Belarusians .Traditional Economic Activities

Agriculture — the base of peasants’ life

Agriculture was the base of economic life of   Belarusian villagers and the entire population of the East-European cultural space.  

By the XIX century the main agricultural system was the three-field system when one portion of land was planted with fall cereals, the second one with spring crops, and the third was left fallow. At the same time more archaic slash-and-burn agricultural system persisted, which was used in the small plots in forest regions, as rule for planting flax, hemp, potatoes. In this case after two or three years of planting and exploitation of a field the land was left fallow for a period from two to seven years or was used for pastures and mowing.

The main cereal culture of population was rye. The other sowed cereal was barley which was used for making croup and as raw material for beer.  The favorite croup for alimentation was the buckwheat which plantings crops occupied significant spaces.  People planted millet, peas and oat generally used for feeding livestock but also for making jellies and as an addition to flour in years of poor harvest.  Among the industrial crops plantings of flax and hemp which fibers were used for making linen and seeds for producing edible oil occupied vast space. 

Vegetables had great importance for Belarusian diet. Apart of field vegetables the orchard cultures such as cabbage, cucumbers, onion, garlic, carrots, turnips and beetroot were planted. Due to climatic conditions Belarusian horticulture wasn’t distinguished by diversity of fruits; however planting of apple, pear, cherry and , plums trees, as well as  raspberry, currant and gooseberry was typical for it.  

Agricultural tools

Environmental and soil-climatic differences in the territory of Belarusians   left their stamp on the agricultural techniques, agricultural instruments and transport means.

The sokha a light wooden ard, consisting of two body ards with local construction particularities was spread everywhere. Specialists distinguish the Polesian ard (also Lithuanian, Podlyashkaya), the Vitebsk ard (Russian "perekladka” — a device with a spade-like component that turned over the soil on the right and left) and the Podneprovskaya one alias Mogilevskaya. Two latter variants adapt the body ard to a single animal harness when ploughing. The Polesian ard is harder and adapts to bullock harness, the area of its use coincided with spreading of the sokha among Ukrainians in Polesie. Everywhere both Ukrainians and Belarusians used the ard pulled by a horse to spud potatoes the second in importance plant after cereals up to present time.

The instrument for spud the soil and seed coating was a harrow embedded in a grill. It was with wooden and later metallic teeth which were fastened with thin twigs in crossings of two patches, longitudinal and lateral beams. In Polesie where the most archaic slash-and-burn technique for a longer period the harrow vershalina, made of a top of a fir tree with branch stumps were used in layads— the plots cultivated in forests. 

Alongside the ploughing implements manual tools mattocks, hoes and spades wer used as supplementary equipment.

Belarusians used the equipment known by all agricultural peoples of Europe a sickle, a scythe, and a rake for harvesting. As a rule, women harvested rye and low cereals with a sickle. Men used the scythes with grabs fastened to them which allowed lying tall recently harvested wheat evenly.

The ways to keep harvest

Harvested cereals were dried in sheaf in fields which were transported to threshing floors or to a barn-floor where they were threshed with flails and beaters, then they were winnowed separating grains from chaff with wooden spades or trowels. Prepared grain was put in stores and barns; it was also kept in barrels hollowed out in cut trunk of the tree and barrel-like straw containers koshes for daily use. For longer keeping Belarusians used more archaic construction — pits dug in the soil and covered with the birch bark.

Farmed and prepared for the winter root crops and potatoes were put in vaults and a part of them in koptsi   — the pits covered with planks inside and with many lays of straw and land on the top.

Milling grain:  Traditional beliefs associated with miller

Grinding grain was made in wind or water mills; people also used mortars and millstones at home. 

Millstones− the manual mills were was for making fine-ground croup, flour and salt.  Grindstones were made of fine-grained quartz, the upper one was framed with metallic frame and a handle to roll it was fastened to this stone with a hole.  Grain was put in a hole and after grinding it fell in a gutter. These grindstones used to grind small amount of grain predominantly millet, buckwheat and maize at home. 

Mill is construction for grinding grain in flour with help of the wind or water. This circumstance in combination with noise accompanying functioning of mill made it the place concentrating the evil powers in popular conscience. Therefore, the miller was thought to be a person acquainted with evil powers in particular   with the vodyanoy a male water sprit helping or preventing to roll a ring of mill. The water spirit was blamed if a mill failed or a dam broke. In order to secure  uninterrupted work of a mill offerings of grain, flour, bread crumbs and vodka were thrown or spilt  in water; in case of frost a piece of lard was put under  a mill ring  for “greasing”.

Not all days milling grain at mill was allowed; people tried to carry new grain in Monday, Wednesday and Friday. At mill it was forbidden to curse and quarrel, to take something from it without permission, and it wasn’t safe to fish near the mill as though it could bring misfortune. Millers themselves often supported rumors and beliefs about their connection with the evil powers; the miller endowed with supernatural power could demand a higher price for milling.   

