The calendar is important for both Medieval and earlier Celtic cultures, not only in terms of feast days and holidays but in terms of seasonal changes and consequent changes in appropriate activities and labor. The association between season and labor is exemplified in Irish Brehon law, Medieval Irish and Welsh tales, and in Medieval Books of Hours and Christian festivals and holy days.
The Neolithic residents of Ireland and Britain built stone structures like Stonehenge, and Brúgh na Bóinne which was constructed so that dawn marks the Winter solstice inside the passage tomb at Newgrange.
In the later Iron age and Medieval eras, we have not only early manuscript references to the four major Celtic feast days of Samain (Modern Irish Samhain), Imbolc, Beltain and Lughnasa, we have fragments of Gaulish calendars, most notably the Coligny calendar.
By the time of the Medieval era, the use of a calendar to track the time is clear in references to specific days and dates in the Irish Annals, references to feast days in Medieval Irish and Welsh tales and laws, as well as in the calendars created and used by the church, most notably in the calendar pages of books of hours.
Detail from the Hours of Henry VIII Morgan Library MS. 8 f2v April
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.
April from the Hours of Henry VIII Morgan Library MS. H8 f2v
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.
Detail showing pruning the vines March Hours of Henry VIII Morgan Library MS H.8, fol. 2r
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.
Detail showing a billhook from Hours of Henry VIII Morgan Library MS H.8, fol. 2r
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.
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.
The next vignette shows someone bringing in wood, while the central image features the master of the house at table, his back to the ample fireplace, dining, while the lady of the house sits on a low bench next to the hearth, warming her hands.
The border on the left shows images for the Feast of the Circumcision (on January 1). The medallion in the center of the bottom border contains the zodiac sign of Aquarius, the water-bearer.
January: Feasting and Keeping Warm (fol. 1)
Calendars in Books of Hours do not demarcate time by enumerating the days from the first to the last of the month, as seen in this January page, but, rather list the important liturgical feasts of the month.
Inside, the lord of the house sits at his meal, his back to the hearth,as his wife, closer to the fire, warms her hands.
While a heavy snow covers the land, a laborer carries a few logs from the woodpile into the manor.
When Calendars in Horea (Latin for “Hours”) were illustrated, they followed a tradition of depicting two vignettes in each month: the sign of the zodiac and the activity, usually agrarian, commonly undertaken during the season.
The borders illustrate some of January’s major feasts, including, at top left, the Circumcision (feast on January 1). At bottom center is the zodiacal sign Aquarius, the Water Carrier.
Image credit: rannṗáirtí anaiṫnid | A traditional Irish turnip Jack-o’-lantern from the early 20th century. Photographed at the Museum of Country Life, Ireland via WikiMedia Commons
Because I have a Celtic studies website, every October my email is peppered with messages from two large groups: fundamentalist Christians of various persuasions, and Neo Pagans of various paths. Both sects are writing to inform, deny, assert or correct me regarding Halloween and the Celtic feast known as Samhain in Modern Irish (Samain in Medieval Irish).
The amount of email (and comments) increases every year. And the articles posted all over the Web get a little more annoying in their diligent perpetration of myths. Several years ago I even wrote my own FAQ What Is Samain or Samhain to try to stem the tide, to no avail.
Both groups are still generally propagating ahistorical myths. Thing like:
Samhain is the name of the Celtic God of the Dead.
No, really, it’s not. There wasn’t a “Celtic God of the Dead.” There isn’t really even an Irish god of the dead. The various Celtic groups speaking various Celtic languages over several thousand years and many more miles had a lot of different deities, possibly hundreds, but unlike say, Greek or Roman deities, they don’t have neatly organized portfolios, pantheons or specific bureaucratic duties and job descriptions. Celtic deities tend to be multivalent, with a single deity having several associations, even associations that might seem to contradict each other, or change over time and geographic distances. Unlike the Romans, the ancient Celts don’t seem to have placed a high cultural value on consistency or linear organization.
However, while Samhain or (Sam Hain as some would have it) isn’t the name of a Celtic god of the dead, it is a feast, and a month. Samhain (Modern Irish Samhain, Old Irish Samain, Scottish Gaelic Samhuinn, Manx Sauin, and Gaulish Samonios), is the name for the ninth month in Modern Irish, and the name of a specific feast mentioned frequently in Medieval Irish texts. Celticist T. G. E. Powell writes:
The greatest festival in Ireland was known as Samain. In terms of the modern calendar it was celebrated on the first of November, but the preceding night was perhaps the most significant period of the festival. Samain marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next. It was considered to stand independently between the two, and its position in relation to the natural seasons shows it clearly to have been the turning-point in a pastoralist rather than an agrarian cycle. It corresponds to the end of the grazing season when under primitive conditions the herds and flocks were brought together, and only those animals required for breeding were spared from slaughter.1)T. G. E. Powell. The Celts. Thames and Hudson: New York, New York, 1985. p. 144.
