Labours of the Month: February

Detail of an illuminated manuscript
A man warming his foot by the fire from a 13th century English Psalter. Trin MS B.11.4, f.i verso.

After the feasting and relaxing by the fire in January and another cold, dark month stretching before us, February may call for more indoor pursuits. Indeed, in one common scheme for the labours of the months, February’s labour is to sit by the fire, as the gentleman in B.11.4 is doing above. On the manuscript page below, the miniature shows a church scene for the labour of the month, with a priest sprinkling worshipers with an aspergil. While not particularly cosy, at least spending time in church would keep you out of February’s icy winds.

Illuminated book of hours
February from Trin MS B.11.22, f.1v

However, according to the illustration in B.11.31, February’s labour should be planting.

February’s labour of the month, presumably made more laborious by the fact that the ground is still frozen. From Trin MS B.11.31, f.2r

While this may seem like bad advice to us in Britain, anticipating more frost and snow, this book is French in origin and this illustration may be the product of the warmer, more southern climate. Indeed, Books of Hours can often be generally located by agricultural clues such as when in the year planting and harvesting are said occur, and by how prominently wine production features in the list of labours. So, while the owners of the manuscripts above may have huddled into church in February, further south where the 15th century French book was produced, peasants may have been starting to sow seeds already.

Trin MS B.11.31, f. 2r.

In addition to February’s most famous Feast Day, that of St. Valentine, there are many other February Feast Days listed in medieval calendars. For example, 2nd February was an important religious festival called Candlemas, also known as the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, the Feast of the Purification of Mary or, as it is noted in this manuscript, La notre dame chandeleur. 

So, welcome to February and happy birthday, Pisces! Now get out your shovels out.

Pisces from Trin MS B.11.31, f.2r

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