The Labors of December

Image of folio Chantilly, Musée Condé, MS 65

Très Riches Heures of Jean, duc de Berry. Chantilly, Musée Condé, MS 65.

We often think of December as an entry to winter and to Christmas. In the middle ages, typically, winter featured much more dramatically than Christmas. The calendar pages in Books of Hours for December often feature an image of either hog butchering, a boar roast, or a boar hunt (sometimes they feature an image of St. John boiling in oil, or the baking of bread).

The image to the left is from the Très Riches Heures of Jean, duc de Berry (Chantilly, Musée Condé, MS 65) calendar image for December. It features a wild boar hunt. The building in the background is the Château de Vincennes. The forest bordering the estate was famous for its game (and was reserved as a royal forest). The boar has been cornered, speared by a huntsman off to the side, and is being destroyed by boar hounds. On the right another huntsman blows the mort, or death call, on his small horn. It doesn’t look terribly wintery, I admit, though you’ll notice the huntsman are not dressed for summer. But December serves as a good time for a boar hunt or butchering because it was cold, and because the boar had, like his cousin the domestic hog, had been fattening all fall by eating the mast (nuts and acorn) that had fallen or been shaken down from trees (November calendar pages often feature pigs eating acorns).

showing a boar being butchered

Morgan library MS M.399, f. 13v Belgium, Bruges, ca. 1515

This wintery scene on the right of hog-butchering is the work of Simon Bening, from the Da Costa Hours (Belgium, Bruges, c. 1515) now in The Morgan Library. (MS M.399, f. 13v). You’ll notice that the landscape is snowy. The people are also dressed much more warmly. They appear to be bleeding out the hog.

At this time of year, I always think about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, because the tale opens and closes with references to Christmastide. It also features a boar hunt, the second of three hunts that Sir Gawain’s host at Haut Desart, Sir Bertilak, indulges in while Sir Gawain is pursued by the lady of Haut Desart. The boar hunt takes place on the 30th of December, and starts about line 1412.

This image from The Morgan Library’s ms. of Gaston Phoebus’ Le Livre de la chasse/The Book of the Hunt (MS M. 1044 (fol. 64) shows that the lymerer and his lymer, the huntsman with a dog who flushes the boar into the open, have forced the boar into the open. Another huntsman is about to spear the boar, and the grooms are ready to release more hounds. It’s quite similar in many respects to the boar hunt in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

Schalkez to schote at hym schowen to þenne,
Haled to hym of her arewez, hitten hym oft;
Bot þe poyntez payred at þe pyþ þat pyȝt in his scheldez,
And þe barbez of his browe bite non wolde—
Þaȝ þe schauen schaft schyndered in pecez,
Þe hede hypped aȝayn were-so-euer hit hitte.
Bot quen þe dynteȝ hym dered of her dryȝe strokez,
Þen, braynwod for bate, on burnez he rasez,
Hurtez hem ful heterly þer he forþ hyȝez,
And mony arȝed þerat, and on lyte droȝen.
Bot þe lorde on a lyȝt horce launces hym after,
As burne bolde vpon bent his bugle he blowez,
He rechated, and rode þurȝ ronez ful þyk,
Suande þis wylde swyn til þe sunne schafted.
Þis day wyþ þis ilk dede þay dryuen on þis wyse,
Whyle oure luflych lede lys in his bedde,
Gawayn grayþely at home, in gerez ful ryche

of hewe (ll. 1454–1471).

Here’s Jesse Weston’s prose translation:

Then the men made ready their arrows and shot at him, but the points were turned on his thick hide, and the barbs would not bite upon him, for the shafts shivered in pieces, and the head but leapt again wherever it hit.

But when the boar felt the stroke of the arrows he waxed mad with rage, and turned on the hunters and tore many, so that, affrighted, they fled before him. But the lord on a swift steed pursued him, blowing his bugle; as a gallant knight he rode through the woodland chasing the boar till the sun grew low.

So did the hunters this day, while Sir Gawain lay in his bed lapped in rich gear.

