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.
This is a lovely but also fairly traditional book of hours calendar image for August from The Morgan Library’s MS M.399, fol. 9vThe Da Costa Hours, showing the customary labor of August, threshing grain, as well as the last reaping of grain. In the front on the left, a woman is finding the cut wheat into sheaves for drying. Front and center a double-flail wielding man is beating the ripened grains from the stocks. To his right another man with a sickle is reaping the ripe grain. In the middle distance on the left a cart drawn by two horses (one with a rider) is hauling away a load of sheaves of grain, perhaps destined for a threshing barn. In the distance beyond the cart is what looks like a man reaping on the side of a hill.
In the foreground, where the one men is threshing and his neighbor is wielding a sickle, the standing wheat and the bundles on the ground both have small brightly colored flowers of some sort. I can’t help but wonder if some of the flowers are Cornflowers, Centaurea cyanus (Bachelor buttons in North America). Cornflowers take their name from their European habitat; they tended to grow in fields of grain, or “corn” in British English, including wheat, rye and oats. Cornflower blossoms are most commonly blue in color, but purple and pink blossoms are also possible. Other possible candidates for the flowers include the Corn Poppy (Papaver rhoeas), Corncockle (Agrostemma Githago). These meadow and field flowers are often featured in the borders of books of hours, particularly those from Flemish workshops.
This image shows the common labor of July, haying, from the Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours, MS M.399, fol. 8v. In the front on the right, two men are using scythes (note the long handles) to mow the grass. On the left is a wagon (or haywain) with a team of draft horses. I consulted a draft horse expert (Hi Jenni!) who tells me that “the tongue on the wagon is what’s called a ‘stiff tongue.” When the horses aren’t attached to it, the tip remains suspended in the air rather than drop to the ground. . . . The horses [in this image] don’t have to hold the end of the wagon tongue in the air via a neck yoke.”
The horse are wearing wooden neck yokes that are strikingly reminiscent of those used today, and blinders.
A man beside the horses is lifting a stack of dried hay up to the top of the wagon where a second man is placing it on the other hay. In the back, beyond the short fence, you can see mounds of hay that, after drying, have been raked into stacks—a woman is in the process of raking, in fact. In the middle a woman with a basket on her head and a jug on her hand (perhaps the bearer of lunch) is approaching.
In the distance a horse pulling a cart filled with grain sacks at the base of a hill is being driven from behind by a man on foot. They are followed by a man on horseback. Above them on the hill is a grain windmill, the ultimate destination of the cart. You can see more sacks at the base of the windmill, and a man at the foot of a ladder that leads up and inside the windmill. My assumption is that the sacks contain grain from the previous harvest to be ground into flour; but that’s an assumption. The mill was likely owned by the local lord; he owned most of the grain, and charged a percentage of the flour for any grain anyone else ground. The miller also charged a percentage for his services.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the background a grape arbor covers the walkway, with a worker on a ladder tending the young vines.
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.