Thursday, 1 June 2017

The Year in Medieval Art: June

The month of June begins, this year, with the Christian celebration of Pentecost, marking the end of the Easter season. In most years, however, this festival would already have been completed before the end of May. At Pentecost, Christians mark the influence of the Holy Spirit on individual worshipers; the idea of God working through humanity itself; the fundamental difference between the old covenant between God and fallen humanity, and the "New and Everlasting Covenant" between God and the community of believers redeemed by Christ.

Pentecost, from the Black Hours, Bruges, c 1475, Morgan Library, MS 493 (image is in the Public Domain). "Black Books" were produced by dying the parchment with ink before writing on it: they were both rare and expensive. 

Pentecost, from the Hours of Charles d'Angouleme, late 15th Century, National Library of France, Latin MS 1173. Photo: Cardena2 (licensed under CCA).

Pentecost, from the Hours of Henry VIII, Morgan Library (image is in the Public Domain).

There are good theological reasons why each and every Church festival falls when it does in the calendar, but, looking at the calendar as a whole, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that it is also constructed with a view to the "labours of the months," the cycle of agricultural work on which Medieval lives depended. After Pentecost, the Church enters "Ordinary Time," in which people can, quite properly, devote most of their time to their duties in the Earthly realm.

The Medieval Church Year.

June meant different things to people in different parts of Medieval Europe, but, as all gardeners know, it is a time at which weeds flourish, and need to be kept under control.

Weeding in June, England, 1450-1475, Victoria & Albert Museum (Non-Commercial License 152334).

It was also, in much of northern Europe, a time for the first major harvest of the year, the hay harvest, to be gathered in. Hay was essential as fodder to keep sheep, cattle and horses alive during the winter months, so any significant rainfall at this time of the year would be a major worry for the farmer. Hay was too bulky to transport over long distances, so a failed harvest was a potential disaster.

June, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, Musee Conde (image is in the Public Domain). Hay is harvested in front of the Palais de la Cite and La Sainte Chapelle, Paris.

The Hay Harvest, by Pieter Breughel, Lobkowicz Palace, Prague (image is in the Public Domain). 

For many communities, June was also the season for shearing sheep. Wool was the major source of wealth for many communities in England and Flanders. Even in the tiny hamlet of Montaillou, in the French Pyrenees, whose inhabitants rarely handled money of any sort, people returned from market with coins in return for wool; the men might have been responsible for the shearing, but their wives and daughters often preferred to take the wool to market, keen to ensure that the proceeds were spent on necessities, such as shoe-repairs, and not in the tavern or the brothel.

Sheep-shearing in June, from the Da Costa Hours (image is in the Public Domain).

Calendar page for June, from the London Rothschild Hours, Ghent, c 1500, British Library, Add.Ms 35313f004r (image is in the Public Domain).

Books of Hours, of course, were for the enjoyment of the leisured classes, whose fields were worked by others. Their own pastimes at this time of the year seem to have included bathing in rivers, and jousting. Summer was a season to be enjoyed, but it was all too short, and people of all classes are likely to have had one eye on the harder times that would come around again in due course.

Bathing in a river, c 1485, British Library, Add.Ms 38126 (image is in the Public Domain).

Jousting in June, from the Golf Book (image is in the Public Domain). 

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

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