The labor for November is often a butchering scene; typically, hogs. But another popular labor for November scenes in books of hours is that of feeding acorns or nuts “mast” to swine, as here and in the Très Riches Heures. In this image from the Morgan Library’s Hours of Henry VIII, as in the November scene form the Très Riches Heures, we see a man allowing swine to graze on the fallen acorns, while another man beats the trees with a stick to encourage the nuts to fall. Here too the trees are pollards, the lower limbs having been removed for their wood. Notice that both men are dressed warmly with strong shoes, leggings, warm shirts and hoods. November is not a balmy month, and those swine look ready for the butcher. Typically, one or two sows would be wintered over with a single boar, though the boar might be borrowed in spring from a neighbor in return for a young pig.
This October labor from the Morgan Library’s Hours of Henry the VIII is actually two labors; on the left, a nattily dressed man in a hat, vest, stockings and shoes is sowing seeds, while on the right another man is ploughing the filed with a team of horses. The crop being sowed is almost certainly a variety of winter wheat, destined to be harvested in summer. The wheat sprouts before the snow falls, and continues, somewhat somnolently, to grow under its winter blanket of snow.
The man with with the seeds is scatteringly, rather than planting in rows. You can see a sack with additional seeds on the ground behind him. He has folded his apron to hold the seeds he scatters. This is strikingly similar to the October calendar image from Très Riches Heures. Both images show the dual labors of sowing winter grain and plowing; both feature a man sowing grain from his apron while a sack with additional seed waits in readiness on the ground nearby. Technically the Très Riches Heures for October show a harrow, but the effect is much the same.
Just about anywhere in Europe that could grow grapes in the Medieval era, did (and does). Tasks associated with wine-making, like pruning the vines and pressing the grapes to produce juice, are often featured in books of hours as the labor of September. It’s the labor depicted in the September page of the the Morgan Library’s Hours of Henry VIII. This picture shows the complete wine making process from picking to barreling. It is still essentially the same process followed today.
The Morgan Library notes the gendered division of labor. In the background women sitting on the ground pick the grapes. This is more accurately described as cutting the grape clusters from the vine. A man standing near them with a large slightly awkwardly balanced basket on his back is waiting to bring a basket of grapes to the shed in the foreground. Inside the shed, another man with a similar basked is in the act of adding the grapes from his basket to a waiting vat, functioning as a wine press. Across from him, a man treading the grapes to release their juice is in fact pressing grapes, and has a smaller basin of juice he is adding to the immense barrel functioning as a fermentation tank.
At the base of the giant tank is a tap, with a barrel poised to receive juice, before being sealed and joining its peers stacked to the left, to be stored and aged. Notice the way the barrels are designed to tilt in the basin created to host them as they are being filled; this is solid, proven technology
The labor of August from the Morgan Library’s Hours of Henry VIII MS H.8 fol. 4v shows threshing, the labor that naturally follows after the July calendar image of reaping the wheat. One man with an oxcart and team of oxen has brought a load of wheat to be threshed. It’s been cut and left to dry before being loaded into the wagon. You see him standing next to the oxen with the goad he used to guide them. Inside the barn you see two men with jointed flails beating the dried stalk to loosen the grain from the stems of wheat. A jointed flail consists of a long handle with a short piece of wood attached with a hinged joint at the business end of the flail; this allows the short piece of wood to beat the ears of grain more effectively.
A third man with a rake shifts and turns the stalks so that they are all accessible to the men with flails, and the kernels are not beaten so much that the grain is unusable. The doors of the barn are open for several reasons; light and air, the reduction of dust, and it allows some of the chaff, the inedible straw and broken husks coating individual grains of wheat, to be blown away in a first approximation of winnowing the chaff from the wheat.
You’ll see threshing as the labor of August in the Da Costa Hours as well.
This book of hours image from the Morgan Library’s MS H.8 the Hours of Henry VIII shows the July labor of reaping the wheat. You’ll notice that they’re using short-handled sickles, rather than long-handled scythes. The idea is that you cut the tops of the wheat, the part bearing the grain, and first make a small bundle of it (on the ground). That’s what’s happening on the right side of the image, three men cutting the wheat. Next the wheat is placed in bundles (on the ground) and then someone stacks them neatly on end, on the left.
The three men cutting the wheat are an interesting group; it’s hot work, and two of them are working in shirts and Tbare feet, while the third is dressed in a dyed kirtle, stockings, shoes, and a hat. There’s a class difference. On the left, the fellow stacking the sheaves of wheat is also more fully dressed, while behind him another worker is drinking from one of the casks we’ve seen in several images, notably February and June. There’s another cask in the foreground, with, presumably, lunch, wrapped in the cloth.
The next stage in the wheat harvest is threshing, the labor of August.
This image from the Morgan Library’s Hours of Henry VIII’s calendar page for June shows the first mowing of the hay, a fairly common labor for June and one frequently illustrated in books of hours. On the left three men swing long-handled scythes to mow the hay, while on the right, women use rakes to heap the mown hay into piles or stacks for drying. After it is thoroughly dried, the hay will presumably be loaded into the wagon waiting in the background, behind piles of drying hay. The wagon is a little odd looking; I’m not sure it was meant to be drawn by horse, mule or ox, but instead was perhaps hauled by people.
