01 July 2016
Calendar page for July from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 7r
Summer is in full swing in the Bedford Hours calendar pages for the month of July.
Detail of miniatures of a man scything wheat and the zodiac sign Leo, from the calendar page for July, Add MS 18850, f. 7r
At the bottom of the folio is a miniature of a man engaged in a very typical labour of the month for July, scything wheat. Although he is surrounded by a bucolic landscape including a river and a small bridge, our peasant appears less than pleased about his task. Happily, his grumpy attitude is not shared by his companion at the bottom of the page, a remarkably jolly looking lion, for the zodiac sign Leo.
Detail of a marginal roundel of Julius Caesar, from the calendar page for July, Add MS 18850, f. 7r
On the middle left of the folio is a roundel miniature of an armoured king, crowned, holding a sword and a tablet headed with the letters ‘KL’ – a very simplified version of a medieval calendar. This king, the rubrics tell us, is Julius Caesar, for whom the month of July was named. The verses go on to describe how Caesar ‘fixed and put in order’ the months of the year that were ‘confused in the ancient calendar’ and for this achievement he was eternally memorialised.
Calendar page for July, Add MS 18850, f. 7v
The saints’ days for July continue on the following folio, accompanied by two marginal roundels. The first of these, on the middle left, shows a snarling dog who appears to be biting at a bright star; this is most likely intended to represent Canis, the star that the rubrics tell us is ‘reigning’ in the month of July. At the bottom is a less pleasant scene of Julius Caesar. He is here seated on this throne, raising his arm in alarm as another man plunges a dagger in his chest. Two men close by are also pulling daggers from their sheaths in a scene that illustrates how Caesar ‘was killed by his counsel.’
Detail of marginal roundels of Canis and the murder of Julius Caesar, from the calendar page for July, Add MS 18850, f. 7v
- Sarah J Biggs
01 June 2016
Calendar page for June from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 6r
More beautiful summer scenes greet us in the folios for June from the Bedford Hours.
Detail of miniatures of a man mowing and the zodiac sign Cancer, from the calendar page for June, Add MS 18850, f. 6r
On the lower section of the folio are the traditional miniatures of the labour of the month and the zodiac sign. On the left a peasant is at work mowing grass, with a waterwheel visible in the background. To the right is a lobster-like crab, for the zodiac sign Cancer.
Detail of a marginal roundel of Juno, from the calendar page for June, Add MS 18850, f. 6r
At the right of the folio is a miniature roundel of a crowned woman seated among chests full of gold and jewels. The rubrics at the bottom of the folio explain this unusual scene: this is Juno (Hera), who was both sister and wife of Jupiter (Zeus). The month of June is of course named after Juno, who was ‘called the goddess of riches’ and also, interestingly, ‘put all the young men to the test of bravery’.
Calendar page for June, Add MS 18850, f. 6v
Juno’s importance in the month of June is echoed on the following folio. Amongst the remainder of the saints’ days are two miniature roundels. The first shows the marriage of Hercules and Hebe, who was the cupbearer of the gods and the daughter of Juno and Jupiter. Hebe was said to have the power to give eternal youth, and June is a month in which one could believe in such things. The following scene shows two crowned kings greeting one another while holding branches of peace; the rubric is somewhat confusing but it most likely refers to the legendary peace between the Sabine king Titus Tatius and the Roman king Romulus, following which the two jointly ruled over Rome.
Detail of marginal roundels of the marriage of Hebe and Hercules and the peace between Titus Tatius and Romulus, from the calendar page for June, Add MS 18850, f. 6v
- Sarah J Biggs
01 May 2016
Calendar page for May from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 5r
All is lovely and bright in these calendar pages for May, in keeping with the joys of this most splendid of months.
