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110 posts categorized "Calendars"

01 August 2018

A calendar page for August 2018

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It’s August and time for the harvest. Don’t know what to do? Never fear! This 1000-year-old calendar provides step-by-step instructions for cutting and collecting grain in the form of an illustration at the bottom of the page for August. This calendar is one of only two surviving calendars from pre-Norman England to be illustrated with agricultural scenes. To learn more about it, please see our earlier blogpost.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f006v - Copy

Page for August, from a calendar made in southern England in the 1st half of the 11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 6v

Step 1: Cut the stalks with your sickle. We recommend an iron sickle, available in any good medieval emporium.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f006v sickle

Step 2: Pass the loose stalks to a friend who has rope to tie them together.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f006v bundling

Step 3: Carry the stalks to a nearby cart.

Step 4: Toss the stalks to the man with a pitchfork next to the cart.

Step 5: The man with the pitchfork will collect the harvest in the cart.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f006v tossing

 

In this image, the harvesting is being overseen by a figure with a spear and a dramatically billowing cape who blows a horn. The horn was written over by some of the Greek letters used in calendrical calculations that are listed in columns in this calendar. 

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f006v horn

The original users of this calendar would have appreciated this image for more than its literal depiction of the harvest. This calendar was probably made for a monastic community, and many of the agricultural tasks coincided with metaphors used in the Bible. There were many Biblical stories about harvesting grain with sickles, particularly in the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation. The first users of this calendar may have seen a deeper meaning in this illustration, as well as a reflection of daily life.

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Detail of harvesting: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 6v

The month of August was not all work and no fun. The users of this calendar marked out four feast days with gold crosses. These were probably not the only feast days celebrated in August, as the verses next to each day in the calendar were composed at least a century before this calendar was made, and new feasts had been popularised by the time the calendar was being made in the 11th century. On 10 August, a gold cross singles out the day 'St Laurence caught fire'. Laurence was said to have been roasted on a gridiron by his tormentors. 

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The martyrdom of St Laurence, from the Caligula Troper, western England, 11th century: Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 25r

The Assumption of the Virgin, when Mary was taken into Heaven, was commemorated on 15 August and marked in gold. 25 August is also marked out, but this may be a mistake for 24 August, the feast of St Bartholomew. St Bartholomew's feast is marked in other 11th-century English calendars, including the Tiberius Work Calendar (Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1), which includes the same poem as and similar illustrations to the Julius Work Calendar. St Bartholomew was martyred by being flayed, but the calendar says merely 'on 24 August, Bartholomew migrated to eternity'. The last feast singled out on this page was the beheading of St John the Baptist, commemorated on 29 August. The text notes that John's head was cut off 'with a sharp sword'. 

The whole calendar has been digitised thanks to the The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project. Happy harvesting! 

Alison Hudson

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01 July 2018

A calendar page for July 2018

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Growing up in Pennsylvania, one of the sights and sounds I associated most strongly with summer was the sound of lawnmowers. Mowing was already a common sight a thousand summers ago, judging from the line drawings in this 11th-century calendar (Cotton MS Julius A VI). However, the sound of scythes depicted here would have been rather different from the noise their motorised descendants make.

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A calendar page for July, from a calendar made in southern England, mid-11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 6r

Each page of this calendar contains an image of agricultural or social life, so it is sometimes known as the Julius Work Calendar. (For an introduction to this calendar, please see our posts for previous months.) The people mowing appear at the bottom of the page for July.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f006r mowers
Detail of mowers, from Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 6r

This group of six figures has given the artist a chance to show off his virtuosity. Detailed, vivid line-drawings were prized in 11th-century English art, and the artist of this calendar uses this technique at its height to create distinct characters for each of the six men.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f006r mowers left
Detail of men with scythes and a pitchfork, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 6r

Starting on the left, the artist has drawn a short-haired, balding man sharpening a scythe, possibly with a stone. Next to him, a dark-haired, bearded man collects material with a pitchfork, while a light-haired man, with his back to the viewer, bends down to make a cut with his scythe.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f006r right
Detail of mowers, from Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 6r

On the right side of the image, the artist has created another three characters. A dark-haired man with a short beard has hitched up his tunic to keep it out of the way while he mows, while the balding, clean-shaven man next to him wears his tunic loose. It swings as he steps forward. Fluttering hemlines were a recurring theme in 11th-century English drawings, and this artist made sure to include some frills even when depicting a worker's tunic. My favourite figure in the group, though, is the balding man with a forked beard on the right. He holds a whetstone in his left hand and taps or scratches his head with his right hand. Some days, we all know how he feels!

