Angelus ad virginem

“Angelus ad virginem” is a Medieval Latin carol celebrating the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel telling the Virgin that she would conceive and bear the Christ child. The Latin lyrics are (here’s a rough translation):

1. Angelus ad virginem
Subintrans in conclave.
Virginis formidinum
Demulcens inquit “Ave.”
Ave regina virginum,
Coeliteraeque dominum
Concipies
Et paries
Intacta,
Salutem hominum.
Tu porta coeli facta
Medella criminum.

2. Quomodo conciperem,
quae virum non cognovi?
Qualiter infringerem,
quae firma mente vovi?
‘Spiritus sancti gratia
Perficiet haec omnia;
Ne timaes,
sed gaudeas,
secura,
quod castimonia
Manebit in te pura
Dei potentia.’

3. Ad haec virgo nobilis
Respondens inquit ei;
Ancilla sum humilis
Omnipotentis Dei.
Tibi coelesti nuntio,
Tanta secreti conscio,
Consentiens
Et cupiens
Videre
factum quod audio,
Parata sum parere
Dei consilio.

4. Angelus disparuit
Etstatim puellaris
Uterus intumuit
Vi partus salutaris.
Qui, circumdatus utero
Novem mensium numero,
Hinc Exiit
Et iniit
Conflictum,
Affigens humero
Crucem, qua dedit ictum
Hosti mortifero.

5. Eia Mater Domini,
Quae pacem reddidisti
Angelis et homini,
Cum Christum genuisti;
Tuem exora filium
Ut se nobis propitium
Exhibeat,
Et deleat
Peccata;
Praestans auxilium
Vita frui beta
Post hoc exsilium.

The carol appears to have been a popular one, preserved in several mss. It was so popular that in c. 1400 or so Chaucer alludes to it in Canterbury Tales, specifically, in “The Miller’s Tale,” where we are told that “hendy” Nicholas sings and accompanies himself on the psaltry:

And over all there lay a psaltery
Whereon he made an evening’s melody,
Playing so sweetly that the chamber rang;
And Angelus ad virginem he sang;
And after that he warbled the King’s Note:
Often in good voice was his merry throat.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins created a very loose translation that’s perhaps better read as a poem inspired by the Latin hymn) under the title “Gabriel, from Heaven’s King.”

BL Arundel 248 f. 154v

BL MS Arundel 248 f. 154
see detail

In the British Library’s MS Arundel 248, a collection of various texts in several languages from the early 13th century, the Latin text and tune  for “Angelus ad virginem” is immediately followed with a related song in Middle English. This kind of macaronic preservation of songs in multiple languages, side-by-side, is a not uncommon practice in medieval manuscripts, and given that the Church used Latin and scribes used English and or French, or German or Irish or . .  . multilingual songbooks make a great deal of sense. The way this collection of folios are organized, with a brief crudely drawn staff for the tune, followed by the lyrics is very reminiscent of a modern musician’s cheat book.

Gabriel, fram heven-king
sent to þe maide sweete,
broute hir blisfúl tiding
and fair he gan hir greete:
5 “Heil be þu, ful of grace ari3t!
For Godes son, þis heven-li3t,
for mannes love
wil man bicome
and take
10 fles of þee, maide bri3t,
mankén free for to make
of sen and devles mi3t.”

Mildëlich him gan andswere
þe milde maide þanne:
15 “Wichëwise sold ich bere
[a] child withute manne?”
þangel seid, “Ne dred tee nout:
þurw þoligast sal been iwrout
þis ilch þing
20 warof tiding
ich bringe:
al mánken wurth ibout
þurw þine sweet childínge
and ut of pine ibrout.”

25 Wan þe maiden understood
and þangels wordes herde,
mildëlich with milde mood
to þangel hie andswerde:
“Ure lords þewe maid iwis
30 ich am, þat heer aboven is.
Anentis me
fulfurthed be
þi sawe
þat ich, sith his wil is,
35 [a] maid, withute lawe,
of moder have þe blis.”

Þangel went awei mid þan
al ut of hire si3te;
hire womb arise gan
40 þurw þoligastes mi3te.
In hir wes Crist bilok anon,
sooth God, sooth man in fles and bon,
and of hir fles
ibore wes
45 at time.
Warþurw us kam good won;
he bout us ut of pine
and let him for us slon.

Maiden-moder makëles,1)Makëles or “matchless” is a triple pun; she is without peer, without a mate, also used in the Middle English lyric “I Sing of a Maiden.”
50 of moder ful ibunde,
bid for us him þat tee ches,
at wam þu grace funde,
þat he forgive us sen and wrake
and clene of evri gelt us make
55 and heven-blis
wan ur time is
to sterve,
us give, for þine sake,
him so heer for to serve
60 þat he us to him take.

