The Labors of May

The labors of May depicted in May calendar images in books of hours typically feature hawking (sometimes on horseback), and courting, with a fair number of either of these images including greenery in the form of leafy boughs or even potted plants.

The Calens of May or May first, popularly known as May Day, is closely associated with the Celtic feast of Beltane, traditionally celebrated on the first of May. It was my interest in May day, Maying and Beltane that first led me to study the May calendar images in books of hours and their ancestor, the psalter since one of the traditional labors of May is bringing in the green, or Maying.

May calendar images in books of hours images often feature the custom of “bringing in the May” or Maying, Maying was a popular rural custom in much of Europe right through the early twentieth century, and most notably featured young people going out early in the morning of May 1 to fetch green boughs, especially boughs of Hawthorne, and adorning houses with them. Books of hours for the labor of May often show courtiers engaged in a May procession or jaunt, carrying or displaying the green boughs of spring.

An image from Queen Mary’s Psalter calendar page for May British Library Royal 2 B VII f. 75v showing a labor of May; two courtiers hawking, one of the mounted with a hawk in hand, two on foot bearing hawks.
Queen Mary’s Psalter calendar page for May British Library Royal 2 B VII f. 75v Detail England c. 1310–1320

Often the May image of hawking shows two men in a spring landscape. Sometimes one of the men is on horseback; the bird may be airborne or perched on an arm. Maying scenes and courting scenes may be on land, in the midst of a verdant landscape, or on the water, in a May boating scene, perhaps featuring greenery and musicians. Simon Bening’s May calendar illumination in the British Library’s Golf Book, and his illustration in the Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours calendar pages for May both feature May greenery, musicians, and boats.

Probably the most famous book of hours image of May is that of the Très Riches Heures du Jean Duc de Berry; it features a mounted Maying party of exquisitely dressed courtiers on beautiful horses. Many of them are also bearing May greenery as they progress in a “May jaunt.”

A fairly typical  labor of May image shows a young man in aristocratic dress sitting on a horse, often with a hawk or falcon, and very much in accord with Chaucer’s description of the young Squire in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales:

Embrouded was he, as it were a meede,
90 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.
Short was his gowne, with sleves longe and wyde.
Wel koude he sitte on hors, and faire ryde (ll. 89–94).

The Squire’s portrait from the Ellesmere Chaucer, Huntington Library

I’m not the first to notice the resemblance between the description of the Squire in the General Prologue (and the Ellesmere portrait) and the courtly figures often shown in May calendar images; Morton Bloomfield mentions it, and do D. W. Robertson. Del Kolve has explored the relationship between May in Chaucer and books of hours quite extensively in Telling Images: Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative II.

A knight on horseback rides out to go hawking and is just about to remove his hawk’s hood in the labor of May from a psalter in the collections of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek. This psalter was created in Normandy in about 1180. The image is from the calendar page for May. This page shows several labor of May images from the Books of Hours in the Koninklijke, including their part of the Hours of Simon de Verie which shows a young man hawking. You’ll notice that the Book of Hours by the Master of Jean Rolin II also shows a young man hawking. You’ll also see the familiar “twins” image.

The labor of May in BNF, Lat 18104 is fol. 3 from John Duc du Berry’s Petites Heures, created in France, Paris 14th Century. It’s from the Bibliotheque National, and is the actual calendar page for May. Most of the images are sacred in nature, but at the top right is a couple, possibly the Gemini twins, possibly a male and female couple bathing or doing something naked. This image is similar to images on other May pages that are definitely of a young couple in an embrace.

This particular page, fol. 4r is the May calendar page from Bodleian MS. Buchanan e. 3, a book of hours produced in Rouen, France, c. 1500. There’s man and a woman on horseback, a typical May promenade image, and at the bottom right, a definitely naked couple embracing amidst shrubbery—another traditional labor of May image.

The Frick Book of Hours, ND3363.P23B5 a book of hours in Latin and French c. 1475-1485 has two calendar pages for each month. The first calendar page for May, F. 5r, shows a couple hawking with dogs. The second page, F. 5v. shows the familiar nude male and female Gemini figures half hidden behind a shield.