The Labors of April

Chaucer in the opening of the “General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales has a famous reverte or “re-greening” description of April in Britain:

1 Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
5 Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
10 That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
15 And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

According to Chaucer, April “with his showers sweet” has “pierced” the drought of March, bathing every vein (of plants) in rain. Zephyr, the gentle wind west wind, has inspired the “tender crops.” Chaucer also tells us that the “young sun has run half his course in the Ram.” That is, the sun (who is young because the Spring equinox has only recently occurred) has passed through the constellation of Aries, the Ram.1)In other words, the sun has run the second half of his course in Aries; it is thus mid-April; probably the 17th or 18th of April, given later references to the start of the pilgrimage.

April, at least in the fifteenth century in much of western Europe, was not only the month of “April showers” and rain, but the season where spring is turning with alacrity to Summer. Birds are singing, and flowers are blooming. Consequently, the traditional labors of April depicted in calendar pages of books of hours feature images of planting and sowing seeds, (tendre croppes), country scenes featuring verdant landscapes and flowers, and especially, scenes of flower picking and, sometimes, courtship (a precursor to the May calendar images of Maying and courtship). The Middle English lyric about the labors offers this:

Aprile And here I here the fowles singe

Much like Chaucer’s “smale foweles maken melodye.” April calendar images often include birds, especially in the borders or as background details. But just as often, the calendar images for April are localized and feature labors more appropriate to the specific geography. Sometimes the March labor of vine-pruning is carried over into April. Sheep-shearing, a spring necessity is often shown for April, though it is more often a labor of May. Calving, carefully managed by breeding cows at several points in fall when so that during spring the cows would bear calves over several months. This meant that cows would be in milk for human use in cheese-making once their calves were weaned. Pigs, sheep, and chickens are all producing as well.

References   [ + ]

1. In other words, the sun has run the second half of his course in Aries; it is thus mid-April; probably the 17th or 18th of April, given later references to the start of the pilgrimage.

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