September Très Riches Heures de Duc de Berry

September from the Très Riches Hueres Cluny MS. 65 F.9_v Photo Credit: ©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. Ojéda via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

 

References   [ + ]

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.

Poet

The Greeks called him “a poet,” which name has, as the most excellent, gone through other languages. It comes of this word poiein, which is “to make”; wherein I know not whether by luck or wisdom we Englishmen have met with the Greeks in calling him “a maker.” Which name how high and incomparable a title it is, I had rather were known by marking the scope of other sciences than by any partial allegation (Sidney Defence of Poesie).

Sidney is absolutely correct when he notes that the English word poet derives from the Greek poiein, to create. Our modern English poet comes to us via Middle English, from Old French poete, from Latin poēta, from Greek poiētēs, “maker, composer,” which derives from Greek poiein, “to create.”

Sidney is also correct about English poets in earlier eras being called “makers.” It’s a particularly common way to refer to poets in Middle Scots, as you’ll see in William Dunbar’s (1465–1520?) “Lament for the Makers.

Dubar’s poem is a litany of dead poets, “makers,” or as Dunbar’s Middle Scots would have it, makaris, all taken by Death:

He has done petuously devour
The noble Chaucer, of makaris flour,
The Monk of Bury, and Gower, all three:—
Timor Mortis conturbat me (Dunbar “Lament for the Makers,” ll. 49–52).

Englished that would be:

He has piteously devoured
The noble Chaucer, the flower of makers,
The monk of Bury, and Gower, all three:—
Fear of death torments me.

Timor Mortis conturbat me” is Latin for “the fear of death torments me”; Dunbar’s poem lamenting the dead makers is an example of the poetic genre known as memento mori; Dubar fears that his own death is approaching, that he will be “devoured” much as Chaucer, Lydgate (the monk of Bury) and Gower were.

Memento Mori

The phrase memento mori is usually used in the context of a literary topos, that is a commonplace, or a motif in art. The New Latin (i.e. not Classical, but late Medieval or Early Modern Latin) is derived from Latin mementō, singular imperative of meminisse, “to remember’ + Latin morī, “to die.” Memento mori is conventionally translated as “remember that you have to die,” or the even less literal “remember your death” (AHD).”

Death Comes to the Banquet Table Giovanni Martinelli (1600–1659)
Image: Wikimedia commons

Remember here has a cautionary connotation of “don’t forget.” The driving idea behind the tag (and the topos) is that all creatures die; we should thus go through life remembering that our death is inevitable. In a Christian context, the emphasis is less on fate and fatality, and more on the Christian concept of a heavenly life to come; we should thus remember our mortality, and use this life to prepare for the life to come.

As the AHD entry for memento mori notes:

n. pl. memento mori
1. A reminder of death or mortality, especially a death’s-head.
2. A reminder of human failures or errors.

there is a strong tie between the phrase memento mori, and visual representations of mortality. A death’s-head is “The human skull as a symbol of mortality or death” (AHD s. v. death’s-head).

Medieval books of hours include the Office of The Dead, a set of prayers and readings meant both to remind the living of the inevitability of death (and the necessity of a virtuous life) and prayers for the soul of the departed to shorten their stay in purgatory. The memento mori has a vast iconographic catalog of visual images associated with the motif, ranging from skeletons and skulls, to personifications of death as the Grim Reaper, to mirrors held by skeletons (sometimes reflecting the owner of the book or painting) and reminding the viewer that “you too shall die.” Tombs and gravestones feature reminders of the inevitability of death in the form of skulls and skeletons. Jewelry featuring these motifs was popular throughout the Middle ages and Renaissance. These objects are often specifically identified as a memento mori, a “reminder of death.”

Frans_van_Everbroeck (1654  – 1672) “Memento Mori”
Image: wikimedia commons

Painters in the seventeenth century portrayed elaborate banquets, with the shadow of a skeleton looking over the feast, or tables with food and drink, candles, plants or flowers, hourglasses or early timepieces (and often, books!) with a skull prominently displayed as reminder that these things are transitory; life and time are moving towards death. Eighteenth century engravers favored bipartite men and women, with one half depicted as a skeleton, as a reminder of the inevitability of death and the necessity to prepare.

Literature too is full of instances of the memento mori motif. So much so that the OED credits Shakespeare with the first use of the phrase memento mori in Henry IV (1598):

I make as good use of it as many a man doth of a death’s head, or a memento mori

Again, we see the death’s head as an example of a memento mori.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act 5 scene i, the scene with Hamlet, Horatio, and the grave digger wherein Hamlet asks to whom a particular skull once belonged, is a memento mori passage of some note, and is told that it once belonged to Yorick, a jester of some note:

HAMLET
Takes the skull
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?
Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let
her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must
come; make her laugh at that. Prithee, Horatio, tell
me one thing.
Horatio What’s that, my lord?
HAMLET Dost thou think Alexander looked o’ this fashion i’
the earth?
HORATIO E’en so.
HAMLET And smelt so? pah!
Puts down the skull
HORATIO E’en so, my lord.
HAMLET
To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may
not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander,
till he find it stopping a bung-hole?
HORATIO
’Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.
HAMLET No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with
modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it: as
thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried,
Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of
earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he
was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!

