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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.
This is the July calendar image from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. It shows wheat being harvested in a field to the left, a typical labor for July, while on the right a man and a woman are shearing sheep. The labors of the month are so very dependent on local seasons, and the cooperation of the weather, that it’s not really surprising to see sheep-sheering as a labor for June and July.
In the background is one of the Jean de Berry’s many castles; exactly which castle is in question (only three of his many castles are still extant). If you look very closely at the bottom left of the image, and in the river in front of the castle in the back ground, you can see swans. The swan is one of Jean de Berry’s heraldic devices (the bear is another; and his arms bear the royal fleur de lys).
British Library Additional MS 24098 The Golf Book ff. 23v–24r. Bruges, workshop of Simon Bening c. 1540s
The calendar pages for June typically feature the zodiac symbols associated with Cancer the crab. The labors for the month are often the wheat harvest (reaping), or cutting hay and raking it to dry first in windrows and then stacks, or sometimes, sheep-shearing. Sometimes calendar images for June show a fallow field being plowed and re-seeded, or, as the seasonal rhyme for the labors of the months notes “Junij And I wede my corne well I-now,” June was often a time for weeding.
In this pair of leaves from the British Library’s Golf Book, on the left is an atypical but nonetheless appropriate scene showing a tournament, a formal series of contests and games of a martial sort, participated in by aristocrats who could afford the time, equipment and horses necessary for upper class sport.
In the larger version of f. 23v above, you can see two mounted knights in armor with swords in hand oin the front, a trumpeter serving as herald on the top left, and another pair of mounted knights jousting with long wooden jousting lance, and more mounted knights waiting for their turn on the right. Behind the knights is the wooden fence marking off the tiltyard. In the foreground, on the dirt, are a number of broken lances. Below the central image is a series of small decorative images in the border shows men or teenaged boys playing with hobby-horses, and toy windmills.
The right-hand folio is the actual calendar for June, with the astrological symbol for Cancer, the crab in the border on the right. Below the calendar is a pastoral scene showing shepherds shearing sheep.
The border from the base of the June calendar page from the British Library’s Golf book f.24r
You’ll notice that modern sheep shearing is remarkably similar. The sheep is turned onto its back, the shearer may throw a leg over the sheep to help keep it still, and the object is (still) to have a continuous fleece, rather than a bundle of strips.
June from the Très Riches Heures. Limbourg brothers c. Ms. 65 in the Musée Condé in Chantilly, France. c. 1412–1416
The favored labor of June often varies in books of hours. In colder regions, like England and Germany, the hay harvest is often associated with July, with weeding the labor for June. In sunny France, the labor of June in books of hours was often haying. This is the case in the June calendar illumination of the Très Riches Heures. In the background the towers of the Duke’s Paris residence, the hôtel de Nesle, rise across the Seine. Once it was the royal residence of King Charles VI (before he moved to the Louvre), now it is the Palais de Justice. The two orange conical towers belong to the Conciergerie, the prison where Marie Antoinette was imprisoned in 1793. On the far right you can see the Gothic splendor of Sainte Chapelle, including the cross on the spire and the stained glass window.
In the foreground you can see haying as the labor of June. Two women rake the mowed hay, after it has been allowed to dry, into piles. Behind them to the right three men swinging scythes mow the hay. Once again, the level of detail is impressive. There’s someone in a boat on the Seine, figures on the stairs at the entrance of the Palace, and smoke rising from the chimney.
A fifteenth century Middle English anonymous lyric about the labors of the seasons asserts that in May “I am as lyght as byrde in bowe.” That certainly describes the typical May calendar images in books of hours Maying, courting, and hawking and horseback riding.
I’ve written about books of hours calendar pages for May featuring bringing in the May, and boating; riding is another popular May calendar image, particularly images showing a young gentleman riding with a hawk in hand. John Trevisa’s translation of Bartholomeus Angelicas’ (Bartholomew the Englishman) encyclopedia De proprietatibus rerum (On the Properties of Things) in the section on the calendar and time, says of May:
For May is a tyme of solas and of likinge, therefore he is ipeynt a yonglyng, riding and bering a fowl on his honde.1)Book 9 De temporibus On time and motion
May is a time of joy and of pleasure, therefore May is depicted as a youth, riding and bearing a hawk on his hand.
Queen Mary’s Psalter calendar page for May British Library Royal 2 B VII f. 75v England c. 1310 – 1320
The May calendar image from the British Library’s Queen Mary’s Psalter (BL Royal 2 B VII) perfectly fits Bartholomeaus’ description. The central portrait at the top of the page shows a young male aristocrat on horseback, a hawk on his hand. Below the illumination are the feast days for the month of May.
