Cover image for The Medieval Calendar Year By Bridget Ann Henisch

The Medieval Calendar Year

Bridget Ann Henisch


$41.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-01904-8

248 pages
6" × 9"
10 color/92 b&w illustrations

The Medieval Calendar Year

Bridget Ann Henisch

“The pictorial calendar reflecting the “Labors of the Month” was a highly popular genre throughout the Middle Ages, but especially during the late Middle Ages. In her delightful and well researched study, Bridget Ann Henisch provides an extensive and very detailed examination of the art historical material contained in the pictorial calendar.


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The Medieval Calendar Year celebrates the pictorial convention known as "The Labors of the Months" and the ways it was used in the Middle Ages. Richly illustrated and elegantly presented, it provides valuable insights into prevailing social attitudes and values and will fascinate all readers who are interested in the history and culture of medieval Europe.

The "Labors" cycle was most popular during the High Middle Ages (ca. 1200–1500). The traditional cycle depicts the year as a round of seasonal activities on the land. Each month has its allotted task, and each of these represents one stage in the never-ending process of providing food for society. The small scenes that made up the cycle were well-known and used widely throughout Europe. They were chosen to decorate both public and private spaces: churches and houses, town fountains, baptismal fonts, as well as books of devotion intended both for priests and for the laity. The cycle was sculpted in stone, carved in wood, painted on glass and on manuscript pages. Examples from such media are described, but most of the illustrations have been taken from manuscripts, primarily Books of Hours.

The author has spent the past fifteen years studying calendar after calendar, and one of her great strengths is her ability to see the social reality that lies hidden, even masked, behind the stylized presentation. In the chapter on winter, she shows how the image of this season, dreaded in the Middle Ages, was softened and sweetened by calendar artists to bring it more into harmony with the characteristic mood of the cycle as a whole. For autumn, she reveals how depictions of the harvest of grain, grapes, and livestock hint at a sophisticated market economy. Thematic chapters on children, women, and the hardship of work brilliantly cut through idealized conventions and assumptions to unveil the underlying complexities of life.

The "Labors" cycle and its social context have not hitherto been examined in depth and with the care they deserve. The Medieval Calendar Year is a book worthy of the beautiful and beguiling tradition it describes.

“The pictorial calendar reflecting the “Labors of the Month” was a highly popular genre throughout the Middle Ages, but especially during the late Middle Ages. In her delightful and well researched study, Bridget Ann Henisch provides an extensive and very detailed examination of the art historical material contained in the pictorial calendar.
She writes, as it seems, both for the scholar and the general reader, and succeeds in striking a beautiful balance. Her choice of words is just delightful and exemplary, which does not diminish the scholarly quality of this study. The visual quality of the figures and plates is excellent, adding considerable aesthetic value to an insightful investigation of an important art-historical topic.”

Bridget Ann Henisch is the author of Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society (1976) and the co-author, with Heinz K. Henisch, of Positive Pleasures: Early Photography and Humor (1998), The Painted Photograph, 1839–1914: Origins, Techniques, Aspirations (1996), The Photographic Experience, 1839–1914: Images and Attitudes (1994), all from Penn State.

Chapter 1: In Due Season

When a medieval artist was told to illustrate a calendar, he knew exactly what he was expected to provide. It made no difference whether he was working in wood or in stone, tracing the design for a stained-glass window, or brushing gold onto a sheet of vellum. He reached into his store of patterns and pulled out not twelve scenes, or emblems, one for each month of the year, but twenty-four. One illustration showed a characteristic occupation for the month, and the other displayed the month’s dominant zodiac sign. The artist then proceeded to group his pictures in any number of configurations, of which the simplest and most straightforward was the matched pair, as can be seen in Color Plate 1-1, an example from a fifteenth-century French manuscript that offers a crude and cheerful representation of July, with a man cutting wheat in one compartment, and Leo the Lion flourishing his tail among the stars next door.

The presence of the occupation scene can be readily understood. The sequence of twelve activities, almost always drawn from the countryside and the farm, represents the annual, endlessly repeated, cycle of necessary, basic tasks which put food on the table. The presence of the zodiac sign needs a little more explanation. The zodiac is the narrow pathway across the sky in which the sun, the moon, and the principal planets seem to move throughout the year. It is divided into twelve equal sections, or signs, each named after a constellation whose position once, long ago, lay within it. The sun passes through one of these sections each month, as it makes its progress from one year’s end to the next. Because the sun was allimportant in the life of men and women, its movements were studied with the greatest attention, and it was only natural and fitting that the twelve divisions of the calendar should be marked with the zodiac signs, as reminders of the sun’s journey through the sky, as well as with the scenes that show the round of labors needed to sustain society on the earth below.

