Saturday, 1 July 2017

The Year in Medieval Art: July

The month of July, under the astrological symbol of Leo, is almost synonymous, in Medieval books of hours, with Harvest, and, specifically, with the cereal harvest (wheat, barley, oats) on which most Medieval communities depended. Men and women alike are shown with scythes and sickles, cutting the ripening crop.

Leo, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (image is in the Public Domain).

The wheat harvest, National Library of the Netherlands (image is in the Public Domain).

The wheat harvest, 16th Century (Ghent or Bruges), Houghton Library (image is in the Public Domain).

The wheat harvest, window at Dewsbury Minster (image is in the Public Domain).


Perhaps surprisingly, harvest was not a time of plenty for everyone. The previous year's supply of stored grain would almost inevitably have run out, and, whilst the new crop might (weather permitting) be ready to be cut, it was not yet ready to be used. Sheaves were typically stacked up to ripen further in the fields, and the grain then had to be threshed and milled before it could be passed on to the bakers and brewers whose products were the staples of most Medieval lives.


July, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1412-40. Sheep-shearing is an activity that often continued from June into July. The building in the background is the Palace of Poitiers. Musee Conde (image is in the Public Domain).

July, from the Grimini Breviary, 1490-1500 (image is in the Public Domain).


The fictional character of Piers Plowman, in William Langland's eponymous Fourteenth Century poem, explains the situation that must have been familiar to many, in a month when the end of hardship was in sight, but not yet within reach:

"I've no money ... for chickens or geese or pork. All I've got is a couple of fresh cheeses, a tiny amount of curds and cream, an oat-cake and a couple of loaves for my children, baked from bean-flour and bran ... parsley, leeks and a huge supply of greens ... you see, that's the sort of food we've got to live on till Lammas-tide [1st August] comes ... " (translated from the Middle English by A.V.C. Schmidt, Oxford World's Classics).

Harvesting leeks, from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, Codex Vindabonensis, Vienna (image is in the Public Domain).

Harvesting beans, from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, Codex Vindabonensis, Vienna (image is in the Public Domain).


For those with slightly more resources than Piers Plowman, rabbits (often farmed in artificial warrens), chickens, eggs, and fish provided welcome supplements to an otherwise meagre diet.


A rabbit warren. British Library, Add.MS 42130, folio 176v (image is in the Public Domain).

Woman feeding chickens, from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, Codex Vindabonensis, Vienna (image is in the Public Domain).


With the expansion of international maritime trade in the later Middle Ages, city fathers such as London's Sir Richard ("Dick") Whittington used their wealth to stock vast warehouses with grain imported from the most productive areas of Europe (generally the Hanseatic lands of the Baltic Sea and Northern Germany), ensuring that their brewers and bakers never went short of essential supplies.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


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