Medieval manuscripts

Medieval manuscripts are written by hand; in Western Europe, they are usually written on the prepared skins of cows, goats, or sheep. Earlier Romans like the Egyptians used papyrus. First, manuscripts were rolled and are referred to as scrolls. Later, most Medieval manuscripts were produced on roughly rectangular pieces of prepared animal skins that were then stacked and bound on one side, much like the familiar printed book. This kind of binding is referred to as a codex.

By the first century BC there existed at Rome notebooks made of leaves of parchment, used for rough copy, first drafts, and notes. By the first century AD such manuals were used for commercial copies of classical literature. The Christians adopted this parchment manual format for the Scriptures used in their liturgy because a codex is easier to handle than a scroll and because one can write on both sides of a parchment but on only one side of a papyrus scroll. By the early second century all Scripture was reproduced in codex form. In traditional Christian iconography, therefore, the Hebrew prophets are represented holding scrolls and the Evangelists holding codices (AHDs.v. codex).
Manuscripts may be subdivided into various classes or kinds. There are illuminated manuscripts, carefully illustrated with drawings and colored ink embellishments, including gold leaf. There are large, ornate display Gospels, containing the first four books of the New Testament like The Book of Lindisfarne and The Books of Kells. There are also elaborate personal prayer books known as Books of Hours, and many other kinds of manuscripts.

  • Calendar,  Medieval manuscripts

    June from Walters W.425

    Typical labors for June include sheep-shearing and hay-mowing, (or scything) and raking the dried hay into small piles. Despite what The Walters Museum says about this June calendar image from Walters W.425, “Three figures farming,” they are in fact  two figures scything hay. The two men in the front are mowing or cutting the grass, which once it dries, magically becomes hay. They men are both using scythes mounted on a long shaft called a snath. The snath has an extra handle which makes the two-handed swinging motion of mowing the hay more efficient. As they mow they create small piles of drying hay. Once the hay is dried, it is…

  • Calendar,  Medieval manuscripts

    May from Walters W.425

    This May calendar page from the Walters Museum prayer book fragment W.425 is a very typical May image. The astrological medallion, looking a little worn but centered in the middle of the border on the right margin, shows the Gemini twins. The calendar image shows a very typical May scene of a lady on horseback, using a side saddle and  accompanied by two youths, all of them wearing aristocratic clothing. The man in the front on the left, and the lady, both bear branches of greenery, attesting to their errand to “bring in the May.” This is another border that features naturalistic flower images. The image on the top right…

  • Calendar,  Medieval manuscripts

    April from Walters W.425

    This April calendar image from the Walters W.425 prayer book fragment is another calendar page featuring a naturalistic border, like the March calendar page from Walters W.425. The calendar proper includes the feast of Saint Euphemia on April 7. Taurus, the astrological symbol for April, is a recognizable bull, set off by a medallion. Above and below the astrological medallion naturalistic pink and white flowers add a decorative spring-time touch. I don’t know what the flowers are; I suspect, given the detail, that a Flemish gardener of the 15th century would be able to identify them as popular spring time blossoms. There are, I think, three types of flowers in…

  • Calendar,  Medieval manuscripts

    March from Walters Museum W.425

    Walters Museum W.425 is a fragmentary prayer book. Fortunately, all the calendar images are extant. In the astrological medallion in the border on the left, Aries, the sign of the ram, is featured. The astrological symbol is, again, particularly worn, and I wonder if that’s because someone holding the prayer book open  had a thumb resting there. This March image is the first to feature a “naturalistic” border in the calendar images. On the right is a strawberry, and just below the strawberry, a strawberry blossom. The strawberry, because of the three-lobed leaves was associated with the Trinity, and the white blossoms with purity. The labors of March typically show…

  • Medieval manuscripts

    February from Walters MS. W.425

    This image from the Walters Art museum fragmentary prayer book MS. 425 f. 2r shows the February calendar with a short list of the saint’s days in February, and in the border on the right, a roundel that the Walter’s description says is Pisces, which is exactly what one would expect, but the image is very worn, suggesting that the ms. was actually used. The February calendar image in Walters MS. W.425 shows a typical labor for February; an outdoor scene of two men cutting wood, a common labor for the month in colder climates. One of the men on the right is using a wedge in a log that…

  • Medieval manuscripts,  Uncategorized

    January from Walters MS. W.425

    This leaf from the Walters Museum prayer book fragment, Walters MS. W.425 f. 1r shows the calendar page for January, with a partial list of saints days in the month. In the border on the right of the page is a small roundel featuring an image of Aquarius, the water-bearer, in the form of a small naked figure (male?) carrying a jug of water in each hand.is The calendar image shows a fairly conventional labor for the month of January. The scene is indoors. A well dressed man is seated at a table, with his back to a fire. The man wears a fur-trimmed robe; the scene looks domestic, suggesting…

  • Calendar,  Medieval manuscripts

    December from the Hours of Henry VIII

    This image for December from the Hours of Henry VIII is a really standard image for the labor of December, so much so that I suspect some master pattern book for books of hours is involved. The pigs, shown fattening on mast in November, are now slaughtered and being prepared for butchering. The butcher with his cleaver on the table stands ready, sharpening his knife, already bloodied from the pigs. The weird vaguely pink pointed tongues behind the pigs are meant to be flames; the bristles on the boars are being singed off in preparation for butchering. You don’t generally butcher sows if you can avoid it. There’s a reason…

  • Calendar,  Medieval manuscripts

    November from the Hours of Henry VIII

    The labor for November is often a butchering scene; typically, hogs. But another popular labor for November scenes in books of hours is that of feeding acorns or nuts “mast” to swine, as here and in the Très Riches Heures. In this image from the Morgan Library’s Hours of Henry VIII, as in the November scene form the Très Riches Heures, we see a man allowing swine to graze on the fallen acorns, while another man beats the trees with a stick to encourage the nuts to fall. Here too the trees are pollards, the lower limbs having been removed for their wood. Notice that both men are dressed warmly…

  • Calendar,  Medieval manuscripts

    October from the Hours of Henry VIII

    This October labor from the Morgan Library’s Hours of Henry the VIII is actually two labors; on the left, a nattily dressed man in a hat, vest, stockings and shoes is sowing seeds, while on the right another man is ploughing the filed with a team of horses. The crop being sowed is almost certainly a variety of winter wheat, destined to be harvested in summer. The wheat sprouts before the snow falls, and continues, somewhat somnolently, to grow under its winter blanket of snow. The man with with the seeds is scatteringly, rather than planting in rows. You can see a sack with additional seeds on the ground behind…

  • Calendar,  Medieval manuscripts

    September from the Hours of Henry VIII

    Just about anywhere in Europe that could grow grapes in the Medieval era, did (and does). Tasks associated with wine-making, like pruning the vines and pressing the grapes to produce juice, are often featured in books of hours as the labor of September. It’s the labor depicted in the September page of the the Morgan Library’s Hours of Henry VIII. This picture shows the complete wine making process from picking to barreling. It is still essentially the same process followed today. The Morgan Library notes the gendered division of labor. In the background women sitting on the ground pick the grapes. This is more accurately described as cutting the grape…