The Labors of March

March from The Da Costa Hours showing workers digging in preparation for spring planing, and tying the grapes vines.
March from the Da Costa hours Morgan Library MS M.399, f.4v Simon Bening (1483/84–1561) Ghent

The primary labors of March, the month astrologically associated with Aries the ram (look for curling horns to distinguish the ram from April’s Taurus the bull), was plowing or otherwise preparing the land for spring planting, with pruning the vines in warmer areas where grapes flourished. The labors of March, in other words, are not all that different from the labors of February. It’s also worth remembering that in the old Julian calendar, 25th of March was the first day of the New Year.

The common three-field system of medieval agriculture, where fields pass cyclically through being planted with wheat or rye or oats one year, then beans or other legumes the next, then allowed to lie fallow or rest for a third, meant that the fallow field would need to be plowed twice a year, each time letting cattle graze on the weeds, thoughtfully providing manure that could be worked back into the soil when it was plowed, and left to rest again. For those unfortunates without access to a plow, the land was turned by hand, using spades. Medieval spades were typically made of wood with an iron “shoe” covering the business end of the spade, and wooden handle that ended in a “D” or a “T.”

Pruning (and sometimes also tying of the grape vines) was often accomplished with the aid of a curved-bladed short-handled pruning knife, strikingly similar to the same implement used in vineyards today. Some manuscripts show trees being pruned, often using a short-handled knife with a slightly curved blade called a billhook.

Calving often took place in February or early March as well, and you’ll sometimes spot a cow with her calf in images showing the labors of March. Towards the end of the month, many areas are warm and dry enough that the first of the spring planting might take place, or, as the Middle English lyric on the labors of the month has it:

Marche Here I sette my thynge to springe

In some areas, like the image above from the Da Costa Hours, the climate supported both preparing the earth for spring planting, and tying or pruning the vines and some images of the labors of March show both.

March from The Très Riches Heures

March from The Da Costa Hours

March from The Hours of Henry VIII

March from Walters W.425