Adam, Cain and the spade (updated)

Alex Sapoznik delighted many yesterday at the IHR seminar when she discussed the emergence of the spade as a significant agricultural tool in medieval England. She emphasized the cultural recalibration of the image of the spade in the central to late Middle Ages, particularly in iconographical representations of post-paradisiacal Adam and Eve. Adam is depicted holding a spade and Eve spinning a yarn, matching the much-invoked 14th-century epigram ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’, attributed to John Ball, a priest in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The representation is an interpretation of Genesis 3:17–19:

Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.

Adam holding a spade in a 13th-century rose window from the north transept of Lincoln Cathedral. Copyright Gordon Plumb

What is worth mulling over – and nobody brought this up last night – is the question of, well, material inheritance.  I mean, if spade-driven agriculture emerged from the Expulsion, why shouldn’t there be a parallel ‘invention’ of the bequest? In other words, what happened to Adam’s spade? It must be assumed that in a watertight universe as that inhabited by the medieval man, the spade, that is the object of Adam’s arch-penalty, would survive a second generation. In fact, it did. Evidence may be found in a 14th-century French manuscript which depicts Cain killing Abel with an iron shod spade.

14th century. French. Ox. Bod. MS. Douce 211, fol. 8r. Bible Historiale. Abel received four spade-inflicted wounds.

According to Genesis 4:2 (KJV), ‘Abel was a keeper of the sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground’ (lat. agricola). When Cain kills Abel, Scripture does not say how he does it, but only that ‘Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him’ (Gen. 4:8). Just like in the Expulsion passage cited above, the instrument of punishment and death, respectively, was added to the narrative. Was Cain’s spade the same that God handed down to Adam as a result of disobedience? If God’s punishment brought death in addition to labour, pain and well, agriculture, then one would expect to find the spade fulfilling the same function, that of death in a subsequent narrative. Besides, the view that Cain’s spade was only an agricultural tool may not hold, since Abel is not depicted in the context of his occupation.

(update) Since I wrote this post, I have had another look at the Tournai baptismal font in East Meon Church, Hampshire featured in Alex’s paper.

1393494_10151937251718700_1428899160_nThere is a remarkable feature in this visual narrative: the role of the angel. Eve is holding a distaff while spinning, a traditional representation which we can find in a large number of visual artefacts. Adam, however, is not yet delving, for the angel, standing at his left, is no doubt showing him how to use the spade.  This is rather subversive for two reasons: one, that the angel assumes a teaching role. He has left the middle position between the forefathers and now seems to focus on Adam. I do not believe that this angelological statement finds a parallel elsewhere in the medieval period; two, it is implied that the angel has already ‘trained’ Eve in the use of the distaff. Adam comes second in this supposed post-Expulsion instruction. He is the only figure without a tool, which must have been raised some learned eyebrows at the time. If so, then we may be dealing with an artisan who valued craftsmanship above land cultivation.

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