Detail of miniatures of a man going hawking and the zodiac sign Gemini, from the calendar page for May, Add MS 18850, f. 5r
At the bottom of the folio is a typical ‘labour’ for May, albeit one in keeping with the aristocratic emphasis of this manuscript. On the left is a miniature of a man hawking, clad in luxurious clothing (note particularly the gold-embroidered stockings he is sporting). He rides a gray horse through a rural landscape with a castle in the distance. A similar landscape can be found to the right, where two blonde androgynous figures embrace, for the zodiac sign Gemini. They stand behind a gilded shield, which has been adorned by pricking in an excellent example of gold work.
Detail of a marginal roundel of the seven Pleiades, from the calendar page for May, Add MS 18850, f. 5r
The rubrics at the bottom of the folio add another dimension of understanding to the other miniature roundels for this month. On the upper right of this folio is a painting of the seven Pleiades, the mythological daughters of the titan Atlas and a sea-nymph. The eldest of these daughters is Maia (labelled Maya on the painting), who was the mother of Mercury (Hermes). The rubric informs us that the month of May is named after May, ‘because the aforesaid Mercury is called the god of eloquence and the master of rhetoric and marketing’ (‘merchandise’). This must certainly be a very early use of that latter term!
Calendar page for May, Add MS 18850, f. 5v
The emphasis on aristocratic and/or divine love continues on the following folio. The rubrics on this folio describe how Honour was married to Reverence, a marriage we can see witness by a group of praying men. Below this is a scene depicting ‘how the ancient nobles governed the people and the queens loved them’. A very pleasant image indeed!
Detail of marginal roundels of the marriage of Honour and Reverence and the governance of a city, from the calendar page for May, Add MS 18850, f. 5v
- Sarah J Biggs
02 April 2016
Calendar page for April from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 4r
Spring is well underway in the Bedford Hours calendar pages for April.
Detail of miniatures of a man gathering leaves and the zodiac sign Taurus, from the calendar page for April, Add MS 18850, f. 4r
At the bottom of the first folio is the standard (for this manuscript) two-part miniature. On the left, a man is carrying a leafy young tree past a flowing river, having presumably just trimmed the branches from the stump before him. He is well dressed for a labourer, wearing a fur-lined surcoat and carrying a long dagger on his belt. To his right is a bull for the zodiac sign Taurus, enjoying a lie-down in the sun.
Detail of a marginal roundel of Venus, from the calendar page for April, Add MS 18850, f. 4r
The marginal roundel at the right, however, displays the true central figure for the month of April – Venus, the goddess of love. The accompanying verses tell us that April was dedicated to Venus by the pagans, because Venus (the planet) is a ‘hot and moist and drenched planet’, much like the month of April.
Calendar page for April, Add MS 18850, f. 4v
The emphasis on Venus and April continues on the following folio. Alongside the conclusion of April’s saints’ days are two roundels relating to the goddess. On the middle left is a scene of the abduction of Proserpina (Persephone) in a cart drawn by two horses. According to mythology this abduction was ultimately instigated by Venus, who envied the young girl’s beauty and ordered her son, Eros, to loose his arrows so that all would be smitten with love for her, leading ultimately to Proserpina being carried down into the depths of Hades.
Detail of marginal roundels of the abduction of Proserpina and a flower festival, from the calendar page for April, Add MS 18850, f. 4v
The bottom roundel shows a more genial scene, illustrating, as the rubrics tell us, ‘how in April the pagans had a festival for the goddess of flowers.’
- Sarah J Biggs
25 March 2016
It’s Women’s History Month and to celebrate we are running a series of posts about medieval women. Today’s focus is an enigmatic poet who lived in 9th-century Constantinople. Kassia (b. 805/810, d. 843x867) was courageous, highly educated and beautiful. She was so beautiful, in fact, that the Emperor of Constantinople - Emperor Theophilus (d. 842AD) - wanted her as his wife. Not taken with the idea of becoming Empress, Kassia rejected his advances and chose instead to become an abbess and poet.
Kassia came from a noble family and was well-educated. In a letter to her, Theodore the Studite (d. 826) - one of the most important theologians of the 9th century - wrote that he was ‘astonished’ by her erudition, especially in one so young. He went on, ‘the fair form of your discourse has far more beauty than a mere specious prettiness’.