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Detail of the zodiac sign Cancer, from Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 6r

In addition to the mowers, this calendar page also features a depiction of the constellation Cancer, the crab. Cancer was one of those zodiac symbols that was subject to many different artistic interpretations throughout the medieval period, as we have discussed in previous calendar pages on this Blog. In the Julius Work Calendar, Cancer is portrayed as a very round creature with pincers, 8 legs and round eyes. Here's how other medieval artists represented Cancer.

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Detail of the zodiac sign Cancer, from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410–1430, Add MS 18850, f. 6r

Add_ms_36684_f007r Cancer
Detail of the zodiac sign Cancer, from a Book of Hours, St Omer or Thérouanne, c. 1320, Add MS 36684, f. 7r

Add_ms_24098_f024r Cancer
Detail of the zodiac sign Cancer, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), 
c. 1540, Add MS 24098, f. 24r

The rest of the page for July contains the usual calendrical information: guides for calculating lunar cycles and the days of the week, as well a poem with a verse for every day. Only one feast day is marked out in July: the feast of St James, ‘the brother of the Lord’, on 25 July.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f006r St James
Detail of the verses for 25 July and following, from the Metrical Calendar of Hampson, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 6r

So, this July, if you are mowing your lawn, remember you part of an ancient July tradition. If you don't have a lawn, there’s always the Digitised Manuscripts site to brighten your day, where you can see this manuscript and over 300 other manuscripts digitised by the The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

Alison Hudson 

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01 June 2018

A calendar page for June 2018

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June is busting out all over: it's time to prune back. An 11th-century calendar page for this month depicts a group of men chopping down branches. We are exploring this calendar every month this year: click here for the first post in the series.

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A calendar page for June, from a calendar made in southern England, mid-11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 5v

The illustration at the bottom of the page for June shows two men cutting down branches of some very curvy plants, while a man on the left loads a large log into a two-wheeled cart. A pair of oxen, wearing a yoke, enter from the right. This calendar is one of only two to survive from England before the Norman Conquest that are illustrated with ‘labours of the month’, scenes of agricultural work and recreation. The other calendar can be found in Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1. For the previous two months, these calendars were illustrated with very similar scenes, but in June they diverge: the Tiberius Calendar shows men with sickles harvesting plants, while men pruning branches appear above the calendar page for July. 

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Detail of men pruning plants and collecting wood, from a calendar page for June: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 5v

The axes in the drawing in the Julius Calendar resemble 9th to 11th-century implements found in England, although some of these may have been used for warfare rather than farming. But this image may have had symbolic meaning, as much as being a representation of day-to-day life. Many of the tasks depicted in this calendar — from ploughing in the page for January, and shepherding in the page for May — were used as metaphors in the Bible. Similarly, the Bible compares God to the owner of a vineyard who prunes or cuts down those plants and trees that do not bear fruit.

Elsewhere on the page, more specific information is included for each day of the month. This includes mathematical quantities and symbols used to calculate the days of the week and lunar cycles, listed in columns to the left of the date. Extra information also takes the form of a poem with a verse for each day.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f005v peter and paul
Detail of a gold cross next to a verse for the feast of St Peter and St Paul: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 5v

An early user of the calendar marked out two days with gold crosses: the feast celebrating the birth of St John the Baptist, on 24 June; and the feast of the martyrdoms of St Peter and St Paul, on 29 June. Both of these remained important feast days celebrated throughout Europe in the medieval period, particularly since the feast of St John the Baptist coincided with Midsummer’s Day, or the Summer Solstice. Under the current calendrical system the summer solstice usually falls around 21 June, but in medieval Europe Midsummer was celebrated on 24 June.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f005v solstice st john
Detail of a gold cross next to a verse for a feast of St John the Baptist: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 5v

After the gold crosses, another layer of marginal information was added in the form of notes in red. They record events such as the vigil of the feast of St John the Baptist on 23 June (Midsummer’s Eve) and the summer solstice (Midsummer) on 24 June. We can tell that the red notes were added after the gold crosses because the word ‘solstitiu[m]’ is split in two to fit around the cross.