The general outline of the ‘‘labors cycle’’ is clear. As the year unfolds, each season has its own special character and concerns. The winter months are spent indoors, in feasting and keeping warm by the fire. In the early spring work begins on the land, getting it ready to yield the best crops in the months ahead. At spring’s high tide, in April and May, there is a pause to celebrate the new life bursting out of the ground, the vigor and vitality coursing through the world’s veins. After the joy, the hard work starts again. June, July, and August are dominated by the raking of hay, the reaping of wheat, and the threshing of grain. In September, attention turns to the grape harvest and the making of wine. In the late autumn, fields are plowed and seed is sown, for next year’s food supply, and animals are fattened and killed, to make sure there is plenty to enjoy when the year swings around once more to the time for feasting by the fireside. There may be many small deviations from the pattern in the details of any given cycle, but it is never hard to trace the overall pattern itself, or to identify the major divisions within the framework. To make matters even simpler, the occupation scene for each month is usually linked in some way with the month’s zodiac sign, whose familiar emblem helps to pinpoint the position of each activity on the year’s map:

January Aquarius, the Water Carrier

February Pisces, the Fish

March Aries, the Ram

April Taurus, the Bull

May Gemini, the Twins

June Cancer, the Crab

July Leo, the Lion

August Virgo, the Maiden

September Libra, the Scales

October Scorpio, the Scorpion

November Sagittarius, the Archer

December Capricorn, the Goat

Little jingles—like the following, copied down in mid-fifteenth-century England—also served to make the general plan well-known and easy to remember:

Januar By thys fyre I warme my handys;

Februar And with my spade I delfe my landys.

Marche Here I sette my thynge to sprynge;

Aprile And here I here [hear] the fowlis synge.

Maij I am as lyght as byrde in bowe;

Junij And I wede my corne well I-know [enough].

Julij With my sythe [scythe] my mede [meadow] I mawe [mow];

Auguste And here I shere my corne full lowe.

September With my flayll I erne my brede;

October And here I sawe [sow] my whete so rede.

November At Martynesmasse I kylle my swyne;

December And at Cristesmasse I drynke redde wyne.1

Such a bare-bones account of the scheme sprang from the same stock as the rhyme, chanted by children throughout the centuries, that begins ‘‘Thirty days hath September.’’ Each was designed to jog the memory, and to become part of the baggage of useful information carried by everyone through life, rather like those tables of weights and measures, national currencies and capitals, found in any self-respecting diary today. Indeed, there still exists a medieval almanac, made in England in the late fourteenth century, in which an extraordinary amount of practical advice has been packed onto six sheets of parchment, cut and folded individually to pocket size. There, tucked among ways to predict weather, war, birth, death, and harvest, a table with which to work out the date of Easter, and pictures of the major saints honored in the church year, is a tiny labors cycle.2 Its inclusion in this kind of portable potpourri offers a hint of just how much a part of the mainstream the tradition had become.

The months and their activities were thus lodged securely in the conventional wisdom about mortal life on earth that furnished the medieval mind. Their place was ensured, because the cycle itself was a familiar decorative detail in the much-frequented settings of the everyday world. It was possible for anyone, in any rank of life, to find the little scenes in very public places. They have been woven into the intricate mosaic design of the mid-twelfth-century marble floor of the nave in the cathedral at Otranto, in southern Italy, a floor walked over or knelt on by every member of the congregation. In the early thirteenth century they were used to decorate a baptismal font at Lucca, and the pillars of a doorway on the west front of Notre-Dame in Paris. The pictorial scheme had been part of the mental landscape and the daily scene for a very long time. On the mosaic floor made at the beginning of the twelfth century before the altar in the crypt of San Savino in Piacenza, the occupation scenes and the signs of the zodiac are surrounded by appropriate quotations about the seasons, from the Latin Eclogues of Ausonius, composed in the fourth century A.D.3 In short, the convention was widespread, long established, and wellknown. And so, when Chaucer turned to the tradition for an image of winter,

Janus sit by the fyr with double berd [beard],

And drynketh of his bugle-horn the wyn [wine]

[The Franklin’s Tale, lines 544–45],

—or when his contemporary, Gower, evoked the season of high summer in two lines,

Whan every feld hath corn in honde

And many a man his bak [back] hath plied [bent]

[Confessio Amantis, Book 7, lines 1098–99],

each poet could be confident that his glancing allusion would be noted and understood by every reader. Over the centuries, the tradition of calendar illustration became as comfortable as an old slipper. And just because it was so comfortable, the artist could play with it, presenting the same dear, familiar scenes in a variety of conventions, from the use of isolated figures set against a plain or patterned background (Color Plate 1-1), to groups of people moving in a fully developed landscape; see Figs. 1-2, 1-3.

The calendar tradition had very long roots, tapping into the classical past. In Western Europe, we begin to find traces of it from the ninth century onward; by the twelfth century it had become firmly established, and was to grow especially strong and popular in France, Italy, England, and Flanders. As the Middle Ages drew to a close in the early sixteenth century, the convention still showed great vitality, with splendidly rich examples in those devotional manuals known as ‘‘books of hours,’’ many made in Flanders for an international market.4 The illustrations used in this Fig. 1-3. September. Plowing and Sowing. Da Costa Hours, Flemish (Bruges), Simon Bening and others, c. 1515. The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, MS M399, fol. 10 verso. study come indeed from Flanders and the other major centers, but the little figures that animate the cycle’s scenes respected no frontiers. They were common coin, found and familiar in every corner of the civilized world. They decorate the calendar pages of a Byzantine copy of the four Gospels, composed c. 1100, probably at a monastery in Constantinople,5 and they have left their traces in one or two Jewish manuscripts made in Italy in the late fourteenth and mid-fifteenth centuries.6

The name often given to the tradition is ‘‘The Labors of the Months,’’ but in fact by the end of the medieval period it had become a cycle of occupations rather than labors. Thus, for instance, Fig. 1-2 bubbles with activity, but it is fun, not duty, that calls the tune. Several small pleasures of the seasons were tucked from time to time into the scheme, from snowball fights in December (Fig. 6-19), to boating parties in May (Fig. 7-11). But, however frivolous the incidental details of any particular calendar might become, always at the core there was the round of activity on the land, planned to pile provisions high in the larders of society.