Theodore the Studite (right) from the Theodore Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean, 1066, Add MS 19352, f. 27v
Yet it was her prettiness that caught the eye of the Emperor in the year 830 CE. In this year, according to a number of Byzantine chroniclers, Kassia appeared in a ‘Bride Show’. These were events in which commissioners were sent throughout the empire to find possible wives for the Emperor and would bring them back to Constantinople to be displayed (some historians dispute whether they actually happened). According to the chroniclers, at one such show, Theophilus saw Kassia and, struck by her beauty, remarked ‘Ach, what a flood of base things come through woman’. Kassia, surefooted, replied, ‘but also from woman better things spring’. Her response – both witty and candid – espouses the Christian idea that through the Virgin Mary, Jesus brought redemption to mankind.
After rejecting the hand of the Emperor, Kassia became a nun at a convent in Xerolophos, Constantinople’s seventh hill. There she became a prolific poet and composer. Of the hundreds of hymn composers from the Eastern Church, only four women can be positively identified and only one of these – Kassia -- had her works incorporated into official service books for use in church worship. She also wrote secular works. The British Library holds a collection of her epigrams. In it she displays her sharp mind and sharp wit. She speaks disparagingly of thoughtlessness, writing, ‘There is absolutely no cure for stupidity.’ She went on, ‘knowledge in a stupid person is a bell on a pig’s snout’.
Kassia's Epigrams from Works of Demetrius Cydones and others, Eastern Mediterranean, 16th Century, Add MS 10072, f.94r
Kassia was also courageous. 9th-century Constantinople was rocked by fierce debate over the legitimacy of religious images, but just as she was unafraid to reject the advances of the Emperor, so too Kassia stood up to defend the veneration of the icons. In one of her verses she writes, ‘I hate silence when it is time to speak’. And her courage was not only demonstrated in her writing, but in her actions too. In another of his letters to her, Theodore thanks Kassia for helping one of his disciples who has been imprisoned by the authorities for his defence of icon-worship.
An image of the destruction of icons from the Theodore Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean, 1066, Add MS 19352, f. 88r
Kassia’s best known and most popular work is a hymn for Holy Wednesday, in which she gives voice to a nameless woman from the gospels. The woman appears in an episode in the gospels, whereby Christ, dining in the house of a wealthy man, is anointed by a woman (Matthew 26: 6-13; Mark 14: 3-9), whom Luke describes as having led a sinful life (Luke 7: 36-50).
The anointing of Christ's feet from Xanthopulus and Ephraem the Syrian, Eastern Mediterranean, 4th quarter of the 14th Century, Egerton MS 3157, f. 45v
A fine copy of Kassia’s poem survives in a 16th-century manuscript held by the British Library, where Kassia imagines the woman’s lament.
Kassia's Hymn for Holy Wednesday, from a collection of Hymns and Canons, Eastern Mediterranean, 16th century, Add MS 39618, f. 8v
The text reads as follows:
Woe is me, for the love of adultery surrounded me with darkness:
A lightless night of sin.
Accept the springs of my tears,
As you who disperse the waters of the sea From the clouds.
Bow down to the sighs of my heart,
As you bent the heavens, by your inapprehensible incarnation.
I kiss your purest feet and wipe them with my own tresses.
I kiss your feet whose tread Eve heard in Paradise
Where, frightened, she hid herself in fear.
Who can count the multitude of my sin and the depths of your judgment?
Wherefore, O my Saviour and the Redeemer of my soul
Do not turn away from your handmaiden, as your mercy is boundless.
(Translation modified and adapted from Anne M. Silvas, cited below.)
Hear what Kassia’s poem probably sounded like in this video. Happy Women’s History Month!
Anna M. Silvas, ‘Kassia the Nun c.810-865: an Appreciation’, in Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience 800-1200, ed. Lynda Garland (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), pp. 17-39.
