December calendar pages in books of hours typically feature butchering pigs, baking, and sometimes, both at once in the form of roasting a slaughtered pig. The porcine emphasis in December is a reasonable one, given that the pigs fattened by eating mast in the form of nuts and acorns in November are now ready to be butchered and roasted.
The image below is a detail from the Très Riches Heures of Jean, duc de Berry (Chantilly, Musée Condé, MS 65) calendar image for December. It features a wild boar hunt. The building in the background is the Château de Vincennes, where the Duc de Berry was born in 1340, on November 30. The forest bordering the estate was famous for its game (and was reserved as a royal forest). The leaves are still on the trees, though they do suggest late autumn, on the cusp of winter.
The boar has been cornered, speared by the huntsman standing off to the side, and is being destroyed by boar hounds. The realism of the dogs is astonishing; there are both boar hounds, and smaller bloodhounds.
On the right side of the image another huntsman blows the mort, or death call, on his small horn. It doesn’t look terribly wintery, I admit, though you’ll notice the huntsmen are not dressed for summer. But December serves as a good time for a boar hunt (see for instance the boar hunt featured in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) and for domestic swine butchering because it is cold, and because the wild boar, like his cousin the domestic hog, has been eating fattening on nuts acorns.
The November calendar page for the Trés Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (Cluny Musee MS 65 F11v) is one of the pages in the book of hours that the Limbourgs did not complete before they, and their patron Jean Duc de Berry, died June 15 1416 in Paris. Charles I, the Duc de Savoie, commissioned Jean Colombe to finish the central image of the November calendar page sometime between 1485-1489.
The central panel features a pastoral scene of peasants harvesting acorns from oak trees, for the benefit of swine grazing beneath the trees. In the background on the left a château is partially visible on the bank of a river. The château has not been identified; it’s possible that Colombe relied on his imagination in depicting the château; it’s also possible that it’s not extant and therefor unrecognized.
The peasant on the left looks poised to hurl his stick into the trees, striking the ripe acorns so that they would fall on the ground to be consumed by the waiting pigs. Farther back, in the middle distance, two other peasants accompanied by sticks and pigs are engaged in watching the pigs, and in assisting the acorns to fall.
You’ll notice that the oak trees are very straight, and have had their lower branches lopped off in a practice known as pollarding. It was common in the middle ages in Europe to pollard oak and hazel nut trees by lopping off the lower branches every year or so; these could be used for firewood, and the tree would still grow and bear nuts. It also allowed more trees to be planted, because they could be planted closer together without lower branches inhibiting the growth of nearby trees.
November in Europe has a rich tradition of feeding acorns to pigs, and not just in the Mediterranean countries; Ireland and Britain both relied on acorns (and hazelnuts and hawthorn haws) as important fodder crops. The medieval Brehon laws of Ireland have specific restrictions and protections for the use of mast, particularly acorns. They were crucial in particular in terms of fattening pigs or “finishing” pigs before butchering. Green acorns were hazardous to horses and cows, and not really helpful to swine, hence the practice of harvesting ripe acorns, with the aid of stick or flail.
Acorns are still used to “finish” pigs destined for a later appearance as ham, even now.
In this calendar image for the month of October from the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry (f. 10v) the labor of the month is sowing the winter grain. This is one of the images that was left uncompleted when Jean Duc de Berry died in 1416. The original artists responsible for most of the image in this book of hours, the Limbourg brothers, also died.
The manuscript passed to King Charles VII, the Duke’s brother, and the image for the October calendar was finished by another artist.
In the warmer parts of Europe, the wine regions, October marked the month when the grapes harvested in September were put into barrels for aging. In the regions less friendly to grapes, October’s labor is sowing the winter grain, or sometimes, plowing.
As it says in the medieval lyric listing the labors of the month “And here I sawe my whete so rede” (Bodleian MS. Digby 88).
In the background, you can see the Louvre; this Parisian palace was built by the Duke’s older brother, King Charles V. The medieval Louvre was substantially changed by successive royal owners; here’s a reconstruction showing what we think it looked like in the 15th century. The Très Riches Hours calendar image shows three central towers. Between the three central towers are two balconies, or brattices, each pierced by three windows from which, during a siege, defenders could hurl boing water or hot oil on to the attackers below.
Beneath the towers and the central donjon of the the Louvre, you can see a small door that opens in the thick wall, exiting on to the banks of the Seine. People chat in a small group right at the door. A set of steps leads down to the Seine, where women do their laundry by beating it with a stick, near a small boat that’s moored. To the right, in front of one of the central towers, two dogs play. There’s a second set of stairs down to the Seine, and three more boats are tied up.
