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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.
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).
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.
“Angelus ad virginem” is a Medieval Latin carol celebrating the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel telling the Virgin that she would conceive and bear the Christ child. The Latin lyrics are (here’s a rough translation):
1. Angelus ad virginem
Subintrans in conclave.
Demulcens inquit “Ave.”
Ave regina virginum,
Tu porta coeli facta
2. Quomodo conciperem,
quae virum non cognovi?
quae firma mente vovi?
‘Spiritus sancti gratia
Perficiet haec omnia;
Manebit in te pura
3. Ad haec virgo nobilis
Respondens inquit ei;
Ancilla sum humilis
Tibi coelesti nuntio,
Tanta secreti conscio,
factum quod audio,
Parata sum parere
4. Angelus disparuit
Vi partus salutaris.
Qui, circumdatus utero
Novem mensium numero,
Crucem, qua dedit ictum
5. Eia Mater Domini,
Quae pacem reddidisti
Angelis et homini,
Cum Christum genuisti;
Tuem exora filium
Ut se nobis propitium
Vita frui beta
Post hoc exsilium.
The carol appears to have been a popular one, preserved in several mss. It was so popular that in c. 1400 or so Chaucer alludes to it in Canterbury Tales, specifically, in “The Miller’s Tale,” where we are told that “hendy” Nicholas sings and accompanies himself on the psaltry:
And over all there lay a psaltery
Whereon he made an evening’s melody,
Playing so sweetly that the chamber rang;
And Angelus ad virginem he sang;
And after that he warbled the King’s Note:
Often in good voice was his merry throat.
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins created a very loose translation that’s perhaps better read as a poem inspired by the Latin hymn) under the title “Gabriel, from Heaven’s King.”
In the British Library’s MS Arundel 248, a collection of various texts in several languages from the early 13th century, the Latin text and tune for “Angelus ad virginem” is immediately followed with a related song in Middle English. This kind of macaronic preservation of songs in multiple languages, side-by-side, is a not uncommon practice in medieval manuscripts, and given that the Church used Latin and scribes used English and or French, or German or Irish or . . . multilingual songbooks make a great deal of sense. The way this collection of folios are organized, with a brief crudely drawn staff for the tune, followed by the lyrics is very reminiscent of a modern musician’s cheat book.
Gabriel, fram heven-king
sent to þe maide sweete,
broute hir blisfúl tiding
and fair he gan hir greete:
5 “Heil be þu, ful of grace ari3t!
For Godes son, þis heven-li3t,
for mannes love
wil man bicome
10 fles of þee, maide bri3t,
mankén free for to make
of sen and devles mi3t.”
Mildëlich him gan andswere
þe milde maide þanne:
15 “Wichëwise sold ich bere
[a] child withute manne?”
þangel seid, “Ne dred tee nout:
þurw þoligast sal been iwrout
þis ilch þing
20 warof tiding
al mánken wurth ibout
þurw þine sweet childínge
and ut of pine ibrout.”
25 Wan þe maiden understood
and þangels wordes herde,
mildëlich with milde mood
to þangel hie andswerde:
“Ure lords þewe maid iwis
30 ich am, þat heer aboven is.
þat ich, sith his wil is,
35 [a] maid, withute lawe,
of moder have þe blis.”
Þangel went awei mid þan
al ut of hire si3te;
hire womb arise gan
40 þurw þoligastes mi3te.
In hir wes Crist bilok anon,
sooth God, sooth man in fles and bon,
and of hir fles
45 at time.
Warþurw us kam good won;
he bout us ut of pine
and let him for us slon.
Maiden-moder makëles,1)Makëles or “matchless” is a triple pun; she is without peer, without a mate, also used in the Middle English lyric “I Sing of a Maiden.”
50 of moder ful ibunde,
bid for us him þat tee ches,
at wam þu grace funde,
þat he forgive us sen and wrake
and clene of evri gelt us make
55 and heven-blis
wan ur time is
us give, for þine sake,
him so heer for to serve
60 þat he us to him take.
The Annunciation F. 26r from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry MS 65 in the Musée Condé, Chantilly, France. C. 1412–1416.
The tune for the Middle English version is usually easily recognized as the Latin hymn. The same Latin text of “Angelus ad virginem” inspired a Basque Christmas carol “Birjina gaztettobat zegoen” collected by Charles Bordes.2)Archives de la tradition basque, 1895 Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924) folklorist, novelist, and poet responsible for several hymns (including “Onward Christian Soldiers”) spent some time in the Basque region of Spain as a child, and translated the carol from Basque to English, in the process reducing the original 6 stanzas to 4.
1. The angel Gabriel from heaven came
His wings as drifted snow his eyes as flame
“All hail” said he “thou lowly maiden Mary,
Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!
2. “For know a blessed mother thou shalt be,
All generations laud and honor thee,
Thy Son shall be Emanuel, by seers foretold
Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!
3. Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head
“To me be as it pleaseth God,” she said,
“My soul shall laud and magnify his holy name.”
Most highly favored lady. Gloria!
4. Of her, Emanuel, the Christ was born
In Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn
And Christian folk throughout the world will ever say:
“Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!
This was one of my favorite childhood carols, familiar from a 1963 Time Life record, an album rich with Medieval carols, under the title “The Angel Gabriel.” It’s also been released as “Gabriel’s Message,” and “The Angel Gabriel From Heaven Came.”
The Da Costa Hours is in the collection of the Pierpont Morgan library. It, like the Golf Book hours in the British Library, was illuminated by Simon Bening (1483/84–1561); Belgium, Bruges, ca. 1515.
I’ve written about the May calendar image from the British Library’s Golf Book. It’s very similar in terms of motifs to this one. On the calendar page itself the Gemini twins are featured in the rondel at the base of the page. Just as in the Golf Book calendar page for May, Bening in the Da Costa Hours features a boat with greenery and musicians celebrating May 1 and the arrival of Spring.
Det. Da Costa Hours f.6v Bringing in the May Pierpont Morgan ms. 399
Beyond the boaters (click for a larger image) you can see a castle, swans, and a group on horseback in the background. They too have been busy gathering the green boughs of May.