Books of hours are illuminated personal prayer books. Books of hours usually have a calendar with astrological signs and seasonal images, a list of red letter days associated with local saints’ feast days (and special prayers) near the front. The calendar is followed by prayers, and Biblical texts and psalms associated with specific days. Specific cycles, like the hours of the virgin or the stations of the cross are important parts of the yearly cycle, and were somewhat customized to the location and for the owner. The book usually concludes with the offices of the dead.
Books of hours were generally owned by the wealthy, and tended to be smaller than most medieval manuscripts, generally about the size of a mass-market paperback up to a trade hardcover. These books were for personal use and often elaborately illustrated. They were sometimes specifically commissioned for a specific person, and were often owned by women.
They are consequently not only of interest as beautiful objects, but as beautiful objects that tell us a great deal about daily life.
This book of hours image from the Morgan Library’s MS H.8 the Hours of Henry VIII shows the July labor of reaping the wheat. You’ll notice that they’re using short-handled sickles, rather than long-handled scythes. The idea is that you cut the tops of the wheat, the part bearing the grain, and first make a small bundle of it (on the ground). That’s what’s happening on the right side of the image, three men cutting the wheat. Next the wheat is placed in bundles (on the ground) and then someone stacks them neatly on end, on the left.
The three men cutting the wheat are an interesting group; it’s hot work, and two of them are working in shirts and Tbare feet, while the third is dressed in a dyed kirtle, stockings, shoes, and a hat. There’s a class difference. On the left, the fellow stacking the sheaves of wheat is also more fully dressed, while behind him another worker is drinking from one of the casks we’ve seen in several images, notably February and June. There’s another cask in the foreground, with, presumably, lunch, wrapped in the cloth.
The next stage in the wheat harvest is threshing, the labor of August.
This image from the Morgan Library’s Hours of Henry VIII’s calendar page for June shows the first mowing of the hay, a fairly common labor for June and one frequently illustrated in books of hours. On the left three men swing long-handled scythes to mow the hay, while on the right, women use rakes to heap the mown hay into piles or stacks for drying. After it is thoroughly dried, the hay will presumably be loaded into the wagon waiting in the background, behind piles of drying hay. The wagon is a little odd looking; I’m not sure it was meant to be drawn by horse, mule or ox, but instead was perhaps hauled by people.
In the front of the picture, on the right. at the feet of the women are the same small flat-sided casks we saw in the Hours of Henry VIII’s calendar image for February. The casks lie next to cloth-wrapped parcels that the Morgan Library suggests contain lunch for the workers, a reasonable supposition.
An interesting detail is that the men are working in their shirts, with bare legs, with the exception of the gentleman in white socks. Two of the men are wearing shoes, a wise precaution when swinging a sharp blade, while the women are barefoot. This saves shoe leather.
The central blue plaque at the center of the bottom border features the astrological symbol for June and July, Cancer the Crab. There are some unidentifiable saints, or as the Morgan library puts it, “generic saints” but then identifies St. John the Baptist (he appears to be in the middle of baptizing someone) in the border on the right. The feast of his nativity, marked in the calendar gelow the main image, is June 24. The Morgan then identifies St. Eligius (feast June 25), a generic male saint, and saints Peter and Paul (feast of June 29).
This detail is from the April calendar page of the Morgan Library’s Hours of Henry VIII MS. H. 8. It features one of the most popular past times featured in book of hours calendar images for the labors of April; the courtly springtime pastime of picking flowers. The scene looks to be set in an enclosed garden; a woman wearing a garland of flowers is braiding another. Next to her her erstwhile swain, appears to be offering her at least one of the two bunches of flowers he bears.
The Morgan library describes the man as a “foppishly dressed youth” and suggests that he is holding flowers which she will weave into a garland; that’s certainly possible, and it might explain his bored eye-rolling expression. He’s waiting, impatiently for her to take the next bunch of flowers. The flowers he is holding, the flowers in the garlands, and the flowers in the grass around the two people all appear to be the same; they’re not clearly delineated, and it is tempting to speculate that they are the ubiquitous Cornflowers *Centaurea cyanus* (Bachelor buttons in North America), a favorite in books of hours.
