February sees people pruning the vines, turning the earth, plowing, or in colder climes, still warming themselves by fire.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from BL Cotton Nero A.x
A green man, a green horse, and a bargain
November from the Très Riches Heures
Pigs, Pollards, and Peasants
Bridget Cleary: Sex, Death, Fairies and Other
Michael Cleary, believing his wife Bridget had been taken by the fairies and that they had left a changeling in her place set fire to her.
What is The Book of Kells?
The Book of Kells, now in the Trinity College Library in Dublin, is one of the most beautiful and famous of all medieval manuscripts. The subject of a charming animated film, the ms. is a beautifully decorated copy of the four Gospels.
Reaping, the labor of July from the Morgan Library MS H.8 fol.4r. Illuminated by Jean Poyer France, Tours ca. 1500
The calendar page for July from the Morgan Library’s MS H.8, fol. 4r
This book of hours image from the Morgan Library’s MS H.8 the Hours of Henry VIII shows the July labor of reaping the wheat. You’ll notice that they’re using short-handled sickles, rather than long-handled scythes. The idea is that you cut the tops of the wheat, the part bearing the grain, and first make a small bundle of it (on the ground). That’s what’s happening on the right side of the image, three men cutting the wheat. Next the wheat is placed in bundles (on the ground) and then someone stacks them neatly on end, on the left. The three men cutting the wheat are an interesting group; it’s hot work, and two of them are working in shirts and Tbare feet, while the third is dressed in a dyed kirtle, stockings, shoes, and a hat. There’s a class difference. On the left, the fellow stacking the sheaves of wheat is also more fully dressed, while behind him another worker is drinking from one of the casks we’ve seen in several images, notably February and June. There’s another cask in the foreground, with, presumably, lunch, wrapped in the cloth.
This image from the Morgan Library’s Hours of Henry VIII’s calendar page for June shows the first mowing of the hay, a fairly common labor for June and one frequently illustrated in books of hours. On the left three men swing long-handled scythes to mow the hay, while on the right, women use rakes to heap the mown hay into piles or stacks for drying. After it is thoroughly dried, the hay will presumably be loaded into the wagon waiting in the background, behind piles of drying hay. The wagon is a little odd looking; I’m not sure it was meant to be drawn by horse, mule or ox, but instead was perhaps hauled by people.
In the front of the picture, on the right. at the feet of the women are the same small flat-sided casks we saw in the Hours of Henry VIII’s calendar image for February. The casks lie next to cloth-wrapped parcels that the Morgan Library suggests contain lunch for the workers, a reasonable supposition.
An interesting detail is that the men are working in their shirts, with bare legs, with the exception of the gentleman in white socks. Two of the men are wearing shoes, a wise precaution when swinging a sharp blade, while the women are barefoot. This saves shoe leather.
The central blue plaque at the center of the bottom border features the astrological symbol for June and July, Cancer the Crab. There are some unidentifiable saints, or as the Morgan library puts it, “generic saints” but then identifies St. John the Baptist (he appears to be in the middle of baptizing someone) in the border on the right. The feast of his nativity, marked in the calendar gelow the main image, is June 24. The Morgan then identifies St. Eligius (feast June 25), a generic male saint, and saints Peter and Paul (feast of June 29).
There are two little dogs! There’s the one near the couple and a second one on the track off to the right, leading into the woods. Here:
Detail of the May calendar image Morgan Library MS H.8_fol._3r
I don’t think the two dogs are the same breed; the one in the trees is more hound-like. It looks to me like the couple in this scene is the courting couple featured in the April calendar image, picking flowers and making garlands. The trees look as if they’ve been pollarded, the lower limbs removed to allow for easier passage (and for burning), and to make it easier to gather nuts.
The Brennan and Duggan families were all born in the townland of Dobhar [Dore] in Donegal. The two Duggans were my mother’s younger brothers and contemporaries of ours. We formed the band in 1970 and called ourselves Clann as Dobhar, which is Gaelic for Family from Dore. A few years later, we just picked the “a” and the “d” and became Clannad. Gaelic was our traditional language, but was very marginalised back then. People told us we wouldn’t get anywhere singing in that language.
It’s an interesting interview, worth the time to read it.
Detail from the Hours of Henry VIII Morgan Library MS. 8 f2v April
This detail is from the April calendar page of the Morgan Library’s Hours of Henry VIII MS. H. 8. It features one of the most popular past times featured in book of hours calendar images for the labors of April; the courtly springtime pastime of picking flowers. The scene looks to be set in an enclosed garden; a woman wearing a garland of flowers is braiding another. Next to her her erstwhile swain, appears to be offering her at least one of the two bunches of flowers he bears.
