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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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July, Martyrologium of Wandalbert von Prüm

July - Martyrologium, Wandalbert von Prüm,
c. 850 CE






Calendars and Labors of the Month


MS Oxford BL
Digby 88, c. 1290 CE


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)

Perhaps no one is as acutely aware of seasons as a plants person, whether farmer or gardener. My grandfather-in-law knew it was time to plant corn when the buds on the maples were the size of a squirrel's ear; a century later, I wait until Mother's Day to set young plants out in the garden. Whether turning to a calendar or studying Mother Nature for signs, it is always exciting to watch the seasons turn, the changeless patterns of endless change.

Today we take calendars for granted, with their 24-hour days, ~30-day months, and 12-month years. But in earlier times, many different systems were used to monitor the seasons, some based on solar calculations, others on lunar. Understanding the cycle of the seasons determined your success with your crops and your livestock. Mistakes, misjudgments -- these could result in starvation.

Ultimately, western Europe adopted the Roman calendar, and our word calendar comes from kalendae, the Latin name for the first day of a month. The Gregorian calendar the western world uses is based on the calendar introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE. Charlemagne standardized the month names in his lands; the Anglo-Saxons also moved toward consistent names in the early middle ages.

Medieval calendars often employed mnemonic images called "labors of the months," with each "labor" presenting an activity common to that month. Seasons and their months were understood as a succession of cyclical farming activities, punctuated by holy days -- holidays -- during which no one worked.

The portrayal of these monthly labors give us a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people. What is shown for each month varies according to the class of the calendar's intended audience, as well as by the region and climate where the calendar was produced. Calendars from more southern regions would place labors in earlier months than the calendars of more northern regions.

The focus for the pages whose links are provided below will be on the calendars produced in western Europe and Britain during the early Middle Ages, with a look back at the Roman calendar that was such an important influence on medieval calendars.



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