Below the central image showing the April pastime, the calendar proper features the feasts of St. George (April 23), Peter the Martyr (April 29) and St. Eutropius (April 30). The border includes on the top right St. George slaying the dragon (click through for a larger image that’s zoomable).
In the border surrounding the calendar the center features the zodiac sign of Taurus the Bull in a blue rondel, then an image of Peter the Martyr, with the dagger used to stab him in the chest, and on the far right St. Eutropius, with the bishop’s crosier and the the axe used to kill him still embedded in his head.
This March calendar page from The Hours of Henry VIII is a fairly typical March scene in terms of the labors of March depicted in a book of hours. Workers are pruning the grape vines. You’ll notice that it’s early enough that the vines are still without leaves. While it’s possible to prune vines later, it’s not a good idea as the vines will often bleed sap, which isn’t conducive to producing happy grapes. It’s also much easier to tie the vines to a supporting frame or arbor when they aren’t in full leaf but have leaf-buds. As the workers prune grape vines, they tie them to the arbor so that as the vines grow and sprout leaves and then grapes, the vines will have support.
You can see the pruning tool being used in the detail to the left. This is a Medieval billhook, a sort of all purpose agricultural tool with a double-edged curved blade and sometimes a short spike at the crown and a small hatchet-like blade on the outside edge. It’s perfect for a task like vine-pruning because you can slice the thinner vines with the curved blade and whack off those that are a bit thicker with the small hatchet. This is the same tool known as the falx or falx vinatoria used by the Romans to culivate vines. A modern vine pruning knife, while it often folds up and fits in a pocket, retains that curved cutting blade.
On the left the worker standing on the bench has a shock of fibers he’s using to bind the vines to the supporting framework of the arbor. On the ground, near the middle of the image in the front is a small flat-sided cask with a spout; this contained something for the workers to drink, possibly water, or water with vinegar and honey, and probably not wine.
In the bottom center of the calendar page is the astrological symbol for Aries, the Ram. The margins contain images associated with feast days in March; St. Gregory for March 12, and the Annunciation on March 25 at the bottom right.
He’s wearing expensive clothing, indicated in particular by the fur trimming on his hat and overcoat, as well as the visible purse he wears.
The gentleman is standing in front of a substantial fireplace, with his back to the fire, and his is lifting the hem of his overcoat to warm his backside; a more delicate version of a similar scene from the Très Riches Heures calendar page for February.
There’s a wooden settle in front of him, set before a table with a meal waiting. In the background is a bed with burgundy cover and curtains. In the front of the scene to the viewer’s left, a servant is entering, carrying two flagons which the Morgan library identifies as wine flagons; I can’t help but be reminded of the astrological symbol for January, Aquarius, the water-bearer.
The next vignette shows someone bringing in wood, while the central image features the master of the house at table, his back to the ample fireplace, dining, while the lady of the house sits on a low bench next to the hearth, warming her hands.
The border on the left shows images for the Feast of the Circumcision (on January 1). The medallion in the center of the bottom border contains the zodiac sign of Aquarius, the water-bearer.
January: Feasting and Keeping Warm (fol. 1)
Calendars in Books of Hours do not demarcate time by enumerating the days from the first to the last of the month, as seen in this January page, but, rather list the important liturgical feasts of the month.
Inside, the lord of the house sits at his meal, his back to the hearth,as his wife, closer to the fire, warms her hands.
While a heavy snow covers the land, a laborer carries a few logs from the woodpile into the manor.
When Calendars in Horea (Latin for “Hours”) were illustrated, they followed a tradition of depicting two vignettes in each month: the sign of the zodiac and the activity, usually agrarian, commonly undertaken during the season.
