Labours of the Month: June

Harvesting the hay. B.11.31, f.6r

The year is half over and summer is on its way, or so the calendars say. Perhaps the May drizzle has been making your garden look like a jungle or perhaps seasonal allergies have been making your eyes itch and water every time you step outside. Either way you may have noticed that it is time to chop back, mow the lawn and harvest the hay, which is the Labour of the Month for June. “Make hay while the sun shines”, as the saying goes. It is taken to mean that we should make the most of opportunities when they present themselves, but this saying was very literally true in the Middle Ages. Once harvested, the hay had to dry out thoroughly in the sun or it would rot and the hay would be lost. Haystacks were shaped in such a way that the outer layer would form thatching that would keep the interior dry and in particularly wet climates they would be piled over a wood structure that would allow the hay within to remain ventilated and dry more effectively. Hay was the fuel for societies that were closely dependent on horses and livestock, so the hay harvest was a major event in the agricultural year.

An artistic rendering of a crab. Trin MS B.11.4.
Cancer, the crab, rendered with some artistic license. Trin MS B.11.4.

The Zodiac sign beginning in June is Cancer, named for Karkinos, a crab that tried to harass Hercules as he battled with the Hydra. However, Hercules gave the crab such a hard kick that it flew into the sky and became a constellation. Other stories say he simply killed the crab by stepping on it, after which Hera hung it in the heavens as thanks for its help in trying to pester Hercules. Some scholars believe that Karkinos was added to the myth retroactively in order to make the Twelve Labours of Hercules map on to the twelve signs of the zodiac. (Luckily none of the Labours of the Months are as Herculean as fighting multi-headed monsters or cleaning the Aegean stables in a day.)

The twelve signs that form the Greco-Roman zodiac derive from twelve constellations through which the sun and moon appear to pass from the perspective of an observer on Earth. The most popular application of the zodiac today is in horoscopic astrology, which asserts a connection between the position of stars and planets at the time of someone’s birth and the occurrences in their lives. (That is so Virgo.) In the middle ages this system went even further; the positions of the stars and planets were considered to have such a profound influence on earthly matters that astrology was closely intertwined with almost every aspect of human life, including the practice of medicine.

Zodiac man. Trin MS O.1.57.
Zodiac man. Trin MS O.1.57, f.10v

Pictured here are medieval medical diagrams known as the “Zodiac Man”. These diagrams show the elaborate systems medieval physicians developed for the relationships between the zodiac and human anatomy, based on the ancient Babylonian concept of the human body as a microcosm of the larger universe. Each body part, anatomical system and humour corresponded with a sign of the zodiac so that physicians needed to consult almanacs and moon charts alongside anatomical treatises in order to diagnose and treat their patients.

A Zodiac Man diagram showing the seasons for bloodletting from Liber Cosmographiae. Trin MS R.15.21.
A Zodiac Man diagram showing the seasons for bloodletting. From Liber Cosmographiae, Trin MS R.15.21.

The diagram from the early 15th century Liber Cosmographiae by John Foxton (R.15.21, shown right) combines the Zodiac Man and the “Phlebotomy Man” – a diagram of the circulatory system for the purposes of bloodletting – into a single image. These images told physicians when they should perform surgeries and the most auspicious places from which to bleed patients depending on the time of year. According to the British Library, “By the end of the 1500s, physicians across Europe were required by law to calculate the position of the moon before carrying out complicated medical procedures, such as surgery or bleeding.”

So, get out there and cut the grass, but in case you accidentally nick yourself while you’re doing it, make sure you check the phase of the moon first. Happy birthday to those born in June and make hay while the sun shines!

A medieval "phlebotomy man", a diagram showing the location of the major blood vessels in the human body. Trin MS O.1.57, f.16v.
“Phlebotomy man”, a medical diagram showing the location of the major blood vessels in the human body. Trin MS O.1.57, f.16v.
Trin MS B.11.22
A man loads hay onto another man’s back and other representations of June. Trin MS B.11.22.