Powell’s description is very much in line with the various references in medieval Irish texts to Samain and the feis Samain, the feast of Samain. Harvest requires a communal effort to gather the crops and herds, and it’s inevitably followed by feasting, as people consume the food that won’t last until Spring when fresh food again becomes readily available. Consequently Samain is also frequently associated in medieval Irish texts with oenaich, that is, festivals and great assemblies of people, assemblies that take place after most of the harvest is done, but before Winter arrives.
Samhain is the Celtic New Year
This one is pernicious. On the face of it, it’s not exactly wrong, there’s clearly a divide at the season of Samain/Samhain between two points of time and season. I wish that, instead of writing “Samain marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next,” Powell had written that Samain marked the end of one agrarian cycle, and the beginning of the next cyle, or one season and the beginning of the next season. Samain does mark the end of Summer and the start of Winter. It’s worth noting that the Welsh name for November first is “Caland Gaeaf,” or the first day of Winter (caland is a borrowed word with Latin antecedents and cognate with English calendar, but gaef is good Welsh).
But labeling that divide as a celebration of a New Year is troubling, first, because it equates European/North American celebrations on the 31st of December and the 1st of January with the seasonal and agrarian cycles of multiple cultures from thousands of years ago and a very large geographic area. Secondly, it’s troubling because the best evidence we have, including ancient calendars like the Coligny Calendar, are more about cycles, about things repeating, than about a linear progression and totting up the years. It’s a little silly to tie our cultural assumptions about “New Year’s Day” to those of the various ancient Celtic-speaking groups.
The ancient Celts, like the other peoples of most of Europe, were agrarian. They raised crops and animals. They fed themselves and their animals (cattle, pigs, horses, and, eventually, sheep) on crops like oats and barley and then butchered some of the animals in late fall. They carefully saved some of the seeds from their crops (particularly oats and barley) to plant the following spring, much as they saved enough adult animals to breed swine and cows and horses in the spring.
In an agrarian economy, even now, you’re thinking about making it through winter when you butcher and harvest crops in the fall, eating now what you can’t preserve, and saving enough seed and young breeding stock for spring in hope of making it through to the next year for butchering and harvest. The New Year as such isn’t that important; the season is important. The cycle. The things you must do at the proper time and in the proper order in order to survive, because, as G.R.R. Martin puts it “Winter is coming.” Winter and dearth are predictable; spring and summer aren’t.
Samhain is the Celtic Feast of the Dead
Well, no, not exactly. It’s more accurate to say that Samhain marks a liminal time between the end of Summer and the start of Winter. As a liminal time, half-way between two seasons, Samhain is special in that it’s neither one thing or the other. In terms of Medieval Irish texts and myths, Samhain is a time when denizens of various Otherworlds, including the supernatural, the fey, and the dead, are free to cross over to this world, just as mortals can cross over to the Otherworlds. It’s also not really accurate to equate the various Celtic Otherworlds with Hell, or even with the land of the dead. Again, it’s not that easy. Lines blur with Celtic myths.
Samhain is the ancestor of Halloween
It’s perhaps better to categorize Samhain as one inspiration for Halloween. The medieval Catholic church celebrated a number of feast days or holy days commemorating the death of saints who had no particular feast specifically dedicated to them. The dates varied with various “local” Catholic churches in the Middle ages, but the church eventually settled on November 1.
In 609 Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 as All Saints’ Day, or as Middle English has it, Alholowmesse. The Venerable Bede (d. 735) states that the celebration of All Saints Day occurs November 1 in England. The night before, October 31 was thus All-Hallows Eve, or Halloween. In A.D. 1000 the church made November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the souls of all the departed (particularly those in Purgatory), by praying for them. There are references to both days earlier, but these seem to be the dates of official approval and administrative standardization as feast days with their current places in the calendar.
Certainly the associations of harvest and the dying of the year underlie the church’s decision to have an official day of the dead for commemorative purposes, and it’s not unlikely that the church made a conscious decision to assign the feast officially to a day that already had local associations with commemorating the dead, which Samain assuredly has.
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 showing the labors of 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.
Morgan library MS M.399, f. 13v Belgium, Bruges, ca. 1515; Simon Bening. Image credit: Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, Graz/Austria.