The Annunciation F. 26r from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry MS 65 in the Musée Condé, Chantilly, France. C. 1412–1416.

The tune for the Middle English version is usually easily recognized as the Latin hymn. The same Latin text of “Angelus ad virginem”  inspired a Basque Christmas carol “Birjina gaztettobat zegoen” collected by Charles Bordes.2)Archives de la tradition basque, 1895 Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924) folklorist, novelist, and poet responsible for several hymns (including “Onward Christian Soldiers”) spent some time in the Basque region of Spain as a child, and translated the carol from Basque to English, in the process reducing the original 6 stanzas to 4.

1. The angel Gabriel from heaven came
His wings as drifted snow his eyes as flame
“All hail” said he “thou lowly maiden Mary,
Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!

2. “For know a blessed mother thou shalt be,
All generations laud and honor thee,
Thy Son shall be Emanuel, by seers foretold
Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!

3. Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head
“To me be as it pleaseth God,” she said,
“My soul shall laud and magnify his holy name.”
Most highly favored lady. Gloria!

4. Of her, Emanuel, the Christ was born
In Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn
And Christian folk throughout the world will ever say:
“Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!

This was one of my favorite childhood carols, familiar from a 1963 Time Life record, an album rich with Medieval carols, under the title “The Angel Gabriel.” It’s also been released as “Gabriel’s Message,” and “The Angel Gabriel From Heaven Came.”

These are all available in contemporary recordings. “Angelus ad virginem” has been recorded by The Tallis Scholars on Christmas with the Tallis Scholars and by The Sixteen and Harry Christophers on the album Christus Natus Est. Anonymous 4 have recorded the Middle English version as Song: Gabriel, fram heven-king on their album On Yoolis Night — Medieval Carols & Motets. Sting on the album If On A Winter’s Night recorded the Basque derivative under the title “Gabriel’s Message.” There’s a video of Sting singing “Gabriel’s Message” here. I particularly favor Sting’s rendition because it’s both simple and complex in the way Medieval music often is, and he doesn’t sing in an artsy pseudo operatic tenor.

References   [ + ]

1. Makëles or “matchless” is a triple pun; she is without peer, without a mate, also used in the Middle English lyric “I Sing of a Maiden.”
2. Archives de la tradition basque, 1895

May Calendar Images and Boating

PierpontMorgan_DaCosta_MS_M.399_ff_ 6v–7)

The Da Costa Hours is in the collection of the Pierpont Morgan library. It, like the Golf Book hours in the British Library was illuminated by Simon Bening (1483/84–1561); Belgium, Bruges, ca. 1515.

I’ve written about the May calendar image from the British Library’s Golf Book. It’s very similar in terms of motifs to this one. On the calendar page itself the Gemini twins are featured in the rondel at the base of the page. Just as in the Golf Book calendar page for May, Bening in the Da Costa Hours features a boat with greenery and musicians celebrating May 1 and the arrival of Spring.

Det. Da Costa Hours f.6v Bringing in the May Pierpont Morgan ms. 399

Det. Da Costa Hours f.6v Bringing in the May Pierpont Morgan ms. 399

Beyond the boaters (click for a larger image) you can see a castle, swans, and a group on horseback in the background. They too have been busy gathering the green boughs of May.

The Book of Aneirin Digitized and Online

Image of p. 20 of The Book of Aneirin

The Book of Aneirin Cardiff MS. 2.8.1 p. 20

The 13th Century Book of Aneirin has been completely digitized and placed online. This is one of the four major Welsh mss. mostly known because it contains the text of Y Goddodin, an epic poem retelling the historic battle of Catraeth wherein 300 Men from Manaw Gododdin, near Edinburgh, fought the Saxons at Catraeth (modern day Catterick, North Yorkshire) around the year 600AD. Only three of the Britons survived the battle, one of whom, the poet Aneirin, commemorates the fallen.

This is the last of the Four Ancient Books of Wales to be digitized and made publicly available. The other three books are:

Knight vs Snail

Marginalia from the British Library Gorleston Psalter showing a knight fighting a snail

Knight vs. Snail Goreleston Psalter” credit=”British Library

Recently in the British Library’s excellent Medieval Manuscripts blog a curator mentioned a post medieval colleague noticing a marginal illustration showing a knight engaging in combat with a snail. This is not a rare motif in medieval mss. The Medieval Manuscripts post covers the bibliography regarding the motif, including a blog post by Carl Pyrdum on What’s So Funny about Knights and Snails?

