitting on a child’s undamaged skin. What should we do but toss our hats and cheer?
I bring you sheep, and I supply a Holy Shepherd too. There’ll be a steeple, higher than the turret of this house, taller than any ancient oak that we might fell. This place will be visible from far. And I will have a bell cast for the very top of it to summon everyone to prayer. And hurry everyone to work.
It feels as if some impish force has come out of the forest in the past few days to see what pleasure it can take in causing turmoil in a tranquil place.
Our church ground has been desecrated by our surliness. Our usual scriptures are abused. This body on the cross is not the one that’s promised us. Yet, once again, it’s Mr. Quill who teaches us our shortcomings. It’s Mr. Quill who’s intimate and kind. It’s Mr. Quill who’s valiant. It will not make him popular.
We’re used to looking out and seeing what’s preceded us, and what will also outlive us. Now we have to contemplate a land bare of both. Those woods that linked us to eternity will be removed by spring […] That grizzled oak which we believe is so old it must have come from Eden to our fields will be felled and rooted out.