The cycle might be shown anywhere, up on a roof boss, or down on a misericord, half-hidden in the shadows beneath a choir-stall. It could decorate the pages of a book of hours, for the private pleasure of a private owner, or be carved as a public statement for all to see, around the imposing entrance to a great church. The choice of subject for each scene is governed by tradition, and a remarkable overall consistency is sustained, whatever the cycle and wherever its chosen setting may be. Inevitably, however, the context in which an individual example is placed has its effect on the way in which it is regarded. The cycle changes with circumstance and, like a chameleon, assumes the color of its surroundings. Set inside an intellectual or theological framework, it is a consciously chosen detail in a didactic design. When sculpted as an ornamental band, surrounding the twelfth-century relief of the Last Judgment on the west front tympanum of the cathedral at Autun,7 or painted on a ceiling in the eleventh-century cathedral of León, as part of a picture scheme whose central figure is that of Christ as lord of the universe,8 the little calendar scenes are invested with the high seriousness of the entire teaching program in which they play a role.

By contrast, whenever a calendar scene escapes from the confines of such a frame and stands alone, it can be enjoyed just for itself, as a delightful decoration. Thus, the stained-glass roundel for February shown in Fig. 2-8 was placed in the window of a private house as a luxurious embellishment, a charming, cheerful addition to the dining hall.

Most of the illustrations in this study have been chosen from the calendar pages of psalters and books of hours—for example, Fig. 1-2. Placed at the beginning of such a volume, this calendar section contains practical information about the feasts of the church and the saints’ days for each month, but it is separated physically, by the turn of a page, from the spiritual programs of daily devotions which make up the main body of such a manual; see Appendix. Safely corralled and isolated in this way, the little ‘‘labors’’ scenes no longer seem burdened with any special significance. Within this neutral space, artists were free to deploy them as ornamental motifs or to develop them into more ambitious and absorbing vignettes of daily life.

No matter where it appeared, whether in solemn majesty or as lighthearted frivolity, the calendar cycle was the embodiment of a deeply-felt, long-held belief that human life on earth was an unending round of work, shaped and driven by the year’s unending round of seasons. It was an accepted truth that Adam’s fall from grace had led to the punishment of incessant toil and struggle in the world beyond the gates of Paradise. The terrible words of God to the unhappy sinner in the third chapter of Genesis summed up the consequences: ‘‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it was thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return’’ (Genesis 3:19). Nature herself had been corrupted by the disobedience of Adam and Eve, and the corruption showed in Nature’s contrariness, and lack of cooperation with her masters’ efforts: unpredictable weather, difficult soils, rampaging weeds, ravening wildlife. Adam had been God’s first gardener in Paradise, but his undemanding round of duties in that blessed enclosure was but a poor preparation for the realities he had to face once thrust into the hostile world outside. To drive the point home, in some pictures of the expulsion he is handed a spade as a parting present by a reproachful angel. It was a very rude awakening.9

Although the curse of unending toil had been laid on the whole of society, not everyone was expected to toil in the same way. Every man and woman had to face a verdict after death on the life they had led on earth, but there was no expectation that, in this world at least, the reward for effort would be quite the same in every case. According to a very simpli- fied shorthand scheme, which remained popular as a teaching-tool for centuries, despite its obvious limitations, society was served by three groups: those who looked after its spiritual needs, those who defended it against injustice, and those whose job it was to feed it: the Church; the governing class of kings, lords, and knights; and the laborers. It was a coarse but convenient grid, laid over the teeming complexities of real life, to create a bold, easily memorized platitude.10

Of these three groups, all were necessary, but some, undoubtedly, were more equal than others. Just as history is usually written by the victors, so rules are drawn up by those already in position to derive most benefit from them. The relations between two, the Church and the secular government, showed an endless jockeying for real power in the world throughout the period. The third group, of laborers, was regarded, by and large, as a necessary evil. It was worked very hard, punished harshly for ordinary misdemeanors, and ruthlessly for any stirrings of revolt. It was also held in some contempt. Then, as now, there was no strong desire felt by those blessed with some comfort and authority in their own way of life to change places with anyone in obviously less agreeable conditions. Voluntary poverty, accepted as a spiritual education, was one thing. Ordinary, grinding poverty imposed by circumstance was quite another, and often had a dishearteningly bad effect on the character of its victim. Preachers pointed out, frequently, that as much pride, and greed, and anger, lurked in a peasant’s heart as in that of the most arrogant baron.11

The poor, in short, were not very attractive, not in clothes, in appearance, in habits, in situation. That remarkable man, Henry Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster, who was not only one of Edward III’s great magnates and military commanders but also a devout layman who was able to write his own manual of devotion, confessed there, quite frankly, that he did not like the smell of the poor. He was sorry for that, he prayed for forgiveness, but there it was: he found the smell most disagreeable.12 The same kind of attitude is found in another aristocratic author, Joinville, the biographer of Saint Louis, King of France. He loved and honored his master as a saint, but was appalled when Louis insisted on following Christ’s example to the letter and actually knelt to wash the feet of some poor men on Maundy Thursday. Joinville’s rigid disapproval is recorded in his own book,13 and remembered in an early fourteenth-century illustration of the scene.14

