New Year, New Labours

The beginning of another year is usually a good time to break out a new calendar. I know I have.

In a similar vein to our cartoonish calendars today, Medieval Calendars can be elaborately decorated and symbolic. The most significant feasts or celebrations are often written in gold or red ink (hence the phrase ‘red letter days’).

Along with listing these important dates, many medieval calendars include a miniature of a scene of the ‘labour of the month.’ I have spoken about these ‘labours’ before. They were fairly consistent, and would have been recognisable to a medieval audience.

Each month depicts a different activity appropriate to that particular time of year – for example, July is the Wheat Harvest, September is the Grape Harvest. These can offer some of the best evidence of the everyday work and leisure activities of the common medieval man or woman.

January Labor of the Month

Above is the British Library’s ‘Isabella Breviary,’ created for Queen Isabella of Castile  in the 15th Century.

In the lower margin is a scene that combines two of the most common ‘labours’ for January – feasting, and warming yourself by the fire.

Although this is a particularly elaborate specimen, not owned by the everyday medieval sort, the image itself would have been recognised to all through other art works – wood carvings, stained glass, and so on.

Although these labours often require a little explaining to a modern viewer, unfamiliar as most of us are with the agricultural cycle which they are based on, once we know what we are looking at we realise that we are really not as different as we think to our medieval ancestors.

I hope everyone spends January as is traditional – feasting, and warming yourself by the fire.

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