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




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   I am as lyght as byrde in bowe
     ...I am as light as a bird on a bough


Typical May scenes:

  • Falconry

  • Flowering branches

Bohun Psalter, British Library Egerton 3277

Bohun Psalter,
British Library Egerton 3277

Labors of the Month


Continue to plant and harrow; weed fields; wean calves and lambs; begin making cheese; capture bee swarms.



Weed wheat and rye fields planted last fall. Continue plowing, planting, and harrowing.


Plant cabbage, alliums (onion, garlic, leeks, etc.), flax, hemp, and dye plants such as madder and woad. The notion of “ornamentals” would have been unfamiliar to medieval people, for nearly all plants were recognized for their utility as well as beauty even roses and lilies had medicinal uses.

Pastures resumed lush growth to nourish calves and lambs; good pasturage also nourished cows and ewes and fostered milk production. During this season, the milk from a single cow could be used to produce nearly 100 pounds of cheese.


Bees begin to swarm in May, and captured swarms can be used to start additional hives.

Labors of MAY from Early Calendars

May, Salzburg Labors of the Months, St. Peter's Abbey, Austria

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

Salzburg Labors of the Months, Austrian National MuseumMay Day marked the beginning of summer. This MAI figure holds a flowering "May branch" in his right hand, and an elongated string of objects that ends in a trifurcated "tassel" in his left.

He wears a long-sleeved, blue and green tunic over short, white braies or trousers that are just visible beneath the tunic's hem. A heavy red mantle covers his shoulders, and is pinned over the right shoulder with a round brooch. His green leggings are held up by red bindings; on his feet he wears brown shoes.

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. It is now in Vienna's Austrian National Library. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Fulda Sacramentary,

Fulda Sacramentary,
Fulda, Germany,
980 CE

The laborer for May in the Fulda Sacramentary kneels on tussocks of green grass, his arms around leafy saplings at either side.  His left Fulda Sacramentary, Fulda, Germanypalm is upright and facing the viewer; his right palm is also upright but facing toward the other hand. He wears a pale yellow tunic, and has a faint smile.  The leaves on the pruned saplings are oak-like.


At the right is the calendar page from the Fulda Sacramentary fragment. In the center is Annus, the year. In each corner is a season, and the twelve months are portrayed in vertical columns, six to the left and six to the right. Day and night are in the round medallions top and bottom.

May, Zwiefalten, Zwiesel Monastery, Stuttgart, Germany,

Zwiefalten monatsbilder,
Zwiesel Monastery, Stuttgart, Germany,
c. 1145 CE


Bee skep, Bodleian Library Ashmole 1511,
   Bee skep, c. 1200 CE

May's labor in the Zwiefalten calendar is a young man holding, in his left hand, a nest cradling two birds. He peers upward toward another nest with three birds, sitting at the top of a stylized tree. In his right hand he holds a skep, a straw beehive -- for bees often swarmed in May, and if you could capture them with your skep, you would have a new hive for your apiary.

The odd sapling supporting the nest has trefoil leaves below; on either side of the nest are two round objects hat may be fruits.

Zwiefalten, Zwiesel Monastery, Stuttgart, Germany





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.

Charité- sur- Loire Psalter, British Library Harley 2895

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

A heavily robed and mantled (but barefoot) figure sits on a bench with a red cushion. His left hand is raised, and he may be holding a faintly drawn, three-leaved plant, perhaps a clover leaf. His right hand is angled downward, his index finger point over his knee. He wears an ankle-length, pale green tunic, and over his right shoulder is a reddish mantle that wraps around his back and reappears below his left arm. Behind him stand the twins, Gemini, the astrological sign for May.

The "labor" for May at the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Amiens, seen below, is similar. 


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.

May, Amiens Cathedral; image from Wikimedia Commons

May, from the Cathedral Basilica
of our Lady of Amiens,
c. 1250 CE

Like the figure above, our May Laborer is sitting comfortably, this time beneath a leafy arbor. In his left hand he holds a flowering branch; his right hand rests on his knee. He is barefoot, but wears a long-sleeved, belted, ankle-length tunic. A mantle is draped over his left shoulder and arm. In the taller tree to his left, a bird perches on a nest high on a branch. The branch to the bearded man's right has leaves and perhaps fruit hanging from the uppermost branch.







Amiens cathedral, the largest surviving Gothic cathedral in France, was begun in 1220 and completed in fifty years. The labors of the month appear in two sets of quatrefoil rows on its west facade. The upper rows in each set are images from the Zodiac; the lower row contains the labors of the months. This image is from Wikimedia Commons.


Falconry as a "Labor of the Month"

A frequent spring figure is the falconer, usually on horseback;
four of these images are seen below.

May falconer, Shaftesbury Psalter, BL Lansdowne 383

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

 May falconer, Fecamp Psalter, image from Wikimedia Commons

Fécamp Psalter, National Library of the Netherlands,
c. 1180 CE

May falconer, Psalter, British Library Royal 2 B II


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

Bohun Psalter, British Library Egerton 3277

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

A gloveless falconer (ouch!) on a very small horse looks back at his bird, whose long jesses hang below the falconer's hand. The falconer tidbits his bird, perhaps a goshawk, on his gauntlet-covered fist. Riding at a fair pace, the falconer looks back at the bird on his fist, preparing for the cast. Unusual in being on foot, this falconer reaches into the bag of food at his waist, preparing to tidbit the bird that sits on his gloved fist, its jesses dangling below.

This psalter is the oldest manuscript in the British Library to have been made for a woman. Its style, Romanesque, became popular following the first crusade. It uses vivid colors
-- blue from lapis lazuli, red from vermillion, green from buckthorn berries; and is illuminated with gold throughout.

The Fécamp Psalter (KB 76) was made for a woman in Normandy in the late 12th century. Unlike most psalters, its calendar provides colorful, full page images for the labors of the months. It is now in the collections of the National Library of the Netherlands, Den Haag. Image from Wiki Commons.

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.

The Bohun Psalter  was probably made for one of the Earls of Hereford in the late 1300s, or for Mary de Bohun, who in 1380 married Henry of Bolingbroke. Its calendar has a dozen large, historiated Ks, each  decorated with a  labor of the month.



Labors of the Months

By thys fyre
I warme my handys

And with my spade
I delfe my landys

Here I sette
my  thinge to sprynge

And here I here
the fowlis synge

I am as lyght
as byrde in bowe

And I wede my corne
well i-know

With my sythe
my mede I mawe

And here I shere
my corne full lowe

With my flayll
I erne my brede

And here I sawe
my whete so rede

At Martynesmasse
I kylle my swyne

And at Christes masse
I drynke redde wyne

Oxford, BL Digby 88 (SC1689),
1450 CE


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