The lot of the poor was sometimes described with compassion, and the figure of the honest worker was sometimes held up for imitation, but even in such cases the emphasis was on the harshness of the peasants’ life, the courage and obedience with which they shouldered their heavy burdens. Remarkably little was ever said in praise of the good sides of that life. It is very rare to come upon this kind of remark, set down in a schoolboy’s exercise book in the late fifteenth century: ‘‘It is a great pleasure to be in the contrey this hervest season . . . to se the Repers howe they stryffe who shal go before othere.’’15

To turn from the written record to the pictorial calendar is to step with a shock into a very different world. In comments about the peasant and life on the land, the three notes most often struck, whether in sermons, in manuals for priests, or in the secular literature of the age, are contempt, criticism, compassion. Not one of these is sounded in the labors of the months tradition. In the calendar cycle, men and women seem to have exchanged one paradise for another. Admittedly, they are always busily at work throughout the year, but in circumstances never to be matched this side of heaven.

The emotional tone of the cycle is noticeably calm. This is one of the few places in medieval art where serenity, not suffering, is the order of the day. The pictorial presentation of the passing seasons is pierced with no sense of sin, no sense of paradise lost. The harmonies are disturbed by no fear of death, no forebodings of disaster. There is no hint of the effervescent high spirits proper to musical comedy, but everywhere we look there is an air of quiet purpose and confidence; Fig. 1-3. The figures know what they are doing; no one is getting in anyone else’s way, no quarrels flare up. No one is in despair that he will ever finish the job in time. The work may be back-breaking, but it is never heart-breaking.

One reason for this happy state of affairs is that the weather is always accommodating, always appropriate. No untimely drought shrivels the new growth of springtime; no sudden hailstorm flattens the harvest. Nature provides the right weather, at the right time; workers take the right action to reap best advantage from ideal conditions. Peace of mind is further guaranteed by the fact that not only the weather but also the equipment is in perfect shape. The necessary tools for any job are always in working order. We never see a broken plow-share or a rusty bill-hook, and there is never any sign of an accident.

In the world set forth in medieval literature, it is not hard to find distinctly unflattering descriptions of the peasant’s physical appearance: His hosen overhongen his hokschynes. on everiche a side, Al beslombred in fen. as he the plow folwede. . . . This whit waselede in the fen. almost to the ancle. [His stockings hung down round his legs, All splattered with mud, as he followed the plow. He was mired in mud, almost up to his ankles.]16 Alternatively, it is not hard to find the peasant presented as an object of pity, as in an early fourteenth-century English poem on the daily miseries he had to face, miseries summed up in a somber last line: ‘‘Ase god in swynden anon as so forte swynke’’ (Might as well die straightaway, as struggle on like this).17

In the calendar world, the impression of the peasants and their life is quite different. The figures going about their work may not be strikingly handsome, but they are sturdy, trim, capable. They have had enough to eat. They are dressed not in rags and tatters but in appropriate clothing, warm in winter (Fig. 1-4), loose and easy in summer (Color Plate 1-5). They are shown at just the right age: young enough to have energy and strength, old enough to have experience.

Ideas of death and decay are firmly kept at bay. Only in two related traditions, bound to the labors cycle by a family tie (the shared use of the seasonal round as a central motif), is the tone darkened by any intimations of mortality. In the first of these, the year is viewed as an obstacle course of health hazards. With gloomy relish the hidden dangers lurking in each month are listed, and the remedies set forth. These guidelines, attributed to Galen, the great physician of the classical world, were sometimes inserted in the calendar pages of a book of hours, as reminders to the reader. Sage advice on ‘‘whyche metys and drynks be goode to use in every monyth’’ is laid down in brisk note form. Wine is good in January, stewed pork hocks in February, lettuce in June. Baths are rarely helpful, and specially bad in March and November.18 In the second of these traditions, the tone is distinctly more somber; there no diet can delay the inevitable. The stages of life on earth are linked to the months of the year, in an inexorable progress from birth in January to death in December. (For more on this theme, see Chapter 6.)

In contrast, death plays remarkably little part in the subject of this study, the ‘‘labors cycle’’ itself. The human figures show no sign whatever of advancing age or dwindling energy, and the only death that occurs in the entire year is in November or December, when animals are slaughtered for the meat supply. Almost always, in the calendar tradition, the animal chosen is the pig. Even here the idea of death is controlled and colored by the theme of the tradition as a whole: the promise of life’s ever-returning, ever-renewing cycle. Death is accepted with composure. The pig is killed to fill the larder in December, but as we look at the scene we hear no squeals of agony, see no blood stains, smell no sweat. We know, and the pig knows, that, in the calendar cycle at least, he is absolutely safe and indestructible. Come next November, he will be resurrected, to rootle happily for acorns once again (see Fig. 1-10). On this point there is a yawning gap between the treatment of time’s passage in art and in literature. In medieval poetry, the haunting question is always:

Who wot nowe that ys here

Where he schall be anoder yere?19

In calendar art that question is never raised, because it is never needed. Everyone knows what will happen next year: exactly the same round of seasons, and the same round of activities, as in the present one. Calendar scenes are small. They are ornaments, whether decorating a page, a lead font, or a stone porch. This limitation in size takes the figures one step further from reality. There is a doll’s house air to many examples and, even in the severe medium of stone, the little figures often look more like pixies than like men. One of art’s mysterious powers is the ability to draw pleasure from pain. Just as, in our own day, Samuel Beckett’s prose gives a mesmerizing beauty to disintegration and decay, so the artists in the labors tradition transformed the mud and misery of demanding work into satisfying harmonies. The medieval mastery of line and pattern creates from everyday movements, in everyday jobs, the choreographed rhythms of a dance, the disciplined grace of a dancer; see Fig. 1-6.

