The Intrigue of Medieval Art.

Page from the calendar of the Très Riches Heures showing the household of John, Duke of Berry exchanging New Year gifts. The Duke is seated at the right, in blue.

As is my wont, I found myself distracted by, and lost in yet another illuminated Medieval manuscript, a gorgeous Book of hours.

The Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (English: The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry), is the most famous and possibly the best surviving example of French Gothic manuscript illumination, showing the late International Gothic phase of the style. It is a book of hours: a collection of prayers to be said at the canonical hours. It was created between c. 1412 and 1416 for the extravagant royal bibliophile and patron John, Duke of Berry, by the Limbourg brothers. When the three painters and their sponsor died in 1416, possibly victims of plague, the manuscript was left unfinished. It was further embellished in the 1440s by an anonymous painter, who many art historians believe was Barthélemy d’Eyck. In 1485–1489, it was brought to its present state by the painter Jean Colombe on behalf of the Duke of Savoy. Acquired by the Duc d’Aumale in 1856, the book is now MS 65 in the Musée Condé, Chantilly, France.

Consisting of a total of 206 leaves of very fine quality parchment, 30 cm in height by 21.5 cm in width, the manuscript contains 66 large miniatures and 65 small. The design of the book, which is long and complex, has undergone many changes and reversals. Many artists contributed to its miniatures, calligraphy, initials, and marginal decorations, but determining their precise number and identity remains a matter of debate. Painted largely by artists from the Low Countries, often using rare and costly pigments and gold, and with an unusually large number of illustrations, the book is one of the most lavish late medieval illuminated manuscripts.

After three centuries in obscurity, the Très Riches Heures gained wide recognition in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, despite having only very limited public exposure at the Musée Condé. Its miniatures helped to shape an ideal image of the Middle Ages in the collective imagination, often being interpreted to serve political and nationalist agendas. This is particularly true for the calendar images, which are the most commonly reproduced. They offer vivid representations of peasants performing agricultural work as well as aristocrats in formal attire, against a background of remarkable medieval architecture.

It’s two of the calendar images which caught my attention. I generally gravitate to November first, it being my birth month. Unlike most months, this had no descriptor of a place, no great estate or palace. Then I noticed February was the same. Just the name of the month. These are the two oddest of the calendar leaves, too.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda. Click for full size.

This is November. Okay, out with the pigs hunting truffles, or just letting the pigs stuff themselves silly on whatever that is on the ground. The pigs certainly look happy over their master’s inattention, and it’s that inattention which baffles me. What in the hell is he glaring at, with such a posture? His gaze goes directly to the tree tops, where I’m afraid I can’t spy anything ominous at all. I guess this made sense way back when, but it doesn’t make sense to me.

Now we visit February, and warming genitals by the fire:

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda. Click for full size.

There’s all manner of wonderful weirdness in this one. That massive bed, for one. That seems to be unusually generous lodging for servants. Then there’s the man barely dressed out in the freezing cold; the woman and cat having a staring contest, and of course, the gigantic fire, where people are happily toasting their genitals. I’ve been cold. Very, very cold, and it’s never once occurred to me to toast the bits.

You can see much more here.


  1. Onamission5 says

    I’m not sure the artist had seen under someone’s skirt before. Or maybe their bits are swollen and hairless from the fire? February, the time when ladies gather for the traditional singeing of the vulva.

    I am also fascinated by what appears to be a round of underpants snow golf occurring in the woods behind the granary(?).

  2. says

    The person in the red headgear is a man. The other two are women.

    Snow golf is a more apt descriptor than a woodsman! That does not look like an ax in his hands. :D

  3. jazzlet says

    I would guess the pigs were eating acorns as that is what the blobs most look like, but pannage could have included beechmast, sweet chestnuts too small to harvest, any other fallen nut or fruit, and all sorts of other things. Pigs are famously good at clearing ground of pernicious weeds ie deep rooted ones including things like bramble, dock and dandelions.

    I guess whether the bed is big or not is down to how many people were sleeping in it. Is it servants or is it small scale farmers ie moderately well off? I do like the hooded crows, though I’m not sure what they are eating

  4. says

    If they were a family, which seems likely, they were very well off indeed.

    As for the pigs, I’m not nearly as interested in them as I am in that melodramatic pose and menacing glare directed at the treetops.

  5. kestrel says

    I think the pigs are eating chestnuts or acorns or something, and the man is knocking them down out of the trees for the pigs. So he is drawing back his arm for another swipe at the branches above his head that are loaded with some type of tree nuts for the pigs.

  6. says

    Note the completely intentionaly phallic “bollock” daggers worn by wo noblemen in the first picture.

    The skill involved in making these is extraordinary.

  7. says

    Charly, oh I noticed! How could you not? You can get a better look here. Note to anyone who wishes to look them up: they were called Ballock Daggers. Wiki has them listed as Bollock Daggers. A number of sword makers in the UK make these, and they are beautiful works of art and lethality. They do cost quite a bit.

  8. says

    Kestrel, yes, he could be about to throw a stick, but the posture is completely wrong for that. Perhaps it’s just artistic license.

  9. says


    The other pig herders seem to find November’s behaviour a bit odd.

    Yes, I noticed. Which makes me all the more curious about that pose.

    I think the person in pink is coming from the bathhouse to dry his bits by the fire.

