Labors of the Months

Books of hours almost always include a series of calendar pages, often in the form of a two-page spread with a large image on one leaf, and the actual feast days of the month on the facing leaf. The earliest versions of Books of Hours, and their predecessor, the Psalter, were made from the 12 century right throughout the early 17th. Because books of hours were made all over Western Europe, from the colder northern areas like the Netherlands, England, and Germany, to the warmer climes of Italy, and Francethat means that there’s a lot of variation in weather and seasons and agricultural and pastoral practice displayed in teh calendar pages. Different eras and areas will have slightly different labors; wine growing regions, for instance, will be more likely to emphasize grape harvest, planting, pruning, and crushing than wheat cultivation. Italian books of hours are often off by a month or so, in terms of the labors of the agricultural cycle, compared to the labors depicted in colder areas.

These are the most common labors and the months they’re usually associated with.

  • January — Feasting; exchanging gifts on New Year’s. Often there’s an allusion to Janus, the god of doors, with two or three heads facing in different directions, much the way January sits between the old year and the new. Watch for a man feasting at table with two chalices or goblets in front of him.
  • February — Sitting by the fire
  • March — Pruning trees, or digging
  • April — Planting, enjoying the country or picking flowers
  • May — Hawking, Maying, courting
  • June — Haying
  • July — Wheat harvesting
  • August — Threshing wheat
  • September – Grape harvesting
  • October — Ploughing or sowing; in wine country, putting the wine in barrels for aging.
  • November — Gathering acorns for pigs
  • December — Hog butchering, bread baking

The labors are nicely cataloged in an anonymous Middle English lyric from the Bodleian (MS. Digby 88)1)R. H. Robbins. Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Centuries .1952; 2nd ed. 1955. 62

Januar By thys fyre I warme my handys;
Februar And with my spade I delfe my landys.
Marche Here I sette my thynge to springe;
Aprile And here I here the fowles singe.
Maij I am as lyght as byrde in bowe;
Junij And I wede my corne well I-now.
Julij With my sythe my mede I mawe;
Auguste And here I shere my corne full lowe.
September With my flayll I erne my brede;
October And here I sawe my whete so rede.
November At Martynesmasse I kylle my swine;
December And at Cristesmasse I drynke redde wyne.

Astrological Signs and The Calendar

You’ll often see astrological symbols on either the calendar pages, listing the Feast days and Saint’s days or the labors pages that accompany them, making it slightly easier to identify the month in question. Look for the astrological symbols in borders of the main image.

Months and Astrological Symbols

January Aquarius The water-bearer.
February Pisces One or more fish.
March Aries The ram; notice the curled horns, vs Taurus the Bull.
April Taurus The bull.
May Gemini The twins; often shown bathing, often transformed into a male and a female, rather than the original Gemini, male twins in Greek myth.
June Cancer The crab. Sometimes the crab looks more like a lobster.
July Leo The lion.
August Virgo The virgin.
September Libra The scales; sometimes just a set of scales, but often, a women holding scales.
October Scorpio The scorpion, with the sting in his tail, though sometimes it’s an oddly humanoid scorpion, possibly with a woman’s face and an oddly curled tail.
November Sagittarius The archer; usually a centaur with a bow-and-arrow; sometimes a man, sometimes just the bow-and-arrows.
December Capricorn The half-goat, half-fish, though sometimes they just use a merman with horns.

You’ll see similar calendrical cycles associated with the labors in sculpture, especially in cathedrals and churches where the labors often appear on misericords and in stained glass windows.


Henisch, Bridget Ann. The Medieval Calendar Year. Penn State University Press. 1999.
An introduction to the concept of the labors of the months, including an Appendix comparing calendar conventions, and many illustrations; largely focused on the pastoral/agricultural seasonal activities, with some discussion of conventional medieval practice against the context of the romanticization of the peasants.

 

 

Perez,Teresa. Medieval Calendars. Trafalgar Square. 1999. While the format emphasizes the images, the captions and explanatory text are very good as well.

References   [ + ]

1. R. H. Robbins. Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Centuries .1952; 2nd ed. 1955. 62

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