The Queen Mary Psalter was produced in England, possibly in the area of London/Westminster, or East Anglia between 1310 and 1320. The text is in Latin, with captions for some images in French. The script is Gothic; Textualis prescissa for the calendar and Psalter and Textualis rotunda for the captions on the prefatory prayer cycle. The entire psalter is the work of a single scribe known as the Queen Mary Master.
Although the psalter is named for Queen Mary Tudor (1516 — 1558), daughter of King Henry VIII, it predates her some two hundred or so years. Obviously made for someone with aristocratic status, it’s not really clear who had the psalter created, and several people owned it before George II in 1757 presented to the British Museum as part of the Old Royal Library. There’s a good post about the The Queen Mary Psalter on the British Library’s official blog.
The illumination at the top of the calendar page, shown in detail below, shows a youth on horse, his hawk in hand, flanked by peers also bearing hawks.
Queen Mary’s Psalter calendar page for May British Library Royal 2 B VII f. 75v Detail England c. 1310 – 1320
Chaucer in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales describes the Knight’s young son, traveling with his father as his squire; the squire is described as
A lovyere and a lusty bacheler;
With lokkes crulle, as they were leyd in presse.
Of twenty yeer of age he was, I gesse (General Prologue ll. 80–82).
The emphasis on on the youth and vitality of the Squire. Chaucer further describes the appearance of the squire in terms of his clothing:
Embrouded was he, as it were a meede,
Al ful of fresshe floures, whyte and reede;
Syngynge he was, or floytynge, al the day,
He was as fressh as is the monthe of May (General Prologue ll. 89–92).
The Squire’s portrait Ellesmere Chaucer, Huntington Library
The direct comparison to the “monthe of May” is particularly interesting, given that the squire in the Ellesmere portrait looks as if he has ridden out of a calendar page for May. His curly hair, his cape embroidered “as if it were a meadow,” even his horse, are reminiscent of the May portraits of aristocratic youths on horses, though he has no hawk on hand. He is an embodiment of youth and vitality, or as John Trevisa put it, “a yongling.”
Ms. 65 f. 5v Musée de Condé, Chantilly, France by the Limbourg brothers c. 1411–1416 Image: R.M.N. / R.-G. Ojéda, Wikimedia Commons
This is the May calendar page from the Très Riches Heures de Jean Duc de Berry. It shows one of the more popular labors of May, a May day outing or jaunt. This is the aristocratic version of bringing in the May, with richly dressed aristocrats on very fine horses, wearing May garlands, traveling with servants, including musicians. In the background is the Hôtel de Neslé, one of the Duke’s Paris residences, and the Conciergerie and the Tour de l’Horloge on the isle de la Cité,much as they look today. Notice the details of the two little dogs in the foreground, and the flowering shrub. I suspect, but can’t prove, that the horses as well as at least some of the riders, would have been known to the Duke. Various scholars have suggested that the gentleman in front with the garland and the very fancy robe with gold embroidery is the Duke himself, perhaps looking at his bride-to-be on the white horse. It is also interesting that three of the women are dressed in green, the color of spring, and of fairies.
In this book of hours calendar image for April from the Très Riches Heures of Jean Duc du Berry (Musé Condee MS 65 F4v) one of the typical seasonal pastimes (or labors) is depicted; gathering flowers. But the primary emphasis of the scene is on the couple in the foreground exchanging rings in a betrothal ceremony, with what might be the young woman’s parents looking on (various attempts have been made to associate the portraits with real people). To the right two women are picking flowers. In the background on the right fruit trees in an orchard are blooming, and beyond that on the lake fisherman are using seining nets to fish. The chateau in the background was another of the Duke’s estates, the Château de Dourdan, in Essonne France.
The most typical depictions in April calendar images from books of hours are scenes of planting, pastoral scenes in general. They often feature courting couples or people picking or holding flowers or blooming branches.
In this book of hours calendar image for March from the Trés Riches Heures of Jean Duc du Berry (Musé Condee MS 65 F3v), the foreground shows a man ploughing with an ox. It’s a common motif in terms of the labors of the months in books of hours. The labors of March typically involve pruning trees or grape vines, or digging or ploughing in non-wine producing regions.
The calendar page for March from the Trés Riches Heures of the Jean Duc du Berry (Musé Condee MS 65 F3v)
In the foreground, a peasant, wearing leggings and a hat, plows with an ox. Above that, to the left, three peasants are working with the vines, probably pruning and re-tying them. Above and two the right, a peasant with a sack is doing something to a field. I suspect (but do not know) that he’s spreading manure on a field deliberately left fallow.
It was fairly common to use a three-field system of crop rotation. One field was planted with wheat or rye in the fall, for human consumption. A second field was used in spring to raise peas, beans, and lentils for human use, and oats and barley for the horses. The third field is allowed to lie fallow, and rest. It would be plowed, working aged manure into the soil, and any spontaneous weeds and grasses could be used for grazing, resulting in more manure to be plowed under a second time.