    I thought about that, but most Medieval villages had one bathhouse; and if you were going to have walk in deep winter, all wet, I figure you might take a cloak or coat or something.

  10. jazzlet says

    I think the reason the other herders are giving Novemer the side-eye is he’s about to declaim some of his appallingly bad poetry, it’s why they are all keeping so far away from him.

  11. rq says

    If they’re a well-off farmer family, they might have their own individual bathhouse/sauna type deal (not so uncommon, I would think -- in Latvia it’s common for your regular single-family farm (plus workers) to have its own sauna, together with the communal kind in the village itself; n = 1 anecdata). Also you wouldn’t necessarily wear a coat to return from spending time in the bath/sauna, part of the process is to experience contrast, so you’d spend time rolling around naked in the snow between bouts of steaming yourself red and raw. And you’d return half-naked, since you’re heated through and through, though drying your bits by the fire might sound like a good idea.

    As for the pannage, I’d go for ‘weird artistic convention’ -- that hand on the chest? “ANYHTHING FOR MAH PIIIIIGS!!!!”

  12. says



    It’s that dramatic. It’s either that, or very bad poetry indeed, as Jazzlet suggests. As for the bathhouse, I don’t know. The rest of the people toasting their bits are fully clothed and hatted. I guess it does answer the question of “did they wear undies”, though. :D

  13. Ice Swimmer says

    This isn’t scientific, rather it’s very much a gut feeling.

    Coming from sauna/bathhouse, wearing just a shirt (or nowadays, underwear) and then putting on more clothes actually feels normal and in light of what I’ve seen and heard from my grandparents’ generation (who, admittedly weren’t/aren’t medieval) must have been common.

    For a while, you do feel first cold and then hot and often, you will sweat a bit after you’ve come from sauna and put some clothes on. The way people think here is that a few minutes in cold air immediately after sauna doesn’t do a thing, but you’d better be warmly dressed later so you won’t catch a cold.

  14. Ice Swimmer says

    Most of the birds in the February picture seem to be hooded crows. They are no longer found in Netherlands, Belgium and France according to Wikipedia. I wonder if they were more widespread back then, or were the scenes from more northern or eastern locations?

  15. says

    Clearly the pig farmer is practicing his reciting of dramatic poetry! Before literacy the spoken word was the only way to spread stories. A ham actor, in other words.

  16. says

    Ice Swimmer, I believe that Hooded Crows were quite populous in France, at least at one time. They’ve been referenced a time or two in Fred Vargas’s Adamsberg series, along with sadness that they are no longer to be found.

  17. says

    ♫ Guy’s nuts roasting by an open fire
    Cats and girls in staring pose
    Yuletide barrels and sticks bound with a wire
    And folks in far too little clothes ♫

  18. John Morales says

    Kestrel’s opinion seems on the money:

    The central panel features a pastoral scene of peasants harvesting acorns from oak trees, for the benefit of swine grazing beneath the trees. In the background on the left a château is partially visible on the bank of a river. The château has not been identified; it’s possible that Colombe relied on his imagination in depicting the château; it’s also possible that it’s not extant and therefor unrecognized.

    The peasant on the left looks poised to hurl his stick into the trees, striking the ripe acorns so that they would fall on the ground to be consumed by the waiting pigs. Farther back, in the middle distance, two other peasants accompanied by sticks and pigs are engaged in watching the pigs, and in assisting the acorns to fall.

    You’ll notice that the oak trees are very straight, and have had their lower branches lopped off in a practice known as pollarding. It was common in the middle ages in Europe to pollard oak and hazel nut trees by lopping off the lower branches every year or so; these could be used for firewood, and the tree would still grow and bear nuts. It also allowed more trees to be planted, because they could be planted closer together without lower branches inhibiting the growth of nearby trees.

    Regarding the bed, it was common for people to share sleeping arrangements.

  19. jazzlet says

    John Morales that quote may be correct about the other things but pollarding is pretty much exactly the reverse of what it claims, in that it is cutting off the upper part of a deciduous tree so it will sprout again, used for producing various things including willow withies and fencing posts somewhere you also want to graze cattle as they will eat the young shoots if they can reach them -- if you aren’t grazing cattle you can just copse the tree near ground level. Lopping off the lower branches and relatively close planting is still good practice in managed woodland to give the maximum amount of straight, knot free boards.

    I think another reason the other swineherds are keeping well clear is when our poet declaims he swings his stick about for emphasis and more than one of them has been hit while the poet was in the throws of performance.

    Hooded crows are only found in Scotland in the UK so I only get to see them on holiday, I like them even more than the usual crows we get round here.

  20. Ice Swimmer says

    Following the link John Morales posted, I found that the birds are supposed to be doves/pigeons. Could be, but the plumage looks like crow plumage.

  21. says

    Jazzlet @ 25, thanks. My first thought was “that’s not pollarding!”

    Ice Swimmer @ 26, oh, the artist isn’t that awful, that doves/pigeons would look like that. I’ve seen countless paintings of doves/pigeons in Medieval bestiaries, and they are one of the few birds they got correct, along with other common local birds, like magpies and crows. There’s no way those are doves/pigeons. Hooded Crows and Common Crows are spot on.

  22. Onamission5 says

    Caine @2: Well shit, that’s what I get looking at art without my glasses. Failure mode of clever, etc.

    I hope the guy in the woods is golfing because that is no way to swing an axe!

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