In some ways, this Morgan library image from the same Gaston Phoebus ms. is even more similar; the boar, exhausted by the hounds, is attempting to flee, but one noble hunter (notice the clothing and the horses) has a spear at the ready, another a sword, and there’s also a standing hunter ready with a crossbow. In the case of SGGK, after spending all day chasing the boar, the boar makes for a hole, by a mound and a large rock, where he turns and faces the hunters and dogs who are on foot, across a stream from him.

Til þe knyȝt com hymself, kachande his blonk,
Syȝ hym byde at þe bay, his burnez bysyde;
He lyȝtes luflych adoun, leuez his corsour,
Braydez out a bryȝt bront and bigly forþ strydez,
Foundez fast þurȝ þe forþ þer þe felle bydez.
Þe wylde watz war of þe wyȝe wiþ weppen in honde,
Hef hyȝly þe here, so hetterly he fnast
Þat fele ferde for þe freke, lest felle hym þe worre.
Þe swyn settez hym out on þe segge euen,
Þat þe burne and þe bor were boþe vpon hepeȝ
In þe wyȝtest of þe water; þe worre hade þat oþer,
For þe mon merkkez hym wel, as þay mette fyrst,
Set sadly þe scharp in þe slot euen,
Hit hym vp to þe hult, þat þe hert schyndered,
And he ȝarrande hym ȝelde, and ȝedoun þe water

ful tyt (ll. 1581–96).

The lord rides up, dismounts, wades into the stream, with his sword, and stabs the boar, in the chest and through the heart with his sword (thus providing an instance of the Celtic motif of death at the ford).

The boar was an important food source, though largely for the wealthy, especially the domesticated boar. While the head was regarded as a trophy, nothing was wasted, and all was used. There was a Christmastide tradition of ceremonially cooking and presenting the boar’s head as a main course at a feast. Indeed, Queen’s college still celebrates a notable boar and an alum in “The Boar’s Head Carol.”

Tradition says, or at least William Henry Husk, Librarian to the Sacred Harminic Society, says that the boar’s head tradition of a feast at Queens derives from

Where an amusing tradition formerly current in Oxford concerning the boar’s head custom, which represented that usage as a commemoration of an act of valour performed by a student of the college, who, while walking in the neighbouring forest of Shotover and reading Aristotle, was suddenly attacked by a wild boar. The furious beast came open-mouthed upon the youth, who, however, very courageously, and with a happy presence of mind, thrust the volume he was reading down the boar’s throat, crying, “Græcum est,” and fairly choked the savage with the sage (London: John Camden Hotten, 1868 reprinted by Norwood Editions, Norwood, PA, 1973).

The Middle English version of The Boar’s Head Carol:

Chorus: Caput afri differo (The boar’s head I offer)
Reddens ‘laudes’ domino (Giving praises to the Lord).

The bores heed in hand bring I,
With garlans gay and rosemary,
I pray you all synge merely
Qui estis in convivio (As many as are in the feast).

The bores heed, I vnderstande,
Is the ‘chefe’ seruyce in this lande;
Loke, where euer it be fande,
Seruite cum cantico (Let us serve with song).

Be gladde lordes, both more and lasse,
For this hath ordeyned our stewarde
To chere you all this Christmasse,
The bores heed with mustarde.

I grew up hearing “The Boar’s Head” carol every Christmas, by way a Time Life album my mom had. But I think my very favorite recording is the one from Harry Christopher’s The Sixteen. It’s a super collection of medieval and renaissance Christmas carols, and it’s neither too folksy nor too operatic. I’ve linked to it to the left; the iTunes album is Christmas Music from Medieval and Renaissance Europe – Harry Christophers & The Sixteen. You can also just buy The Boar’s Head Carol.

I’m probably going to start my annual re-read of SGGK in a couple of weeks. I confess to toying with the idea of blogging the re-read. It encapsulates the festive nature of the season, as well as the cyclical aspects seasons. Plus, it’s a nifty capsule review of Pacific Northwest weather.

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