This wintery scene is a detail from the December calendar page from the Da Costa Hours (Belgium, Bruges, c. 1515) now in The Morgan Library. (MS M.399, f. 13v). The landscape is snowy, and the people are dressed warmly. In the front, a man is slitting the throat of a boar with a knife, while to his right a woman is catching the blood, “bleeding out” the butchered pig. (Today it’s more common to suspend the the pig head-down; medieval images often show the boar on the ground, or on a low trestle table, or yes, suspended.) Behind the woman catching the blood, another woman stands outside of an inn. The inn has a sign showing a star or perhaps a sun. The windows are lined with three people watching the pig slaughter. In the distance, there’s a man with a team of horses and a wagon. The distant scene looks very cold; there’s some show-through of the art on the reverse of the page.
The boar was an important food source, though largely for the wealthy, especially the domesticated boar. The other popular image for December calendar pages was of the boar hunt. While the head was regarded as a trophy, nothing was wasted, and all was used, from the bristles to the trotters.
Flax is a fiberus plant grown for both the seeds (for food for people and animals) but more importantly, for the fibers, used to make linen. While wool was the most common fabric in the Middle ages in Europe, linen was also used for clothing and household textiles since it made durable light-weight cloth that was particularly suited for warmer weather and undergarments.
Harvesting and processing flax was usually done during June and July, though this isn’t the only November book of hours image to feature flax production. The two men in the fronts are beating flax that has been soaking in water for several days; this process was called retting. After retting the flax is beaten which loosens the fibers from the flax stems. Behind the two men, on the left, a woman inside a shed is using a scutching knife to scutch the flax, that is, remove the outer woody covering from the fibers. She’s sitting, and you can see two bundles of processed flax on the floor next to her. Although it isn’t shown, the next stage of converting flax to linen would be hatching, which meant drawing the flax through tines on a board, combing the long fibers so that they could be spun before being woven into linen.
Behind the shed and the woman scutching is another shed; possibly a threshing barn, since it looks the man standing in the doorway has a raised arm and is holding something, perhaps a flail?
In the center part of the image you can see doves and chickens scratching in the straw just outside what may be the threshing barn, as if the wheat straw and chaff had been discarded by the thresher. Across the way the top of the building is a dovecote, with the ground floor a barn for pigs. In the background, you see other pigs. In the very back in the center of the image is possibly a house with a fire, and figure before the fire warming, as a foreshadowing of winter and the labor of February which often shows someone sitting before a fire and warming themselves.
The Da Costa Hours were illuminated by Simon Bening (1483/84 – 1561); they were produced in Ghent, Belgium c. 1515. This image is strikingly similar to a November bas relief image in the London Rothschild Hours in the British Library (British Library Add MS 35313, f. 6v).1)British Library Add MS 35313 is variously identified as the London Rothschild Hours and the Hours of Joanna I of Castile.
The London Rothschild Hours BL Add MS 35313 f. 6v November calendar image. c. 1500.
The most obvious similarity is in the foreground figure of the two men beating flax; even the positions of the figure and hands on the implements is strikingly similar. Notice that one of the men is now bare-headed. The similarities do not end there; look at the pigs in the barn, the roaming pigs, and the man in the background that appears to be threshing grain with a flail inside a threshing shed. The woman feeding the pigs is unique, but the dovecote above the barn is strikingly similar. Behind the woman feeding the pigs swill from a bucket, to the right is a woman using a scutching knife to scutch flax, again, a similar detail.
Another similar, almost identical scene, is in a breviary; Morgan Library MS M52. The November calendar page has a similar scene at the bottom of F. 7r:
November calendar page Morgan Library M. 52 f.7r. Breviary; Belgium c. 1500
This breviary image shares some details with the London Rothschild hours. The woman feeding the pigs, the barn and tower above the pigs, the clothing of the two men beating the flax, the threshing shed and the man with the flail in the background, are all strikingly similar to the November image in the Rothschild London hours. The woman clothed in green with the scutching knife on the left is strikingly similar to the woman clothed in green using a scutching knife in the Da Costa Hours November image. The hats on the two men beating the flax in the foreground are strikingly similar to the hats on the two men in The Da Costa hours image.
The miniatures in the Hours of the Cross and the Hours of the Virgin and perhaps the Calendar scenes are attributed to the Master of James IV of Scotland and his workshop; the miniatures in the Suffrages and prayers are attributed to the workshop of the Maximilian Master, both active at Ghent.
The Morgan Library breviary from Belgium M.52 has this:
M.52 (“Breviary of Eleanor of Portugal”), in Latin, Franciscan for Rome use (Ordo breviarii, calendar). Flanders, probably Ghent or Bruges, ca. 1500–1510, illuminated by the Master of the Older Prayerbook of Maximilian (Alexander Bening?) (A) and the Master of James IV of Scotland (Gerard Horenbout ?)
