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There is lots to see in Bruegel's famous painting representing life in June/July ('Haymaking'). (cf, https://insidebruegel.net for a great online collection of his work).

There is this activity he depicts in the background... It looks like shooting arrows at a pole - but that doesn't seem to make much sense.

The men appear to be holding bows, but maybe it's wooden swords, or rusty scythes - and we see streaks going up to the top of the pole (hence arrows or maybe it's rope). Our first thought was that it was some sort of maypole dance. Maybe they are raising a maypole - but then why are they all waving things at it?!

Mysterious Peasant Activity (click for bigger version here, or zoom in on InsideBruegel.net)

So - the question. What are they doing, and why is it relevant for the months that he has chosen?

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  • 9
    A friend has plausibly suggested a schützenfest - where a wooden target was hoisted on a pole, especially in rural districts.
    – Konchog
    Oct 2, 2022 at 17:51
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    AmericanSocietyofFarmsCollectors lends credence to @konchog's friend. "First conducted as crossbow contests, shooters took aim at a bird effigy, or popinjay, placed atop a high pole."
    – MCW
    Oct 2, 2022 at 17:54

1 Answer 1

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The question is:

Q: What mysterious Flemish peasant activity is depicted in this painting?

and one guess was:

Q: There is this activity he depicts in the background... It looks like shooting arrows at a pole - but that doesn't seem to make much sense.

And curiously, this is exactly it.

The group is playing a game: shooting at a popinjay:

Popinjay or Papingo (signifying a painted bird), also called pole archery, is a shooting sport that can be performed with either rifles or archery equipment. The object of popinjay is to knock artificial birds off their perches. […] The archery form, called staande wip[circular reference] in Flemish language, is popular in Belgium […]

With Wikipedia bringing us two pictures as examples, first Tir à l'arc au papegai:

[https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/84/Tir_à_l%27arc_au_papegai.jpg2

and the following picture 'Popinjay mast for archery in Havré Belgium' as an example:

Popinjay mast for archery in Havré Belgium

This example in turn matches the echo master Bruegel himself presents us with, this time unused for sports and fun, just standing there in the background, in the painting "Hunters in the Snow" (empty field, vertically centred, extreme right):

enter image description here

zoomed in:

enter image description here

Two more Wikimedia commons pictures with a more matching configuration of shooters compared to the painting:

Popinjay depiction Another Popinjay depiction

and how it evolved:

Popinjay with crossbow

This solution is confirmed by:

It is the calendar’s festivity of carnival in Gloomy Day that balances out the prudent tasks of early spring: at the right, the little carnival king in his printed paper crown watches the adults happily eating waffles, while in the opposite corner of the scene, down in the village, another family dances in the street outside an inn. In the next remaining scene of the series, Hay Harvest (June/July […]), the festive moment is very distant and yet, characteristically, fairly central on the panel: on a village green, people have gathered for a competition involving shooting at a popinjay on a pole. This pole also stood in an empty, snow-covered village green beyond the frozen ponds in Hunters, one of the echoes in the series that gives a sense not that we see the same place, but that every place we see is somehow archetypal, universal. In Hay Harvest Bruegel gestures to the universality of the view by structuring his composition as a clear echo of the ‘world landscapes’ of Joachim Patinir, some forty years earlier, with the colour scheme moving carefully from foreground brown to green to distant blue, the rather choppy sense of space where roads fail to connect individual features, and the great inhabited rock formations jutting suddenly upward from pleasant farmland.

— Elizabeth Alice Honig: "Pieter Bruegel and the Idea of Human Nature", Renaissance Lives, Reaktion Books: London, 2019. (gBooks)

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    Yikes, looks slightly less safe than jarts!
    – shoover
    Oct 3, 2022 at 3:37
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    It's being practiced even today, as a cultural activity.
    – Jos
    Oct 3, 2022 at 6:52
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    Dutch Wikipedia seems to use staande wip, schuttersfeest and papegaaischieten
    – Henry
    Oct 3, 2022 at 13:34
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    @shoover Otherwise known as "circular firing squad". It'd be one thing if everybody was on the same side of the pole, but somebody needs to explain "what goes up must come down" to these people... Oct 3, 2022 at 18:19
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    Blunt arrowheads exist, as do fletchings that will slow an arrow significantly after a short distance. And for crossbows the issue is not nearly as serious as for longbows.
    – DevSolar
    Oct 3, 2022 at 21:50

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