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March from the Hours of Henry The VIII

Detail showing pruning the vines March
Hours of Henry VIII Morgan Library MS H.8, fol. 2r

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.

Detail showing a billhook from Hours of Henry VIII Morgan Library MS H.8, fol. 2r
Picture of an Opinel No. 8 Pruning Folding Knife - Stainless Steel from Amazon
Amazon: Opinel No. 8 Pruning Folding Knife – Stainless Steel

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.

Picture of an Opinel No. 8 Pruning Folding Knife - Stainless Steel from AmazonOn 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.

 

March from the Da Costa Hours

March from the Da Costa hours Morgan Library MS M.399, f.4v Simon Bening (1483/84–1561) Ghent

The typical labors of March include digging and plowing in preparation for spring planting. In this March calendar image from the Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours (Morgan Library MS M.399, f.4v) a false frame surrounds a full page illumination by Simon Bening.

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.

This detail from Morgan Library MS M.399, f.4v shows the White Stork nest on the top of the castle chimney

If you look very closely at the castle chimney, there’s a stork’s nest on the on the top of chimney. This is a White Stork, Ciconia ciconia. They’ve been nesting on the roofs and chimneys of Europe for centuries, to the point where the White stork is associated with fertility and luck (hence the folklore about storks delivering babies). White storks return to the same nests, year after year, and the presence of White storks is one of the heralds of spring, even in medieval bestiaries. In recent decades the white stork populations have declined. There has been some success in attracting storks to return in Alsace.

March from the Très Riches Heures

In this book of hours calendar image for March from the Trés Riches Heures of Jean Duc du Berry (Musé Condee MS 65 F3v), the foreground shows a man ploughing with an ox. It’s a common motif in terms of the labors of the months in books of hours. The labors of March typically involve pruning trees or grape vines, or digging or ploughing in non-wine producing regions.

The calendar page for March from the Trés Riches Heures of Jean Duc du Berry (Musé Condee MS 65 F3v)

In the foreground, a peasant, wearing leggings and a hat, plows with an ox. Above that, to the left, three peasants are working with the vines, probably pruning and re-tying them. Above and two the right, a peasant with a sack is doing something to a field. I suspect (but do not know) that he’s spreading manure on a field deliberately left fallow.

It was fairly common to use a three-field system of crop rotation. One field was planted with wheat or rye in the fall, for human consumption. A second field was used in spring to raise peas, beans, and lentils for human use, and oats and barley for the horses. The third field is allowed to lie fallow, and rest. It would be plowed, working aged manure into the soil, and any spontaneous weeds and grasses could be used for grazing, resulting in more manure to be plowed under a second time.

The field planted with beans, and lentils, with legumes in summer could be re-used the next winter for winter wheat or rye, because legumes, as nitrogen fixers, enrich the soil. Each year, the field used for a specific crop rotated among the three fields.

I suspect the fellow with a sack is spreading manure that will be plowed under while the field lies fallow. The third field, off to the right, looks as if it’s already been planted. Across from it, on the top left, there’s a shepherd with his sheep and dog; he appears to be hurriedly covered, perhaps hoping to avoid the storm that appears hovering in the sky above.

The castle in the background is one of several owned by Jean Duc du Berry; it is the castle of Lusignan in Poitou, famous for the legend about the fairy Melusine, ancestress of the Lusignans. Melusine, who reverted to a mermaid form, or in some versions, became a serpent from the waist down. on alternate Saturday. Melusine, after a spat with her husband Guy de Lusignan, Count of Poitou, transformed into a dragon, and flew off (hence the dragon flying overhead on the top right).