The Très Riches Heures for December

December calendar pages in books of hours typically feature butchering pigs, baking, and sometimes, both at once in the form of roasting a slaughtered pig. The porcine emphasis in December is a reasonable one, given that the pigs fattened by eating mast in the form of nuts and acorns in November are now ready to be butchered and roasted.

The image below is a detail 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, where the Duc de Berry was born in 1340, on November 30. The forest bordering the estate was famous for its game (and was reserved as a royal forest). The leaves are still on the trees, though they do suggest late autumn, on the cusp of winter.

The boar has been cornered, speared by the huntsman standing off to the side, and is being destroyed by boar hounds. The realism of the dogs is astonishing; there are both boar hounds, and smaller bloodhounds.

December detail from the Très Riches Heures Musée Condé, MS 65 F12v Image credit Wikimedia Commons

 

On the right side of the image 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 huntsmen are not dressed for summer. But December serves as a good time for a boar hunt (see for instance the boar hunt featured in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) and for domestic swine butchering because it is cold, and because the wild boar, like his cousin the domestic hog, has been eating fattening on nuts acorns.

The Labors of December

We often think of December as the 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 most often feature an image of 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) as December labors of the month.

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. 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’s a famous depiction of a boar hunt in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and a ceremonial feast after, featuring the boar, and of course there’s the still popular medieval Christmas “The Boar’s Head Carol” about the Christmas tide feast featuring the boar’s head as the ceremonial center piece, carried into the hall in a triumphant procession.