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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.
The calendar image for April from the Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours MS M.399, fol. 5v Ghent; Simon Bening (1483/84–1561)
This illustration for the calendar page for April (MS M.399, fol. 5v) from The Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours is a somewhat atypical scene for April, in terms of what most books of hours depict for the April calendar; the labors of April include, most often, scenes of courtship or, or the verdant spring in the form of flowers or spring planting or pruning. Here is a spring farmyard scene, with a cow being milked, a shepherd with lambs, a flock of sheep (and a single billy goat) exiting a sheepcote with some assistance from a man inside, a ewe nursing a lamb. In the background a woman in the doorway of a farm house is churning milk. To her right, another woman is encouraging a cow to exit the barn, perhaps to be milked. A child stands nearby on a path next to the gate, leading the sheep to pasture. The grass has small white flowers; perhaps clover, though April is probably a bit early for clover blossoms.
In the background, the trees are just leafing out, though the chimney shows that there’s still a fire inside the house. Far off in the distance a figure is just visible on the road.
Outside a castle with a moat and bridge, two workers are digging garden beds with “D” handled spades.To their right, two gentlemen (based on their expensive clothing) on a walkway, one in blue with a hat, and one resplendent in a red furled cape, appear to be conversing with one of the workers, perhaps, giving instructions about the garden beds.
The garden area is enclosed by a low wall, and a hedge. Beyond the garden area, a bridge crosses a moat to the castle. Two people, one of them a woman, are in conversation on the bridge just outside the a door leading inside the castle. Beyond the garden workers, on the path under an arbor, a worker on a ladder is tying vines to the arbor—another of the labors of March. In the distance, just vaguely discernible before the rise of a hill, you can see a plough and team.
This detail from Morgan Library MS M.399, f.4v shows the White Stork nest on the top of the castle chimney
Da Costa Hours Morgan Library M.399, fol. 3v ca. 1515, Ghent, Belgium. Detail from the February calendar page by Simon Bening
There are times when it’s very clear that the weather in Europe in the late fifteenth century is not the weather in 21st century New England. This February calendar image from the Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours (the work of Simon Bening) shows workers in a vineyard. In the foreground one man is trimming a grape vine with a knife, while just behind him a second man is tying a vine to a pole. To his left in the forefront a third worker is breaking ground with a pick axe, with a shovel ready at hand on the ground. You’ll notice that the landscape looks like early spring, with no snow in sight. In colder European climates, the labors of February favored warming up by the fire, or chopping wood.
In the middle distance a watch tower with people inside it looks over the fields and across the river, a river with several small boats. Beyond the tower, on a hillside another worker appears to be staking more vines. Beyond him, a fifth man is blowing a hillside with what the Morgan Library describes as a team of oxen (which would be the expected livestock) but which looks very equine to me.
The landscape, which like the other calendar images in the DaCosta hours is surrounded by an ornamental frame, features a river flanked by deep hills, one of which has a castle or monastery or chapel surmounting it. The landscape looks realistic, though I can’t find any source identifying it.
Image Credit: The Morgan Library DaCosta Hours MS M.399, fol. 2v.jpg detail from the January Calendar Page
A man and a child are, quite literally, warming their hands by the fire. The man has removed his footwear, a pair of crude sandals that are startlingly reminiscent of flip-flops.
Behind him, a man and a woman are at a small dining table. The woman appears to be serving a leg of goose or other large fowl. The man is holding a covered bowl. The table is already set with a lit candle, two pieces of trencher bread, and a salt cellar.
Above the fireplace a bird in a bird cage hangs on the wall, while on the floor a disgruntled cat has his back to the table. Beyond the dining room scene, a doorway leads to what is presumably the kitchen, with a second fireplace with a vague figure kneeling before it.
The use of the ornamental carved frame and the way the viewer’s eye is drawn towards the second fireplace at the back of the image is an interesting technique.
British Library’s manuscript Sloane 2593, ff.10v-11, c. 1400
Adam lay i-bowndyn,
bowndyn in a bond,
Fowre thowsand wynter
thowt he not to long
And al was for an appil,
an appil that he tok.
As clerkes fyndyn wretyn
in here book.
