01 March 2018
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 for details about when you will be able to see it in person), see our previous blogpost 'A calendar page for January' and check out this blogpost to find previous years’ calendar pages, and explanations of medieval calendars.
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01 February 2018
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Feast of St Valentine: 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.
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 an explanation of medieval calendars, read our blogpost 'A Calendar page for January'.
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01 January 2018
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.
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.
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.
Men ploughing: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3r
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.’
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.
Capricorn: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3r
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:
- Roman numerals representing 'Golden Numbers', which were used to determine lunar cycles in a given year.
- Greek letters, representing numbers used for calculations. Greek letters were used in calculations by early medieval scholars including Bede and Abbo of Fleury.
- The letters A–G in blue, representing different days of the week.
- Roman calendar days (kalends, nones and ides).
- A verse for the day, from the Metrical Calendar of Hampson.
- 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.
Detail of calendar page: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3r
Detail of gold crosses marking special feast days: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 5r
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28 December 2017
As followers of the @BLMedieval Twitter account know, some of us are fond of the hashtag #OTD. Short for ‘On this day’, it is used to recall which historical events took place on a given date. It’s a great excuse to highlight items from the British Library’s collections. In a way, it’s also rather medieval. When Benedictine monks assembled for their daily chapter meetings, they would have read an excerpt from a martyrology about which saints were commemorated that day and the next. Some medieval calendars included entries for every single day, and one of those is known as the Metrical Calendar of Hampson.
The entries for December, from the oldest copy of the Metrical Calendar of Hampson, Winchester?, 1st quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 14r
The metrical calendar of Hampson survives in four manuscripts, all made in England in the 10th or 11th century (and three of which are held at the British Library). It takes its name from R.T. Hampson, its 19th-century editor. The calendar comprises 365 verses, one for each day of the year. To take account of leap years, medieval calendars added a second 24 February, instead of adding an extra day at the end of the month, known as 29 February.
The oldest surviving copy was made in England in the first decades of the 10th century. It was added to a 9th-century Psalter from the region that is now France (Cotton Galba A XVIII). The poem mostly lists saints commemorated on each day, but it also includes information about the movement of the moon and planets and some versions note the deaths of King Alfred and his queen, Ealhswith. The poet(s) sometimes had to stretch to fill some days. For example, the entry for 28 February roughly translates as, ‘This is the last day of February.’ In other instances, however, the poet(s) used vivid, memorable imagery. The feast of the Assumption of the Virgin on 15 August was described as the day the Virgin Mary ‘crossed over to the stars.’ Meanwhile, 29 August was listed as the day John the Baptist’s ‘neck was truncated with a sharp sword’.
The entries for September, from a calendar, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 7r
There are two more versions from the first half of the 11th century, both associated with Canterbury or another major scriptorium: Cotton MS Julius A VI and Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1. Cotton MS Julius A VI contains a series of scientific diagrams and tables, now bound with a hymnal made a decade or two later. Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1 includes a range of texts on astronomy, geography and chronology, and includes an early world map. The fourth, abbreviated copy of the metrical calendar is found in an early 10th-century Psalter (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 27).
The entries for August, including the feasts of the Assumption and the Decollation of John the Baptist, from a calendar, Canterbury?, 11th century, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 6v
The origin of this poem is debated. It includes many Irish and northern French or Flemish saints, leading some to claim that it was composed by an Irish or continental scholar working in England. There were certainly plenty of candidates: the inhabitants of several northern French churches fled to England following viking raids in the late 9th and early 10th century, while many Irish and continental scholars stayed at the West Saxon court. Alternatively, the surviving poem may have been based on calendars composed elsewhere but modified by someone working in England.
The date when the earliest surviving version of the poem was compiled is slightly easier to narrow down. The oldest copy was made after Alfred's wife, Ealhswith, died in 902, since it mentions her death in the verse for 5 December: ‘The fifth [day] has dear Ealhswith, true lady of the English’.
Ealhswith’s death mentioned in Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 14r
However, there could have been earlier versions of the poem. The references to Ealhswith and Alfred could have been added later and, indeed, one of the later calendars (Cotton MS Julius A VI) omits them. Instead of Ealhswith, the entry for 5 December in that calendar commemorates ‘dear Candida, true lady of the Franks’.
Verse about Candida, from Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v
The precise origins of the poem remains a mystery. However, the surviving copies show that the calendar continued to be read and copied for well over a century. It’s easy to see the appeal of a calendar with a verse for literally every occasion. Even to this day, we are fascinated by events which happened #OTD. At least we don’t have to write our tweets in verse!
