November pigs in calendars

Calendar pages for November

Those wonderful people at the British Library regularly feature on their ‘Medieval Manuscripts’ blog relevant ‘labours of the months’ and other beautiful materials from illuminated MS calendars in their collections, so here’s a flavour of some items for this month, November.

The London Rothschild Book of Hours (aka the Hours of Joanna I of Castile – a tenuous ownership connection; more detail at this link)

Rothschild Hours Nov

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is BL Add MS 35313, f. 6v: entry in Digitised Catalogue, with full apparatus on contents and links to images. Here’s their blog entry description of the scene:

Threshing and winnowing is taking place: in the background, a male figure wields a flail, beating wheat to separate the grains from the husks.  Two peasants in the foreground are beating flax to break down the stem fibres, while a woman to the right in the background is using a stick known as a ‘swingle’ to ‘scutch’ or dress the flax.  A woman is pouring swill out for the pigs, while doves and pigeons gather in the dovecote and on the thatched roofs of the barns waiting to feed on any loose grains. This month, marked by the Zodiac symbol of the centaur for Sagittarius, saw the celebration of several important festivals in the Christian calendar, each illustrated in the roundels to the left…

Here’s a link to a Jan. post on the BL blog which gives more background information on this MS and its provenance.

A comment on the blog post for Nov. finds a similar scene in this page (f. 12v, another calendar, made in Bruges c. 1515) from Morgan Library MS 399, which shows more clearly men working inside a ring of flax for beating, and behind them a woman engaged in the scutching process. In the village street behind, pigs and chickens feed – a seeming visual reference to the usual ‘pig-feeding’ image for this month.

The images on this site appear to be copyright, so I’ll simply provide a link here – but I’d urge you to take a look – there is clearly an iconographical pattern here which painters of illuminations for such scenes followed carefully – as did visual artists of hagiographical scenes – ie devotional images of the saints, many of which would be found in the relevant pages of calendars, as well as in stained glass windows, other devotional texts like legendaries, etc.

This image was tweeted today by @melibius, who kindly supplied the relevant link to the BL catalogue entry; it’s from BL Add MS 21114, the Psalter of Lambert le Bègue (‘the Stammerer’) of Liège, 1255-65 (though he died 1177; its provenance is the Béguine house of S Christophe, which he founded). Interesting departure from the usual pig-feeding scene here; less fun for our porcine friends this time – one’s been slaughtered, and the outlook for the other doesn’t look too good.

bl-nov-cal-pg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The image from the BL catalogue for the November page from the famous Bedford Hours also wouldn’t load when I tried it, so here’s a link to the BL blog dated today, in which this MS page is shown in full, with glorious marginal decorations, plus an enlarged detail of the pigs-with-acorns scene (and a centaur).

It follows the usual iconographic practice of showing a peasant knocking acorns from trees while pigs cheerfully snuffle them up under the branches. What the happy pigs don’t realise is that they’re being fattened up for slaughter in the winter. The borders are intricately and beautifully decorated with twining vines, with stylized leaves and flowers.

I’ve posted on previous months (links for October here

And April and May here)

In those posts I’ve shown the calendar pages from the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry. Here’s the November page, which also shows the traditional pig-feeding scene for that season:

Berry November scene

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One shall break frost’s fetters: on Old English poetry

Many years ago a friend, who knew of my interest in medieval literature, gave me for Christmas a copy of Michael Alexander’s translation in Penguin Classics of The Earliest English Poets. I’d studied Old English (OE) as an undergraduate, and had worked on the OE version of the Life of St Mary of Egypt (about whom I’ve posted several times recently here) in my postgraduate career, so it was a pleasure to revisit these texts at that time when I was working in the Basque province of N. Spain. I happened to pick this volume from my shelf just now.

Front cover of the Alexander collection

Front cover of the Alexander collection (see below)

It’s divided into categories, including Heroic Poems (with an extract from ‘Beowulf’: The Fight at Finnsburg); Elegies (including ‘The Seafarer’, translated with notorious freedom and panache elsewhere by the inimitable Ezra Pound); Gnomic Verses – which tend to be maxims in the form of generalisations about the natural or human world, for example

Frost shall freeze

            fire eat wood

Earth shall breed

            ice shall bridge

One shall break

                                                                              frost’s fetters

 Some don’t fit into neat categories, like The Dream of the Rood – rood, of course, meaning cross (hence the presence in most medieval English churches of rood-screens, designed to conceal from the gaze of the vulgar congregation the holy secrets of the priest’s sacramental rites).

