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.
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.
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.
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