Morgan Library MS M.399, fol. 6v Da Costa Hours May calendar image Ghent, Belgium ca. 1515 Image courtesy of Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, Graz/Austria. Detail: Click for the full image at The Morgan Library.
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.
Detail showing a group on horse back gathering May greenery from the Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours f. 6v
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.
A fifteenth century Middle English anonymous lyric about the labors of the seasons asserts that in May “I am as lyght as byrde in bowe.” That certainly describes the typical May calendar images in books of hours Maying, courting, and hawking and horseback riding.
I’ve written about books of hours calendar pages for May featuring bringing in the May, and boating; riding is another popular May calendar image, particularly images showing a young gentleman riding with a hawk in hand. John Trevisa’s translation of Bartholomeus Angelicas’ (Bartholomew the Englishman) encyclopedia De proprietatibus rerum (On the Properties of Things) in the section on the calendar and time, says of May:
For May is a tyme of solas and of likinge, therefore he is ipeynt a yonglyng, riding and bering a fowl on his honde.1)Book 9 De temporibus On time and motion
May is a time of joy and of pleasure, therefore May is depicted as a youth, riding and bearing a hawk on his hand.
Queen Mary’s Psalter calendar page for May British Library Royal 2 B VII f. 75v England c. 1310 – 1320
The May calendar image from the British Library’s Queen Mary’s Psalter (BL Royal 2 B VII) perfectly fits Bartholomeaus’ description. The central portrait at the top of the page shows a young male aristocrat on horseback, a hawk on his hand. Below the illumination are the feast days for the month of May.
The Queen Mary Psalter was produced in England, possibly in the area of London/Westminster, or East Anglia between 1310 and 1320. The text is in Latin, with captions for some images in French. The script is Gothic; Textualis prescissa for the calendar and Psalter and Textualis rotunda for the captions on the prefatory prayer cycle. The entire psalter is the work of a single scribe known as the Queen Mary Master.
Although the psalter is named for Queen Mary Tudor (1516 — 1558), daughter of King Henry VIII, it predates her some two hundred or so years. Obviously made for someone with aristocratic status, it’s not really clear who had the psalter created, and several people owned it before George II in 1757 presented to the British Museum as part of the Old Royal Library. There’s a good post about the The Queen Mary Psalter on the British Library’s official blog.
The illumination at the top of the calendar page, shown in detail below, shows a youth on horse, his hawk in hand, flanked by peers also bearing hawks.
Queen Mary’s Psalter calendar page for May British Library Royal 2 B VII f. 75v Detail England c. 1310 – 1320
Chaucer in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales describes the Knight’s young son, traveling with his father as his squire; the squire is described as
A lovyere and a lusty bacheler;
With lokkes crulle, as they were leyd in presse.
Of twenty yeer of age he was, I gesse (General Prologue ll. 80–82).
The emphasis on on the youth and vitality of the Squire. Chaucer further describes the appearance of the squire in terms of his clothing:
Embrouded was he, as it were a meede,
Al ful of fresshe floures, whyte and reede;
Syngynge he was, or floytynge, al the day,
He was as fressh as is the monthe of May (General Prologue ll. 89–92).
The Squire’s portrait Ellesmere Chaucer, Huntington Library
The direct comparison to the “monthe of May” is particularly interesting, given that the squire in the Ellesmere portrait looks as if he has ridden out of a calendar page for May. His curly hair, his cape embroidered “as if it were a meadow,” even his horse, are reminiscent of the May portraits of aristocratic youths on horses, though he has no hawk on hand. He is an embodiment of youth and vitality, or as John Trevisa put it, “a yongling.”
Ms. 65 f. 5v Musée de Condé, Chantilly, France by the Limbourg brothers c. 1411–1416 Image: R.M.N. / R.-G. Ojéda, Wikimedia Commons
This is the May calendar page from the Très Riches Heures de Jean Duc de Berry. It shows one of the more popular labors of May, a May day outing or jaunt. This is the aristocratic version of bringing in the May, with richly dressed aristocrats on very fine horses, wearing May garlands, traveling with servants, including musicians. In the background is the Hôtel de Neslé, one of the Duke’s Paris residences, and the Conciergerie and the Tour de l’Horloge on the isle de la Cité,much as they look today. Notice the details of the two little dogs in the foreground, and the flowering shrub. I suspect, but can’t prove, that the horses as well as at least some of the riders, would have been known to the Duke. Various scholars have suggested that the gentleman in front with the garland and the very fancy robe with gold embroidery is the Duke himself, perhaps looking at his bride-to-be on the white horse. It is also interesting that three of the women are dressed in green, the color of spring, and of fairies.
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.
Here’s an image from a Book of Hours illuminated by Jean Poyer; the Hours of Henry VIII/The Prayer Book of Ann de Bretagne, from the collections of The Morgan Library. This is the calendar page for May, otherwise known as f. 3. The image below is from the top part of the folio, above the calendar proper.
Notice that it appears to be a courtship scene, entirely appropriate for May, and May day (they tend to favor courting and hawking scenes, often accompanied by greenery). They look as if they’ve been out “bringing in the May,” or “getting some green,” in the wee hours of May 1.
While we know the work is that of Jean Poyer, and that it was once owned by Ann de Bretagne, there’s an unproven eighteenth-century tradition that claims King Henry of England once owned this book of hours.
Mostly, I just like the Maying reference, and the little dog.
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.