The Morgan library describes the man as a “foppishly dressed youth” and suggests that he is holding flowers which she will weave into a garland; that’s certainly possible, and it might explain his bored eye-rolling expression. He’s waiting, impatiently for her to take the next bunch of flowers. The flowers he is holding, the flowers in the garlands, and the flowers in the grass around the two people all appear to be the same; they’re not clearly delineated, and it is tempting to speculate that they are the ubiquitous Cornflowers *Centaurea cyanus* (Bachelor buttons in North America), a favorite in books of hours.
April from the Hours of Henry VIII Morgan Library MS. H8 f2v
Below the central image showing the April pastime, the calendar proper features the feasts of St. George (April 23), Peter the Martyr (April 29) and St. Eutropius (April 30). The border includes on the top right St. George slaying the dragon (click through for a larger image that’s zoomable).
In the border surrounding the calendar the center features the zodiac sign of Taurus the Bull in a blue rondel, then an image of Peter the Martyr, with the dagger used to stab him in the chest, and on the far right St. Eutropius, with the bishop’s crosier and the the axe used to kill him still embedded in his head.
Detail showing pruning the vines March Hours of Henry VIII Morgan Library MS H.8, fol. 2r
This March calendar page from The Hours of Henry VIII is a fairly typical March scene in terms of the labors of March depicted in a book of hours. Workers are pruning the grape vines. You’ll notice that it’s early enough that the vines are still without leaves. While it’s possible to prune vines later, it’s not a good idea as the vines will often bleed sap, which isn’t conducive to producing happy grapes. It’s also much easier to tie the vines to a supporting frame or arbor when they aren’t in full leaf but have leaf-buds. As the workers prune grape vines, they tie them to the arbor so that as the vines grow and sprout leaves and then grapes, the vines will have support.
Detail showing a billhook from Hours of Henry VIII Morgan Library MS H.8, fol. 2r
You can see the pruning tool being used in the detail to the left. This is a Medieval billhook, a sort of all purpose agricultural tool with a double-edged curved blade and sometimes a short spike at the crown and a small hatchet-like blade on the outside edge. It’s perfect for a task like vine-pruning because you can slice the thinner vines with the curved blade and whack off those that are a bit thicker with the small hatchet. This is the same tool known as the falx or falx vinatoria used by the Romans to culivate vines. A modern vine pruning knife, while it often folds up and fits in a pocket, retains that curved cutting blade.
On the left the worker standing on the bench has a shock of fibers he’s using to bind the vines to the supporting framework of the arbor. On the ground, near the middle of the image in the front is a small flat-sided cask with a spout; this contained something for the workers to drink, possibly water, or water with vinegar and honey, and probably not wine.
In the bottom center of the calendar page is the astrological symbol for Aries, the Ram. The margins contain images associated with feast days in March; St. Gregory for March 12, and the Annunciation on March 25 at the bottom right.
The first reference to a Renaissance writing tablet I remember reading is in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, just after Hamlet’s first meeting with the ghost wherein the ghost tells Hamlet that Hamlet’s father the king was murdered by the king’s brother Claudius, Hamlet echoes the ghost’s last injunction to “remember me” in one of his soliloquies:
Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee?
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial, fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter. Yes, by heaven!
O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile and smile and be a villain.
At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark (Shakespeare’s Hamlet Act 1 scene 5).
I want to look closely at the word table as used by Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play. Table here is short for tablet as in definition 2b in AHD:
a. A thin sheet or leaf, used as a writing surface.
b. A set of such leaves fastened together, as in a book.
c. A pad of writing paper glued together along one edge.
d. A lightweight, portable computer having a touchscreen as the method by which data is input.
This is the meaning of table discussed in the OED as Table 2b.
A small portable tablet for writing upon, esp. for notes or memoranda; a writing tablet. Frequently in a pair (of) tables. Now chiefly historical (s.v. OED table 2b).
Hamlet’s table is a writing tablet that’s a re-usable writing surface. These are not the wax tablets favored by the Romans and others of the Classical era. Instead, these tablets are made of specially coated parchment or paper, and are erased by means of a damp cloth. The hint that Hamlet’s tables are not wax is the use of wipe rather than the word smooth. There was, moreover, a gradual historical movement from wax tablets towards coated paper or parchment for use as an erasable temporary writing surface. Generally the parchment or paper was prepared by coating it with gesso, then carefully smoothed and a top coating of varnish or glue or another sealant was applied.
The best place to start researching the Renaissance erasable writing tablet is probably the 2004 article “Hamlet’s Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England” by Peter Stallybrass, Roger Chartier, John Franklin Mowery, and Heather Wolfe.1)FN Stallybrass, Peter and Roger Chartier, John Franklin Mowery, and Heather Wolfe. “Hamlet’s Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England.” <cite>Shakespeare Quarterly</cite>. Volume 55, Number 4, (Winter 2004): pp. 379–419. Stallybrass et al discuss multiple extant Renaissance erasable tablets, several of which are in the Folger’s collections, and I’ve used their research liberally in this post.