In his introduction Alexander points out the etymology of the OE word for poet: scop: it derives from the verb meaning ‘to shape, form, create, destine’, and to scieppand, ‘creator, shaper, God’. The scop would likely have been attached to the court of a noble lord, and like today’s poet laureates would have been called upon to compose works for special occasions, as well as to recite (or sing) well-known works about the heroes and events of the past.

The Scandinavian equivalent was the skald, and both types of poet may well have accompanied themselves on a lyre-like instrument (I did some bibliographical work for [the now late lamented] Professor John Stevens at one point on his book Words and Music in the Middle Ages – still in print at CUP – in which he discusses this more learnedly than I can; scholars still dispute the allegedly oral basis of most early medieval poetry). ‘Skald’ seems to have etymological roots in Germanic words denoting ‘song, ring, clang or resound’.

‘Scop’ also had derogatory denotations, ultimately becoming modern English ‘scoff’ (as in scornful),while ‘skald’ may have evolved into modern ‘scold’.

Welsh bards and Gaelic ollaves were the scops of the Celts.

The name scop is the equivalent of ‘poet’, derived in turn from the Greek verb ‘make’; in medieval Scots a poet was thus a ‘makar’. The Provençal and Catalan trobador (much loved by Pound, in his early work), Northern French trouvère and Italian trovatore take their names from another linguistic root meaning ‘finder’. Early medieval ‘found verse’, in fact.

‘Deor’ is one of the uncategorised poems in this collection of worthy rather than thrillingly Poundian translations; one of the few tags of OE poetry that’s stayed with me all these years since my first year of undergraduate study is the refrain from this lovely, haunting poem, translated here as

that went by; this may too

 referring to the catalogue of woes and disasters experienced by the eponymous exiled poet whose voice utters the poem’s words, and his unconvincingly stoical hope that things can only get better.

It’s more powerful in the alliterative original:

Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg

The first letter is a survivor of the old runic futhorc,

OE Futhorc, from a 9C MS

OE Futhorc, from a 9C MS (via Wikimedia Commons)

which would have been incised on horn or wood. There’s a weird OE rune poem about these characters not in this Alexander collection.

There’s a useful article about runes at Wikipedia, from which I’ve taken this image of the 7C Northumbrian Franks Casket, a whalebone and tin box now in the British Museum, and inscribed with OE runes

The Franks Casket

The Franks Casket

relating the story of Wayland Smith (cited in the first line of ‘Deor’; his name signifies ‘articifer’, originating in the belief that forged iron swords were said to possess magic powers; he’s the counterpart of the Roman Vulcan).

 

The front cover of this Penguin edition (included above) has a detail from this casket, depicting Wayland drinking out of the skull of one of the sons of the captor Nithhad, who had hamstrung him so that he would not escape; he did, killing the tyrant’s two sons and raping his daughter. They were a tough lot back then. The poet Deor takes comfort from this legendary miraculous escape from apparently hopeless circumstances, and goes on to relate several other misfortunes from the heroic tradition, all of which resulted in deliverance.

There’s hope for us all in a dreary world, is his message.

 

April and May in the Très Riches Heures

The Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry is one of the most important and beautiful illuminated manuscripts of the 15th century. It is done in the International Gothic style. It is a Book of Hours – prayers, psalms and other texts, usually commissioned by wealthy patrons, as here. Horae, as they were called in Latin, represented abbreviated forms of the Breviary, which contained the texts for Divine Office as celebrated in monastic communities. They were developed to enable lay people to introduce a monastic discipline and element into their private devotions.

It contains 206 folios, of which about half are richly illuminated, with expensive pigments and lavish gold leaf. It was painted between 1412 and 1416 by the three Limbourg brothers, originally from Nijmegen in Holland, for their patron Jean, Duc de Berry. They left it unfinished at their (and the Duc’s) death in 1416. Charles I, Duc de Savoie, commissioned another artist to finish the paintings between 1485-1489. It is now MS 65 in the Musée Condé, Chantilly, France.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

The most famous illuminations are probably those which represent the months in the Calendar, often containing images of the agricultural-rural labours associated with each month, as well as the nobility enjoying leisure pursuits in expensively commissioned examples like Berry’s. A calendar was usually incorporated at the start of the book of hours as a guide to the church feasts and saints’ days, so it was not specific to any year; its purpose was to remind the owner which saint or festival to celebrate on that date. Mary of Egypt, for example, about whom I’ve posted recently, is usually commemorated on April 2.

