National Vine-Pruning Month

It will probably come as a surprise that August is ‘Spinal Muscular Atrophy Month’. However, you might be aware that April is National Poetry month, June LGBT pride month, and September Childhood Cancer Awareness month. Our long list of commemorative months, each designed to weigh on national thought, strongly gives the impression that months have allegorical meaning and that we should shape our daily lives according to them. One might say the Middle Ages had its own version of this phenomenon, as people routinely looked to the order of the natural world for spiritual guidance and direction. The Labors of the Month were hugely popular pictorial representations of certain agricultural duties for each month, like you see here. They are found throughout the Middle Ages in architecture, sculpture, stained glass, and books. Books of Hours, a very popular type of book in the Middle Ages containing prayers to be said throughout the day, frequently exhibited the Labors of the Month in their calendars.

Egerton3277 f2r The Bohun Psalter and Hours, England, 2nd half of the 14th century;  London, British Library, Egerton MS 3277., f. 2r

Harley2332 f3v
Almanac, England, 1st quarter of the 15th century; London, BL Harley MS 2332, f. 3v

Royal2BVII f73v
Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310-1320; London, BL Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 73v

Though all from the same country from the 14th-15th centuries, the images above show distinct designs for the month of March. In the Labors of the Months, March was generally represented by men pruning vines for the coming spring (Hourihane 2007: lvi). In Egerton 3277, the image is actually placed inside the initials KL for ‘Kalendas’, making it a so-called ‘inhabited initial’, as the image ‘inhabits’ the letters. The images in Harley 2332 and Royal 2 B VII, however, take up a large portion of the page. Unlike many medieval Labor scenes, each of the three presented here focus on the action of pruning, not the landscape in which it occurred. This suggests that the featured vine-pruning bears reflective, allegorical significance and that this image is not simply an artful representation of agricultural life. In fact, as scholar Matthew Reeve has noted, these types of images likely stressed the coming ‘perpetual religious service in the vineyards of the Lord’ (2008: 130). Some literary works of the period like Piers Plowman might even indicate knowledge of the meaningfulness attached to such labors.

It is important to remember that Books of Hours were not for the farmer or vine-trimmer. Rather, they were a privileged possession for those wealthy enough to even own a book, let alone one ornately decorated. If not for religious contemplation, then, it is of some wonder why the upper classes were so fascinated with images of backbreaking agricultural labor.

So, the next time you are informed that July is National Ice Cream month, know that here ice-cream stands on the shoulders of vine-pruners, and that humanity’s penchant for iconic monthly guidance is a long-standing tradition and probably here to stay.

Axton Crolley
Ph.D. Candidate
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

This post is part of an ongoing series on Multimedia Reading Practices and Marginalia: Medieval and Early Modern

See also:
Hourihane, C., Time in the Medieval World: Occupations of the Months & Signs of the Zodiac in the Index of Christian Art (Princeton UP, 2007)

Reeve, M., Thirteenth-Century Wall Painting of Salisbury Cathedral (Boydell, 2008)

Medieval Elephants and Middle Earth Oliphaunts

Once upon a time, there was a mystical medieval animal with many extraordinary properties. Towering over the other members of the animal kingdom, this animal possessed the ability to live for 300 years. It was the sworn enemy of the dragon, and as an aid to mankind, this formidable animal frequently went to war with an entire castle on its back! As the animal did not have any joints in its legs, it was required to sleep standing up, reinforcing the idea that it was built upon never-waning pillars of strength and vitality. Our animal mated for life and produced only one offspring, a testament to its sense of honor and commitment.

At least, that’s what the medieval bestiaries will tell you.

This image on British Library, Royal 12 F X III, f. 11v depicts five elephants. None of the elephants are shown in typical grey, and instead are portrayed as cream, tan, beige, grey blue, and dusk blue. In addition, they have very wolfish or boar-like features. This image dates from the 2nd quarter of the thirteenth century where it illustrated a bestiary written in Latin and French.

With all of these attributes, it is curious that men would dare to hunt these animals, yet tales of the trickery necessary for their capture abound in medieval legend. Furthermore, in extreme circumstances, the hair and bones of its venerated and innocent young could be collected and burned, the smoke creating a defense to ward off the aforementioned dragon, which seemed to be quite the problematic creature.

BL Royal 15 E V I is also known as Poems and Romances (or the “Talbot Shrewsbury Book”), a French manuscript dated from 1444-1445. This image found on f. 16v depicts Alexander’s knights conquering two white elephants with spears.

What is this majestic animal, you ask? The great grey elephant of course!

Featured in BL Harley 3244, the image on f. 39 hailed from a text by Peraldus written in Latin sometime closely after 1236. The elephant in this picture appears accurately sized and proportioned, unlike those in the other images.