Ne hadde the appil take ben,
the appil taken ben,
Ne hadde never our lady
a ben hevene quen.
Blyssid be the tyme
that appil take was!
Therefore we mown syngyn
This Middle English carol is from the British Library’s manuscript Sloane 2593, ff.10v-11, c. 1400, so the carol is roughly contemporaneous with Chaucer, though it’s not in Chaucer’s London dialect of Middle English. The thematic core of the carol is the idea that if Adam hadn’t taken the apple, the fruit from the tree of knowledge, then Mary would never have been the mother of Christ. That is, in other words, the fortunate fall, in a nutshell. The large hole in the MS. photo at the top marks the text of Adam Lay Ybounden.
December calendar pages in books of hours typically feature butchering pigs, baking, and sometimes, both at once in the form of roasting a slaughtered pig. The porcine emphasis in December is a reasonable one, given that the pigs fattened by eating mast in the form of nuts and acorns in November are now ready to be butchered and roasted.
The image below is a detail from the Très Riches Heures of Jean, duc de Berry (Chantilly, Musée Condé, MS 65) calendar image for December. It features a wild boar hunt. The building in the background is the Château de Vincennes, where the Duc de Berry was born in 1340, on November 30. The forest bordering the estate was famous for its game (and was reserved as a royal forest). The leaves are still on the trees, though they do suggest late autumn, on the cusp of winter.
The boar has been cornered, speared by the huntsman standing off to the side, and is being destroyed by boar hounds. The realism of the dogs is astonishing; there are both boar hounds, and smaller bloodhounds.
December detail from the Très Riches Heures Musée Condé, MS 65 F12v Image credit Wikimedia Commons
On the right side of the image another huntsman blows the mort, or death call, on his small horn. It doesn’t look terribly wintery, I admit, though you’ll notice the huntsmen are not dressed for summer. But December serves as a good time for a boar hunt (see for instance the boar hunt featured in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) and for domestic swine butchering because it is cold, and because the wild boar, like his cousin the domestic hog, has been eating fattening on nuts acorns.
Très Riches Heures Musee Cluny MS. 65 f. 11v Calendar page for November Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The November calendar page for the Trés Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (Cluny Musee MS 65 F11v) is one of the pages in the book of hours that the Limbourgs did not complete before they, and their patron Jean Duc de Berry, died June 15 1416 in Paris. Charles I, the Duc de Savoie, commissioned Jean Colombe to finish the central image of the November calendar page sometime between 1485-1489.
Detail for the month of November showing peasants harvesting acorns for pigs
The central panel features a pastoral scene of peasants harvesting acorns from oak trees, for the benefit of swine grazing beneath the trees. In the background on the left a château is partially visible on the bank of a river. The château has not been identified; it’s possible that Colombe relied on his imagination in depicting the château; it’s also possible that it’s not extant and therefor unrecognized.
The peasant on the left looks poised to hurl his stick into the trees, striking the ripe acorns so that they would fall on the ground to be consumed by the waiting pigs. Farther back, in the middle distance, two other peasants accompanied by sticks and pigs are engaged in watching the pigs, and in assisting the acorns to fall.
You’ll notice that the oak trees are very straight, and have had their lower branches lopped off in a practice known as pollarding. It was common in the middle ages in Europe to pollard oak and hazel nut trees by lopping off the lower branches every year or so; these could be used for firewood, and the tree would still grow and bear nuts. It also allowed more trees to be planted, because they could be planted closer together without lower branches inhibiting the growth of nearby trees.
November in Europe has a rich tradition of feeding acorns to pigs, and not just in the Mediterranean countries; Ireland and Britain both relied on acorns (and hazelnuts and hawthorn haws) as important fodder crops. The medieval Brehon laws of Ireland have specific restrictions and protections for the use of mast, particularly acorns. They were crucial in particular in terms of fattening pigs or “finishing” pigs before butchering. Green acorns were hazardous to horses and cows, and not really helpful to swine, hence the practice of harvesting ripe acorns, with the aid of stick or flail.
Acorns are still used to “finish” pigs destined for a later appearance as ham, even now.