The borders illustrate some of January’s major feasts, including, at top left, the Circumcision (feast on January 1). At bottom center is the zodiacal sign Aquarius, the Water Carrier.
We often think of December as the entry to winter and to Christmas. In the middle ages, typically, winter featured much more dramatically than Christmas. The calendar pages in Books of Hours showing the labors of December most often feature an image of hog butchering, a boar roast, or a boar hunt (sometimes they feature an image of St. John boiling in oil, or the baking of bread) as December labors of the month.
This wintery scene is a detail from the December calendar page from the Da Costa Hours (Belgium, Bruges, c. 1515) now in The Morgan Library. (MS M.399, f. 13v). The landscape is snowy, and the people are dressed warmly. In the front, a man is slitting the throat of a boar with a knife, while to his right a woman is catching the blood, “bleeding out” the butchered pig. (Today it’s more common to suspend the the pig head-down; medieval images often show the boar on the ground, or on a low trestle table, or yes, suspended.) Behind the woman catching the blood, another woman stands outside of an inn. The inn has a sign showing a star or perhaps a sun. The windows are lined with three people watching the pig slaughter. In the distance, there’s a man with a team of horses and a wagon. The distant scene looks very cold; there’s some show-through of the art on the reverse of the page.
The boar was an important food source, though largely for the wealthy, especially the domesticated boar. The other popular image for December calendar pages was of the boar hunt. While the head was regarded as a trophy, nothing was wasted, and all was used, from the bristles to the trotters.
Flax is a fiberus plant grown for both the seeds (for food for people and animals) but more importantly, for the fibers, used to make linen. While wool was the most common fabric in the Middle ages in Europe, linen was also used for clothing and household textiles since it made durable light-weight cloth that was particularly suited for warmer weather and undergarments.
Harvesting and processing flax was usually done during June and July, though this isn’t the only November book of hours image to feature flax production. The two men in the fronts are beating flax that has been soaking in water for several days; this process was called retting. After retting the flax is beaten which loosens the fibers from the flax stems. Behind the two men, on the left, a woman inside a shed is using a scutching knife to scutch the flax, that is, remove the outer woody covering from the fibers. She’s sitting, and you can see two bundles of processed flax on the floor next to her. Although it isn’t shown, the next stage of converting flax to linen would be hatching, which meant drawing the flax through tines on a board, combing the long fibers so that they could be spun before being woven into linen.
Behind the shed and the woman scutching is another shed; possibly a threshing barn, since it looks the man standing in the doorway has a raised arm and is holding something, perhaps a flail?
In the center part of the image you can see doves and chickens scratching in the straw just outside what may be the threshing barn, as if the wheat straw and chaff had been discarded by the thresher. Across the way the top of the building is a dovecote, with the ground floor a barn for pigs. In the background, you see other pigs. In the very back in the center of the image is possibly a house with a fire, and figure before the fire warming, as a foreshadowing of winter and the labor of February which often shows someone sitting before a fire and warming themselves.
The Da Costa Hours were illuminated by Simon Bening (1483/84 – 1561); they were produced in Ghent, Belgium c. 1515. This image is strikingly similar to a November bas relief image in the London Rothschild Hours in the British Library (British Library Add MS 35313, f. 6v).1)British Library Add MS 35313 is variously identified as the London Rothschild Hours and the Hours of Joanna I of Castile.
The most obvious similarity is in the foreground figure of the two men beating flax; even the positions of the figure and hands on the implements is strikingly similar. Notice that one of the men is now bare-headed. The similarities do not end there; look at the pigs in the barn, the roaming pigs, and the man in the background that appears to be threshing grain with a flail inside a threshing shed. The woman feeding the pigs is unique, but the dovecote above the barn is strikingly similar. Behind the woman feeding the pigs swill from a bucket, to the right is a woman using a scutching knife to scutch flax, again, a similar detail.
