Medieval Monday: Labors of the Months

Spring is just around the corner.  Most of us look forward to the change to warmer weather…a chance to shed heavy coats, get some fresh air, and watch the daffodils and tulips come up in our gardens.  Soon things will start to sprout buds, and the world will turn from drab brown to vibrant green.

In the medieval world, spring was full of hope, hard work, feasts, and festivals.  As supplies from the previous year began to run low, spring’s hard labors would help to bring forth bountiful harvests in the months to come.

Spring was also time for people to go on pilgrimages.  Chaucer wrote in the prologue to The Canterbury Tales, “When April has penetrated March’s drought to the root with its sweet showers…people long to go on pilgrimages, and palmers long to visit foreign shores and distant shrines, famous all over the world.” Such journeys were dangerous, though there were harsh penalties inflicted on those who attacked pilgrims.

Seasons

The varied labors of spring, and all the other months of the medieval year, are presented in this rhyme from the 15th century.

January – By this fire I warm my hands,
February – And with my spade I delve my lands.
March – Here I set my things to spring,
April – And here I hear the birds sing.
May – I am light as a bird on bough,
June – And I weed my corn well enow.
July – With my scythe my mead I mow,
August – And here I shear my corn full low.
September – With my flail I earn my bread,
October – And here I sow my wheat so red.
November – At Martinmas I kill my swine,
December – And at Christmas I drink red wine.

 

Medieval Monday: Measuring Time

Medieval Water Clock

The image of a medieval water clock (clepsydrae) from an illuminated manuscript.

Before the mechanical clock was developed at the end of the 13th century, the hours of the day were not fixed. Time was measured by sundials, hourglasses, special candles, or water clocks, none of which were particularly exact. Sundials didn’t work after dark, or in bad weather. Water clocks had to be regularly fed fresh water–in the heat of summer, the water would evaporate. In the cold of winter, the water froze making the clock useless. It is no wonder that the measurement of time was often a point of contention.

Dates were important to the educated for the purposes of law and historical documentation. The monks wanted to ensure their hourly calls to prayer were punctual. But the average person had little interest in chronology.  The exact time of day did not have much relevance, and seasons as a whole were more important than specific months.  Most would not have known their own birth year.

The most important cycle of time was the rising and setting of the sun, around which each day’s activities revolved.  Summer days were longer than winter days; the workday began at sunrise, and ended at sunset.  Tallow candles (the most common type) gave off such poor light it was difficult to do much of anything after dark. Church bells were rung to tell everyone within hearing distance when they should wake up, work, pray, and sleep.