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


  And at Christes masse I drynke redde wyne
     ...And at Christmas I drink red wine


Typical December scenes:

  • Butchering meat animals

  • Feasting

  • Gathering firewood



Shaftesbury Psalter,
British Library Lansdowne 383


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

December, Salzburg labors of the months, Austrian National Library

Salzburg Labors of the Months, from
St. Peter's
Abbey, Austria,
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 Salzburg labors of the months, Austrian National Libraryturnshoes.

Drawn more accurately than the oxen of June, the hog has a ring through its nose, bristles along its back, and the traditional curly tail.

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. Images from Wikimedia Commons.

Martyrologium, Wandalbert von
Prüm, Germany,
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. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Fulda Sacramentary,
Fulda, Germany,
980 CE

Meat processing is again the order of the day in this labor; 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.

Anglo-Saxon Calendar,
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.

Granary in Somerset; image from Wikimedia Commons

In the center, two men thresh with green-handled flails, raising a cloud of chaff.

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 the harvest.

Tally or nick stick
Tally stick

Granary in Somerset

 Notched pole ladder

Shaftesbury Psalter, British Library
Lansdowne 383,

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 style, 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 throughout.

Zwiefalten monatsbilder,
 Zwiesel Monastery, Stuttgart, Germany,
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.


The 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.

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

Identified as 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 Capricorn.



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.

Fécamp Psalter, made in Normandy,
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 meat cleaver.

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.

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.

Psalter, British Library,
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.

The Queen Mary Psalter,
British Library Royal 2 B
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 they grow.

Legumes like 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
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


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