1340 - Tithe Barn

The traditional barn was a building perfectly matched to its purpose - the storage and rocessing of cereal crops such as wheat, oats, rye and barley. Sets of massive double doors faced each other across the building, and the passage between them was flanked by wide storage bays. At harvest time, labourers unloaded each waggon as it came into the barn from the fields and stacked the corn - either loosely or in sheaves - in the bays. In winter, they would take the corn down, lay it on the hard floor between the doors and thresh it by hand using flails. This dusty, exhausting work loosened the ears of corn and separated them from the stalks. Both sets of doors were then opened and when the grain was tossed in the air, the draught separated the corn from the chaff. This process is known as winnowing. What does the architecture of this barn suggest about its origins?

Barns show a wide regional variation in building styles but the unmistakably ecclesiastical architecture, rich in Gothic detail, confirms that this example was built for a religious institution. Once part of Glastonbury Abbey's home manor, it is now the Somerset Rural Life Museum. The carved heads at each corner represent the Abbey's benefactors, while the interior has something of the atmosphere of a cathedral - indeed, the barn was offered for sale in 1850 as being 'entirely convertible into a public or private chapel'. Documentary evidence of its building date is vague, but dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) of the roof timbers suggests the 1340s. It is a true tithe barn a term commonly but incorrectly employed to describe all old barns in that it was used to store tithes, the percentage of produce paid over in lieu of tax to the church or monastery that owned the land on which the farmer was a tenant. Some tithe barns were enormous: one at Cholsey in Berkshire (demolished in 1815) was 303ft long. Tithe barns tended to be used more for storage than for threshing and winnowing but the barns on most farms were very much food-production factories. By the late 18th century the laborious hand-threshing process had been mechanised and many farmers subsequently installed a horse gin to drive the thresher, an economic energy source as their horses would find little other work around the farm in the winter months. When steam-powered threshing machines were introduced in Victorian times, it was easier to take the machinery to the crop than vice versa, and so corn was threshed in the fields once the harvesting was over. The barn lost its role as a workplace, being relegated to storage space, and no more were built to the traditional design. Ironically the advent of combine harvesters gave many old barns a new lease of life – the corn comes back wet from the fields and, with its generous headroom and wide doorways, the barn is an obvious place to site the grain drier.

Introduction

1731 – Granary