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Rakes - history of a harvesting tool gone bad

Updated on February 22, 2015

implements of war and agriculture

Use of  a rake in war
Use of a rake in war | Source
An Egyptian copy of a rake found in a tomb after 600 BCE
An Egyptian copy of a rake found in a tomb after 600 BCE | Source
A Roman rake found in England, from the first century
A Roman rake found in England, from the first century | Source
Soviet girls return from hay harvest - the one with a scarf on her head looks like me
Soviet girls return from hay harvest - the one with a scarf on her head looks like me | Source
Traditional farm rake in China, the patou by Qi Baishi in Public Domain
Traditional farm rake in China, the patou by Qi Baishi in Public Domain | Source
 "Dangba" used against pirates from 1368 - the fall of the Mongols- to 1644
"Dangba" used against pirates from 1368 - the fall of the Mongols- to 1644 | Source
"Yueyachan" or monk's spade used to fight bandits or bury the dead. Said to be  older than the "dangba".
"Yueyachan" or monk's spade used to fight bandits or bury the dead. Said to be older than the "dangba". | Source
Rakes in martial arts
Rakes in martial arts | Source

The rake is commonly known as an agricultural hand tool. It has sometimes been referred to as an outside broom, used both to loosen the soil and to collect grasses and grains. In modern scrupulously clean times suburbanites use it to gather leaves. At the dawn of agriculture, about 14,000 years ago, in what is called the Neolithic revolution, humans began to raise crops and found they needed to collect the produce. They used a spear, that is a stick with a sharpened end, to hunt and plant seeds in the ground. But other more specialized implements were developed shortly thereafter after when they found the need to dig, weed, cut, pile and collect the plants.

The term 'rake” probably comes from a proto-European language, though the implement has been found everywhere, from rice paddies in China to rye fields in Latvia and the sorghum and teff fields of Africa. Archaeological evidence demonstrates the rake was one of the five farm implements in use everywhere in every culture where they raised crops. The others include a cutting implement, traditionally a scythe; an implement to pick up the pile for transporting traditionally known in the West as a pitchfork; and a hoe and shovel to plant and weed, along with the rake.

The shovel probably came first and then evolved into the more specialized rake. In Norse the term reka means a shovel, in Icelandic it means to sweep away without a broom. It can also mean to scrape or collect. In ancient Greek the word came from a verb meaning to spread, which in the context of spreading the collected grains in order to thresh or dry out might make sense. The name for the instrument we use, the rake, is much younger than the implement. It comes from the German word, to heap up.

One of the problems in tracing the history of the rake is that is is really old, and there are few relics left that have not disintegrated. Ancient rakes were commonplace, not preserved, and often made of wood. They have disappeared over time. But we know that rakes existed in ancient times. They are on walls and scrolls in Egypt. Later when Romans were able to make metal prongs relatively conveniently, the ends of rakes have been dug up from the Roman empire. They are in paintings from medieval China. There is archaeological proof that these metal ends existed in Sweden and North Germany around the first century.

Today it would be said that these manual rakes did slow work. Before the Industrial Revolution on a good day two acres of hay could be cut and collected. Think raking leaves. Two acres in one day is a lot of work.

In Europe and Asia the farm implements evolved into many weapons and tortures, the rake among them. The flail, or mace came from a farm implement used to thresh grains. Maces were used in the West starting in the paleolithic period, as weapons in every culture except the Romans. They had too much heavy armor already and wanted less weighty weapons. Axes, used for cutting down all things on the farm, became battle axes. Hammers became war hammers to crush armor with a spike to kill the aristocrat within. Scythes became war scythes. The pitchfork became the instrument of the Roman retiarius. They had weighted nets and would stab their prey with the pitchfork or trident, and dagger. In medieval times it became the two tined military fork. The knife became the dagger and later the sword in 3300 BCE.

The rake did not result in weaponry in the West but became an inspiration for extreme torture.

The farm rake was made into a house implement to push coals in the fireplace achieving a better flame. In this form came the inspiration for the many instruments and types of torture. The rack came from the rake. In this case a person was spread rather than coal. To rake someone over the flames meant to torture them by exposing them to a “harrowing” verbal beating. Its origin was the practice of pulling or 'raking' heretics over flames or coals that were burning, for the purpose of getting a “confession”.

However in China the rake itself, which was uninspiring in the weapons of the West, was to evolve into various weapons in the late medieval and early modern periods.

The Chinese began their own agriculture on the Yellow River. It took 3000 years but they cultivated rice and millet into an increasingly edible form almost 10,000 years ago. The agricultural rake or patou, was the name used at that time for the implement used for raking fields of grain on the farm. Around that time they found they had to defend their produce.

With time the rake became the inspiration for many weapons in China. It has been written that this was because farmers had to defend themselves and were forbidden to use the weapons of the upper classes. The “yueyachan”, the oldest rake like weapon, was used by travelers. This weapon was devised to fight off the thugs who waited for confused and sometimes unconfused travelers. This is called “the monk's spade” because one end was used by traveling clergy to fight bandits and the other to bury any dead encountered or created on the trip. There are pictures with images of this weapon that are 900 years old.

More rake inspired weapons were in popular use 700 years ago, which is considered late for a tool, not long after the end of the Mongol rule. They were popular all through the Ming dynasty, from 1368–1644. These could be as long as nine feet and were considered the original “long weapon”.

There were two different battle rakes. There was one with an iron handle and a wood head with iron teeth in straight lines called the tieba. Then there was one called muba or the wooden rake which had a handle made of wood. They both had seven to 11 long sharp teeth. They were heavy and very versatile and could shoot arrows from the handle. Some of the arrows had gunpowder. They could hit the back and head of the enemy with the metal prongs, and fight off weapons. All long weapons could be used on horseback. They were once called the most advantageous weapon.

For instance the dangba was used against pirates. The basic shape was as follows: The wooden shaft was over 8 feet long topped with iron cramps. A soldier holding a dangba could shoot arrows at the flexible wooden base at long distances. Then this war “rake” could be used to attack the enemy with it's iron prongs, or defend at close quarters holding its own against the spear or sabre. The dangba was a weapon of great versatility in the battle.

In the Qing dynasty, 1644 until 1911 following the Ming there were many varieties of the rake as weapon. Some were long. For instance the pa, which looked very like the original rake was used for sea battles. It had nine teeth. Other types including the dang, chan, and macha.

There were also shorter weapons of only 3 feet, called the six tooth rake. One was a foot long and had seven teeth called the star line. These shorter types had less teeth and they were curved. The fongchihdang came from the rake but was one meter long, purple in color, and had four teeth with sharp curved blades.

In the West the rake inspired torture, although many farm implements evolved into weapons. In China many weapons of war were inspired by the rake. This implement when converted to a weapon was found to be effective in all aspects of battle, supplanted only when guns became the weapon of choice.


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