This calendar page also includes the zodiac sign associated with much of the month of June: Gemini, or the twins, apparently deep in conversation.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f005v gemini
Detail of a roundel depicting the constellation Gemini, associated in astrology with the month of June: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 5v

It’s only five months until you will be able see this calendar in person at the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. In the meantime, enjoy the month of June.

Alison Hudson 

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01 May 2018

A calendar page for May 2018

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Today is 1 May, which means summer is almost here. Well, it is according to the calendar we are exploring this year, which was made in southern England about 1000 years ago.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f005r
Calendar page for May, from Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 5r

Each day in this calendar has a verse of poetry that describes a notable event associated with that date. These are often saints’ days, but astronomical and other events are mentioned as well. The verse for 9 May, shown below, reads: ‘Here begins the summery heat for 7 multiplied by 13 [days].’ Just to make sure no one missed it, the red text in the margin clarifies: ‘The beginning of summer. It has 91 days.’ That might be a bit much to hope for this year.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f005r summer

Indeed, in case the weather isn’t feeling quite like summer in 9 days’ time, the poem offers a second possible start date for warm weather: ‘Burning summer is born on the ninth day before 1 June’, namely 24 May (in the first line below).

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f005r summer 2

Other special days in May were marked out with gold crosses in the margin of this calendar. These include 1 May, the feast of St Philip and James, although the verse for that day is either incomplete or has been erased. 3 May is also marked out: it was the feast of St Helena’s rediscovery of the Cross. There is also a gold cross by 26 May, which commemorates ‘Augustine, who crossed over the curve of this world [died] seven days before 1 June.’  This was a reference to St Augustine, the first archbishop of Canterbury, not St Augustine of Hippo. Early medieval people understood that the world was round, so in art and literature part of the world and its atmosphere were sometimes represented in abbreviated form as a curved shape or arch.

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Detail of an historiated initial showing Christ sitting on the arc of the world, from the Cnut Gospels, England, pre-1019, Royal MS 1 D IX
, f. 66r

In addition to containing a poem for each day of the year, this calendar is also one of only two illustrated calendars to survive from 11th-century England. (The other is Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1.) Each page includes depictions of zodiac symbols and agricultural and social activities. For May, those are Taurus the bull and shepherding respectively. Interestingly, one shepherd is portrayed dressed as a layman, with a beard and short tunic, and two others are portrayed wearing long robes. It is unclear if their attire reflects the exemplar of this manuscript or if their long robes allude to the dress of monks and churchmen at this period. Christian leaders were often compared to shepherds. Today, some clergy are still called ‘pastors’, the Latin word for shepherd.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f005r shepherds
Detail of shepherds, from Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 5r

This calendar also includes a wealth of other information from the movements of the moon to the days of the week, as our post from January explains. Thanks to the The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200, you can explore this manuscript in full on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

Alison Hudson

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02 April 2018

A calendar page for April 2018

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It's April, which means it's time to party. At least, in a calendar page for this month, made about 1,000 years ago, a party is in progress: men are drinking and chatting, seated on an ornate couch.


Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f004r feast
Detail of feasting, from a calendar page for April: 
Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4v

The artists of the two surviving, illustrated calendars from early 11th-century England both depicted scenes of feasting on the calendar page for April. They may have chosen to depict feasting in April because Easter often falls in that month. Indeed, in Old English, April was called Eáster-mónaþ (Easter month). Easter was a major holiday in early medieval western Europe, on a par with Christmas. Surviving sources mention it was also an occasion for political gatherings and grand ceremonies such as coronations and important royal meetings, where law codes were issued and other announcements made. For example, the prologue of the first law-code of King Edmund (reigned 939–946) states that Edmund called a meeting of a great number of nobles and churchmen in London, ‘during holy Easter-tide’ (‘halgan easterlicon tid’: Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 87v).  

