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.
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.
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.
These are high-resolution, reproduction-quality images with embedded metadata, some over 100 megabytes in size. You can browse the images, or look for individual “download” links on the Getty Museum’s collection pages. Before the download actually begins, the Getty site asks simple questions about how you plan to use the images.
The Getty released images of many of its most famous works, including paintings like Vincent van Gogh’s Irises, but I’m especially excited by the medieval manuscripts (The Getty purchased the Ludwig collection, a huge collection of manuscripts rich in psalters and books of hours several years ago, and already had a solid collection, and they’ve added mss. since).
January saint’s days include the Feast of the Circumcision on the first, the Epiphany on the sixth, Saint Agnes on the twenty-first, and the Conversion of Saint Paul on the twenty-fifth, among other feats. Typically the calendar page will show the sign of Aquarius, the water-bearer in a border (at the top of the full size page of this folio) and/or of Janus, the two-faced deity associated with doors, and beginnings and endings of years. Books of Hours for January are very fond of feasting images, like this one from the Trés Riches Heures:
Trés Riches Heures Musée Condé MS. 65 f.91v
This particular feasting image might be set at New Years or the Feast of the Epiphany, or Twelfth Night. The seated gentleman on the right with the fancy hat and the blue and gold robe is the Duke himself. Behind him is a very large fireplace. Above the fireplace the red and blue banner features Jean de Berry’s heraldic devices—the swan and the fleur de lys. At the very top edge of the banner are two bears—a reference to the Duke’s beloved Ursula. Behind the dining scene is a large, expensive tapestry that seems to be showing a scene from the Trojan wars. The damask tablecloth and the large, ornate salt cellar in the shape of a ship are items that are listed in inventories of the Duke’s household possessions.
The two richly dressed in grey and green young men on the opposite site of the table appear to be his cupbearer and carver, respectively; these are squires or young courtiers, rather than servants. Notice the dog, a white hunting hound, begging (and receiving) food from a courtier. At the far right on the table, just at the edge, two kittens appear to be playing. In the back new guests are just entering, stretching their hands towards the fire, while they look at the guests.
Art historians have attempted to identify some of the figures besides the Duke. For instance, the gentleman to the Due’s right, with the tonsure and the reddish-purple robe is possibly the Duke’s close friend Martin Gouge, the Bishop of Chartres. In the crowd of people entering on the left, behind the table, is a fellow with a white or gray floppy cap. He’s behind a figure dressed in green with a large red hat. The person is the white hat is possibly the artist Paul de Limbourg. The same person is also featured in images in two other mss. that the Limbourgs created, the Petites Heures (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris) and the Belles Heures (The Cloisters, New York).
Most calendars in Books of Hours show either sheep shearing or haying for the labor of June. Some June pages instead depict the crab for Cancer and a scene from scripture. The June image from the Buchanan e. 3 ms. from the Bodleian, is a Book of Hours, Use of Rouen, in Latin and French
France, Rouen; c. 1500 for June is a typical June image.
There’s a peasant with a scythe on the top left, with the symbol for Cancer (though here the crab is more like a crayfish) on the bottom left. In the middle is the actual calendar, with the dates of various Saint’s days and other feasts that take place in June, localized for Rouen. The dates in blue are particularly important; traditionally these would be in red, in a rubric, giving use the phrase “red letter day.”
The Bibliotheque National NF, Lat 18104, fol. 3v, John of Berry’s Petites Heures, France, Paris 14th Century, for the month of June Shows Saint Paul preaching to the Philippians, the Church personified, and at the top, the symbol for Cancer, this time very clearly a crab.
Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry calendar image for May
Long before May 1 became associated with workers, it was associated with the joys of spring and the restoration of fertility to the land. The Celtic festival of Beltaine (Modern English Beltane) is the ancestor of the calens Mai, or May Day associated with May 1, and I suspect the Roman floralia may have contributed or shared an common IE ancestor.
Beltaine is one of the four main Celtic seasonal festivals, and as a liminal time, between the death of winter and the birth of the warm half of the year, it is one of the occasions when the barriers between the mortal world and the otherworld are easily passed (Rees and Rees, 1961, 89-90). Perhaps because the Celts counted the passing of time in “nights,” the rites of May often begin on May Eve, April 30. These rites, typically an expedition at dawn on May 1 to “bring in the May” or Hawthorne, are often preserved in some form in the Medieval manuscripts called Books Of Hours, which served as both a calendar and a collection of the psalms and scriptures and prayers to be used on a given day throughout the year. Calendar pages, featuring the zodiac symbol for the month and a depiction of labors or pastimes associated with the month and a list of the local feast days and saint’s days, are a standard feature in Books of Hours.