In the front of the picture, on the right. at the feet of the women are the same small flat-sided casks we saw in the Hours of Henry VIII’s calendar image for February. The casks lie next to cloth-wrapped parcels that the Morgan Library suggests contain lunch for the workers, a reasonable supposition.
An interesting detail is that the men are working in their shirts, with bare legs, with the exception of the gentleman in white socks. Two of the men are wearing shoes, a wise precaution when swinging a sharp blade, while the women are barefoot. This saves shoe leather.
The central blue plaque at the center of the bottom border features the astrological symbol for June and July, Cancer the Crab. There are some unidentifiable saints, or as the Morgan library puts it, “generic saints” but then identifies St. John the Baptist (he appears to be in the middle of baptizing someone) in the border on the right. The feast of his nativity, marked in the calendar gelow the main image, is June 24. The Morgan then identifies St. Eligius (feast June 25), a generic male saint, and saints Peter and Paul (feast of June 29).
The May image from the Morgan Library’s MS H. 8 is on the right; f. 3r. It’s a fairly typical Maying scene, and one I’ve written about before. I still love the little dog, but I want to point out something I missed before, and notice in the Morgan Library’s notes about the image.
There are two little dogs! There’s the one near the couple and a second one on the track off to the right, leading into the woods. Here:
I don’t think the two dogs are the same breed; the one in the trees is more hound-like. It looks to me like the couple in this scene is the courting couple featured in the April calendar image, picking flowers and making garlands. The trees look as if they’ve been pollarded, the lower limbs removed to allow for easier passage (and for burning), and to make it easier to gather nuts.
This detail is from the April calendar page of the Morgan Library’s Hours of Henry VIII MS. H. 8. It features one of the most popular past times featured in book of hours calendar images for the labors of April; the courtly springtime pastime of picking flowers. The scene looks to be set in an enclosed garden; a woman wearing a garland of flowers is braiding another. Next to her her erstwhile swain, appears to be offering her at least one of the two bunches of flowers he bears.
The Morgan library describes the man as a “foppishly dressed youth” and suggests that he is holding flowers which she will weave into a garland; that’s certainly possible, and it might explain his bored eye-rolling expression. He’s waiting, impatiently for her to take the next bunch of flowers. The flowers he is holding, the flowers in the garlands, and the flowers in the grass around the two people all appear to be the same; they’re not clearly delineated, and it is tempting to speculate that they are the ubiquitous Cornflowers *Centaurea cyanus* (Bachelor buttons in North America), a favorite in books of hours.
Below the central image showing the April pastime, the calendar proper features the feasts of St. George (April 23), Peter the Martyr (April 29) and St. Eutropius (April 30). The border includes on the top right St. George slaying the dragon (click through for a larger image that’s zoomable).
In the border surrounding the calendar the center features the zodiac sign of Taurus the Bull in a blue rondel, then an image of Peter the Martyr, with the dagger used to stab him in the chest, and on the far right St. Eutropius, with the bishop’s crosier and the the axe used to kill him still embedded in his head.
This March calendar page from The Hours of Henry VIII is a fairly typical March scene in terms of the labors of March depicted in a book of hours. Workers are pruning the grape vines. You’ll notice that it’s early enough that the vines are still without leaves. While it’s possible to prune vines later, it’s not a good idea as the vines will often bleed sap, which isn’t conducive to producing happy grapes. It’s also much easier to tie the vines to a supporting frame or arbor when they aren’t in full leaf but have leaf-buds. As the workers prune grape vines, they tie them to the arbor so that as the vines grow and sprout leaves and then grapes, the vines will have support.
You can see the pruning tool being used in the detail to the left. This is a Medieval billhook, a sort of all purpose agricultural tool with a double-edged curved blade and sometimes a short spike at the crown and a small hatchet-like blade on the outside edge. It’s perfect for a task like vine-pruning because you can slice the thinner vines with the curved blade and whack off those that are a bit thicker with the small hatchet. This is the same tool known as the falx or falx vinatoria used by the Romans to culivate vines. A modern vine pruning knife, while it often folds up and fits in a pocket, retains that curved cutting blade.
On the left the worker standing on the bench has a shock of fibers he’s using to bind the vines to the supporting framework of the arbor. On the ground, near the middle of the image in the front is a small flat-sided cask with a spout; this contained something for the workers to drink, possibly water, or water with vinegar and honey, and probably not wine.
In the bottom center of the calendar page is the astrological symbol for Aries, the Ram. The margins contain images associated with feast days in March; St. Gregory for March 12, and the Annunciation on March 25 at the bottom right.
This calendar page for February from the Morgan Library’s Hours of Henry VIII (Morgan MS. H.8 f1v) features a typical scene in terms of the the labors of February featured in books of hours; the master of the house is standing in front of the hearth, warming himself by the fire.
He’s wearing expensive clothing, indicated in particular by the fur trimming on his hat and overcoat, as well as the visible purse he wears.
The gentleman is standing in front of a substantial fireplace, with his back to the fire, and his is lifting the hem of his overcoat to warm his backside; a more delicate version of a similar scene from the Très Riches Heures calendar page for February.
There’s a wooden settle in front of him, set before a table with a meal waiting. In the background is a bed with burgundy cover and curtains. In the front of the scene to the viewer’s left, a servant is entering, carrying two flagons which the Morgan library identifies as wine flagons; I can’t help but be reminded of the astrological symbol for January, Aquarius, the water-bearer.