Mowing motifs in months of Morgan manuscripts.
The Morgan Library in New York City has one of the great medieval manuscript collections in the world. Within it is one of the world’s great collections of Books of Hours. And among their folios of illuminated calendars are dozens of illustrations of people, usually men, scything and sickling hay and grain harvests, accompanied, not in the fields but on the folios, by strange symbols that look like crabs or lobsters (cancer, the sign for June) or lions (Leo for July). The occupational and symbolic sequence is common enough that a quick trip on the Morgan’s outstanding online catalog “Corsair” (signifying the library of John Pierpont the capitalist or the Henry the pirate?), in search of “June occupations” discovers over 40 manuscripts with mowers in their medallions or margins. French folios have mowing most often in June; and the Flemish, German and English folios, perhaps reflecting a more northerly haymaking season, have the scythe in the following month. Only once does the scythe, perhaps due to error or eccentricity, appear as late as August. The sickle, often with yellow grain crops, parallel stalks and more linear sheaves, is almost always on the folio following the scythe. Clearly the convention was for grain to follow hay in the agricultural and liturgical cycle. But a few cataloging lapses by the Morgan archivists have the scythe harvesting “grain,” perhaps trivial in their more lofty contexts, but significant in (H)ours.
I hope that my own virtual harvest of the manuscript paintings and their systematic stacking in the hayinart database will illuminate iconographic distinctions in style and content. I have arranged them below in three sections roughly corresponding to centuries and stylistic shifts: the first showing conformity to the image of a single, simplified figure in a pose which is almost ideographic; the second reflecting rudimentary landscape themes and an emerging use of perspective; and the third celebrating complex agricultural and social activity. Each example has a pair of illustrations: an image on the page among other decorations of the text and the same image in isolation. The captions, sources and dates can be found by passing your cursor over the image. I hope that these juxtapositions will illuminate both the variety and consistency of this theme. To view the originals in their manuscript contexts, I recommend a virtual visit to the Morgan Library’s own splendid site .
I have also interspersed, for comparison, a few famous Books of Hours, that somehow escaped the Morgan appetite for acquisition.
Mowing at the Morgan 1: 12th to 14th century scythes as simple symbols.
The earliest collection of seasonal activities in the Corsair catalog appears to be German, a 12th century Weingarten manuscript, in which the June occupation is hoeing. Scything hay is shown here on the July folio. The pose, scyther turning to the left, scythe pointing to the right, would be repeated, with varying degrees of stylization over the next two centuries.
In this early thirteenth century Book of Hours, the June page shows a man with a scythe conforming to the earlier iconographic conventions of mowing hay, although the Morgan record, perhaps influenced by the simple regularity of the stalks, calls it grain.
A Flemish Psalter from mid thirteenth century Bruges has the scythe on the July page. The pose of the mower differs from its predecessors: the scythe is held higher to the left, and the figure stands, incongruously, in front of a gothic structure. August has a sickle being used on a much more regular crop, signifying grain. The June page before the one illustrated here shows a man carrying wood .
Two French Psalters from the 1260s have the scythe in June. For the second, the Morgan has grain harvest, but the month and tool imply hay.
In another Flemish Psalter from the 1270s probably done by the Tweede Groepe of Ghent, the June folio shows a man carrying wood. July has a man with a scythe in a Gothic architectural frame. His pose is innovative, facing to the right, but less dynamic than most of his contemporaries. August a man cutting grain with a sickle .
Two late thirteenth century French manuscripts, the first a Psalter, the second a Breviary, both have scything as the June activity.
London is given as the probable source of the DuBois Book of Hours from the early fourteenth century. June, according to the Morgan caption, has a man weeding grass with a weed extractor ! The July folio has an uncomfortably posed, crudely painted man scything grass.
Two French manuscripts from the late fourteenth century show a man with a scythe in June. The medallions in which these figures are posed are identical in shape, but the backgrounds are very different, the first a geometric basket weave, the second a conventional field of grass against a fleur-de-lys pattern.
Medieval Mowers beyond the Morgan.
A sampler of medieval mowers from beyond the Morgan Library, lacking, alas, the Morgan’s meticulous consistency, at least concerning date and authorship.
Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries.
The 11th century manuscript allegedly depicts October(!) farmers gathering hay with scythes and pitchforks. Supposedly in the British Library but no MS number is supplied at the source web-site . The 12th century English manuscript showing two men scything is in the Glasgow University Library .
Two useful items were culled from godecookery , both tantalizingly lacking in reliable background information: a mower with his scythe: the month of June, from the Canterbury Calendar. c1280, MS Corpus Christi College 285; and an undated image with the erroneous caption “Harvesting Grain”. We claimed it for the hayinart corpus because of the raking woman and the scything man, but it is certainly much later than the other image, possibly from the 15th century.