Closer examination of the image reveals a number of intriguing details, from spears and shields to a variety of drinking vessels. The left-most figure (see a detail below) pours liquid from a jug into a drinking horn. Archaeological examples of early medieval drinking horns have been found throughout northern Europe and beyond. In the centre, two men are holding drinking vessels with stems.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f004r drinking horn
Detail of a jug and drinking horn:
Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4v

The image may also hint at some types of objects which do not survive in the archaeological record. The seated figures are perched on cushions. Likewise, elaborate couches with sculptures of animals, if they were made of wood, would not have survived. However, it can not be proved if this scene, and the one in a related calendar, were imitating the way parties and furniture were depicted in classical art, or if these scenes were intended to represent contemporary furnishings.

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Detail of a calendar page for April: Cotton MS Tiberius V B/1, f. 4v


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Calendar page for April:
Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4v

In addition to the illustration of the ‘labour’ of the month, the calendar page for April has the information and decoration found on other pages in this calendar. The zodiac symbol — Aries — appears in a roundel at the top. Information about the date, astronomical cycles and days of the week are highlighted in rows of red, green, blue and gold. 

There is something slightly different about this page. Unlike the pages for February and March, only one feast is marked out with a gold cross in the margin of the page for April, at the very end of the month. The day marked out is 30 April, which, according to this calendar, was ‘the first day [Noah’s] Ark was carried out of the waves onto solid [ground]’ (‘Pridie transfertur arca densissima abundis’).  The lack of gold crosses earlier in the month might have something to do with the association of April and Easter, since Holy Week and Easter took precedence over other feasts. They could not be marked in this reusable calendar because their dates changed. However, the latest date Easter can fall is 25 April, so the feast of Noah’s Ark could safely be celebrated on 30 April.


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Detail of a depiction of Noah's Ark, made around the same time as the calendar: from the Old English Hexateuch, Southern England, 11th century:
Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 15v

For more on this calendar (and details about when you will be able to see it in person), please click here. For previous years’ calendar pages, and for explanations of medieval calendars, please click here.

Alison Hudson

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01 March 2018

A calendar page for March 2018

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There’s something fishy about the blog today: it’s Pisces, the zodiac sign for March, from the 11th-century calendar we are exploring month by month this year (Cotton MS Julius A VI).

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A calendar page for March, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4r

The zodiac symbol Pisces, represented by two fish, appears at the top of the page. Other zodiac symbols went through many different interpretations and presentations in different medieval calendars, even in closely related manuscripts. For example, Capricorn is depicted differently in this manuscript from the way Capricorn appears in its close relative, another 11th-century calendar also attributed to Canterbury (Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1). The representation of Pisces is remarkably consistent in much of medieval art, as two fish facing opposite directions, connected by a line.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f004r pisces
Detail of Pisces, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4r

Reading down the page, you’ll notice several gold crosses. These were added by an early user of the calendar (or possibly by its original scribe) to mark out important feasts. In contrast to the pages for January and February, each of which had one or two crosses, four feasts were highlighted with gold crosses on the page for March: the death of Pope Gregory the Great (12 March), the feast of St Cuthbert (20 March), one of the feasts of St Benedict of Nursia (21 March), and the feast of the Annunciation (25 March).

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f004r gold crosses
Detail of the feasts of St Cuthbert, St Benedict and the Annunciation  marked out with gold crosses, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4r

This proliferation of important feasts may reflect the number of significant saints with feast days in March. The calendar and its models were probably made at a reformed monastery or cathedral, as discussed in the post for January. As a community that followed the Rule of St Benedict, his feast days would inevitably have been important to the calendars' creators and owners, and reformed monks were particularly devoted to the Virgin Mary and her feast days. Meanwhile, Gregory the Great was celebrated in England for sending missionaries and establishing the see of Canterbury, while Cuthbert, the 7th-century Northumbrian saint, was popular throughout Europe in the early Middle Ages.  

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Saints Gregory, Benedict and Cuthbert are depicted in the front row of the choir of confessors. They can be identified by the names on their stoles. From the Benedictional  of St Æthelwold, England (Winchester or Thorney), c. 963-984, Add MS 49598, f.1r

There may also be another explanation for the number of feasts singled out in March. The month of March often coincided with Lent, the period of fasting before Easter. Sundays and major feast days were exempt from the fast. Perhaps it was in the annotator’s interest to highlight many important feast days when fasting could be suspended.

