Agriculture in the Middle Ages: Technology, Practice, and Representation

By Del Sweeney | Go to book overview

Bridget Ann Henisch


14. In Due Season: Farm Work in the Medieval Calendar Tradition

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 pair of compartments, as can be seen on a page for June, in a psalter made in northern France toward the end of the twelfth century, which shows a man mowing in one frame, and a crab, the zodiac sign, in the other.1

The presence of the occupation scene is 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 that put food on the table: pruning and ploughing, sowing and reaping; the fattening up of livestock, and the slaughter.

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.2 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 all-important to society, 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 of man's essential duties, as he bustled about his work down below.

One more pair of scenes, from a later, fifteenth-century French manuscript, often a crude and cheerful representation of July, with a man cutting

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