Most eraseable tables or writing tablets consisted of blank tables bound with small pamphlets, typically almanacs. These contained a front section of printed data; calendars, charts of weight and currency values, followed by several leaves of specially treated paper for use as an erasable writing surface. Most often, a metal stylus was used to write on the treated pages, though water soluble ink was also used. One almanac bound with several pages of erasable tables has the following instructions for erasing a page after use:
To make cleane your Tables, when they are written on.
Take a lyttle peece of a Spunge, or a Linnen cloath, being cleane without any soyle: wet it in water, and wring it hard, & wipe that you haue written very lightly, and it wyll out, and within one quarter of an howre, you maye wryte in the same place agayne: put not your leaues together, whylst they be very wet with wyping.2)From Stallybrass p. 382 from Robert Triplet, Writing Tables with a Kalender for xxiiii. yeeres, with sundry necessarie rules (London, 1604).
The ability to erase or wipe clean the writing tablet was a distinct feature of the tablet’s utility; the writing was temporary, and old data could be replaced by new data. When Hamlet says
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial, fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
Hamlet is referring to wiping away the old, prior data in the table (tablet) of his memory (wetware; his brain). He describes the kinds of data he has currently stored in his memory; his “saws of books” is a clear reference to the commonplaces entered in commonplace books. Hamlet will wipe away the commonplaces, and instead, store information the ghost has given him regarding the murder of Hamlet’s father. But then Hamlet closes the soliloquy asking for his tables, his writing tablet, so that he may “set it down / That one may smile and smile and be a villain,” that is, Hamlet wishes to write in his tablet a commonplace.
Many writing tablets or tables were pocket-sized, and were used in very similar ways to modern paper “pocket notebooks.” Some of the tables were elaborately decorated and bound; others were very inexpensive, and sold as household commodities.
Late 16th century English table book with panel stamped covers covering an erasable tablet. Image: Folger Library STC 101.2.
In the first half of the sixteenth century Netherlandish paint Jan Gossaert painted a merchant in his office, surrounded by his everyday tools, including a writing tablet. As the National Gallery says:
Gossaert’s portrait shows a merchant seated in a cramped yet cozy space,surrounded by the tools of his trade. Scattered over the table are such useful items as a talc shaker used to dry ink, an ink pot, a pair of scales for testing the weight (and hence the quality) of coins, and a metal receptacle for sealing wax, quill pens, and paper. Attached to the wall are balls of twine and batches of papers labeled “miscellaneous letters” and “miscellaneous drafts.” The monogram on the sitter’s hat pin and index finger ring have led to his tentative identification as Jan Jacobsz Snoeck.
Jan Gossaert Portrait of a Merchant Netherlandish c. 1530 Oil on panel National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Detail from Jan Gossaert Portrait of a Merchant Netherlandish c. 1530 Oil on panel National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
If you look closely at the painting, at the far right of the painting (on the merchant’s left) is a small leather bound writing tablet. It’s a little obscured by the round set of coin scales on top of it. I’ve inserted a detail showing the bound tablet and stylus to the right. This small bound notebook is an almanac with reusable tables. The clue that this is a writing tablet rather than a normal bound book is the hooked stylus on the cover. The stylus serves a double purpose in that it keeps the tablet closed when it is not in use.
There are several references, like this from John Aubrey’s biography of Sir Phillip Sydney, that suggest that writing tablets were often used the way we might today use Field Notes or other pocket-sized notebooks; to make notes while on the go. Aubrey writes:
My great uncle, Mr. Thomas Browne, remembred him; and sayd that he was often wont, as he was hunting on our pleasant plaines, to take his table booke out of his pocket, and write downe his notions as they came into his head, when he was writing his Arcadia, (which was never finished by him).3)John Aubrey, in Brief Lives, 1669-1696. Ed. Clark (1898) 2:247-52. Available here.
The Renaissance writing tablet was valued for erasability and reuse, and for its portable nature, allowing someone like Sidney to write while standing, because they didn’t require an ink-stand and, properly bound, didn’t require a hard surface. They were both temporary and portable.
FN Stallybrass, Peter and Roger Chartier, John Franklin Mowery, and Heather Wolfe. “Hamlet’s Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England.” <cite>Shakespeare Quarterly</cite>. Volume 55, Number 4, (Winter 2004): pp. 379–419.
From Stallybrass p. 382 from Robert Triplet, Writing Tables with a Kalender for xxiiii. yeeres, with sundry necessarie rules (London, 1604).
John Aubrey, in Brief Lives, 1669-1696. Ed. Clark (1898) 2:247-52. Available here.
He’s wearing expensive clothing, indicated in particular by the fur trimming on his hat and overcoat, as well as the visible purse he wears.
The gentleman is standing in front of a substantial fireplace, with his back to the fire, and his is lifting the hem of his overcoat to warm his backside; a more delicate version of a similar scene from the Très Riches Heures calendar page for February.
There’s a wooden settle in front of him, set before a table with a meal waiting. In the background is a bed with burgundy cover and curtains. In the front of the scene to the viewer’s left, a servant is entering, carrying two flagons which the Morgan library identifies as wine flagons; I can’t help but be reminded of the astrological symbol for January, Aquarius, the water-bearer.
Mead is essentially honey wine, made by fermenting watered honey, and sometimes, adding additional flavors like spices or fruit juice. Mead was a fairly popular alcoholic beverage in the European Middle ages, and earlier. Mead residue has been found in vessels in Celtic ritual burials, and even in the tomb of King Midas of Phrygia, c. 740-700 B.C.
Mead is so closely associated with the Anglo-Saxon senses of community and conviviality that the central building for community ceremony and conviviality is the mead-hall (Old English meduseld, borrowed by Tolkien as the name of King Théoden’s great hall at Edoras). So important was mead to the Anglo-Saxons that the word mead connotes joy in derivitive compounds like medu-dréam (mead-joy) and medu-scerwen, the deprival of mead (and hence joy). Riddle 25 in the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records1)George Phillip Krapp and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie. <cite>The Anglo‐Saxon Poetic Records</cite> vol 3 (New York, 1936). is about mead.
Mead is also important as a poetic metaphor for the bond established between a lord, who provides mead in a mead-hall as well as food, weapons and treasure to the warriors who follow him; mead sometimes becomes a symbol of the exchange of fealty in the mead-hall. See for instance the speech Wiglaf utters in Beowulf to the thanes fleeing battle with the dragon:
“I remember the time when mead was flowing,
how we pledged loyalty to our lord in the hall
promised our ring-giver we would be worth our price,
make good the gift of the war-gear,
those swords and helmets, as and when
his need required it. He picked us out
from the army delibrately, honored us and judged us
fit for this action, made me these lavish gifts—
and all because he considered us the best of his arms-bearing thanes.” (Beowulf ll. 2633–2642).2)Seamus Heaney, trans. Beowulf. From The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume IA The Middle Ages. W. W. Norton, 2000.
Modern English mead derives via Middle English mede, mead, from Old English medu, meodu. Mede or medu literally mean honey as well as mead. The proto Indo-European root of medu and meodu is * medhu-, which in addition to mead, gave us amethyst, methelyne, and the Greek word for wine, methu, as wells as Early Irish mid “mead” (Old Welsh med, giving Moderm Welsh medd).
The Proto Indo-European root *medhu- is also the ancestor of the name of the mythological Irish queen Medb. Medb features prominently in the Medieval Irish epic, the Táin Bo Culinge as the queen whose desire for a bull the equal of her husband’s launches an epic cattle raid on the kingdom of Ulster. Medb’s name has been translated as “[she] who intoxicates,” or “intoxicating [one].”
The immense bronze cauldron from the Hochdorf Prince’s burial chamber Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
The Hochdorf Prince’s burial goods included an enormous bronze cauldron that at the time it was placed in the burial contained mead; filled, the cauldron could contain about 500 liters.3)The burial site is near Hochdorf an der Enz, Baden-Württemberg, Germany. It was excavated in 1978/79.
Mead has steadily increased in popularity in the last decade, propelled in part by the increasing popularity of wine, and local microbrews and ciders, home brewing enthusiasts, and the fact that Mead is a really lovely beverage.
The next vignette shows someone bringing in wood, while the central image features the master of the house at table, his back to the ample fireplace, dining, while the lady of the house sits on a low bench next to the hearth, warming her hands.
The border on the left shows images for the Feast of the Circumcision (on January 1). The medallion in the center of the bottom border contains the zodiac sign of Aquarius, the water-bearer.
January: Feasting and Keeping Warm (fol. 1)
Calendars in Books of Hours do not demarcate time by enumerating the days from the first to the last of the month, as seen in this January page, but, rather list the important liturgical feasts of the month.
Inside, the lord of the house sits at his meal, his back to the hearth,as his wife, closer to the fire, warms her hands.
While a heavy snow covers the land, a laborer carries a few logs from the woodpile into the manor.
When Calendars in Horea (Latin for “Hours”) were illustrated, they followed a tradition of depicting two vignettes in each month: the sign of the zodiac and the activity, usually agrarian, commonly undertaken during the season.
The borders illustrate some of January’s major feasts, including, at top left, the Circumcision (feast on January 1). At bottom center is the zodiacal sign Aquarius, the Water Carrier.