Wood and stone offer the spectator the satisfactions of contour and texture, of actions and gestures caught by the artist and modeled by light and shadow. In manuscript examples, bewitching harmonies of color soften the rigors of work, and add a bloom of beauty to the most humdrum activities. Refinement of line, and the precious pigments chosen for the scene, give an early fifteenth-century illustration of manure being poured around a vine-stock, in earlyMarch, an elegance strangely, and soothingly, at variance with its subject matter; see Fig. 1-7. In such a treatment there are no unpleasant smells to offend the nose, no heavy, sticky mud to clog the shoes.

In the same way, a typical calendar scene of harvesting is all bright gold against a bright blue sky; see Color Plate 1-1. Its smooth perfection of surface, and its serenity of tone, offer not a hint of the muddle and discomfort of an actual day spent cutting the wheat. Gertrude Jekyll, the great English garden designer, touched on the truth of the matter when she once spoke about her memories of holidays on a farm when she was a little girl, and remarked: ‘‘Anyone who has never done a day’s work in the harvest-field would scarcely believe what dirty work it is. Honest sweat and dry dust combine into a mixture not unlike mud.’’20

The idea of life as a round of unremitting toil is softened in some calendar scenes by yet another touch: the element of enjoyment. Tiny details, caught by the artist, add a sweetness or a zest to the yearly round. A carthorse is offered a tidbit, after hauling a heavy load; see Fig. 8-2. A peasant in an enormous vat presses grapes, which are not quite untouched by hand because he is helping himself to a cluster while his legs keep up the good work down below. Workers look forward to a picnic lunch in the harvest- field; see Fig. 1-8. It is significant that the touch of relaxation or pleasure here and there never interferes with the work at hand, never breaks the rhythm of purposeful activity. It is not an interruption, and never antisocial. It is never a protest against the rules of the game, a sullen gesture made against the system. The relaxation comes at appropriate times. One of the traditional images of Sloth, in manuals on sins drawn up for preachers, is the laborer sitting idle by his plow.21 In the calendar tradition this sin is avoided, because workers relax only when a particular job has been finished, or in ways which do not affect the task in hand, like munching grapes while still treading the vat. Just as no one in a calendar scene is ever shown stealing from the crop, sneaking home with a few ears of corn, so no one steals time. Work moves to the rhythm of the seasons. Pleasure moves in counterpoint, and fills the natural pauses in the measure; it never disrupts the dance.

Beneath the smooth, deceptively simple surface of the cycle lurk many surprises, and many closely guarded secrets. The biggest surprise of all, in a medieval work of art, is that there are no obvious religious overtones. Occasionally, a religious scene is chosen as the occupation of a month as, for example, the distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, in a few calendar pages for March (see Color Plate 7-14). At the core of every cycle, however, lies the agricultural story of the year, and there no religious touches of any kind are to be found. There is never a hint of divine intervention, never a turning for help or consolation to the Virgin Mary or to some local saint. There is no scene which shows the offering of harvest tithes to the Church, no blessing of the fields at Rogation-tide by the parish priest. Work goes on quite outside the framework of religious belief, doctrine, or discipline.

There is another big surprise, another missing ingredient; nowhere to be found is any sense of social context. Little figures are hard at work, but they are not shown in any recognizable community. They are busy and, apparently, independent. Very rarely indeed is there any person in authority directing operations, or any hint of coercion. The occasional exception, as in an early fourteenth-century English scene of an overseer in the harvest-field, only goes to prove the rule.22 Every activity seems to be free, planned and carried out by the peasants themselves. Usually, masters and men, when shown together in the same picture, seem to inhabit entirely separate worlds, as in an August scene where lords and ladies ride out hawking in the foreground while, in the far distance, the harvest is gathered in.23 Only in some of the very late examples, produced at the end of the fifteenth century or at the beginning of the sixteenth, is it possible now and then to find orders being given and received. In a few gardening scenes for early spring it is made quite clear that the garden belongs to an owner, and the gardeners work under watchful, proprietorial eyes; see Color Plate 3-4 and Chapter 3.

While there is scarcely a trace of an order given or obeyed in the calendar tradition, absolutely no suggestion at all can be found of resentment, let alone actual rebellion, against the system itself. Peasants had ample grounds for grievance throughout the period, and every now and again violent protest flared up, met in due course with even more violent retribution. When Froissart wrote his chronicle, and described the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in England, he put into the mouth of John Ball, a leader of the rebellion, a speech which is a mosaic of traditional complaints against the high and mighty: ‘‘They have the wines, and spices, and the good bread; we have the rye, the husks and the straw, and we drink water. They have shelter and ease in their fine manors, and we have hardship and toil, the wind and the rain in the fields. And from us must come, from our labor, the things which keep them in luxury.’’24

Rulers were uneasily aware that their thrones rested on tinder-boxes, and the thought of peasant turmoil often troubled their dreams. In the mid-twelfth century, Henry I of England had a most unpleasant nightmare, one so upsetting that it was not only recorded but also illustrated in a contemporary chronicle. Henry dreamt that maddened peasants pressed around his bed, menacing him with their pitchforks and their scythes.25 Of such explosive anger and pent-up fury, or indeed of any breakdown in the social system, not a hint scratches the smooth surface of the calendar tradition.