The image at the top is from the May calendar page from the Très Riche Heures of Jean Duc du Berry, and was painted by the Limbourg brothers sometime between 1412 and 1416. The image above is from the lower portion of the calendar page for May; the top shows the zodiac symbol for Gemini and the astrological position of the sun. This labor for May shows the May jaunt, a semi-formal promenade by the aristocrats celebrating the “joli mois de Mai.” You’ll note that the participants are dressed in green, the “livree de mai.” The woman in green in the middle foreground has a headdress decorated with green leaves, perhaps freshly gathered that morning.
There are, as I mentioned, many literary references to May Day, or Beltaine, and the custom of Maying. In the Celtic tales, the emphasis is on fertility and the accessibility of the Otherworld. In the first branch of the Welsh Mabinogi, Teyrnon, a former man of Pwyll’s, the lord of Dyfedd, is troubled every May eve by the mysterious disappearance of the new-born colt of his best mare (Ford 1977, 52). One of the three plagues in Lludd ac Llefelys is a scream heard every May Eve. In Culhwch ac Olwen Gwythyr ap Greidawl and Gwyn ap Nudd fight every May Day until Judgement Day. The winner on Judgement day will have Creidylat uerch Lud Law Ereint to wife.
Beltane or Beltaine (OI) is important in Irish myth as well, though the Irish seem to have favored November 1, or Samhain (OI Samain) a bit more. The tales Scel na Fir Flatha, Echtra Cormaic i Tir Tairngiri ocus Ceart Claidib Cormaic begins at dawn on ceitemain or May 1 in Tara when Cormac makes a rash bargain with Manannan mac Lir that results in the loss of his entire family to the otherworld intruder and god of the sea.
King Ailil is killed on May 1 while meeting with a woman behind a hazel bush (Rees and Rees 337), an activity that we will see is frequently indulged in on May day even hundreds of years later. You may sometimes see the Gemini, the twins associated with May via the astrological symbol on most calendar pages in books of hours, looking as if they might be fornicating behind a bush (and yes, sometimes they”re both sexes, sometimes both are male).
In the ballad “Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight” (Child Ballad #4), Lady Isabel “heard an elf-knight blawing his horn. / The first morning in May.”
In an Irish version of “Tam Lin” the fairies ride on the “first of May.”1). Edith Wheeler. “Irish Versions of Some Old Ballads.” <cite>Journal of the Irish Folklore Society</cite> I 41–48; 47. Collected from the singing of Ann Carter. URL ML 5 I68 v. 1-10).
In Malory’s “Launcelot and Guinivere” the queen is kidnapped by Mellyagaunce as she rides out on a Maying expedition, dressed all in green, “uppon the morne or hit were day, in a May mornynge” (Vinaver 1990 1120).
In Robert Henryson’s Orpheus and Eurydice Euridice “walkit furth in till a Maii mornyng” and was “with the fary tane” when she steps on a serpent “with that the quene of fary / Claucht hir up sone and furth with hir can cary” (Fox 1981 ll. 93; 119; 125-26).
In Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, Palamon and Arcite fall in love with Emelye when they see her rise early to “don observaunce to may,” and Chaucer later has Arcite get up early on May 3 (an important date in Chaucer’s world) “to do his reverence to May.”
By 1583, Puritanical rant-writer Phillip Stubbes included Whitsontide and May day practices in his Anatomie of Abuses, complaining
Against May, Whitsunday, or other time, olde men and wives, run gadding over-night to the woods, groves, hills and mountains, where they spend all night in pleasant pastimes; and in the morning they return, bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies withal. . . . But the chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their May-Pole, which they have bring home with great veneration. . . . They have twentie or fortie yoke of oxen, every oxe having a sweet nose-gay of flowers placed on the tip of his hornes, and these oxen drawe home this May-Pole (this stinking Ydol, rather), which is covered all over with floures and hearbs, bound round about with strings, from the top to the bottome, and sometime painted with variable coulours, with two or three hundred men, women and children following it with great devotion. And this being reared up . . . then fall they to daunce about it, like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the Idols, wereof this is a perfect pattern, or rather the thing itself. I have heard it credibly reported (and that viva voce) by men of great gravitie and reputation, that of forty, threescore, or a hundred maides going to the wood over-night, there have scarcely the third of them returned home againe undefiled.
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