Calendar

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.

  • Calendar,  Medieval manuscripts

    March from the Hours of Henry The VIII

    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…

  • Calendar,  Medieval manuscripts

    February from the Hours of Henry VIII

    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…

  • Calendar,  Medieval manuscripts

    January from the Hours of Henry VIII

      The calendar page for January from the Hours of Henry VIII (Morgan Library MS. H.8 f.1) features feasting in front of the fire, a typical labor for the month of January as depicted in books of hours. This illustration is an example of the “cutaway” scenes that featured in books of hours, with three panels.[1]See for instance the February calendar image in the Très Riches Heures. On the far left the image shows the outside of the house. It’s clearly a snowy winter day. It’s snowing, and the ample wood pile is partially obscured by the falling snow. The next vignette shows someone bringing in wood, while the central…

  • Calendar,  Celtic Myth

    Things I Dread About Samhain

    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…

  • Calendar,  Medieval manuscripts

    December from the Da Costa Hours

    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. 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…

  • Calendar,  Medieval manuscripts

    November from the Da Costa Hours

    The traditional labors of November are knocking down acorns for swine to feed, or hog butchering. This November calendar image from The Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours MS M.399, fol. 12v shows neither. Instead, it shows a farmyard and people preparing flax (though there are some pigs grazing in the background). 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…

  • Calendar,  Medieval manuscripts

    October from the Da Costa Hours

    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…

  • Calendar,  Medieval manuscripts

    September from the Da Costa Hours

    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;…

  • Calendar,  Medieval manuscripts

    August from the Da Costa Hours

      This is a lovely but also fairly traditional book of hours calendar image for August from The Morgan Library’s MS M.399, fol. 9v The 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…

  • The August calendar image from the Da Costa Hours, Morgan Library showing peasants harvesting wheat

    Labors of August

    The typical labor or occupation of the month depicted in books of hours for the labors of August is threshing grain, (most often, wheat, though sometimes the calendar image for the labor of August shows rye or barley in a field). Threshing is the task of beating the stalks of grain to remove the ripe grains from the stalk as well as remove or loosen the husks that protect the individual grains. In some areas, threshing as the August labor may be replaced by reaping, cutting down the stalks of ripe grain, that often takes place in July. The anonymous Middle English lyric regarding the labors of August says “and…