Various reasons for the popularity are proposed, but none are really convincing. I am therefore willing to propose another reason: Psalm 58. Here’s Psalm 58 in the Wycliffe translation. This is a psalm about divine vengeance, and the section I’m most interested in is this bit in verses 6–7:

6 God shall all-break the teeth of them in their mouth; the Lord shall break (al)together the great teeth of lions. (O God, break all the teeth in their mouths; O Lord, break all in pieces the great teeth of these lions.)
7 They shall come to nought, as water running away; he bent his bow, till they be made sick. (They shall come to nothing, like water running forth; and when they go to bend their bows, they shall be made feeble, or weak.)
8 As wax that floateth away, they shall be taken away; fire fell above, and they saw not the sun. (Like a snail that melteth away into slime, they shall be taken away; like a dead-born child, they shall not see the sun.)

I think the armored snail fighting the armored knight is a reminder of the inevitability of death; the knight, like the snail, will ultimately “melteth away into slime.”

Just because I can, here’s the sixteenth century metrical version of Psalm 58 from Sternhold and Hopkins. This particular version is the work of John Hopkins:

6 The teeth O Lord, which fast are set
in their mouth round about,
The lions’ teeth that are so great,
do thou, O Lord, break out.

7 Let them consume away and waste,
as water runs forth right;
The shafts that they do shoot in haste,
let them be broke in flight:8 As snails do waste within the shell,
and unto slime do run,
As one before his time that fell,
and never saw the sun.

I first discovered this version of Psalm 58 in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles.

Getty Releases Images

Medieval Book of Hours image from Spinola Hours showing boaters making music for the May calendar image

Getty Ms. Ludwig IX 18, fol. 3v May Calendar image” credit=”

Last August the Getty Museum announced that it has made 4,600 pieces of art from the museum’s collection free to use. They’re focussing on “public domain” works of art, that means works that have endured beyond the limits of copy right, and users are free to  use, modify, and publish these works for any purpose.

These are high-resolution, reproduction-quality images with embedded metadata, some over 100 megabytes in size. You can browse the images, or look for individual “download” links on the Getty Museum’s collection pages. Before the download actually begins, the Getty site asks simple questions about how you plan to use the images.

There’s a well-written Getty Open Content Program FAQ.

The Getty released images of many of its most famous works, including paintings like Vincent van Gogh’s Irises, but I’m especially excited by the medieval manuscripts (The Getty purchased the Ludwig collection, a huge collection of manuscripts rich in psalters and books of hours several years ago, and already had a solid collection, and they’ve added mss. since).

Stammheim Missal

Wenceslaus Psalter

Spinola Hours

Hours of Simon de Verie

Another May Day

May day or the first of May is also known as Beltane, as I’ve noted before. I’ve written about both of my favorite May Books of Hours images from the Golf Book, and the Très Riche Heures, so here’s another lovely May image.

Here’s an image from a Book of Hours illuminated by Jean Poyer; the Hours of Henry VIII/The Prayer Book of Ann de Bretagne, from the collections of The Morgan Library. This is the calendar page for May, otherwise known as f. 3. The image below is from the top part of the folio, above the calendar proper.

Morgan Library Hours of Hnrey VIII/Anne de Bretagne f.3

 Notice that it appears to be a courtship scene, entirely appropriate for May, and May day (they tend to favor courting and hawking scenes, often accompanied by greenery). They look as if they’ve been out “bringing in the May,” or “getting some green,” in the wee hours of May 1.

While we know the work is that of Jean Poyer, and that it was once owned by Ann de Bretagne, there’s an unproven eighteenth-century tradition that claims King Henry of England once owned this book of hours.

Mostly, I just like the Maying reference, and the little dog.

British Library’s Catalog of Illuminated Manuscripts Generous Permissions

Image from a Haggadah showing a seder table.

Detail of a Seder table from BL Additional 14761 f.-28v

The British Library began the digital catalog in 1997. Currently the catalog provides a digital record of 4,231 different manuscript, and  includes 35,661 images those manuscripts, with a searchable database. The images were scanned following the best digital practices, and include provenance, metadata, and in many cases, detailed images.

Today they announced extraordinarily generous permissions for use of those images:

 

 

Technically these works are still in copyright in the UK until 2040, but given that they are anonymous and many centuries old, the Library has decided to provide the images on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts under a Public Domain Mark and treat them as public domain works, as would be the case in many other countries.

For more information, please see the library’s use and reuse policy for CIM.  We ask that you maintain the library’s Public Domain tag, and provide a link or other credit back to the image’s source on the British Library’s site – help us share these riches even more widely with the world.

I’m absolutely delighted by this news. The British Library and its staff have made it extraordinarily simple to search for a particular MS. by name or shelf number. You can also search by  Keyword or perform advanced searches related to specific characteristics of the manuscript or its illumination including MSS. or images from a given region or time period, or even of a particular subject matter.