Livestock breeding: the second in importance occupation

The livestock breeding was and remains the second in importance occupation of the population directly linked with agriculture. The livestock breeding provided people with food products, animal labor, fertilizers and raw materials for crafts such as skins, hides and wool. Almost every Belarusian peasant family kept several cows for milk and meat; horses were bred not only for personal needs using them as pulling animals and transport but also for sale in other regions. In north-eastern part of Belarus a local breed of horse strong and enduring was bred. Usually the master of house showed strong affection to horse trying to find for it the best place in barn and to feed it as better as possible.  Sheep breeding also had significant importance in household economy because wool was considered to be necessary material for production of outdoor clothes, textiles, and meat was a part of peasants’ diet.

Pig breeding had significant importance and pork was the favorite meat of Belarusians, one of necessary product for cooking festive and meat dishes. Preparation of salt or smoked lard was particularly important. Caloric and fit for long shelf life it main the main food when people departed on a long trip, to make hay in remote places from their home and during the harvest time.

Pigs were usually kept at home; very seldom they were allowed to pasture under the supervision of boys-herders. In the Polesie free pasturing of pigs also existed when they were sent to the islets, reed beds  or sent to  the forests rich in oaks where pigs were fed with grass  and acorns and returned with offspring  to home stead. It was believed that meat and lard after half-wild living had particular taste. Belarusians kept in small number.

Poultry was bred everywhere as well as ducks and geese in the nearby pools but usually no more than 10.

Fishing in Belarus

In some regions, for example in the river areas of the Polesie with abundant fish resources fishing was traditional and essentially important occupation. 
Fresh fish was served at the table and dried or salted one prepared by local population was sent to fairs where it was bartered for bread and other food products. 

The ways of fishing depended of water sources and fishing tools they were almost the same among the Slavic ethnic groups: Ukrainians, Belarusians, Poles, and Russians. In small rivers various keepnets, traps and peremets (a sort of rope with hooks on laces) were placed, fish was also “hunted” with harpoon especially in night time, illuminating the water and attracting fish with burning oakrum.  Damming of streams with different dams with passes for fish and traps behind them from which the fish was taken was also widespread.  Various kinds of dragnets and seines made of flax or hemp fibers were frequently used as well.

Hunting – supplementary occupation of men

Like fishing hunting maintained its economical importance in spite of intense deforestation meanwhile peasants considered forest as common property.  Traditional worldview conserved specific rules and taboos related to personality of hunter and the object of hunting.  In Polesie and Podlyashie – the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands precisely in the Białowieża Forest hunting continued to be an important component of the image of earner for male population. Alongside firearms skillful huntsmen used traps, snares, and pitfalls to catch wild animals and birds   such as boars, wolves, hares, wood grouses, black gouses, partridges and water fowl. In different seasons various species of animals and birds were supplement to the traditional diet of population especially in spring when the food stored in autumn get scarce. For instance in the Pinsk Polesie in spring young men went to the marshes to gather duck eggs regarded as delicacy in every house on Sundays and festive days.  

The beekeeping and honey hunting

There were two types of apiculture as a supplementary occupation in Belarus:  honey hunting and bee keeping. The first one continued to exist in Polesie in the most archaic form; the second type developed in the areas where the conditions   for cultivating gardens existed or woodlands alternated with meadows.  For honey hunting in forest peasants searched the trees with holes or hollowed them adapting for bee trees. They also made wild hives borti hanging them on the high trees in forest with help of the lifting devices lezivo and petli. The honey hunting has its origins in the pre-agricultural human activity — gathering. The secrets of profession were passed in family from father to son; the occupation was endowed with the sacred meaning. The prohibitions strictly required that no woman in the state of menstrual period approached to the belongings of honey hunter and honey gathering.

Among Belarusians apiary beekeeping was developed in the Sub-Dniepr, in particular, in the Mogilev province and the Eastern Polesie; almost everywhere, bee hives were placed in the gardens of peasant farms. Market production was seldom produced in peasant apiaries; more frequently honey and wax were used for domestic consumption. Honey was additional delicacy and candles were made of wax.

The Bee Keeper in Popular Conscience: Sacred Semantics of Honey and Wax.

Apiary was generally the occupation of old people which was due both to plenty of “leisure time” and traditional notions about the person of bee keeper who should possess moral integrity and avoid sexual contacts. According to popular beliefs old men and monks fit the best these requirements. The honey hunter should not curse, be irascible and stingy: the first honey should be shared with the fellow-villagers and a part of it was given to the church. It traces back to the custom of collectors’ times when honey was divided between all the members of village community. Honey and wax as products of bees’ activity were endowed with sacred semantics. Candles were made of wax.  In life cycle rituals honey was used raw and for making dishes and beverages. It was considered to be the food for the dead. During funeral rituals kolivo, kanun (bread crumbled in honeyed water) and syta - honeys diluted in water were prepared; kytya with honey was traditionally served at wake. Moving to new house people smeared all its four corners to make life sweet; constructing house honey was placed in corners alongside bread and coin. Honey was used in popular medicine.


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