Spring is finally in the air and with it comes the desire to get out of the house and enjoy nature. Luckily, that’s just what Medieval Books of Hours call for with the Labour of the Month for April.
In B.11.4, a 13th century Psalter (book of psalms), a figure sits on a bench admiring the trees. The illustration pictured to the left is from B.11.7, a late 14th or early 15th century English Book of Hours, and M.R. James’ catalogue description raises more question than it answers. He writes: “April. Two men: one holds the trunk of a tree, the other beats earth about it with a large balk of wood.” We have not been able to connect this illustration to any particular arboreal practice in the middle ages, so perhaps James was simply beating about the bush.
The young man pictured below in B.11.31, a 15th century French Book of Hours, may be out for a stroll to better enjoy the April countryside. However, the branch he carries may also signify him as someone who is returning from a pilgrimage. European pilgrims who made the long and dangerous journey into the Holy Land brought back palm leaves, sometimes folded into crosses, and were thus often referred to as Palmers. Pilgrims to many sites, including ones in Europe, carried badges to commemorate their journeys, and as a vessel with which to transport the miraculous powers of far away shrines to bless people or places back home.
The link between April and going on pilgrimage was immortalized by Geoffrey Chaucer in the General Prologue to his Canterbury Tales. A late 15th century manuscript version of the Canterbury Tales, R.3.3, is shown below with the opening words, “Whan that aprille”, in large letters visible at the top of the page. In his prologue, Chaucer tells of a group of travelers, stirred by the April weather to go on a pilgrimage to the shrine to St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. They meet by chance at the Tabard Inn in Southwark and swap stories in a contest to see who could tell the best tale, the prize for which is a free meal at the inn on their return journey.
Pictured with the Labours of the Month for April is the astrological sign Taurus, the bull. In the 13th century Psalter from London shown below, the Saints’ Feast Days listed show a definite emphasis on Saints venerated by the Anglo-Saxon, such as St. Guthlac of Crowland (11 April) and St. Erkenwald, Bishop of London (30 April). This year, Easter falls in April, though because it is a religious feast day whose date is not fixed, it is considered a “moveable feast” and is therefore not listed in medieval calendar pages of fixed feast days.