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Category: 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.
The occupation for June in this Simon Bening calendar image from the Da Costa Hours (Morgan Library MS. M.399, fol. 7v) is sheep-shearing. It’s pretty much exactly what you’d see today, though electric clippers are more common these days. Bening also depicted sheep shearing for the June calendar page in the Golf Book in a strikingly similar scene.
The positions of sheep and shearer are the same even now. A fellow in a coat and hat is leaning on a walking stick; this might be the owner or the shepherd, or even a nosey neighbor, but his clothing marks him as someone who’s more than a peasant laborer. He has his left arm in a sling; a detail which makes me wonder if it was a portrait of someone specific.
Behind the sheep and the shearers in the Da Costa Hours calendar image for June are what appears to be two fair substantial buildings on a hill; notice that at least two of the buildings have thatched roofs. Higher up on the hill, as the details images show, are a deer and a rabbit. Off to the right, below the hill, a couple, possibly courting, are seated on a bench.
Morgan Library MS M.399, fol. 6v Da Costa Hours May calendar image Ghent, Belgium ca. 1515 Image courtesy of Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, Graz/Austria. Detail: Click for the full image at The Morgan Library.
As with all of the calendar pages in this book of hours, May from the Da Costa Hours features what the Morgan Library describes as “an illusionistic frame.” In the front of the image is a boat containing a helmsman, a woman looking towards the viewer, someone playing a recorder-like instrument (the Morgan calls it a pipe and describes the musician as “a gentleman”; I suspect it’s a woman), and a woman playing a lute, looking more than a little bored. In the back, the presence of greenery suggests Maying and fetching in the green. Off the edge of the boat, hanging from the boat in the cooling water, is a flask, perhaps containing wine. On the shore a heron looks on.
Detail showing a group on horse back gathering May greenery from the Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours f. 6v
Beyond the boaters you can see a castle, swans, trees, and a group of four on horseback in the background in this detail from the Da Costa Hours May calendar. They too have been busy gathering the green boughs of May, as the inset detail shows. The horseman are carrying green boughs.
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
He suggests that the remainder of The Gospel of Mark and the Kells texts of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew were created up to 50 years later in the Irish monastery of Kells itself.
Handwriting evidence suggests that the Iona monk who created his spectacular copy of St John’s Gospel was, stylistically, a very traditional scribe who had learned his craft at some stage in the mid eighth century. His scribal activity appears to have ceased abruptly, after he completed verse 26 of the fourth chapter of St Mark’s Gospel.
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.
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.
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.