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 decorative image on one leaf, and a list of the feast days of the month on the facing leaf. The decorative image, whether on a page of its own or a smaller image on the foot or side of the actual calendar, typically feature a seasonal agricultural or pastoral labors of the month or other seasonal activities that would be appropriate for the month, or an (typically) aristocratic pastime. The subjects of these images (which also occur in art besides books of hours) are referred to as the occupations of the months, or the labors of the months.

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 France, there’s a lot of variation in weather and seasons and agricultural and pastoral practice displayed in the calendar pages. Different eras and areas will have slightly different labors of the months; 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 of the months depicted in colder areas.

Typical Labors of the Months

  • 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, digging, plowing, and pruning
  • March — Pruning trees, or digging
  • April — Planting, enjoying the country or picking flowers
  • May — Hawking, Maying, courting
  • June — Haying, weeding, sheep-shearing
  • 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, the boar hunt, bread baking

The labors of the months are nicely cataloged in an anonymous Middle English lyric in a fifteenth century lyric in a manuscript currently in Oxford’s Bodleian Library (MS. Digby 88)[ref]R. H. Robbins. Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Centuries .1952; 2nd ed. 1955. 62[/ref]

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 the list the feast days and saint’s days or the illuminated facing pages that accompany them, making it slightly easier to identify the month in question. Sometimes 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 n Greek myth, who were male twins.
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 of the months in sculpture, especially in cathedrals and churches where the labors often appear on misericords and in stained glass windows.

Cover of The Medieval Calendar Year by Bridget HenischHenisch, 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.



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