February

Musee Conde Trés Riches Heures MS_65_F2v via Wikimedia Commons

The calendar image for February in books of hours, like that of January, often features someone sitting by the fire, but calendar pages for February are rife with scenes related to the chill of deepest winter. Typically they feature the piscine astrological signs for Pisces. The saints’ days for February include St. Ignatious, and St. Bridget.

This image from the February calendar page in the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry in the Museé Cluny shows the labors of a fairly typical winter day.

This calendar page features an interesting technique in that the house on the bottom left has been cutaway, revealing the inside. A pair of peasants are warming themselves by the fire, less than decorously, as both the woman in blue and the man (wearing gray) have removed their lower garments in order to warm their legs—completing exposing their genitalia. I suspect the garments in question are hanging on the back wall of the house, behind them.

Just outside the house, a woman who appears to be of a higher socio-economic class (based on her clothing and manners), has her skirts slightly raised to encourage the heat to warm her legs without being immodest; notice the way she is turned away from the the display of them men inside. There’s a slightly weasel-looking cat near her feet.

It seems to be a fairly prosperous farm, with a dove cote (see the doves feeding on the ground) dome-shaped bee hives, and a sheep-fold with plump sheep. Just to the right of the sheep-fold, a shivering peasant’s breathe warms the air, an interesting detail for the era. Notice too the smoke curling upwards from the house’s chimney.

The calendar proper in the semicircle at the top of the winter scene shows Aquarius on the left and Pisces on the right, and the chariot of the sun below them.

Musee Conde Trés Riches Heures MS_65_F2v via Wikimedia Commons

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

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.

June

Most calendars in Books of Hours show either sheep shearing or the wheat harvest for the labor of June. Some June pages instead depict the crab for Cancer and a scene from scripture. The June image from the Buchanan e. 3 ms. from the Bodleian, is a Book of Hours, Use of Rouen, in Latin and French
France, Rouen; c. 1500 for June is a typical June image.

 

There’s a peasant with a scythe on the top left, with the symbol for Cancer (though here the crab is more like a crayfish) on the bottom left. In the middle is the actual calendar, with the dates of various Saint’s days and other feasts that take place in June, localized for Rouen. The dates in blue are particularly important; traditionally these would be in red, in a rubric, giving use the phrase “red letter day.”

The Tres Riches Heures calendar page for June shows the Zodiac, with the crab for cancer prominently featured in the middle. The main panel shows a haying scene, with three peasants swinging a scythe in rhythm, and in the foreground, two women raking the mown hay into small stacks . In the background is the Hotel de Nesle, on the left bank of the Seine, the Duc’s Paris palace. On the left, you can see the orange towers of the Conciergerie, still there today, where in 1793 Marie Antoinette was imprisoned. On the far right you can see the gothic spires and cross of Sainte-Chapelle.

The Bibliotheque National NF, Lat 18104, fol. 3v, John of Berry’s Petites Heures, France, Paris 14th Century, for the month of June Shows Saint Paul preaching to the Philippians, the Church personified, and at the top, the symbol for Cancer, this time very clearly a crab.