Also In Our Series:
01 March 2016
Calendar page for March from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 3r
March sees the beginning of springtime proper, and these folios from the Bedford Hours reflect all the contradictions of the new season.
Detail of miniatures of a man cutting vines and the zodiac sign Aries, from the calendar page for March, Add MS 18850, f. 3r
At the bottom of the first folio is a miniature of a man hard at work trimming vines with an unusual-looking tool; he appears to be working in the dead of night, under a starry sky. Next to him is a rather jaunty-looking ram, for the zodiac sign Aries.
Detail of a marginal roundel of Mars, from the calendar page for March, Add MS 18850, f. 3r
The roundel in the middle right margin depicts an armoured warrior with a forked beard, holding a sword and a pike. This (literally) martial gentleman is intended to represent Mars, for as the rubric explains, ‘the pagans called the month of march after their god of war’.
Calendar page for March, Add MS 18850, f. 3v
The beauty of spring is reflected in the decoration of the March calendar pages, adorned as they are with bluebells, roses, and less realistically, golden leaves. The roundels illustrate the season further, depicting, as the rubrics tell us, how in March ‘everything becomes green’, and below, ‘how in March thunder and storms are born’.
Detail of marginal roundels of a two scenes of March weather, from the calendar page for March, Add MS 18850, f. 3v
- Sarah J Biggs
01 February 2016
Exploding Eyes, Beer from Bath-Water and Butter from Nettles: the Extraordinary Life of Brigid of Kildare
Today, February 1st, is the feast day of saint Brigid of Kildare (d. c. 524). Brigid or ‘Brigit’ or ‘Bride’ was a virgin and abbess, and is the patron saint of dairymaids, poets, blacksmiths and healers. She is one of the most popular medieval Irish saints, with numerous churches and shrines dedicated to her both in Ireland and elsewhere. Her iconographical emblem is the cow.
There are multiple versions of the life of Brigid in both Old Irish and Latin. The earliest, written in Latin, dates from around a century after her death. All the versions are hazy in their biographical detail, but what they lack in biography, they more than make up for with colourful miracle stories.
A lot of the stories about Brigid, in each of the versions of her life, or ‘hagiography’, revolve around food – we find miracles associated with milk, butter, bacon and also beer. The library holds a very early manuscript of one of the Latin versions of Brigid’s life, Additional MS 34124. It dates from 850 and comes from Benediktbeuren in Germany. There is a story in this manuscript about how one night Brigid was expecting guests and realised she was short of food. Fearing that the evening’s feast would be ruined, she was able to change nettles into butter and tree bark into ‘the richest and most delicious bacon’. (Chapter 119)
Many of these miracle stories mirror stories from the Gospels. In John 2:2-12, we find the story of how Christ turns water into wine at the Supper at Cana. In the earliest Latin life of Brigid, by Cogitosus, we find a similar story in which Brigid realises she has no beer to give to her guests, whereupon ‘with the power of her faith’ was able to turn bath-water into beer. (Chapter 8)
Alongside the miracles associated with food and beer, there are also miracles involving amorous misadventures. A story from the earliest Irish life, from a manuscript in the Bodleian library in Oxford (MS Rawlinson B. 512) describes how a man came to Brigid’s house and asked for her hand in marriage. Having sworn a vow of virginity, Brigid was not taken with the idea. She declined the offer, but - ever magnanimous – offered her suitor an alternative. The text relates how she instructed him to go to a wood to the west of his house. In the wood, she tells him, he will find a house in which there is a beautiful maiden – he will know her because she will be washing her father’s head. Perhaps fearing that the suitor’s charms might be lost on this maiden, Brigid tells him ‘I shall bless your face and your speech so that they shall take pleasure in whatever you will say’. (Chapter 15) Brigid might make a suitable patron saint for first dates as well.