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01 December 2017
Happy last month of 2017, dear readers! It’s hard to believe the year is nearly over — and we’re a bit sad to be leaving behind the fabulous characters in the calendar of Add MS 36684! As always, if you’d like to know more about the whole manuscript, see January’s post, and for more on medieval calendars, check out our calendar post from 2011.
Calendar pages for December, from a Book of Hours, St Omer or Thérouanne, c. 1320: Add MS 36684, ff. 12v–13r
Our artist has pulled out all the stops for his last calendar pages. In addition to the fabulous birds and hybrid animals decorating the borders of the first folio, there are two fully nude men and one partially nude woman (our labour of the month — more on her in a minute). The nude man in the left margin (modesty protected by the bar border) is having his nose nibbled on by a small animal, whose body was sadly cut off when the manuscript’s leaves were cropped. A dragon roars angrily below, and farther below him — again cropped — is the backside of another nude figure. In the right margin stands another nude man, complete with doe-ears and antennae. The bas-de-page shows a woman’s head atop a long, orange neck extending from between two legs, which are topped with wings.
Details of marginal figures: Add MS 36684, f. 12v
In the calendar entries themselves, you will notice two days outlined in gold ink. These can be considered one step up from the feast days (shown in red letters), as they are connected to the life of Christ and his mother, the Virgin Mary. On the first page, on 8 December, is the celebration of the Virgin Mary’s conception; and on the second page, as is expected on 25 December, is the birth of Christ.
December’s labour of the month is a partially nude woman baking bread in a brick oven. Baking and feasting are the traditional labours for the month of December; perhaps she has discarded some clothing because it’s hot in there!
Labour of the month for December: Add MS 36684, f. 12v
On the second page, we see the artist’s omission of the zodiac figure of Virgo, back in August, has left him without an established image to put in the niche. Having run through the rest of the zodiac figures a month early, either by choice or by mistake, he is left to make his own figure for December. Luckily for us, he presents a characteristically fantastic beast — green head, single orange horn, rose coloured body, and bright orange legs. For the first time in the calendar, there are not two heraldic hybrid figures on either side of the niche, but rather, a single creature with the head of a man and a long blue tail.
“Zodiac” figure for December: Add MS 36684, f. 13r
While our monthly discussion of Add MS 36684 is now at an end, remember you can go and look at the entire manuscript whenever you’d like on our Digitised Manuscripts site. Here’s to the end of a great year!
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01 November 2017
Ah, November – the days are shorter and it’s getting colder! Let’s dive into the 11th month as shown in Add MS 36684. If you’d like to know more about this fascinating Book of Hours, see January’s post, and for more on medieval calendars, check out our calendar post from 2011.
Calendar pages for November, from a Book of Hours, St Omer or Théouranne, c. 1320, Add MS 36684, ff. 11v–12r
The first page of November’s calendar is a riot of colour and decoration. Crowning the page is a lizard-bird hybrid creature, with a green head, lurid red lips, red feet and a long, feathered tail.
Detail of lizard creature, Add MS 36684, f. 11v
The right margin – known in medieval manuscript parlance as the ‘gutter’, because it falls between the two bound pages – includes the intriguing combination of a tonsured male head stuck between two long legs. Above him stands a stork-like figure with bright orange, spindly legs and a long, pointed beak.
Right margin, Add MS 36684, f. 11v
November’s labour of the month is arguably the creepiest scene we’ve had in this calendar, but how was it perceived by contemporary audiences? Our labourer wields an enormous axe. The animal in a box next to him is likely a hunting dog used to help capture the boar depicted at the labourer’s feet. The boar is about to be stunned with the back of the axe, before being slaughtered. This method is called ‘poleaxing’ and is the origin of the modern term. A poleaxe is a butcher’s axe with a hammer as well as a blade.
Slaughtering a boar: the labour of the month for November, Add MS 36684, f. 11v
A similar scene of slaughter for the month of December appears in the Bedford Hours (f. 12r), except the figure holds a giant mallet.
Slaughtering livestock at the beginning of winter ensured the animals were killed before they began to lose the weight gained over summer and autumn. Rural communities could then feast on the fresh meat and preserve as much as possible for the year’s meanest months. In fact, Blotmonath (blood month) was the Anglo-Saxon name for November. This may seem sinister to us now, but for them it must have held a promise of winter feasts and nourishment when food was scarce.