The principles of selection which shaped that tradition remain shrouded in mystery. Of all the myriad, varied jobs that had to be done on the land, only a few ever found their way into the calendar cycle. Considering that the tradition flourished most vigorously in northern Europe, in France, Flanders, and England, it is a little surprising that one of the most frequently represented tasks for early spring is the pruning of vines (Fig. 1- 4), and the almost invariable one for early autumn is some aspect of the grape harvest. (See Chapter 5.) Does this preoccupation stem from the grape’s very special place in human history? It was one of the first crops to be harvested in the ancient world, long before recorded time, and the cultivation of the vine was a characteristic task in those regions around the Mediterranean basin from which the calendar tradition sprang. Or does it owe more to another, later circumstance? The grape also has a very special place in the language and symbolism of Christianity itself. Wine played a central role in worship services in every Christian country, no matter how far it lay to the north. As a result, it was necessary to produce some kind of wine for the Church, however thin or however acid, in every region of the Christian world. Even in cold, damp Cambridgeshire, in southeastern England, a record of grape-clusters harvested one year can be found, scratched at some time in the early fourteenth century, on the wall of St. Mary’s Church at Westley Waterless.26 Whatever the reason may be, the calendar’s emphasis is always on the grape and the vine. No beer-making, no cider production, is ever shown.

The same problem is posed by the cycle’s preoccupation with another crop, and can be explained away with the same arguments. Why is the core of the calendar year the growing of wheat: breaking ground, sowing seed, harvesting the ears, winnowing the grain from the chaff? (See Chapter 5.) Grain, like the grape, was first among the crops cultivated when human settlements began to form. From time immemorial, bread has been a staple of life in the West and, like wine, has a pivotal position in the liturgy of many Christian churches. In the absence of hard evidence, such answers must stand clouded in speculation, but what is undoubtedly true is that salt, another symbol and staple, never managed to squeeze its way into the charmed circle of tradition. And, to descend from the level of symbol to that of mundane reality, it may be idle, but it is always interesting to ponder the reasons why there is never any kind of attention paid to the backbone of the medieval diet: dried peas, dried beans, and cabbage.

Considering how important sheep-farming was in the economy of Europe throughout the medieval period, it is puzzling that it appears only now and then as an occupation in the calendar cycle. Scattered examples are to be found here and there throughout the earlier centuries, as in the May scene of shepherds guarding their flock in an English calendar of the first half of the eleventh century (The British Library, London, Cotton MS Julius A.VI, fol. 5), and the topic had become quite fashionable by the end of the Middle Ages (see Chapter 4), but it never did establish itself as an absolutely regular feature of the scheme. This hesitation may stem from the fact that the sheep was prized as a source of wool, the raw material of the cloth trade (Fig. 1-9), and so sheep-farming does not fit with perfect propriety into a cycle concerned above all else with the production of food. Alternatively, the hesitation may be due to concerns about the pastoral life itself. The shepherd alone with his sheep was an isolated figure, and his hours and conditions of work set him a little apart from ordinary village life. In some important ways the shepherd’s life was more primitive than life on the farm. Certainly it did not depend to the same degree on cooperation, and so was perhaps less satisfactory than farm life as an image of society productively at work.

One other problem has no easy answer. Why do women appear more and more frequently in the calendars of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries? (See Figs. 1-10 and 1-11.) Women had always, by long-established custom, labored side by side with men in village farmwork. Is their absence from most earlier calendar cycles due to the fact that so many scenes are presented within small medallions, or confining frames, inside which there was simply no room for more than one figure? Did they have to wait until the artist had a little more elbow-room? Does their entrance on the scene have more to do with changed economic conditions, caused by the many plagues which swept through Europe at frequent intervals after the mid-fourteenth century? Was women’s contribution needed— and felt—more keenly in this period of labor shortages created by the high rate of illness and death? Was that contribution acknowledged at last, quite simply, on aesthetic grounds, with the delightful discovery that to include the figure of a woman was to add a new interest, a new charm of line and detail, to a very old scene? Or does the growing presence of women in the cycle stem from a heightened awareness of diversity, an acknowledgment that the fabric of mortal life on earth is woven from many strands? The single figure of a man always remains the most frequently chosen representative of society in the convention, but in the later period, when space permits, he may be joined by helpers or companions and, among these, a woman can at times be found. (For more on this theme, see Chapter 7.)

The characteristic arrangement and appearance of the calendar cycle hide more than they reveal, and foster an agreeably distorted view of reality. They help to sustain the illusion that everything in medieval society was on a very small scale: one field, one plow; two men, two scythes. There is scarcely a hint in the tradition, from one century to the next, of commerce or of trade, either of the great international markets that punctuated the year, and drew merchants from all over Europe, or of the local ones, held any week, in any town.

When an elderly husband in late fourteenth-century Paris gave his young wife advice on how to plan a special dinner-party, he directed her, as a matter of course, to buy her supplies at the many specialized shopping districts in the city. Beef was sold by one group of butchers, pork by another. Delicate wafers were to be ordered from one expert, garlands and table decorations from another. And when the husband suggested a recipe for a sweet confection made from carrots, he took care to add this helpful note: ‘‘Carrots are red roots, which are sold in handfuls in the market, for a silver penny a handful.’’27 The cheerful, controlled confusion of such commerce finds no foothold in the ‘‘labors’’ tradition, and it is rare indeed to find a scene in which any farm produce is actually being exchanged for money (Fig. 1-12). Trade requires surplus, but in the calendar the emphasis is all on sturdy self-sufficiency. (For this, see Chapter 5.) Only in the very last stages of the medieval tradition—for example, in some of the Flemish calendars made in the early sixteenth century—do we begin to catch a glimpse of large-scale operations, and detect a hint of agro-business in the scene. After the diminutive, doll’s house scale of most calendar activities, it comes as a shock to see a gigantic crane, for hoisting barrels, looming in the background of an autumn scene which shows the tasting of the season’s new wine (Fig. 5-9), and realize that its presence there points to an economic system considerably more sophisticated than could ever have been suspected from the clues provided by the tradition as a whole. Everything about that tradition, from its tone to its contents, from what it puts in to what it leaves out, should warn the viewer against the temptation to regard the calendar cycle as the equivalent of a careful, evenhanded documentary film about work on the medieval farm. Peasant life has been distanced and refined by art, and the human burden made bearable by being shouldered within the sustaining dream of a world not fatally flawed but, instead, in perfect working order.

Within the confines of this old tradition the peasant, in real life so despised or disregarded, became the representative, the image of everybody. Ideas about the dignity of the human race shaped his appearance and his bearing. The harmony between his work and the seasons was a potent and satisfying image of the well-regulated society, in which forethought in planning and skill in execution drew the appropriate reward from a responsive, and equally well-regulated, nature. The cycle’s harmonies express something of the spirit to be found in other images of the properly functioning society. Its figures move not through the polluted air of the real world but within the pellucid atmosphere of an ideal model of that world. They are related not so closely to real peasants as to those honest laborers who, in an image elaborated by John of Salisbury in the midtwelfth century, were described as the feet of a ‘‘Body Politic,’’ in which every member was an essential part of an organic whole.28

In the 1370s, a translation of Aristotle’s Politics was made for King Charles V of France. Aristotle describes four possible kinds of democracy, of which he picks the agricultural model as the best, with the disarmingly frank explanation that farmers are ‘‘always busily occupied, and thus have no time for attending the assembly,’’ and making a nuisance of themselves with their opinions.29 The manuscript illustration of this section, labeled ‘‘Good Democracy,’’ follows the same careful rules about the relation of work and pleasure that can be found in the calendars.30 While some peasants are harrowing in the foreground, the men—and horses—that have done the first plowing of the field are enjoying a well-earned picnic, one that does nothing to disrupt the rhythm of the job in hand.

The high seriousness which underlay the old calendar tradition was also, in time, sweetened and softened by a far more frivolous but most engaging dream, the dream of a very different kind of good life. In this, the wearisome vexations and disappointments of wealth and privilege were contrasted with the pleasures of poverty. Viewed from the vantage point of high position and, perhaps, in the digestive pause after a satisfactory dinner, the simple, strenuous life in the open air, the fiber-packed diet of black bread and pure water, the untroubled dreams of the contented peasant, could seem positively enviable, and such attractions found praise in a number of elegant poems composed in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. (See Chapter 4.) Neither authors, nor readers, had the slightest intention of actually exchanging their own comfortable life for the rigorous realities of the farm, but it became fashionable to play with the idea. One may suspect that the charm and grace of many calendar pictures owe something to this agreeable fancy and were intended to please the eyes of just such patrons.

One of the most beautiful of all the calendar cycles, and certainly the one best known today, is that in the manuscript known as the Trés Riches Heures, made for the great Duke de Berry (Museé Condé, Chantilly, MS 65), a man not noted for his love of farm life or, indeed, of peasants. In another manuscript that he commissioned, he is shown being welcomed by Saint Peter into Paradise.31 If this happy event ever did take place, outside the duke’s fond dreams and the pages of his very own books, there must be a strong presumption that he was received into heaven on the strength of his generosity as a patron of the arts, not for his generosity as a lord and master. In that role, he showed a harsh indifference toward his peasants, and a positively rapacious interest in the profits he could wring from their exertions. His record as a master of men called forth not paeans of praise from grateful subjects but resentment and rebellion throughout his vast domains.32 For him, at least, the calendar pictures he enjoyed as he turned the pages of his book of hours must have woven a beautiful veil of illusion, to mask the ugly reality of the world outside his castle walls.

Illusion is a refuge for everyone, not just for royal dukes. It softens life’s cruelties, and smooths the sharp edges. The calendar cycle offers a sustaining image of pattern, order, and attainable achievement, to counter the confusions and disappointments of real life in the real world. For this reason, its little pictures continued to be welcome for centuries, long after they had grown detached from any teaching program and dwindled into decoration. In this afterglow they lived on as ornamental details, reassuring and endearingly familiar. They might be used in any context: a bedIn spread, a gingerbread mold, a tile on a porcelain stove, and wherever found they brought a smile of pleasure and of recognition. As time rolled by, the calendar’s most needed labor for society, in any month of any year, was no longer to instruct but, instead, to charm, to comfort, and to cheer.

1. R. H. Robbins, ed., Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Centuries (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1955), no. 67, p. 62.

2. J. Alexander and P. Binski, eds., Age of Chivalry; Art in Plantagenet England, 1200–1400 (London: Royal Academy of Arts, with Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987), item 222, p. 288.

3. P. Mane, Calendriers et Techniques Agricoles (France-Italie, XIIe–XIIIe siécles) (Paris: Le Sycomore, 1983), pp. 43, 284, 303, 308.

4. For calendar cycles of the early period, see James C. Webster, The Labors of the Months (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1938). For a rich anthology of later, Flemish examples, see W. Hansen, Kalenderminiaturen der Stundenbücher; Mittelalterliches Leben im Jahreslauf (Munich: Georg D. W. Callwey, 1984).

5. Margaret M. Manion and Vera F. Vines, Medieval and Renaissance Illuminated Manuscripts in Australian Collections (London: Thames & Hudson, 1984), pp. 23–25.

6. T. and M. Metzger, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages; Illuminated Hebrew Manuscripts of the Thirteenth to the Sixteenth Centuries (Secaucus, N.J.: Chartwell Books, 1982), p. 22 and n. 119; p. 212 and fig. 319.

7. D. Grivot and G. Zarnecki. Gislebertus, Sculptor of Autun (Paris: The Trianon Press, and London: Collins, 1961), pp. 28–32 and plates A–S.

8. A. Viñayo Gonzalez, San Isidoro in León; Romanesque Paintwork in the Pantheon of Kings (León: Edilesa, 1993), pp. 34–43.

9. Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, in Winchester Psalter, English, c. 1150, The British Library, London, Cotton MS Nero CIV, fol. 2.

10. For a full discussion of the theme, see G. Duby, The Three Orders; Feudal Society Imagined, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

11. For examples of sermon criticism of peasant behavior, see G. R. Owst, Literature and the Pulpit in Medieval England, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell: 1961), pp. 365–69.

12. E. J. Arnould, ed., Henry of Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster, ‘‘Le Livre de Seyntz Medicines’’ (1354) (Oxford: Anglo-Norman Text Society, Basil Blackwell, 1940), vol. 2, pp. 13–14, 25.

13. M. R. B. Shaw, trans., Jean de Joinville, ‘‘The Life of St. Louis’’ (1309) (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, U.K.: Penguin Books, 1963), p. 169.

14. Saint Louis washes the feet of the poor, in Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux, Jean Pucelle, Paris, c. 1325–28, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, MS 54.1.2, fol. 148 verso.

15. W. Nelson, ed., A Fifteenth Century School Book (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1948), p. 5.

16. W. W. Skeat, ed., Pierce the Ploughmans Crede (c. 1394), Early English Text Society, Original Series 30 (1873), lines 426–27, 430.

17. R. H. Robbins, ed., Historical Poems of the XIVth and XVth Centuries (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959), pp. 7–9, ‘‘Song of the Husbandman,’’ line 72.

18. R. E. Hanna, A Handlist of Manuscripts Containing Middle English Prose in the Harry E. Huntington Library (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1984), p. 38.

19. R. Greene, ed., A Selection of English Carols (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1962), no. 27, p. 85, lines 1–2.

20. B. Massingham, Miss Jekyll (London: Country Life, 1966), p. 24.

21. R. Tuve, Allegorical Imagery; Some Mediaeval Books and Their Posterity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), pp. 96–97, fig. 19.

22. August, Overseer and Harvesters, in Queen Mary’s Psalter, English, early fourteenth century, The British Library, London, Royal MS 2B VII, fol. 78 verso.

23. August, Hawking Party, in the Trés Riches Heures of Jean, Duke de Berry; the Limbourg brothers, France, c. 1413–15, Museé Condé, Chantilly, MS 65, fol. 8 verso.

24. G. Brereton, trans. and ed., Jean Froissart’s ‘‘Chronicles’’ (c. 1369–c. 1400) (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, U.K.: Penguin Books Ltd., 1968), book 2, p. 212.

25. Henry I’s Nightmare, in Chronicle of John of Worcester, England, c. 1130– 40, The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, MS Corpus Christi College, 157, fol. 382.

26. V. Pritchard, English Medieval Graffiti (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), pp. 62–63.

27. E. Power, trans. and ed., The Goodman of Paris (c. 1393) (London: Routledge, 1928), sec. 2, art. 4, pp. 221–47, 296: ‘‘How to Order Dinners and Suppers.’’

28. J. Dickinson, trans., John of Salisbury, ‘‘The Statesman’s Book (Policraticus)’’ (New York: Russell & Russell Inc., 1963), book 5, chap. 2, p. 65.

29. E. Barker, trans. and ed., Aristotle, ‘‘The Politics’’ (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1961), book 6, chap. 4, sec. 2, p. 263.

30. ‘‘Farming in a Good Democracy,’’ Aristotle, The Politics, translated into French by Nicole Oresme, Paris, c. 1372, Bibliothéque Royale, Brussels, MS 11201–2, fol. 241.

31. Saint Peter welcomes the Duke de Berry at the gate of Paradise, in The Grandes Heures of Jean, Duke de Berry, French, c. 1409, Bibliothéque Nationale, Paris, MS Lat. 919, fol. 96.

32. M. Meiss, French Painting in the Time of Jean de Berry; the Late Fourteenth Century and the Patronage of the Duke, 2nd ed. (London: Phaidon Press, 1969), text volume, p. 32.

© 1999 The Penn State University

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