The field planted with beans, and lentils, with legumes in summer could be re-used the next winter for winter wheat or rye, because legumes, as nitrogen fixers, enrich the soil. Each year, the field used for a specific crop rotated among the three fields.
I suspect the fellow with a sack is spreading manure that will be plowed under while the field lies fallow. The third field, off to the right, looks as if it’s already been planted. Across from it, on the top left, there’s a shepherd with his sheep and dog; he appears to be hurriedly covered, perhaps hoping to avoid the storm that appears hovering in the sky above.
The castle in the background is one of several owned by Jean Duc du Berry; it is the castle of Lusignan in Poitou, famous for the legend about the fairy Melusine, ancestress of the Lusignans. Melusine, who reverted to a mermaid form, or in some versions, became a serpent from the waist down. on alternate Saturday. Melusine, after a spat with her husband Guy de Lusignan, Count of Poitou, transformed into a dragon, and flew off (hence the dragon flying overhead on the top right).
The standard dictionary definition for February is very like this one from the AHD:
The second month of the year in the Gregorian calendar.
Modern English February is ultimately derived from Latin; the Latin name for the second month, the name used by Romans, is februarius mensis, “purification month,” or, more literally, “month of purification,” the last month of the ancient (pre-450 B.C.E.) Roman calendar. The month was named after the Roman feast of purification, held on the ides of the month, with the new year starting in the following month.
The etymology of February is a little complicated, in that Modern English February is derived from Latin Februarius, which was used as a direct borrowing in Old English, where the Old English equivalent month, Solmōnað, or “mud month,” is glossed with Latin Februarius. The Latin name for the month was used in addition to the Old English name, and gradually, began to be used instead of the Old English name.
After the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Anglo-Norman French names for the month (also derived from Latin Februarius), Feverer, and Feverier (and other spellings) began to be used, eventually becoming Feoverel.
Spelling reforms in the 15th century attempted to modify English spelling in terms of Latin spelling practices; Feoverel became Februarius, and eventually, February. The pronunciation of February, however, is still a little confusing. As the Usage note in the AHD notes:
Usage Note: The preferred pronunciation among usage writers is (fĕbr-ĕr′ē), but in actual usage the pronunciation (fĕby-ĕr′ē) is far more common and so cannot be considered incorrect. The loss of the first r in this pronunciation can be accounted for by the phonological process known as dissimilation, whereby one of two similar or identical sounds in a word is changed or dropped so that a repetition of that sound is avoided. In the case of February, the loss of the first r was also helped along by the influence of January, which has only one r.
Musee Conde Trés Riches Heures MS_65_F2v via Wikimedia Commons
The calendar image for February in books of hours, like that of January, often features someone sitting by the fire, but calendar pages for February are rife with scenes related to the chill of deepest winter. Typically they feature the piscine astrological signs for Pisces. The saints’ days for February include St. Ignatious, and St. Bridget.
This calendar page features an interesting technique in that the house on the bottom left is a cutaway or cross section that reveals the inside. A pair of peasants are warming themselves by the fire, less than decorously, as both the woman (in blue) and the man (wearing gray) have removed their lower garments in order to warm their legs—exposing their genitalia. I suspect the garments in question are hanging on the back wall of the house, behind them.
Just outside the house, a woman who appears to be of a higher socio-economic class (based on her clothing and manners), has her skirts slightly raised to encourage the heat to warm her legs without being immodest; notice the way she is turned away from the display of the people inside the house. There’s a slightly weasel-looking cat near her feet.
It seems to be a fairly prosperous farm, with a dove cote (see the doves feeding on the ground), dome-shaped bee hives, and a sheep-fold with plump sheep. Just to the right of the sheep-fold, a shivering peasant’s breath warms the air, an interesting detail for the era. Notice too the smoke curling upwards from the house’s chimney.
The calendar proper in the semicircle at the top of the winter scene shows Aquarius on the left and Pisces on the right, and the chariot of the sun below them.
Musee Conde Trés Riches Heures MS_65_F2v via Wikimedia Commons
The image for January (f.18v–19) features a snowy winter scene. In the background, a windmill works, and people are on the steps of a small church. Beyond the windmill and a church is a small figure on horseback and another kneeling in the snow. A man and a woman stand chatting in the path, near a bit of gate that looks very like a modern farm gate. In the foreground, inside a house with a smoking chimney and birds on the roof, a man stands at a small table, and a woman sits in a chair nursing a baby. You can just glimpse a bit of the fire, a winter convention in calendar pages. Outside the house a man in red stockings chops wood for kindling while a woman kneeling in the snow gathers the kindling in a sling-like bag looped across her shoulders. At the opposite end of the house you can see the attached byre with its cow. At the base of the page, several men are shown dragging another man on a sledge, an appropriate winter past time. The actual calendar page, on the right facing page, features a similar mirroring scene of men pulling a sledge, towards the left-hand scene.