November’s calendar finishes on the second page with the zodiac figure of Capricorn, shown as a goat. As we discussed in August’s post, the artist is ahead of himself with zodiac figures; Capricorn is normally shown in December, as its period is December-January.
Capricorn, Add MS 36684, f. 12r
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01 October 2017
Hard to believe it, but it is now October. Let’s see what one of our favourite artists, the ever-creative talent behind Add MS 36684, has given us for this, the tenth month. If you’d like to know more about Additional MS 36684, check out January’s post, and for more on medieval calendars, please see our calendar post from 2011.
Calendar pages for October, from a Book of Hours, St Omer or Théouranne, c. 1320, Add MS 36684, ff. 10v–11r
The labour of the month for October, found at the bottom of the first page of October’s calendar, is somewhat ambiguous. The labourer stands in the usual gilded niche, and appears to be outdoors, given the greenery around his feet. He wears a sling made of cloth around his neck, to hold whatever he has been gathering or is planting. October’s labour is usually either planters sowing fields (as in the Hours of Joanna of Castile) or gathering grapes to make wine (as in the London Rothschild Hours). Another possibility is that the labourer is shown gathering acorns for animal feed.
Labour of the Month for October, Add MS 36684, f. 10v
On the second page, we have our next misplaced zodiac figure (as we pointed out in in August’s post): a centaur armed with a bow, the traditional figure for Sagittarius, which is the star sign spanning the second half of November and first part of December. The centaur has a particularly majestic tail, which extends out beyond the niche and into the margin. Sagittarius’s index and middle fingers on his right hand are raised in what might look to modern viewers as the ‘peace’ sign, but are in fact the two fingers used to grasp a bow string. We would wish him happy hunting, but he appears to have forgot something important — his arrows!
Sagittarius, Add MS 36684, f. 11r
A reminder that you can browse the whole of Additional MS 36684 in high definition on our Digitised Manuscripts site. The leaves are changing and the days are about to get much shorter — make sure you’ve gathered enough acorns and made enough wine to survive the coming winter.
01 July 2017
It’s July, which means 2017 is now halfway through — time to check in with the fantastic calendar of Additional MS 36684 for a look at the 7th month! If you’d like to know more about this Book of Hours, check out January’s post, and for more on medieval calendars in general, please see our calendar post from 2011.
Calendar pages for July, from a Book of Hours, St Omer or Théouranne, c. 1320, Add MS 36684, ff. 7v–8r
The marginal decoration for July is a riotous combination of brightly-coloured birds and butterflies, contorted human/animal hybrids, and a few marginal figures participating in warm-weather activities. The first is the man (or woman?) taking a nice relaxing bath in the lower left margin of the first calendar page.
Detail of a figure bathing, Add MS 36684, f. 7v
The second figure, to the right of the labour of the month (more on him in a minute), holds what appears to be a candle in each hand, perhaps a reference to the necessity of making candles in the summer, while the days are longer, in preparation for the dark winter months.
Detail of a figure holding candles, Add MS 36684, f. 7v
The labour of the month, dressed for warm weather in a short tunic and hat, holds the two handles on the shaft of his long, curved scythe. Within his architectural niche, he is pictured on grass, against a gold background reminiscent of the wheat traditionally harvested by July’s labour of the month.
Detail of a labour of the month for July, Add MS 36684, f. 7v
On the following folio, below the many saints’ days celebrated in the latter part of July — including St James the Apostle and Mary Magdalene — is the zodiac figure of Leo in his tiny Gothic niche. Leo, traditionally a symbol of fortitude, looks particularly happy in this instance, and rather than being painted a usual golden colour, is instead a dark grey with white accents — likely to contrast with the gold leaf background. Leo is flanked by two green hybrid animals and their instruments, posted on either side of his niche.
Detail of Leo, Add MS 36684, f. 8r
We hope you enjoy exploring the many figures and decoration for the July calendar pages in Additional MS 36684 – let us know your favourite! And remember, you can see all of Additional MS 36684 online on Digitised Manuscripts. Stay cool, medieval enthusiasts!
Medieval manuscripts blog recent posts
- A calendar page for November 2018
- A calendar page for October 2018
- A calendar page for September 2018
- A calendar page for August 2018
- A calendar page for July 2018
- A calendar page for June 2018
- A calendar page for May 2018
- A calendar page for April 2018
- A calendar page for March 2018
- A calendar page for February 2018