Labors of June

The labors of June depicted in books of hours are variable, depending on the local climate and the nature of agricultural and pastoral requirements. Books of hours created in warmer climates typically show haying (sometimes referred to as mowing), or sometimes, sheep-sheering as the labors of June.

Sheep-shearing as one of the labors of June, from the British Library's Golf Book.
British Library Additional MS 24098 The Golf Book ff. 23v–24r. Bruges, workshop of Simon Bening c. 1540s

Harvesting hay, then as now, means first cutting or mowing the hay (ideally in the early morning of a sunny day), letting it dry, then raking it into stacks to be stored until used. Mowing in the middle ages was accomplished by the use of the scythe, typically a curved blade (though not always) affixed to a long wooden pole, the snath. There are two short handles on the snath, at right angles to the pole, one at the end, forming a T, and the other mid-way down the snath. The scythe is swung back and forth along the grass, one hand on each handle, in a regular motion, typically with the left hand on the T, and the right on the center handle. Next, the cut grass or hay is raked, giving it a chance to be turned over and thoroughly dried, before being mounded into small heaps.

The labors of June in colder areas may show weeding, or even plowing as the labor of June. The Middle English lyric on the occupations and labors of the months offers this for June:

Junij And I wede my corne well I-now.

Corn here means grain, rather than maize, and this particular reference points to the colder, wetter climate of England, since it suggests that the grain has sprouted and is ready to have weeds removed, but it is not yet warm enough for hay to be scythed and stacked. Weeding in a medieval context needs some explanation. First, many of the plants we might today describe as “weeds” and remove and discard from a garden were often secondary crops to the medieval agronomist. Many weeds were useful, as food, for medicinal purposes or animal bedding or feed, for instance. So rather than uproot weeds, weed hooks were used to cut the top of the plant off, and leave the roots behind. Weed hooks were typically used in pairs; one long-handled pole in each hand. One pole ended in a blade and the other ended in a fork. Many books of hours or art depicting the labors of June show peasants wielding weed hooks and scythes.

The astrological symbol on June calendar images in books of hours is Cancer, the crab, though sometimes it looks more like a crayfish than a crab.

June from Buchanan e. 3 Bodleian Library, Oxford

June from the Très Riches Heures

June from The Golf Book

June from the Hours of Henry VIII