Another similar, almost identical scene, is in a breviary; Morgan Library MS M52. The November calendar page has a similar scene at the bottom of F. 7r:
This breviary image shares some details with the London Rothschild hours. The woman feeding the pigs, the barn and tower above the pigs, the clothing of the two men beating the flax, the threshing shed and the man with the flail in the background, are all strikingly similar to the November image in the Rothschild London hours. The woman clothed in green with the scutching knife on the left is strikingly similar to the woman clothed in green using a scutching knife in the Da Costa Hours November image. The hats on the two men beating the flax in the foreground are strikingly similar to the hats on the two men in The Da Costa hours image.
The miniatures in the Hours of the Cross and the Hours of the Virgin and perhaps the Calendar scenes are attributed to the Master of James IV of Scotland and his workshop; the miniatures in the Suffrages and prayers are attributed to the workshop of the Maximilian Master, both active at Ghent.
The Morgan Library breviary from Belgium M.52 has this:
M.52 (“Breviary of Eleanor of Portugal”), in Latin, Franciscan for Rome use (Ordo breviarii, calendar). Flanders, probably Ghent or Bruges, ca. 1500–1510, illuminated by the Master of the Older Prayerbook of Maximilian (Alexander Bening?) (A) and the Master of James IV of Scotland (Gerard Horenbout ?)
Ms. book of hours for indeterminate use (Hours of the Virgin) and the use of Rome (Office of the Dead); written and illuminated in Ghent, Belgium, ca. 1515.
Decoration: 75 full-page miniatures (including 12 calendar illustrations), 15 small miniatures, 12 historiated borders with zodiacal signs.
Artist: Simon Bening and workshop.
The British Library’s London Rothschild Hours and the Morgan Library’s breviary share two artists;the Master of James IV of Scotland and the Master of the Older Prayerbook of Maximilian. The Morgan Library also suggests that the Master of the Older Prayerbook of Maximilian may have been Alexander Bening (sometimes called Sanders Bening), the father of Simon Bening, the principle artist of the Da Costa Hours.
Sometimes the calendar images in a book of hours departs from the more common labors of the month. This is the case with the Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours image for October. The more common labors for October in books of hours include ploughing and sowing in colder climates, transferring the new wine into casks and barrels for aging in warmer wine-growing areas, or even, a late harvest of grapes in the warmer Mediterranean climates, which is one of the labors in this image from the Morgan Library’s MS M.399, fol. 11v, the October calendar image from the Da Costa Hours.
The Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours calendar image for October shows a village street with cobblestones. An ox is tethered to the wall of a building; three of the men appear to be discussing price; they are huddled together and one seems to be receiving coins from another man, who has his hand in his purse.
Immediately behind them, a man on a ladder is gathering grapes growing up a wall and over an arbor. A woman, her hands wrapped in her apron, watches somewhat anxiously from the street below the ladder. Beyond her, farther down the street, a man with a staff in hand and a basket on his back approaches a building with what appears to be a sundial set in the gable. The contents of the basket aren’t really clear; they appear to be yellowish brown, and round; possibly grapes, or even nuts or apples.
The traditional labors of September shown in books of hours are harvesting and treading grapes in warmer regions and ploughing and sowing (and sometimes, threshing) in colder climates. In this detail of the September calendar image from the Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours (MS M.399, fol. 10v), in the foreground a man ploughs with the aid of two horses. Behind him another man is sowing seeds by casting. The seeds are probably winter wheat, and there are more of them in the basket of grain resting on the ground.
Behind him and to the left, a man with a stick is knocking down nuts for the swine below the trees; this is typically the labor for November, but as an actual activity it took place as soon as nuts began to ripen.
The birds eagerly gobbling the seeds are probably European crows, sometimes called Carrion crows, or Corvus corone. Crows in medieval bestiaries are associated with longevity, and warning humans of ambushes. Pliny mentions crows’ habit of dropping nuts on rocks to crack them. Actual crows today do in fact make a racket when the see predatory birds or animals, and that includes humans, and Carrion crows really do drop nuts on rocks and other hard surfaces, like paved roads and sidewalks, to crack them.