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Detail of diggers and sowers, from Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4r

The page ends with the labour of the month. Here, labourers are portrayed digging and sowing. Sowing, along with ploughing, was also portrayed in the calendar page for January. However, sowing may not have taken place in January, and the January image may have been more symbolic. For many crops, March was closer to the time for sowing than January.  

For more on this manuscript (and details about when you will be able to see it in person), click here. For previous years’ calendar pages, and for explanations of medieval calendars, click here.

Alison Hudson

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01 February 2018

A calendar page for February 2018

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It’s February: time to light candles and clear away some vines, according to the ‘Julius Work Calendar', an 11th-century calendar made in southern England. 

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f003v trimming the vines
Labourers clearing away vines, from a calendar, England (Canterbury?), mid-11th century: 
Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3v

The main illustration associated with February in both this and a related 11th-century calendar (Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1) involves workers clearing away vines. Above, their tools are depicted in detail and may reflect actual 11th-century agricultural practices. The men wield curved knives. Below, the man on the furthest left holds a bigger, curved blade attached to a longer handle.

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February, from a geographical collection, England (Canterbury? Glastonbury?), mid-11th century: 
Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 3v

The curling vines are reminiscent of the artistic flourishes that late 10th- and 11th-century English artists used to adorn their initials and borders.

Harley MS 5431  f. 39v

Detail of an initial with foliate decoration, from a copy of the Rule of St Benedict, England (St Augustine’s, Canterbury?), late 10th century: 
Harley MS 5431, f. 39v

It is not clear why the two calendars are so similar. Some people have suggested that they were made at the same scriptorium, and that one might be a copy of the other. However, the poem that accompanies the calendar is slightly different in the two manuscripts, so the text does not seem to have been copied directly from one manuscript into the other. For example, the Julius calendar does not mention the death of Alfred the Great (d. 26 October 899) and his wife Ealhswith (d. 5 December 902), unlike the Tiberius calendar. Alternatively, both calendars could have been based on related exemplars which are now lost.

The zodiac sign associated with this month is Aquarius, based on the constellation that is said to look like a water carrier. Below, Aquarius is depicted standing on one foot, supported by a staff. He pours out a jug of water. The artist has cleverly posed him so his arm curves around a flaw in the parchment. However, these details are a little difficult to discern, because this manuscript was damaged in the Cotton fire of 1731. In particular, the heat warped the image as the edges of the parchment shrunk.

Cotton MS Julius A VI  f. 6r
Detail of Aquarius: 
Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3v

One early user of this calendar has put gold crosses next to two feast days in February. The first cross appears next to the feast for Candlemas on 2 February. This feast commemorated the Virgin Mary’s ritual purification after giving birth and Christ’s presentation in the temple. This manuscript was probably produced and owned at a reformed monastery or cathedral, where Candlemas was the subject of an elaborate liturgy. The ceremony involved a procession with candles that were blessed. This was followed by a service where monks continued to hold their candles, at least for the opening section (according to the Regularis Concordia: see Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 14r).

Cotton MS Julius A VI  f. 6r Candlemas

The second verse marked out with a gold cross is actually in incorrect Latin. The scribe has replaced the name of St Matthias (Mathiano) with the word for middle (mediano), or possibly ‘Methano’. He may have misread his exemplar. The red text next to the gold cross reads ‘sol in Pisces’. It is one of a series of notes about the sun’s position and other astronomical and astrological patterns that were noted in red in the margin of this calendar.

Cotton MS Julius A VI  f. 3v Valentine
Feast of St Va
lentine: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3v

St Matthias’s feast day is not the only place where this scribe made a mistake. Another is above, in a verse about St Valentine, whose martyrdom is commemorated on 14 February. Instead of writing ‘Rite…’ (‘Solemnly/customarily…’), the scribe has written ‘Ride…’ (‘Laugh!’ ). It is tempting to wonder whether the scribe misheard or misremembered the verse, since ‘t’ and ‘d’ can sound similar, but ‘-te’ and ‘-de’ do not look similar in this script.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f003v
February, from a calendar, England (Canterbury?), mid-11th century: 
Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3v

For more on this manuscript (and details about when you will be able to see it in person), please see our calendar post for January 2018. For previous years’ calendar pages, and for explanations of medieval calendars, please see here.