Ms. book of hours for indeterminate use (Hours of the Virgin) and the use of Rome (Office of the Dead); written and illuminated in Ghent, Belgium, ca. 1515.
Decoration: 75 full-page miniatures (including 12 calendar illustrations), 15 small miniatures, 12 historiated borders with zodiacal signs.
Artist: Simon Bening and workshop.
The British Library’s London Rothschild Hours and the Morgan Library’s breviary share two artists;the Master of James IV of Scotland and the Master of the Older Prayerbook of Maximilian. The Morgan Library also suggests that the Master of the Older Prayerbook of Maximilian may have been Alexander Bening (sometimes called Sanders Bening), the father of Simon Bening, the principle artist of the Da Costa Hours.
MS M.399, fol. 11v October from The Da Costa Hours, The Morgan Library Credit: Image courtesy of Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, Graz/Austria.
Sometimes the calendar images in a book of hours departs from the more common labors of the month. This is the case with the Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours image for October. The more common labors for October in books of hours include ploughing and sowing in colder climates, transferring the new wine into casks and barrels for aging in warmer wine-growing areas, or even, a late harvest of grapes in the warmer Mediterranean climates, which is one of the labors in this image from the Morgan Library’s MS M.399, fol. 11v, the October calendar image from the Da Costa Hours.
The Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours calendar image for October shows a village street with cobblestones. An ox is tethered to the wall of a building; three of the men appear to be discussing price; they are huddled together and one seems to be receiving coins from another man, who has his hand in his purse.
Immediately behind them, a man on a ladder is gathering grapes growing up a wall and over an arbor. A woman, her hands wrapped in her apron, watches somewhat anxiously from the street below the ladder. Beyond her, farther down the street, a man with a staff in hand and a basket on his back approaches a building with what appears to be a sundial set in the gable. The contents of the basket aren’t really clear; they appear to be yellowish brown, and round; possibly grapes, or even nuts or apples.
September from the Da Costa Hours Morgan Library MS M.399, fol. 10v Credit: The Morgan Library and Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, Graz/Austria
The traditional labors of September shown in books of hours are harvesting and treading grapes in warmer regions and ploughing and sowing (and sometimes, threshing) in colder climates. In this detail of the September calendar image from the Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours (MS M.399, fol. 10v), in the foreground a man ploughs with the aid of two horses. Behind him another man is sowing seeds by casting. The seeds are probably winter wheat, and there are more of them in the basket of grain resting on the ground.
Behind him and to the left, a man with a stick is knocking down nuts for the swine below the trees; this is typically the labor for November, but as an actual activity it took place as soon as nuts began to ripen.
The birds eagerly gobbling the seeds are probably European crows, sometimes called Carrion crows, or Corvus corone. Crows in medieval bestiaries are associated with longevity, and warning humans of ambushes. Pliny mentions crows’ habit of dropping nuts on rocks to crack them. Actual crows today do in fact make a racket when the see predatory birds or animals, and that includes humans, and Carrion crows really do drop nuts on rocks and other hard surfaces, like paved roads and sidewalks, to crack them.
Detail from The Da Costa Hours for August Morgan Library MS M.399, fol. 9v Image: The Morgan Library
This is a lovely but also fairly traditional book of hours calendar image for August from The Morgan Library’s MS M.399, fol. 9vThe Da Costa Hours, showing the customary labor of August, threshing grain, as well as the last reaping of grain. In the front on the left, a woman is finding the cut wheat into sheaves for drying. Front and center a double-flail wielding man is beating the ripened grains from the stocks. To his right another man with a sickle is reaping the ripe grain. In the middle distance on the left a cart drawn by two horses (one with a rider) is hauling away a load of sheaves of grain, perhaps destined for a threshing barn. In the distance beyond the cart is what looks like a man reaping on the side of a hill.
Detail from Morgan Library MS M.399, fol. 9v The Da Costa Hours Image credit: The Morgan Library
In the foreground, where the one men is threshing and his neighbor is wielding a sickle, the standing wheat and the bundles on the ground both have small brightly colored flowers of some sort. I can’t help but wonder is some of them are Cornflowers, Centaurea cyanus (Bachelor buttons in North America). Cornflowers take their name from their European habitat; they tended to grow in fields of grain, or “corn” in British English, including wheat, rye and oats. Cornflower blossoms are most commonly blue in color, but purple and pink blossoms are also possible. Other possible candidates for the flowers include the Corn Poppy (Papaver rhoeas), Corncockle (Agrostemma Githago). These meadow and field flowers are often featured in the borders of books of hours, particularly those from Flemish workshops.