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.
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.
The conventional seasonal labor for August is wheat threshing; that’s when the wheat reaped in July, briefly dried in the field then stacked in small bundles or sheaves, before being gathered into larger shocks, tied, and brought to a barn (sometimes a dedicated three-walls-and-a-roof threshing barn) where it was beaten with a flail to force the dried wheat grains off the stems. Grain had to be dry before being stored or milled; damp wheat often resulted in fungus, even the dreaded ergot. Threshing was sometimes continued into the autumn and even winter, when working inside was a convenient escape, and thereby allowed summer’s harvest to continue without interruption.
In this detail from the Trés Riches Heures of Jean Duc de Berry calendar page for August (Musée Conde MS 65 F. 8v) you can see the Duke’s Château d’Étampes in the background; the tall tower in the center is still extant. Below the château you can see a wagon being loaded with shocks as one peasant bundles sheaves to form the upright-shocks. On the right, another peasant bundles sheaves into shocks while a third swings his short-handled sickle to cut down the last of the wheat.
In the lower half of the detail an aristocratic hawking party is in progress. In the front the falconer, on foot, with two birds on his wrist, and a lure tied to his belt. The lure, made of a pair of birds’ wings that a choice tidbit could be tied to, was used to train birds to return to the hand. Once the bird brings down live prey, the lure is used to “lure” her back to the end, and dogs (see the two in the image above) retrieve and bring the prey back to the hawking party.
Falconry, or hawking, originally was a way to procure meat for the table; over time, it became an aristocratic sport. Dame Juliana Berners (c.1388–) wrote a treatise covering the various kinds of hawks and falcons, who could own them (aristocracy had dibs on the larger birds of prey; commoners were restricted to kestrels and the like), how they should be kept, trained, and fed. The Boke of St. Albans1)More fully identified as Book of hawking, hunting and blasing of arms., produced some time in 1486 or thereafter was the first book printed in England to feature colored images.
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.