I can’t really think about Halloween, or Samain, if you prefer, without thinking of the ballad of “Tam Lin,” especially this part:
And ance it fell upon a day
A cauld day and a snell,
When we were frae the hunting come,
That frae my horse I fell,
The Queen o’ Fairies she caught me,
In yon green hill to dwell.
And pleasant is the fairy land,
But, an eerie tale to tell,
Ay at the end of seven years
We pay a teind to hell;
I am sae fair and fu o flesh,
I’m feard it be mysel.
But the night is Halloween, lady,
The morn is Hallowday;
Then win me, win me, an ye will,
For weel I wat ye may.
Just at the mirk and midnight hour
The fairy folk will ride,
And they that wad their true-love win,
At Miles Cross they maun bide.
— “Tam Lin” Child Ballad 39A.24
“Tam Lin” is one of the Child Ballads, a collection of several hundred early English and Scottish popular ballads collected by Francis James Child. Most of the Child ballads are from the sixteenth century. Some few are older. You can find a list of the Child ballads by number here. A few of the ballads are older than the earliest printed sources; “Tam Lin” is one of those. It’s also one of the best known of the Child Ballads; there are lots of covers by folk rock bands, as well as more traditional singers.1)Probably the best known cover of Tam Lin is this 1969 performance by British folk rock band Fairport Convention, from their lovely Liege and Leaf album. You can find the entire text of the ballad in multiple versions at Abigail Akland’s site TamLin.org. You may be familiar with the story of Tam Lin from one of the novels inspired by the ballad2)A fair number of writers have used all or parts of the ballad of Tam Lin in their books. Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin and Elizabeth Marie Pope’s YA The Perilous Gard are two of my favorites. Other writers, principally Patricia McKillip in Winter Rose and Elizabeth Bear in Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water use the ballad in interesting and compelling ways..
The basic story line of “Tam Lin” tells how Tam Lin was kidnapped or “taken” by the queen of the fairies when he falls off a horse while hunting. He is destined to be sacrificed by the fairies on Halloween, as a teind or tithe to Hell, unless his mortal (and pregnant) lover Janet rescues him.
One of the reasons I find Tam Lin’s tale compelling is that it’s very much tied to the idea of seasons, and to the medieval Celtic idea that at Samain (or the modern related holiday Halloween) the Otherworld is closer to this world, and thus allows more ready passage between the two. Halloween is a liminal time. Samain was at its heart a harvest festival, a time when animals and crops were taken and consumed.
When Janet rescues her lover, it is at midnight, a time between day and night, a time that is thus, because of its liminal nature, outside of time, much the way Samain lies outside of time, between seasons.
The rescue takes place at Miles cross, that is, at a crossroads, a place between places, a place that is liminal in that it partakes of two or more places at once. Crossroads, places where two roads, or two tracks meet, represent decision points; you must choose which road to follow. Crossroads are liminal in that if you stand in the center, you are not really “at” any of the four roads; you are in a special place that is “between”; between roads, between choices. It is at once “some place,” and “no place.” Consequently, crossroads are rich with potential in folklore. They are, for instance, a logical place for a deal with the devil.
In the ballad of Tam Lin, Tam Lin, about to be offered as a tithe to Hell by the fairies, tells his mortal lover Janet that she must meet him and pull him from his horse when he rides with the fairies:
Just at the mirk and midnight hour
The fairy folk will ride,
And they that wad their true-love win,
At Miles Cross they maun bide.
Janet can rescue Tam Lin from the fairies at at midnight because it is between night and day, and at Miles Cross because it’s a crossroad, a place that is neither fairy nor mortal turf but that is “between” territories, and hence, neutral territory. Crossroads are places where journeys are shaped, because the traveler must make a choice about which path to take.
Although Samain was principally a harvest festival, a time for feasting and giving thanks for the harvest as you consume what won’t keep, there are several references to a tax due at Samain; for instance, in the Lebor Gabala Eirenn, during the reign of Nemed, we are told that the descendants of Nemed were taxed by the Fomoire:
§44. Two thirds of the progeny, the wheat, and the milk of the people of Ireland (had to be brought) every Samain to Mag Cetne. Wrath and sadness seized on the men of Ireland for the burden of the tax. They all went to fight against the Fomoraig.3)(Lebor Gabala Eirinn. Ed. Trans. R. A. S. MacAlister. Irish Text Society 1832.