Above each month’s illumination is a hemisphere depicting the heavens, traversed by Phoebus’s solar chariot, with the signs of the zodiac.

As today is the last day of April I’ve begun (above) with the illumination for this month. As in many of these images, noble lords and ladies are seen with one of his castles in the background – in this one it’s the château Dourdan, or possibly Pierrefonds – and a walled garden, boats on a pond, and serried rows of trees. Other months depict peasants engaged in seasonal labours.

The subjects’ headgear is particularly elaborate, and the fabrics of the cloaks and gowns is sumptuous. To the right what appears to be two attendant women (at any rate they are more simply dressed) stoop to pick wild flowers – a traditional April pastime, and symbolic of the season of hope (not the cruellest month, as Eliot would have it).

The central figures are intriguing: the man in the elegant blue robe (the Duke himself? He’s depicted in other illuminations) seems to be exchanging rings with the young lady on the right (perhaps his second wife, Jeanne de Boulogne, who was much younger than him), while another couple witness the scene. Behind them a fifth figure lurks, apparently a young boy. Or is this just a typical scene of betrothal, again representing hope, rebirth and continuity?
Berry May 2 The illumination for May depicts courtiers on horseback, many of them wearing the green garments associated with this pageant, entering (or possibly leaving) the forest in a traditional Mayday cavalcade, wearing foliage to decorate their headgear or as garlands. They are preceded by trumpeters. In the background is probably the Hôtel de Nesle, the Duke’s Paris residence. Small dogs gambol in the foreground.

As I write this my friend Mary’s little dog snoozes on the couch beside my desk, grunting and sighing occasionally with sleepy satisfaction. The sun shines amiably outside, and these two beautiful medieval paintings seemed an appropriate way for me to round off April’s posts and usher in those for May.

More literary material will follow soon. I hope you all have a peaceful, healthy month of May, and experience the hope and vitality so wonderfully depicted in these images.

All images are in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Werewolves and fleas: Gerald of Wales, ‘Topographia Hiberniae’, part 2

Two Connaught men in a boat; a rider, f. 29 of the BL Royal MS 13. BVIII, f. 29

Two Connaught men in a boat; a rider, BL Royal MS 13. BVIII, f. 29

Last time I introduced Gerald of Wales (c. 1146-1223) and his Topographia Hiberniae, a Latin guide to twelfth-century Ireland, in the invasion and settlement of which the Norman branch of his family had played a prominent part.  I described some of the material found in the first of the three parts of the text, which focused on flora and fauna.  Here I shall turn my attention to part 2: Wonders & Miracles.  Translation from the Latin into English is by John J. O’Meara in the Penguin Classics edition, published as The History and Topography of Ireland.  Images are from the detailed record for BL Royal MS 13 B.VIII in the Catalogue of Illuminated MSS held in the British Library.

Man killed with axe, f. 28

Man killed with axe, f. 28

O’Meara points out that this section of the book consists largely of tall tales which would have been told to Gerald during his visits to the island, but he also made use of written Irish sources (themselves probably arising from an older oral tradition; see O’Meara, n. 15, p. 130).  As we saw last time, he makes use of the familiar hagiographic topos of insisting on the truth of his stories:

I am aware that I shall describe some things that will seem to the reader to be either impossible or ridiculous.  But I protest solemnly that I have put down nothing in this book the truth of which I have not found out either by the testimony of my own eyes, or that of reliable men found worthy of credence and coming from the districts in which the events took place (p. 57)

The fish with golden teeth, f. 16v

The fish with golden teeth, f. 16v (and a deer)

After relating the miraculous qualities of various natural phenomena such as wells and islands, he tells of the fish from Ulster ‘with three gold teeth’.   Strangely, this creature ‘seemed to prefigure the imminent conquest of the country’ – but Gerald neglects to explain how.