Also known as the Barrus and Olifant, the medieval elephant was a sight to behold. First noted in English history in 1255, an elephant was presented to King Henry III by King Louis of France. Henry of Florence became the keeper of the elephant, and it lived happily—or probably not so happily—in the Tower of London. Like many tower prisoners, the elephant unfortunately died after four years in captivity. Clearly, elephants were much more up to the task of fighting dragons and carrying around castles than being observed by the king’s curious subjects.

In actuality, elephants really were used in combat.

Folio 11v of BL Royal 12 X III (see the companion image at the top of the post) shows a skirmish between men on an elephant and men on horseback. Unrealistically, the horses appear much larger than the elephant in this English bestiary written in Latin and French.

According to the thirteenth-century British Library MS Harley 3244, elephants were once dubbed Lucanian oxen by the Romans when they met King Pyrrhus in battle in “the year of the City 472.” Persian and Indian warriors were said to construct wooden towers on the backs of these great beasts and fight with tactics normally reserved for a tower wall. As a more rational example, Aelian describes military elephants that carried “three fighting men on a cuirass, or even on [their] bare [backs], one fighting on the right, another on the left, while the third faces to the rear” (Druce).

Today, CGI fighting mûmakil, (Colloquially “oliphaunts”) appear in The Return of the King, a movie inspired by Tolkien’s work of the same name. Possibly more reminiscent of the mythical construction which could fight dragons and live up to 300 years, the Middle Earth oliphaunt is utilized by the men from the East (see Persian and Indian influence) as they engage in battle with the “good guys” of Middle Earth.

Written as a mythology for England, maybe Tolkien’s work really does ring true. If the elephants of today are merely the smaller, sweeter descendants of the Middle Earth oliphaunts, it is quite possible that the medieval bestiary’s description isn’t quite so far from the truth.

Angela Lake
MA Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Druce, George C. “The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art.” Archaeological Journal 76 (1919): 1-73.

This post is one of an ongoing series on Medieval Animals and their Literary Afterlives.

Holes and Holiness in Medieval Manuscripts

It’s probably not terribly surprising to anyone that there are holes in medieval manuscripts—after all, a millennium-old piece of parchment should expect to see some wear and tear. While countless medieval manuscripts have been lost to time, a large number remain, and in a wide range of qualities. But almost every medieval manuscript has some holes in it somewhere. They may be large or small, accidental or intentional, hidden away in the binding or displayed openly, but they’re there.

Some holes are there before the parchment or vellum (footnote: parchment is made from animal skin, typically sheep, cow, or goat; vellum, the most prized variety, is made specifically from calf skin) is written on:

Engelberg, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. 16, f. 16v

Parchment is made by taking animal skins, removing their hair, and creating a writing surface by stretching and scraping the skin repeatedly over time, until it is the thickness and texture desired. This is a labor-intensive and thus expensive process. So, when a hole formed during the parchment-making process, the product couldn’t very well just be discarded. (However, it should be noted that these holes are not found as often in very expensive manuscripts—we can probably assume that the scribe would select more pristine parchment for more important documents.)

Some holes appear after the scribe’s work is done:

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 915, p. 1

Medieval manuscripts face many dangers. Holes can be caused by insects, fire damage, mold, or perhaps from damage done during the writing, illustration, or binding of a text. Holes were clearly viewed as part and parcel of the medieval bookmaking process. Not only were they often written around, but sometimes they were decorated:

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 915, p. 299

Many manuscripts—it seems particularly common in Continental manuscripts, like this Swiss manuscript from the monastery of St. Gallen—have holes and tears sewn up with colorful thread. Some of these holes were apparently caused by damage from the bookmaking process: these horizontal slits that have been sewn up appear to have been caused by a monk who was ruling the page with too heavy a hand. Others seem to just be from accidental damage:

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 915, p. 339

The stitching serves two purposes: to protect the book from further damage, and to add decoration to what might otherwise be seen as unsightly.

And finally, holes are occasionally created for the purpose of decoration:

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 18, p. 43

In this manuscript, containing mostly liturgical texts, the illustrator has cut a hole as part of his illustration of the “star clock” (a means to tell time after dark), the invention of which is credited to Pacificus of Verona. It’s impossible to know if this was an ingenious method of using a piece of parchment that already had a hole from some sort of damage, but close observation shows where it has been cut to form the frame of the clock.

Sometimes it’s surprising just how good the condition of most medieval manuscripts is: most, if not all, of the manuscripts we still have today have survived damp, fire, insects, or wars (if not a combination). We can’t really begrudge them a few holes.

Marjorie Housley
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame