October from the Hours of Henry VIII

The labors of October; one man is sowing grain, probable winter wheat, while another plows with a two-horse team
Morgan Library MS H.8 fol. 5v detail Hours of Henry VIII Illuminated by Jean Poyer France, Tour ca. 1500

This October labor from the Morgan Library’s Hours of Henry the VIII is actually two labors; on the left, a nattily dressed man in a hat, vest, stockings and shoes is sowing seeds, while on the right another man is ploughing the filed with a team of horses. The crop being sowed is almost certainly a variety of winter wheat, destined to be harvested in summer. The wheat sprouts before the snow falls, and continues, somewhat somnolently, to grow under its winter blanket of snow.

Detail showing from the calendar page for October from the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry (Musée Condé, Chantilly, France; MS, 65 f. 10v). C. 1416.

The man with with the seeds is scatteringly, rather than planting in rows. You can see a sack with additional seeds on the ground behind him. He has folded his apron to hold the seeds he scatters. This is strikingly similar to the October calendar image from Très Riches Heures. Both images show the dual labors of sowing winter grain and plowing; both feature a man sowing grain from his apron while a sack with additional seed waits in readiness on the ground nearby. Technically the Très Riches Heures for October show a harrow, but the effect is much the same.

September from the Hours of Henry VIII

Picking grapes, then pressing them before barelling them to make wine.
September labor: wine production from Morgan Library MS. H8 f.4v

Just about anywhere in Europe that could grow grapes in the Medieval era, did (and does). Tasks associated with wine-making, like pruning the vines and pressing the grapes to produce juice, are often featured in books of hours as the labor of September. It’s the labor depicted in the September page of the the Morgan Library’s Hours of Henry VIII. This picture shows the complete wine making process from picking to barreling. It is still essentially the same process followed today.

The Morgan Library notes the gendered division of labor. In the background women sitting on the ground pick the grapes. This is more accurately described as cutting the grape clusters from the vine. A man standing near them with a large slightly awkwardly balanced basket on his back is waiting to bring a basket of grapes to the shed in the foreground. Inside the shed, another man with a similar basked is in the act of adding the grapes from his basket to a waiting vat, functioning as a wine press. Across from him, a man treading the grapes to release their juice is in fact pressing grapes, and has a smaller basin of juice he is adding to the immense barrel functioning as a fermentation tank.

At the base of the giant tank is a tap, with a barrel poised to receive juice, before being sealed and joining its peers stacked to the left, to be stored and aged. Notice the way the barrels are designed to tilt in the basin created to host them as they are being filled; this is solid, proven technology

August from the Hours of Henry VIII

August's labor from the Hours of Henry VIII showing men threshing the grain in a barn, with another man and two oxen bring a cart of grain to be threshed
August from the Morgan Library MS. H.8, fol. 4v
Illuminated by Jean Poyer
France, Tours ca. 1500

The labor of August from the Morgan Library’s Hours of Henry VIII  MS H.8 fol. 4v shows threshing, the labor that naturally follows after the July calendar image of reaping the wheat. One man with an oxcart and team of oxen has brought a load of wheat to be threshed. It’s been cut and left to dry before being loaded into the wagon. You see him standing next to the oxen with the goad he used to guide them. Inside the barn you see two men with jointed flails beating the dried stalk to loosen the grain from the stems of wheat. A jointed flail consists of a long handle with a short piece of wood attached with a hinged joint at the business end of the flail; this allows the short piece of wood to beat the ears of grain more effectively.

A third man with a rake shifts and turns the stalks so that they are all accessible to the men with flails, and the kernels are not beaten so much that the grain is unusable. The doors of the barn are open for several reasons; light and air, the reduction of dust, and it allows some of the chaff, the inedible straw and broken husks coating individual grains of wheat, to be blown away in a first approximation of winnowing the chaff from the wheat.
You’ll see threshing as the labor of August in the Da Costa Hours as well.


July from the Hours of Henry VIII

Detail showing
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.

The next stage in the wheat harvest is threshing, the labor of August.


June from the Hours of Henry VIII

The Morgan Library’s Hours of Henry VIII showing three men mowing the hay with scythes and two women raking it into pilesThis 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).

May from the Hours of Henry VIII

Hours of Henry VIII
Morgan Library MS H.8, fols. 2v–3r  April and May

The May image from the Morgan Library’s MS H. 8 is on the right; f. 3r. It’s a fairly typical Maying scene, and one I’ve written about before. I still love the little dog, but I want to point out something I missed before, and notice in the Morgan Library’s notes about  the image.

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.


How Clannad made Theme from Harry’s Game

Via The Guardian: How Clannad made Theme from Harry’s Game Dave Simplson interviews the band Clannad.

Pól Brennan, singer-songwriter

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.

April from the Hours of Henry VIII

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.

March from the Hours of Henry The VIII

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
Picture of an Opinel No. 8 Pruning Folding Knife - Stainless Steel from Amazon
Amazon: Opinel No. 8 Pruning Folding Knife – Stainless Steel

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.

Picture of an Opinel No. 8 Pruning Folding Knife - Stainless Steel from AmazonOn 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 Renaissance Writing Tablet

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:

Remember thee?
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.

open leather cover of an English 16th century table book
Late 16th century English table book with panel stamped covers covering an erasable tablet. Image: Folger Library STC 101.2.
Inside the tables showing the coated tablet page with writing
Inside tablet page showing coated surface, 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.



References   [ + ]

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.
2. From Stallybrass p. 382 from Robert Triplet, Writing Tables with a Kalender for xxiiii. yeeres, with sundry necessarie rules (London, 1604).
3. John Aubrey, in Brief Lives, 1669-1696. Ed. Clark (1898) 2:247-52. Available here