One of the quirkier perks of studying agricultural history (and archaeology) is discovering unusual terms and phrases which, I’m sure, I wouldn’t otherwise have encountered. So it is with “lazy beds.” I can’t even remember where I first read or heard the term, but it’s lodged itself firmly in my memory. It sounds vaguely like a gentle insult, somewhere between “lazy bones” and “lay a bed.” Nor can I quite remember what it means – something to do with tilling the land with spades. So for this week’s post, I’ll try and track down what “lazy beds” actually are (why are they “lazy”?!), and secondly to see if and when they occur archaeologically.
The Oxford English Dictionary provides a very useful starting point, as ever, and suggests that the term is specific to potato-growing. According to OED, it refers to a bed of potatoes with a ditch either side; earth is taken from these trenches to cover the potatoes. Usage references date between 1743 and 1855, and apply almost exclusively to Scotland, Ireland and the West County.
It’s a good starting point, but I wanted more, so I turned to the invaluable British and Irish Archaeological Bibliography – an unmissable resource for archaeologists working in the British Isles. A search for lazy beds returns only one published result, but this paper provides an interesting expansion on the OED entry, extolling the virtues of the “brilliantly ingenious” method (Whelan 1997, 67-8). The trench earth deposited onto the lazy beds, Whelan explains, helps to nourish the soil, whilst also raising the seed bed and so improving drainage. (If you read last week’s post, you might be reminded here of the raised bed cultivation that apparently took place in the Amazonian savanna!). Also in Whelan’s account is a possible clue to the laziness of the lazy beds: “The narrow Irish spade is not primarily a digging tool, but is designed to undercut and invert sods” (p.68). So, is it “lazy” because the soil is simply inverted by spade, rather than being broken up by the plough? That is, because the soil is not actively worked quite so much?
Or perhaps I’m misunderstanding the use of the word lazy. A return to the OED reveals the roots of the word are obscure, but one possibile etymological link is with the Old Norse lasenn, which means ‘dilapidated’ or ‘fragile’ rather than ‘idle’ – and indeed, lazy beds were designed to allow the cultivation of rough, poor, dilapidated soils. So should we really be thinking of lasenn beds? And if there is an etymological link with Old Norse, could this help us to trace the roots of ‘lazy bed’ cultivation in the British Isles?
Perhaps… but the problem is that the system is highly functional – you might even say functionally simple – and we don’t really need to associate it with any particular culture. It’s probably unnecessary to suggest that the Vikings introduced lazy-bed cultivation to Ireland, Scotland, etc. Why couldn’t variants develop independently, according to local needs? In any case, the system has been identified in Roman Britain, far removed in time and space from the Atlantic/Norse world – at a villa at Godmanchester, Cambridgeshire. Unlike in the Atlantic zones, the “hand-made ridges produced by spade labour” at Godmanchester were probably not meant to tackle scrappy old soils (Green 1978, 110-11). Rather, according to the excavator, they may have been a response to “the small size of enclosures” (ibid.) – the implication is presumably that these enclosures were too small to plough, and so needed this labour-intensive form of spade cultivation. If so, then these were not lasenn beds at all – the soils were fine, and it was more of an active choice, not an environmental necessity, to opt for spade cultivation over ploughing.
So these soils were not lasenn and, given all the spade work involved, the workers would hardly have been idle; at Godmanchester at least, the lazy beds weren’t in any sense lazy. This topic could clearly be discussed at much greater length but, like the Irish spade, I can only really scratch the surface here.
Green, H.J.M. (1978). “A villa estate at Godmanchester”, in M. Todd (ed.) Studies in the Romano-British Villa (Leicester), pp.103-16.
Whelan, K. (1997). “Settlement patterns in the west of Ireland in the pre-famine period”, in T. Collins (ed.) Decoding the landscape (2nd ed.; University College Galway), pp.60-78.