In the central scene below the Louvre and the river, a man in red mounted on a horse drags a harrow across the field. The wooden harrow is weighted with a rock. The weight of the rock forces the tines of harrow into the earth. As the horse drags the harrow along, the tines break up the dirt clods. This is particularly useful after plowing since the harrow helps cover the previously sown seeds as it smooths the soil. Beyond the mounted rider, in the central part of the image, there’s a field that’s already been sown with seeds and a scarecrow dressed as an archer. The strings tied with rags that criss-cross the field around the scarecrow are meant, like the archer scarecrow, to ward off marauding birds.
To the right in the front of the image, a peasant dressed in blue scatters seeds, hand-sowing, while magpies (the black-and-white birds) and crows devour the freshly sown (but not yet covered by the harrow) seeds. Notice the naturalistic detail of the footprints left in the soft earth as the seed-sower progresses along the row. Those footprints, like the shadow cast by the scarecrow, the reflections cast by the boats, or the vaporized breath and the smoke from the chimney in the image for February are other early examples from the Très Riches Heurs of the artists using realistic, technical, details in European art of the Middle ages.
The conventional seasonal labor for August is wheat threshing; that’s when the wheat reaped in July, briefly dried in the field then stacked in small bundles or sheaves, before being gathered into larger shocks, tied, and brought to a barn (sometimes a dedicated three-walls-and-a-roof threshing barn) where it was beaten with a flail to force the dried wheat grains off the stems. Grain had to be dry before being stored or milled; damp wheat often resulted in fungus, even the dreaded ergot. Threshing was sometimes continued into the autumn and even winter, when working inside was a convenient escape, and thereby allowed summer’s harvest to continue without interruption.
In this detail from the Trés Riches Heures of Jean Duc de Berry calendar page for August (Musée Conde MS 65 F. 8v) you can see the Duke’s Château d’Étampes in the background; the tall tower in the center is still extant. Below the château you can see a wagon being loaded with shocks as one peasant bundles sheaves to form the upright-shocks. On the right, another peasant bundles sheaves into shocks while a third swings his short-handled sickle to cut down the last of the wheat.
In the lower half of the detail an aristocratic hawking party is in progress. In the front the falconer, on foot, with two birds on his wrist, and a lure tied to his belt. The lure, made of a pair of birds’ wings that a choice tidbit could be tied to, was used to train birds to return to the hand. Once the bird brings down live prey, the lure is used to “lure” her back to the end, and dogs (see the two in the image above) retrieve and bring the prey back to the hawking party.
Falconry, or hawking, originally was a way to procure meat for the table; over time, it became an aristocratic sport. Dame Juliana Berners (c.1388–) wrote a treatise covering the various kinds of hawks and falcons, who could own them (aristocracy had dibs on the larger birds of prey; commoners were restricted to kestrels and the like), how they should be kept, trained, and fed. The Boke of St. AlbansMore fully identified as Book of hawking, hunting and blasing of arms., produced some time in 1486 or thereafter was the first book printed in England to feature colored images.
This is the July calendar image from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. It shows wheat being harvested in a field to the left, a typical labor for July, while on the right a man and a woman are shearing sheep. The labors of the month are so very dependent on local seasons, and the cooperation of the weather, that it’s not really surprising to see sheep-sheering as a labor for June and July.
In the background is one of the Jean de Berry’s many castles; exactly which castle is in question (only three of his many castles are still extant). If you look very closely at the bottom left of the image, and in the river in front of the castle in the back ground, you can see swans. The swan is one of Jean de Berry’s heraldic devices (the bear is another; and his arms bear the royal fleur de lys).
The favored labor of June often varies in books of hours. In colder regions, like England and Germany, the hay harvest is often associated with July, with weeding the labor for June. In sunny France, the labor of June in books of hours was often haying. This is the case in the June calendar illumination of the Très Riches Heures. In the background the towers of the Duke’s Paris residence, the hôtel de Nesle, rise across the Seine. Once it was the royal residence of King Charles VI (before he moved to the Louvre), now it is the Palais de Justice. The two orange conical towers belong to the Conciergerie, the prison where Marie Antoinette was imprisoned in 1793. On the far right you can see the Gothic splendor of Sainte Chapelle, including the cross on the spire and the stained glass window.
In the foreground you can see haying as the labor of June. Two women rake the mowed hay, after it has been allowed to dry, into piles. Behind them to the right three men swinging scythes mow the hay. Once again, the level of detail is impressive. There’s someone in a boat on the Seine, figures on the stairs at the entrance of the Palace, and smoke rising from the chimney.
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 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 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.
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:
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).