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February from the Hours of Henry VIII

Detail from the calendar page for January
Book of Hours of Henry VIII Morgan Library MS. H f.1v
Jean Poyer, Tours, ca. 1500
Book of Hours of Henry VIII Morgan Library MS. H f.1v

This calendar page for February from the Morgan Library’s Hours of Henry VIII (Morgan MS. H.8 f1v) features a typical scene in terms of the the labors of February featured in books of hours; the master of the house is standing in front of the hearth, warming himself by the fire.

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.

February from the Da Costa Hours

February calendar image from the Morgan Library's DaCosta hours showing workers staking and pruning vines, plowing a field, a river with boats, and a watchtower overlooking the river
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.

February

 

The standard dictionary definition for February is very like this one from the AHD:

The second month of the year in the Gregorian calendar.

Modern English February is ultimately derived from Latin; the Latin name for the second month, the name used by Romans, is februarius mensis, “purification month,” or, more literally, “month of purification,” the last month of the ancient (pre-450 B.C.E.) Roman calendar. The month was named after the Roman feast of purification, held on the ides of the month, with the new year starting in the following month.

The etymology of February is a little complicated, in that Modern English February is derived from Latin Februarius, which was used as a direct borrowing in Old English, where the Old English equivalent month, Solmōnað, or “mud month,” is glossed with Latin Februarius. The Latin name for the month was used in addition to the Old English name, and gradually, began to be used instead of the Old English name.

After the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Anglo-Norman French names for the month (also derived from Latin Februarius), Feverer, and Feverier (and other spellings) began to be used, eventually becoming Feoverel.

Spelling reforms in the 15th century attempted to modify English spelling in terms of Latin spelling practices; Feoverel became Februarius, and eventually, February. The pronunciation of February, however, is still a little confusing. As the Usage note in the AHD notes:

Usage Note: The preferred pronunciation among usage writers is (fĕbr-ĕr′ē), but in actual usage the pronunciation (fĕby-ĕr′ē) is far more common and so cannot be considered incorrect. The loss of the first r in this pronunciation can be accounted for by the phonological process known as dissimilation, whereby one of two similar or identical sounds in a word is changed or dropped so that a repetition of that sound is avoided. In the case of February, the loss of the first r was also helped along by the influence of January, which has only one r.

The pronunciation is enough of an issue, still, that entire articles have been written about Why do we pronounce February without the “r”?

February from the Très Riches Heures

The calendar image for February in books of hours, like those for 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. Bridg

This image from the February calendar page in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry in the Museé Cluny shows the labors of a fairly typical winter day.

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.