There is a temporary sale on the ebook version of Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett. This is the first volume of her six-part historical novel series The Lymond Chronicles, for a mere $1.99.
The Lymond Chronicles (or The Chronicles of Lymond) are set during the late 1500s, overlapping the end of the reign of Queen Mary, and the start of Queen Elizabeth I. The locations range from Scotland, Ireland and England to Turkey, France and Russia. The books feature a complicated swashbuckling hero, Lymond, or more specifically Francis Crawford of Lymond. He’s complex, erudite and sometimes, a right bastard. The Lymond Chronicles also feature a number of other fascinating characters, real and fictitious, and some beautifully written women. The prose is lovely, and the story is funny, tragic and gripping by turns. You can read a short excerpt of The Game of Kings on the publisher’s site.
I’ve written about my love of Dorothy Dunnett’s books before, but Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles have a lot to do with my decision to become a Medievalist. I re-read them roughly once a year; they’re on my dessert island book list.
I love these books so very much. If you haven’t met them yet, the first book, The Game of Kings, is currently on sale in ebook form for $1.99 from Amazon (for Kindle) and from Apple’s iBooks.
Go. Now. While it’s on sale. Or got to your local library or bookshop, but do read them. This summer is a great time to start reading all six books (they are better read in order, but I confess I skipped a couple the first time, because I couldn’t find them all).
Kindle | iBooks
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.
This Da Costa Hours May calendar page illuminated by Simon Bening of Ghent (1483/84–1561) is from the Da Costa hours in the Morgan Library (MS M.399, fol. 6v). It is very similar to the May calendar page that Simon Bening created for the British Library’s Golf Book. 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 heart of Spring, an appropriate labor of May.
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.
March from the Da Costa hours Morgan Library MS M.399, f.4v Simon Bening (1483/84–1561) Ghent
The typical labors of March include digging and plowing in preparation for spring planting. In this March calendar image from the Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours (Morgan Library MS M.399, f.4v) a false frame surrounds a full page illumination by Simon Bening.
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
If you look very closely at the castle chimney, there’s a stork’s nest on the on the top of chimney. This is a White Stork, Ciconia ciconia. They’ve been nesting on the roofs and chimneys of Europe for centuries, to the point where the White stork is associated with fertility and luck (hence the folklore about storks delivering babies). White storks return to the same nests, year after year, and the presence of White storks is one of the heralds of spring, even in medieval bestiaries. In recent decades the white stork populations have declined. There has been some success in attracting storks to return in Alsace.
Dr. Bernard Meehan of Trinity College, Dublin, the leading scholar regarding The Book of Kells, has, via new research, concluded that Kells was originally two separate works, created up to half a century apart on the islands of Kells and Iona.
Meehan theorizes that the Gospel of John and the first few pages of Mark were created by a scribe on the Scottish island of Iona sometime during the last quarter of the eighth century.
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.
Dr. Meehan is the author of the just published The Book of Kells: Official Guide.
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.
This January calendar image from the Da Costa Hours, MS M.399, fol. 2v from the collection of the Morgan Library features typical January labors; warming by the fire, and feasting.
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.
British Library’s manuscript Sloane 2593, ff.10v-11, c. 1400
Adam lay i-bowndyn,
bowndyn in a bond,
Fowre thowsand wynter
thowt he not to long
And al was for an appil,
an appil that he tok.
As clerkes fyndyn wretyn
in here book.
Ne hadde the appil take ben,
the appil taken ben,
Ne hadde never our lady
a ben hevene quen.
Blyssid be the tyme
that appil take was!
Therefore we mown syngyn
This Middle English carol is from the British Library’s manuscript Sloane 2593, ff.10v-11, c. 1400, so the carol is roughly contemporaneous with Chaucer, though it’s not in Chaucer’s London dialect of Middle English. The thematic core of the carol is the idea that if Adam hadn’t taken the apple, the fruit from the tree of knowledge, then Mary would never have been the mother of Christ. That is, in other words, the fortunate fall, in a nutshell. The large hold in the MS. photo at the top marks the text of Adam Lay Ybounden.
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.