Alison Hudson

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01 January 2018

A calendar page for January 2018

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2018 is going to be an exciting year at the British Library: as we recently announced, our major Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition opens on 19 October. In the coming months we will be exploring an item from the upcoming exhibition, an 11th-century calendar illustrated with text in gold and drawings depicting seasonal activities. We hope some of our readers will be able to come and see it in person in the exhibition at the end of the year. For an explanation of medieval calendars, please see the introduction to our first calendar of the year.

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Page for January, from a calendar, England, 1st half of the 11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3r

This calendar is one of only two to survive from early medieval England with detailed illustrations of farming, hunting and feasting. It forms part of a collection of material for calculating time and dates, such as tables for calculating lunar cycles and a tiny world map. It was probably owned by a monastic community who needed timekeeping materials to maintain the strict schedule of services demanded by the Rule of St Benedict. The calendar is now bound with a copy of poems, the Expositio hymnorum and canticles, copied at a slightly later date. They may have been together even in the medieval period. Both the hymnal and the calendar seem to have been made by talented scribes at a major scriptorium, such as that at Christ Church Cathedral, Canterbury.

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Diagram pertaining to lunar cycles, centring on a tiny world map: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 15r

Both the text and illustrations are closely related to the calendar in a collection of geographical and chronological material made in southern England in the mid-11th century (Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1). Both feature the Metrical Calendar of Hampson, a poem with 365 verses, one for each day of the year. The illustrations for the various labours of the month are very similar as well. Both show ploughing scenes, each having three figures, with a bearded man guiding the plough.

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Men ploughing: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3r

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Men ploughing: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 3r

Some scholars have speculated that these images may be rare manuscript depictions of Anglo-Saxon slaves. In a dialogue written to help students practise Latin, the Anglo-Saxon writer Ælfric (fl. 980s-1000s) has the ploughman lament, ‘The work is hard, because I am not free.’

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Detail of the ploughman’s dialogue, from Ælfric’s Colloquy: Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 61r

Ploughing might seem like an odd choice to depict on a calendar page for January, when the weather is cold and the ground is hard. Some scholars argue that ploughing came first in the calendar because it was a fundamental part of the agricultural cycle and also because the imagery of ploughing was used in religious symbolism. In the Bible, teachers and religious leaders are compared to people scattering seeds (Matthew 13), like the man walking behind the plough. As the users of this calendar — possibly a community of monks — prepared for the year ahead, the image of a plough may have focused their minds on practical priorities.

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Capricorn: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3r

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Capricorn: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 3r

Beyond the labours of the month, each page of the calendar includes a wealth of information about astronomy, time, astrology and history, packed into pages only 200 by 130 mm. Each page begins with a few lines about the zodiac signs associated with each month. Nearby, a roundel illustrates the zodiac sign for a given month. In the case of January, it is Capricorn. Medieval scribes depicted star signs including Capricorn in creative and diverse ways. In the Julius calendar, Capricorn has a fish-like tail, in contrast to the Tiberius calendar, where it is depicted with hooves.

Below, each day is represented by one row. Each row includes, among other things:

  1. Roman numerals representing 'Golden Numbers', which were used to determine lunar cycles in a given year.
  2. Greek letters, representing numbers used for calculations. Greek letters were used in calculations by early medieval scholars including Bede and Abbo of Fleury.
  3. The letters A–G in blue, representing different days of the week.
  4. Roman calendar days (kalends, nones and ides).
  5. A verse for the day, from the Metrical Calendar of Hampson.
  6. A gold cross, if the day coincided with a special feast day. The only feast day marked out on this page is 6 January. Judging from surviving descriptions of liturgy and hymnals from Thorney, Winchester and Exeter, services for Epiphany in tenth- and eleventh-century England were elaborate affairs, commemorating not only the Magi’s visit to Christ on that day, but also  his baptism and the miracle at the wedding at Cana, where Christ turned water into wine.

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Detail of calendar page: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3r

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Detail of gold crosses marking special feast days: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 5r

 

Alison Hudson 

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