Here is the front door to the British Library’s Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

I especially want to draw attention to The British Library’s requests regarding reuse of their digital manuscript images. These requests are in the best traditions of libraries and scholarship:

  • Please respect the creators – ensure traditional cultural expressions and all ethical concerns in the use of the material are considered, and any information relating to the creator is clear and accurate. Please note, any adaptations made to an item should not be attributed to the original creator and should not be derogatory to the originating cultures or communities.
  • Please credit the source of the material—providing a link back to the image on the British Library’s website will encourage others to explore and use the collections.
    Please share knowledge where possible—please annotate, tag and share derivative works with others as well as the Library wherever possible.
  • Support the Public Domain – users of public domain works are asked to support the efforts of the Library to care for, preserve, digitise and make public domain works available. This support could include monetary contributions or work in kind, particularly when the work is being used for commercial or other for-profit purposes.
  • Please preserve all public domain marks and notices attached to the works – this will notify other users that the images are free from copyright restrictions and encourage greater use of the collection.

This is a fabulous resource and a great way to learn all sorts of things. I’ll be taking full advantage!

British Library Acquires St. Cuthbert’s Gospel

St. Cuthbert's Gospel f.11

St. Cuthbert’s Gospel f.11

Thanks to a spectacular 9 million pounds fund-raising effort (the most successful in its history) the British Library has successfully acquired BL Additional MS 89000, better known as the St. Cuthbert Gospel.

Previously part of the library of Durham Cathedral, he Gospel is a copy of the Gospel of St John, and the earliest complete European book. St. Cuthbert’s Gospel created in the late 7th century in the north-east of England and placed in St Cuthbert’s coffin, c. 698. When the coffin was opened in Durham Cathedral in 1104 in order to remove Cuthbert’s body and install it to in new shrine, the manuscript was removed and kept in the cathedral library.

St Cuthbert Gospel Late 7th century binding

St Cuthbert Gospel Late 7th century binding

The beautiful maroon leather binding featuring twining branches and fruit is the original late seventh-century binding over boards, with flax thread.

You can read more about the St. Cuthbert’s Gospel on the British Library’s blog. The entire manuscript has been completely digitized and is available on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site. The BBC has video.

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.

January and Feasting

January in the middle ages was especially associated with feasting, and exchanging gifts on New Year’s and on Twelfth Night. In the c. 1400 Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the narrator refers to the nobles at Arthur’s court on January 1st exchanging gifts and playing games, including kissing games, perhaps, and something resembling handy-dandy prickly-prandy.

January saint’s days include the Feast of the Circumcision on the first, the Epiphany on the sixth, Saint Agnes on the twenty-first, and the Conversion of Saint Paul on the twenty-fifth, among other feats. Typically the calendar page will show the sign of Aquarius, the water-bearer in a border (at the top of the full size page of this folio) and/or of Janus, the two-faced deity associated with doors, and beginnings and endings of years. Books of Hours for January are very fond of feasting images, like this one from the Trés Riches Heures:

Trés Riches Heures Musée Condé MS. 65 f.

Trés Riches Heures Musée Condé MS. 65 f.91v

This particular feasting image might be set at New Years or the Feast of the Epiphany, or Twelfth Night. The seated gentleman on the right with the fancy hat and the blue and gold robe is the Duke himself. Behind him is a very large fireplace. Above the fireplace the red and blue banner features Jean de Berry’s heraldic devices—the swan and the fleur de lys. At the very top edge of the banner are two bears—a reference to the Duke’s beloved Ursula. Behind the dining scene is a large, expensive tapestry that seems to be showing a scene from the Trojan wars. The damask tablecloth and the large, ornate salt cellar in the shape of a ship are items that are listed in inventories of the Duke’s household possessions.

The two richly dressed in grey and green young men on the opposite site of the table appear to be his cupbearer and carver, respectively; these are squires or young courtiers, rather than servants. Notice the dog, a white hunting hound, begging (and receiving) food from a courtier. At the far right on the table, just at the edge, two kittens appear to be playing. In the back new guests are just entering, stretching their hands towards the fire, while they look at the guests.

Art historians have attempted to identify some of the figures besides the Duke. For instance, the gentleman to the Due’s right, with the tonsure and the reddish-purple robe is possibly the Duke’s close friend Martin Gouge, the Bishop of Chartres. In the crowd of people entering on the left, behind the table, is a fellow with a white or gray floppy cap. He’s behind a figure dressed in green with a large red hat. The person is the white hat is possibly the artist Paul de Limbourg. The same person is also featured in images in two other mss. that the Limbourgs created, the Petites Heures (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris) and the Belles Heures (The Cloisters, New York).

January images from books of hours also favor images of people warming themselves by a fire. You’ll often see a lesser image in a border on a January calendar page of people playing winter sports—skating, or as in this image from the Hours of Joanna of Castile, playing ball. Del Kolve has written about Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale, featuring the marriage of ancient January to young and fertile May, noting the interesting calendrical echoes of images of January and of May in his Telling Images: Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative II.