And at Christes masse I drynke redde wyne
...And at Christmas I drink red wine
Butchering meat animals
Labors of the Month
Celebrate Yuletide; sit by the fire to make and mend tools, spin and weave flax;
outside, gather firewood, slaughter meat animals and process meat, manure fields.
Most outdoor work was
completed by December; Yuletide feasting centered on the
winter solstice, December 20 or 21, and was celebrated
for twelve days. With the advent of Christianity,
Yuletide came to include Christian celebration of
Cristes mćsse, December 25.
Sows were bred in December
or January so that they would farrow in March or April; piglets stayed with their
mothers until August, when they went pannaging in the woods for
acorns and beechnuts. Pigs were prolific breeders; whereas cows and sheep had
one or perhaps two offspring at a time, pigs could have five or six or even
more. Because pigs cost so little to
feed, even the poor usually kept a few.
Processing meat was most efficient during the cold
weather months from November through January. Butchering resulted in supplies of
beef and pork, as well as mutton and chevon (goat). Some of the meat was eaten
immediately (for example, during the Yuletide feasts). Much of it was preserved
-- by smoking, pickling, salting, or drying -- to produce such delicacies as sausage,
ham, bacon or fatback, corned beef and dried beef, and jerky. Every part of the
carcass was used; in addition to meat, the process also provided leather,
pigskin, sheepskin, bone, hooves (for gelatin), and horn.
December was also a good time for gathering
firewood. Chopping down trees wasn't permitted, but people were allowed to take
downed branches, and to cut small branches and deadwood from living trees. These sustainable
practices meant that firewood could be harvested year after year.
Labors of December from Early Calendars
Salzburg Labors of the
c. . 818 CE
December's cold weather made it a good season for
butchering and processing meat. Our blonde, clean-shaven laborer for this month wears a
red tunic, long-sleeved and knee-length, that is the same color as the hog whose
hind leg he is gripping. In his right hand, he
brandishes a long sword, and he
appears to be preparing to kill the pig. He
has red bindings for his leggings, and wears black
Drawn more accurately than the
oxen of June, the hog has
a ring through its nose, bristles along its back, and the traditional curly
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.
Images from Wikimedia Commons.
Martyrologium, Wandalbert von
c. 820 CE
Responding to the
cold January weather, our laborer here
balances on one leg with the help of his walking
stick, and holds his other foot over the warm
fire. Despite being barefooted, he is warmly
dressed in a short red tunic, long black
leggings, a green mantle, green hood, and
brimmed hat. Below him to the left is the Zodiac
sign for this month, Sagittarius.
Wandalbert von Prüm wrote his
Martyrologium (I. Cod. Reg. Lat. 438) in Germany in the 9th century; it is now
in the Vatican Library in Rome.
processing is again the order of the day in this
strangely enough, our laborer wears nothing
except a long, green mantle, draped over his
bare shoulders. His right hand clutches a large
knife; above it hangs the head of the animal.
Calendar page from the Fulda
Sacramentary. In the center is Annus, the year.
In each corner is a season, and the twelve months
are arranged, six to the left and six to the
right, in vertical columns. Day and night are in
the round medallions top and bottom.
British Library Cotton Tiberius B.V.i.,
England [Winchester?], c. 1050
In this labor from theAnglo-Saxon Calendar,
five laborers work together to clean the grain. To
the left, two barefoot men in short tunics carry a
huge basket of grain suspended from a pole that
rests across their shoulders. Each man is
also carrying a notched pole, similar to the notched
ladder used by many cultures as a low-tech stairway.
This suggests that the men will be emptying their
load into a granary whose door is
well above ground level.
In the center, two men thresh with green-handled flails, raising a cloud of
On the right, a
barefoot man shakes a round, red-rimmed winnowing
basket to remove the chaff from the threshed grain.
At the far right, a bearded man with a toothed tally stick
is recording the size of
Granary in Somerset
c. 1135 CE
Two men wearing long, warm tunics, carry bundles of firewood on their
backs. To the right, a wyvern sings, its long tail twining around a piller.
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, it’s
Romanesque, became popular
following the first crusade, with vivid colors -- blue from lapis lazuli, red
from vermillion, green from buckthorn berries, and illuminated with gold
c. 1145 CE
This Zwiefalten laborer uses a long knife to begin cutting
up a hog, making a long incision down the back
of the carcass. The hog rests on a decorated
surface, perhaps a platter.
Zwiefalten calendar (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.
British Library Harley 2895,
c. 1175 CE
a hog by its nose, at lower right a hog calmly awaits the blow that will render it
unconscious. The long-haired laborer holds the hatchet over his head, gripping
it with both hands and readying it for the downward swing. Its butt, rather than
its blade, will strike the hog, and knock it unconscious. Only then will the butcher will
cut its throat to kill it. The laborer wears a short blue
tunic, no leggings, and low boots. Behind him, looking on benignly, is
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.
Fécamp Psalter, made
now in National
Library of the Netherlands
c. 1180 CE
In the upper panel, the butcher stands astride a
black hog, holding the axe with both hands,
getting ready to strike the blow that will
knock the beast unconscious. The butcher wears a knife
in a sheath attached to his belt. On either side
stands a pollard tree, perhaps an oak that
provided acorns for this hog to eat.
In the lower panel, the carcass of the hog is
singed over a three-legged brazier to remove the
stiff bristles. The white-coifed, mustachioed
laborer uses a scraper to assist with hair removal.
On the ground beside him is a large bowl and a
Hogs weren't typically skinned; instead, the
bristles were singed off; a process believed to
close the pores in the skin and allow the meat
-- especially the fatback or bacon and the hams
-- to be cured and stored more effectively.
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.
Royal 2 B II, France,
c. 1250 CE
The white-coifed butcher prepares to swing his ax as the
hog cowers at his feet, awaiting the blow. In an unusual touch, a farm dog is
seen in the right corner, perhaps waiting for scraps to come his way.
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.
Queen Mary Psalter,
British Library Royal 2 B VII,
made in London at Westminster
or in East Anglia,
c. 1315 CE.
To the left, the laborer prepares to stun the hog
using the butt of his ax. On the right, the carcass has been suspended from a
crosspiece, and another man has begun to butcher it. All parts of the hog would
be used; in addition to the cuts of meat prized as hams, chops, bacon, sausage,
and steaks, the bones and scraps were used to make headcheese, hooves to make
gelatin, skin to be tanned.
At the corners of this scene are clover blossoms.
Only two months shown in this psalter have unique flowers: February (dianthus or gillyflower)
and December (clover, trifolium).
"Clover" was a name shared by more than 300
plants, each of which typically has three (tri-) leaves (folia).
The high esteem in which trifolia have been held, even in medieval times,
reflects the way these leguminous plants increase the fertility of the fields in which
clover are colonized by bacteria on their roots; these bacteria can extract
nitrogen from the air and concentrate it in nodules on the roots. When the plant
dies, the nitrogen is released into the soil. A good cover crop of clover
can fix as much as 300 pounds of nitrogen per acre, an element essential to plant growth.
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
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
I kylle my swyne
And at Christes masse
I drynke redde wyne
Oxford, BL Digby 88 (SC1689),