Here Samain is associated with tax-gathering, paying a tithe, an appropriate thing to do at the end of the harvest. It might in fact be considered a kind of sacrifice, since the Formoire were certainly supernatural.
In the ballad, Tam Lin says that
Ay at the end of seven years
We pay a teind to hell;
I am sae fair and fu o flesh,
I’m feard it be mysel.
The idea of the teind, an old Northern word for a tithe, is particularly intriguing in light of the timing of Samain in the late autumn. The Medieval English Thomas Of Erceldoune (closely related to Child Ballad #37 “Thomas the Rhymer”) makes a similar reference to “þe foulle fende” fetching his fee in the form of a human sacrifice. The fairy queen who absconded with Thomas when she found him sleeping under the Eldone Tree, tells him she must return him to the mortal world lest he be sacrificed:
“To Morne of helle þe foulle fende
Amange this folke will feche his fee;
And þou arts mekill mane and hende,—
I trowe full wele he wolde chose the.
ffor alle þe gold þat euer may bee,
þou bese neuer be trayede for mee;
þere fore with me I rede thou wende” (ll. 289–94).4)Thomas of Erceldoune is a 15h century medieval romance. The best text is that of the 15th century Lincoln Cathedral MS. 91. The Thornton Ms. Nixon, Ingeborg. Ed. Thomas of Erceldoune. Publications of the Department of English University of Copenhagen. Volume 9 Part 1 Thomas of Erceldoune. Volume 9 Part 2 Introductions, Commentary and Glossary. Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen, 1980.
One of the more interesting aspects of the liminality of Halloween (and the earlier Samain) is that the ease of passage between the mortal world (or Middle Earth as Thomas of Erceldoune has it) and the fairy otherworld on Halloween, as on May Day (or Beltaine) marks the way the otherworld is dependent on this world, even if it’s only for occasional sacrificial victims. Another interesting facet is that in both the story of Tam Lin, saved by the love of his mortal sweetheart Janet, and in the case of Thomas the Rhymer, saved by the love of his immortal sweetheart the fairy Queen, love wins the day.
Probably the best known cover of Tam Lin is this 1969 performance by British folk rock band Fairport Convention, from their lovely Liege and Leaf album.
A fair number of writers have used all or parts of the ballad of Tam Lin in their books. Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin and Elizabeth Marie Pope’s YA The Perilous Gard are two of my favorites. Other writers, principally Patricia McKillip in Winter Rose and Elizabeth Bear in Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water use the ballad in interesting and compelling ways.
(Lebor Gabala Eirinn. Ed. Trans. R. A. S. MacAlister. Irish Text Society 1832.
Thomas of Erceldoune is a 15h century medieval romance. The best text is that of the 15th century Lincoln Cathedral MS. 91. The Thornton Ms. Nixon, Ingeborg. Ed. Thomas of Erceldoune. Publications of the Department of English University of Copenhagen. Volume 9 Part 1 Thomas of Erceldoune. Volume 9 Part 2 Introductions, Commentary and Glossary. Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen, 1980.
Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry; Musée Condé, MS. 65 f. 10v
In this calendar image for the month of October from the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry (f. 10v) the labor of the month is sowing the winter grain. This is one of the images that was left uncompleted when Jean Duc de Berry died in 1416. The original artists responsible for most of the image in this book of hours, the Limbourg brothers, also died.
The manuscript passed to King Charles VII, the Duke’s brother, and the image for the October calendar was finished by another artist.
In the warmer parts of Europe, the wine regions, October marked the month when the grapes harvested in September were put into barrels for aging. In the regions less friendly to grapes, October’s labor is sowing the winter grain, or sometimes, plowing.
As it says in the medieval lyric listing the labors of the month “And here I sawe my whete so rede” (Bodleian MS. Digby 88).
