For gardeners with a sense of history

OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312




Early gardens

Early plants

Growing heirloom plants

Garden folklore

Resources for gardeners

Site map

Contact us

     By thys fyre I warme my handys
  By this fire I warm my hands...

Typical January scenes:

  • Janus, with two faces, one looking back and the other looking forward

  • Feasting

  • Keeping warm by the fire

Labors of the Month

Celebrate Yuletide, mend and make tools, repair fences, clear ditches, cut firewood, breed sows, manure fields


Early lambs are born in late January.


Dung from the barns was stockpiled to be mixed with marl (a soil mixture of clay and calcium carbonate or "lime") and spread upon the fields.

Labors of JANUARY from Early Calendars

January, Salzburg Labors of the Months, National Library of Austria

Salzburg Labors of the Months,
 St. Peter's Abbey,
c. 818 CE

Salzburg Labors of the Months, National Library of AustriaLabeled with "IAN," the first three letters of the month, the figure for January shows a man hunkered down by a small, smoky gridiron over which he warms his hands. He is dressed for cold weather in a heavy, ankle-length striped garment with long sleeves and tight cuffs. All of the other figures portrayed on the Salzburg page  wear shorter tunics, so it may be that this figure is wrapped in a long mantle over a shorter tunic. His feet are covered with shoes. This "labor" -- a figure warming himself by a fire -- is very common in calendars throughout Europe.

Dating to the early 800s, the Salzburg manuscript  (Codex 387 fol-90v) from which this figure comes is one of the oldest calendars of its kind (see a larger image here). It is now in Vienna's Austrian National Library. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

January, Fulda Sacramentary fragment, Bamberg Staatsbliothek

Fulda Sacramentary fragment,
Bamberg State Library,
Fulda, Germany,

980 CE

Fulda Sacramentary fragment, Bamberg Staatsbliothek

January's two-faced Janus figure wears clothing modeled on classical Roman dress -- knee-length yellow dalmatic, or tunic with long sleeves, over which is draped a floor-length purple cape or toga, indicating the high status of its wearer. The toga is fastened above the right shoulder, to leave the sword arm free. Green leggings cover his legs, and he wears short boots. In his right hand he holds a gladius or sword. He stands beneath a low arch supported by two columns. The uneven ground beneath his feet is surprisingly green for January. Such Janus figures are very common as a "labor of the month" for January.

The calendar page (above) from the Fulda Sacramentary fragment (see larger image here). In the center is Annus, the year, with Day above him and Night, below, in round medallions. In each corner is one of the four seasons, and the labors for the twelve months are arranged in columns at either side, six to the left and six to the right. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

To the left in this January scene, a barefoot, barelegged driver in a short tunic and cape uses a long goad to guide four oxen pulling a heavy plow. A bearded, balding plowman grips the Y-shaped handles of the wheeled, heavy plow. Behind him comes the sower, scattering seed into the open furrow. The plowman wears a short blue tunic, belted at the waist; his legs are covered by cross-gartered leggings, and he wears black shoes. The sower is wearing a short, gray, belted tunic and brown leggings. He carries his seed bag on his back, grasping it over his right shoulder with his right hand. He reaches behind himself to gather seed from the bag with his left hand, and then scatters it along the furrow. 

Anglo-Saxon Calendar, British Library Cotton Tiberius B.V.

Anglo-Saxon Calendar, British Library
Cotton Tiberius B.V. Part I;
England [Winchester?], c. 1050

The wheeled plow was a technological marvel, allowing farmers to cultivate heavier clay soils. While simple plows could only scratch a groove in the surface of a field, the wheeled plow had a heavy blade, or colter, that sliced deeply into the soil ahead of the metal plowshare. While two oxen could pull the older plow, the wheeled plow required four or more.

January, Shaftesbury Psalter, British Library

Shaftesbury Psalter, British Library
Lansdowne 383, England,
 c. 1135 CE

Another two-headed Janus figure, holding a bowl in his right hand and a staff in his left. The head on the left wears a yellow cap with a rolled brim; that on the right, a red cap. He has green leggings and long-tipped shoes, a style that first became popular in Europe in the 12th century. His red, long-sleeved, ankle-length surcoat is split nearly to the waist on the left side, perhaps to show off the green leggings. His surcoat has a decorated yoke.







Probably made at the nunnery at Shaftesbury, Dorset, this psalter with its prayers, psalms, and calendar is the oldest manuscript in the British Library to have been made for a woman. Dating to the early 1100s,  its Romanesque style became popular after the first crusade. It has rich colors throughout -- blue from lapis lazuli, red from vermillion, green from buckthorn berries.

January, Zwiefalten calendar, Zwiesel Monastery, 
Stuttgart, Germany

Zwiefalten monatsbilder, Zwiesel Monastery,
Stuttgart, Germany,
c. 1150 CE



Le Livre de Lancelot du Lac, France, Beinecke MS. 229The January labor seen to the left -- a rabbit hunt -- is unusual. A hunter wearing a pointed cap is accompanied by a racing dog and a fleeing hare. The man wears a long-sleeved garment and a warm cloak that covers his left shoulder, and fastens on his right, leaving his right hand and arm free. In his right hand he holds a long stick, probably for use in carrying home his catch.