All men die. Yorick the jester, Caesar, and Hamlet’s father the king, all have died. The way Hamlet’s rumenations about the inevitability of death are triggered by the sight of Yorick’s skull renders the skull a memento mori, though as a skull at grave-digging, it’s an obvious death’s head.

In John Donne’s “A Valediction Of My Name, In The Window” he muses on his name scratched in a window pane, and writes:

 

Or if too hard and deep
This learning be, for a scratch’d name to teach,
It as a given death’s head keep,
Lovers’ mortality to preach ;
Or think this ragged bony name to be
My ruinous anatomy (ll. 19–24).

Here Donne transforms his engraved signature to a death’s-head, an “anatomy,” in another skeletal reference, and, in later verses, as a talisman to ward off other would-be-lovers pursuing Donne’s beloved after his death. Even more contemporary poets use the memento mori topos; see Billy Collins’ “Memento Mori”:

There is no need for me to keep a skull on my desk,
to stand with one foot up on the ruins of Rome,
or wear a locket with the sliver of a saint’s bone.

August from the Très Riches Heures de Jean Duc de Berry

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.

References   [ + ]

1. More fully identified as Book of hawking, hunting and blasing of arms.

Buckles, Cobblers, Grunts and Slumps

It’s blueberry season in Maine. The abundance of blueberries got me thinking about my mom’s blueberry buckle recipe. What, pray tell, is a buckle?

Buckles

Fruit buckles are very much associated in my mind with New England, but my quick check of southern recipe collections suggest that that’s not the case historically. Southern recipes for buckles feature apples and plums Almond-Plum Buckle recipe rather than blueberries Blueberry Buckle Recipe. A buckle, for the curious, is an old-fashioned style of single layer cake, typically cooked in a flat pan, round or square (rather than , and includes fruit and streusel-style crumb topping. Some recipes call for mixing the fruit into the cake batter, others have the cook spread the fruit between the batter and streusel topping, as a separate layer. The batter is very dense, and as the cake cooks, the batter sinks to the bottom, and pushes the fruit and streusel up, making them “buckle,” or give way. In other words, the “buckle” in question is derived from the verb, with the meaning of “to bend, warp, bulge, or collapse.” Etymologically speaking, buckle derives from Middle English bokel, from Old French boucle, from Latin buccula, the cheek strap of a helmet, itself derived from a diminutive of bucca, or “cheek.”

Cobblers

Cobbler, ready to bake Image Credit: Lisafern via WikiMedia

A cobbler is a Southern fruit dessert. The fruit is usually peaches, or berries; either blackberries, raspberries or cherries. Biscuit dough is dropped in spoonfuls over a mixture of fruit and syrup (made with sugar and fruit juice) or biscuit dough is rolled out and placed over fruit filling as a top layer, sealing in the juice and berries. The OED associates cobblers with the American west, and offers Bartlett’s Dictionary of 1859 as the first attestation “A sort of pie, baked in a pot lined with dough of great thickness, upon which the fruit is placed; according to the fruit, it is an apple or a peach cobbler.” The OED subsequently refers to Mark Twain’s 1880 travelography Tramp Abroad, and a “Peach cobbler, Southern style.” I confess that I have no clue about the etymology of cobbler (neither does the AHD who offers “Origin unknown”); or why a word associated with manufacturing shoes, or temporary fixes might be associated with such a delightful dessert. I note, in passing, that it’s possible that the meaning of cobbler in this context is related to the use of cobble as a verb to mean “One who mends clumsily, a clumsy workman, a mere botcher.” But I’m guessing, and rather wildly, at that.

Grunts and Slumps

A grunt is very much a New England dish. It’s a fruit dessert made by stewing fresh fruit, briefly, then putting the very hot fruit in a baking dish and dropping spoonfuls of a biscuit-dough like batter on to the very hot fruit. The steam from the fruit cooks the dough—and often, the escaping steam from the partially smothered and still cooling fruit creates a “grunting” noise. You normally finish cooking the grunt in an oven so that the topping is browned, and if possible, you sprinkle a little sugar on the top before you pop it in the oven, and the sugar and the juice and the steam and heat from the oven create a lovely caramel. Grunts are very much part of New England wood-stove cooking, so much so that growing up I noticed some women identified their cast iron dutch ovens as “grunts.” Elsewhere, for instance in Georgia and coastal Carolina, the same dessert is called a slump, because when you take the dessert off the heat, it slumps or falls.