In the background, you can see the Louvre; this Parisian palace was built by the Duke’s older brother, King Charles V. The medieval Louvre was substantially changed by successive royal owners; here’s a reconstruction showing what we think it looked like in the 15th century. The Très Riches Hours calendar image shows three central towers. Between the three central towers are two balconies, or brattices, each pierced by three windows from which, during a siege, defenders could hurl boing water or hot oil on to the attackers below.
Detail showing from the calendar page for October from the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry (Musée Condé, Chantilly, France; MS, 65 f. 10v). C. 1416.
Beneath the towers and the central donjon of the the Louvre, you can see a small door that opens in the thick wall, exiting on to the banks of the Seine. People chat in a small group right at the door. A set of steps leads down to the Seine, where women do their laundry by beating it with a stick, near a small boat that’s moored. To the right, in front of one of the central towers, two dogs play. There’s a second set of stairs down to the Seine, and three more boats are tied up.
In the central scene below the Louvre and the river, a man in red mounted on a horse drags a harrow across the field. The wooden harrow is weighted with a rock. The weight of the rock forces the tines of harrow into the earth. As the horse drags the harrow along, the tines break up the dirt clods. This is particularly useful after plowing since the harrow helps cover the previously sown seeds as it smooths the soil. Beyond the mounted rider, in the central part of the image, there’s a field that’s already been sown with seeds and a scarecrow dressed as an archer. The strings tied with rags that criss-cross the field around the scarecrow are meant, like the archer scarecrow, to ward off marauding birds.
To the right in the front of the image, a peasant dressed in blue scatters seeds, hand-sowing, while magpies (the black-and-white birds) and crows devour the freshly sown (but not yet covered by the harrow) seeds. Notice the naturalistic detail of the footprints left in the soft earth as the seed-sower progresses along the row. Those footprints, like the shadow cast by the scarecrow, the reflections cast by the boats, or the vaporized breath and the smoke from the chimney in the image for February are other early examples from the Très Riches Heurs of the artists using realistic, technical, details in European art of the Middle ages.
This grape-picking scene from the Très Riches Heures is one that was completed after the death of the book of hours’ original owner, Jean Duc de Berry. The Duke died in 1416, as did the three Limbourg brothers. In 1485, the Duc de Savoie, who acquired the unfinished manuscript, had the artist Jean Colombe finish half of September. Jean Colombe relied on a placeholder sketch previously made by the original artist. The top portion of the scene, featuring the Château de Saumur, was completed earlier.
In the warmer wine-producing parts of Europe, September, even now, brings the grape harvest. Peasants took to the fields in September to pick the grapes, engaging in the standard labor of the month depicted in the the calendar pages of books of hours for the month of September (at least in warmer climates).
If you look at the detail from the central portion of this calender page for Sepetember, you can see that the Château has a mote, with what appears to be a small draw bridge before the entry. A woman with a basket on her head is entering, and a horse (surprisingly it does not appear to be a donkey) with panniers is leaving. Between the Château and the grape vines is an enclosure that served as a tilting ground for tournaments. Just to the right of the tilting ground stands an ox.
In the lower portion of the scene, the grape pickers cut bunches of grapes from the vines and place them in baskets. If you look closely, the two pickers on the bottom left, both in grey, a woman wearing a white apron and a dark head-cloth and a man in grey, appear to be holding grape knives; these knives would also have been used earlier in the year to trim the vines.1)Called a billhook, this frequently used gardening tool had a double-edged curved blade and sometimes, an additional spike or point. It’s not that different from a modern grape harvesting knife. In Latin, the vineyard variety of a billhook was a falx vinatoria. Baskets of grapes are filled and placed in the panniers on the donkeys, or in the large barrels in the ox cart to the right. On the bottom left, a woman in blue and red with a adjusting her maroon head scarf and a white apron appears to be very pregnant. Just behind her, to the right, a young man in brown is sampling the grapes. In the middle right, a peasant is mooning the viewer.
Detail of the calendar page for September showing the Château de Saumur in the background, and peasants harvesting grapes in the foreground, the typical labor of the month in France.
Called a billhook, this frequently used gardening tool had a double-edged curved blade and sometimes, an additional spike or point. It’s not that different from a modern grape harvesting knife. In Latin, the vineyard variety of a billhook was a falx vinatoria.