The Zwiefalten calendar or monatsbilder,  (Cod hist 2° 415, fol.17v) shows the Zodiac figure and the labor for each month, in concentric circles around a central figure representing the year (see a larger image here). This calendar is now in the collections of the Wurttemberg State Library, Stuttgart, Germany. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Hunterian Psalter , Glasgow Library
Scotland,  c. 1170 CE

Many calendars show this labor, the killing of  livestock prior to butchering, in November or December, rather than January as here. The butcher stands astride the horned cow. He holds the ax with the blade to the rear in order to strike the animal's forehead with the butt to stun the beast. Then he will dispatch it by cutting its throat.

The mustachioed butcher wears the knee-length tunic of a farmer, with a sash at the waist, the long ends of which hang down his back. His legs are covered with red stockings, and he wears short black boots.

November and December were the months in which farmers butchered livestock that couldn't be carried through the winter. In Britain, this traditionally happened on Martinmas Day, November 11. Some of the meat would be eaten then, a time of rare abundance, but most would be preserved -- by drying, smoking, salting, or pickling -- for the winter.

January, Charité- sur- Loire Psalter, 
British Library

 Charité-sur-Loire Psalter,
British Library Harley 2895,
c. 1175 CE

Many medieval calendars show both the labor of the month and the sign of the Zodiac for that month, as in this roundel. At the left, Aquarius pours water from a large vessel. At right, a man feasts. While Aquarius has long hair, bare feet, and no clothing other than a loosely draped red cloth from the hips down, the short-haired, feasting man wears a long-sleeved blue garment and a red cloak over his shoulders. In his left hand he holds a tall, black cup; with his right, he gestures gracefully ("Plus de vin,
garçon"?). The small table before him is covered with a white cloth, upon which are a round loaf and a bowl.





The Charité-sur-Loire Psalter (BL Harley 2895) was created in central France c. 1175, CE. Now in the collections of the British Library, this psalter begins with a calendar whose glowing labors of the months appear as illuminated roundels.

January, Psalter, British Library Royal 2 B II

Psalter, British Library
Royal 2 B II, France,
c. 1250 CE

Flanked by shutters or doors with elaborate ironwork hinges, a Janus figure wearing an odd cap is feasting. The face to the left is eating; that to the right is drinking deeply from a cup. He wears a bright blue, long-sleeved garment, and is loosely wrapped in a red mantle. On his feet are black shoes. The table before him is draped with a white cloth, and on it sits a small bowl, a larger bowl, and a small flagon.


Made in France in the first half of the 13th century, this illuminated psalter has twelve miniatures showing the labors of the months. It was written for a nun, perhaps at Nantes. It is now in the collections of the British Library.

A royal Yuletide feast, complete with a seated harper, lower right corner, who provides music. The crowned and mantled king and queen, seated at a cloth-covered table, gesture in conversation, while a man in a hat and no mantle looks on from the left. On the table are footed bowls filled with fowl and fish, a loaf of bread, and ewers of, perhaps, wine. The queen has her goblet before her; the king's is being carried in by the man at the left. At the corners of the image are ivy leaves, a plant that is strongly associated with the winter solstice.


The Queen Mary Psalter, British Library Royal 2 B VII, made in London at Westminster
or in East Anglia( ?) c. 1315 CE.

Hungerford Hours,
British Library Addit 61887,

England, 1335 CE

A brown-robed, cowled, black-booted figure in a broad-brimmed hat sits next to a hot fire, stirring the contents of a long-legged, close-necked black pot. The gilded background of this scene adds a cozy glow.

Medieval bronze cooking pot
Medieval bronze cooking pot

The Hungerford book of hours (BL Additional 61887) was created in England in the mid-1300s, and contains twelve illuminated roundels showing the labors of the month. Fragments of this manuscript are found in several different collections; this fragment is in the British Library. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

January, Bohun Psalter, British Library 
Egerton 3277

Bohun Psalter,
British Library Egerton 3277,
England, c. 1360 CE

A bare-legged, bare-footed man supports one leg to warm his bare foot by a roaring fire. He wears a red, broad-brimmed hat with the brim turned up the back. His blue, high-necked, long-sleeved tunic, reaching only to his knees, suggests that he is a farmer rather than an aristocrat; over his shoulders is a short red cloak that is fastened above his right shoulder. He appears to be partially sitting on a tall stool, visible just behind him.


The Bohun Psalter (BL Egerton 3277)) was probably made for one of the Earls of Hereford in the late 1300s, or for or for Mary de Bohun, who in 1380 married Henry of Bolingbroke. Its calendar has a dozen historiated
Ks (as in Kalendae) decorated with the  labors of the months.


Home | Early gardens | Early plants | Growing heirloom plants | Garden folklore | Resources | Site map


Botanists are among those who know that, in spite of the rude shocks of life,
it is well to have lived, and to have seen the everlasting beauty of the world.
F.D. Drewitt


Copyright ©2015 S.E.S. Eberly
All Rights Reserved

Contact us