It’s not uncommon to still have fresh blackberries and plums in Southern New Hampshire in late September, just as fall is about to burst forth in full glorious leafage. I still get all nostalgic about grunts and cobblers and buckles. It’s a good time now to freeze ripe peaches, so you can have peach cobbler Peach Cobbler Recipe | SimplyRecipes.com in February. And there’s no reason not to freeze,cherries, blueberries and blackberries, too. I’m a firm believer in blackberry grunt and plum grunt Blackberry Grunt Recipe | Alton Brown | Food Network , as well, and the late plums are still on trees in some parts of the U.S. I note that buckles, cobblers, grunts and slumps are all best served warm with a scoop of really good vanilla ice cream.

Free Ebook from RIA: Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks

Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks was edited by Fintan O’Toole and Catherine Marshall. The book, available as an ebook and as a printed book, traces the story of Ireland’s creative output from the revolutionary period until today. The book consists of 100 artworks created from 1916 (the year of the Easter Rising) to 2015, using each year as a spring board to trace the cultural history of Ireland. The works include visual works (paintings, sculptures, architecture) as well as literary; images of the visual works are included. The literary works are represented only by allusion and discussion in the short essays accompanying each piece. It’s interesting, though I suspect more interesting the more you know; I’m woefully ignorant of the visual arts of modern Ireland.

Print copies of the book can be purchased from the Royal Irish AcademyModern Ireland in 100 Artworks is a project of the Royal Irish Academy, in partnership with The Irish Times. The ebook, in both Mobi and EPub formats may be downloaded here.

Asterisk

Asterisk is one of those words in English that began as a noun, but is often used as a verb, with the meaning “To mark with an asterisk” (AHD s.v. asterisk). An asterisk is:

n.

1. A star-shaped figure (*) used chiefly to indicate an omission, a reference to a footnote, or an unattested word, sound, or affix.
2. Mathematics A symbol used to indicate multiplication, as in 2 * 3 = 6.

Etymologically speaking, asterisk (present in Middle English) derives from Late Latin asteriscus, from Greek asteriskos, diminutive of astēr, “star.” Asterisk, Aster, and Star are all derived from the Proto Indo-European root *ster-3.

Our practice of using an asterisk to identify things as particularly important, or as a reference to mark that there’s a note or comment about an item has a Classical heritage:

The practice of using a star-shaped sign, an asterisk, began in Ptolemaic Alexandria where the great textual scholar Aristophanes of Byzantium and his student Aristarchus of Samothrace used them to mark repeated lines in the Iliad and Odyssey. Several centuries later the prolific (and self-mutilated) Christian theologian Origen began to employ asterisks in a different way, to signal the omission of certain passages in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. This usage gradually spread as a sign of something missing or hidden, and hence—at the end of a complex trail that winds through classical editions, Bibles, and pornography—when you type your password on the computer, the letters and numbers often show up as a string of asterisks (The Classical Tradition. Edited by Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, and Salvatore Settis. Harvard University Press, 2013. via Stephen Greenblatt and Joseph Leo Koerner “Glories of Classicism.” New York Review of Books. February 21, 2013). 

Coulee

If you know anyone from Eastern Montana, you likely have heard them refer to coulees. In Montana and most of the Western U.S., a coulee is “A deep gulch or ravine with sloping sides, often dry in summer” (AHD s.v. coulee). While coulee means different things in other places (a stream bed or even a bayou or canal in Louisiana and Southern Mississippi, a valley with hills on either side, or a lava flow), I want to focus on the Montana definition of coulee.

Writer Kari Lynn Dell, novelist and Montana resident defines a coulee this way:

It’s smaller than a valley, wider than a ravine, deeper and longer than a draw. In our area they have been carved by creeks into the flat plain left behind after the massive glacial sheets of ice retreated back to the mountains at the end of the last ice age. Since the word is of French origin, I assume we have the early French Canadian trappers to thank for its prevalence, given that they were the first white men to venture into this area. 

Go look at her post; she’s got pictures of culees. And subscribe to her blog Montana For Real; it’s one of my favorites. 
Etymologically coulee entered English via Canadian French coulée, from French couler “to flow”; derived from Latin  colare, “to filter,” which derived from the noun colum or “sieve.”

Ériu Special Compilation Issue

Ériu, a journal from the Royal Irish Academy, has published a special compilation issue in honor of the International Conference of Medievalists. The articles are all reprints, but they are some stellar reprints, and you can read them or download the .pdfs without a subscription to Ériu.

The complete table of contents contains links to download .pdfs of the articles. Here are some that are particularly noteworthy:

Calvert Watkins — “Sick-maintenance in Indo-European.”

Donnchadh Ó Corráin. “The education of Diarmait Mac Murchada.”

T.M. Charles-Edwards. “Early Irish Saints’ Cults and their Constituencies.”

R. I. Best. “Notes on the script of Lebor na hUidre.”

July from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

July calendar page from the Tres Riche Heures de Jean Duc de BerryThis 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, 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).