One of the Latin lives has a different version of this story. In this version Brigid is encouraged to take the hand of her suitor by her father and brothers. Reluctant to do this, she prays to God to be afflicted with a bodily deformity, whereupon, the life describes how ‘one of her eyes burst and liquefied in her head’. (Chapter 19)
A much later writer, Gerald of Wales (d. c. 1220) in his topographical guide to Ireland, dedicated to Henry II, has extensive descriptions of Brigid’s abbey and shrine. He describes a fire kept burning at the shrine, which is tended by a small group of nuns. The fire never goes out, and despite burning for centuries, it never produces any ash. It is surrounded by a hedge, which no man is allowed to enter. Only women are allowed to tend to the fire and to blow on it. Gerald relates a story about how an archer lept over the hedge and blew on the fire. On jumping back over the hedge, the archer began to lose his senses and blow into the faces of everyone he met. Then, consumed by thirst, he begged his friends to take him to some nearby water, where he drank so much that he burst. (Chapter 77)
You can see an image of Brigid’s fire, from a manuscript of Gerald of Wales’ Topographia Hiberniae (Royal MS 13 B VIII, f.23v) held at the library here. In the right of the image we can see the archer ill-advisedly blowing on the fire and then subsequently attempting to sate his thirst at a river.
Here you can see two of calendar pages from Books of Hours (prayer-books) for the month of February. In them, you can see saint Brigid’s name at the start, next to February 1st. This one (Additional MS 21114, f. 1v), produced in Northern France in the thirteenth century, shows a man cutting branches. The word ‘brigide’ is visible in the third line.
In this one (Egerton MS 2076, f. 2r) produced in Germany in the early sixteenth century, the words ‘Brigide virginis’ are visible in the second line.
Mary Wellesley, Feast of Saint Brigid, 2016.
For a translation of the earliest life of Brigid in Latin, by Cogitosus, see S. Connolly and J.M. Picard, ‘Cogitosus: Life of Saint Brigit’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 117 (1987), 5-27.
A translation of the earliest Old Irish life of Brigid can be found in M. A. O’Brien, ‘The Old Irish Life of Saint Brigit’, Irish Historical Studies, I (1938-9), 121-34.
A translation of another version of the Latin life, from a manuscript found in the library’s collection can be read in S. Connolly, ‘Vita Sanctae Brigitae: Background and Historical Value’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 118 (1988), 5-49.
A translation of Gerald of Wales’ Topographia Hibernica can be read in Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, ed. and trans. by John J. O’Meara (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982).
Calendar page for February from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 2r
The calendar pages for February are just as lavishly decorated as those for January, filled with coloured initials and gold foliage. At the bottom of the first folio is a miniature of another pleasant winter labour, that of warming oneself before a fire. The gentleman in this scene has just removed one of his boots and is extending his foot towards a roaring fire, presumably after coming in from the cold.
Detail of the miniatures for warming oneself and the zodiac sign Pisces, from the calendar page for February, Add MS 18850, f. 2r
Alongside is a miniature of two fish connected by a single line, hovering above an ocean and below a star-studded sky – this for the zodiac sign, Pisces.
Detail of a marginal roundel with Februa and flowers, from the calendar page for February, Add MS 18850, f. 2r
Above in a roundel is an elegantly-dressed lady in a red dress trimmed with ermine; she is holding a bunch of flowers close to her face. This unusual scene is explained by the rubrics at the bottom of the folio, which describe how this month is named after a woman called ‘Februa’, who ‘according to the poets’ was the mother of Mars, the god of war. Rather unusually, she is said to have conceived her son by ‘kissing and adoring a flower’.
Calendar page for February, Add MS 18850, f. 2v
The remaining saints’ days are laid out in the following folio, with a bit of space left blank because of the shortness of the month. The roundels once again illustrate the bottom verses, which describe a procession around the city and the annual February Festival of Fools.
Detail of a marginal roundels of a city procession and the Festival of Fools, from the calendar page for February, Add MS 18850, f. 2v
- Sarah J Biggs
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