Royal 13.B.viii, f. 17v. detailIn section 52 comes my favourite story in the book: the ‘wolf that talked with a priest’.  While travelling from Ulster to Meath this priest spent the night in a wood.  As he sat by the fire a wolf came up to him and said: ‘Do not be afraid!’  Naturally he and the small boy who was with him were terrified.  When the wolf spoke of God in a ‘reasonable’ manner the priest adjured him not to harm them, and to explain himself.

The wolf’s story was that he was a native of Ossory, where every seven years, because of the imprecation of abbot Natalis, a man and a woman are compelled to go into exile from their territory in the form of wolves.  If they survive seven years they will then be replaced by another couple, and restored to their former status.  The wolf’s companion, he went on, was lying nearby, close to death.  He begged the priest to perform the last rites for her.

The wolf led the priest to a tree in the hollow of which lay a she-wolf ‘groaning and grieving like a human being’.  He performed the last rites, but did not give the viaticum, insisting that he did not have with him the elements of communion.  The wolf pointed out, however, that he knew the wallet hanging from the priest’s neck contained consecrated hosts, and begged him not to deny his partner the ‘gift and help of God’.  Thereupon he pulled the skin off the she-wolf from the head to the navel, ‘folding it back with his paw as if it were a hand.’  He thus revealed the the torso of an old woman.  The priest, terrified once more, administered the sacrament and the skin resumed its former place.

Royal 13 B.VIII, f.18

Royal 13 B.VIII, f.18

The wolf spent the rest of the night with the priest by his fire, chatting amiably, and in the morning directed him the best route onward.  As they parted he thanked the priest.

Gerald says that two years later when passing near Meath his advice on this matter was sought, for the priest had passed on his version of these extraordinary events.  As a result the priest was sent to the Pope ‘with his documents in which was given an account of the affair and the priest’s confession’.  Sadly we never hear whether the wolf ever made it back to human shape.

I may return, in a future blog, to the subject of werewolves in medieval literature.

Bearded woman and man-ox of Wicklow, f. 19

Bearded woman and man-ox of Wicklow, f. 19

Other stories follow, mostly illustrated in the BL MS.  There’s the bearded woman with a mane on her back ‘like a one-year-old foal’.  She is no centaur, however, and followed the court of Duvenaldus, king of Limerick, ‘wherever it went, provoking laughs as well as wonder.’  Gerald seems to approve of her wearing the beard long, for such is the custom of her country (albeit among the men, not women).  Other hybrid creatures appear, and some less salubrious tales of bestiality.

St Kevin and his blackbird, f. 20

St Kevin and his blackbird, f. 20

Then comes the most famous story of all: St Kevin and his blackbird.  When taking eremitical refuge in a remote cabin he put his hand out of the window, as was his custom, and prayed.  A blackbird settled there, nested,  and laid its eggs.  St Kevin was so patient and sympathetic that he waited in that same posture ‘until the young were completely hatched out’.

The rats of Fernegigan, wandering bell of Mactalewus, f. 21v

The rats of Fernegigan, wandering bell of Mactalewus, f. 21v

St Colman’s teal, the fleas banished by St Nannan, the rats expelled from Ferneginan by St Yvor, the tame falcon of Kildare and other wonders follow, some involving bells, miraculous fires and books.

Part 3 deals with the history of Ireland, but even Gerald is sceptical about the veracity of some of these old legends.  It seems, for example, that the Basques were early settlers there.  He goes on to describe the contemporary condition of the Irish in fairly unflattering terms.  They are, he says, barbarous: ‘wild and inhospitable’, primitive, hirsute, lazy, ‘deplorable’, ‘wallowing in vice’, and largely heathen, despite the best efforts of saints such as Patrick and Bridget. All

St Colman's ducks, f. 21

St Colman’s ducks, f. 21

Irish saints are confessors; there were no Irish martyrs, he asserts.

As my surname attests, I’m of Irish ancestry myself, but it’s hard to find Gerald’s criticisms of my ancestors too offensive.  He writes in the medieval spirit of recounting tales collected from various sources, attested and unattested.  Notions of credibility were different from ours.  As the frequent Christian morals attached to the stories indicate, God is considered capable of all kinds of wonder, and it is therefore to be expected that miraculous events and objects abound in His world. Everything is a lesson to be interpreted by the cleric.

The Kildare Gospels falcon, f. 22

The Kildare Gospels and falcon, f. 22

As the Viking exhibition opens at the British Museum, I’m more inclined to marvel at the artistic skill and psychogeographic acumen of early medieval travellers.