Labours of the Month: July

Wheat harvest. Trin MS B.11.4, f.iv recto.
Harvesting wheat with a long-handled scythe and clippers. B.11.4, ff.iv recto.

July has arrived and with it the warmer weather we have been waiting for. If you had quite enough of hard labour with harvesting hay last month then you may wish to avert your eyes for the remainder of this post as July’s Labour of the Month involves more mowing, with the wheat harvest coming into full swing this month.

Medieval farmers had to make the most of their land in order to produce a surplus should some crops fail or be spoiled. This meant that wheat was planted and harvested twice a year. However, intensive farming can drain the soil of its nutrients so sustainable farming methods were required. Medieval farmers used crop rotation, alternating crops that used different nutrients – such as hay and wheat in the same field – in subsequent growing seasons. Additionally, every third year a field would be left fallow. Fallow fields were often sown with legumes or strewn with burnt weeds, which were then ploughed under in order to force nutrients back into the soil.

Harvesting the wheat, Trin MS B.11.7, f.4r

The wheat was harvested into sheaves and then brought indoors for storage. Threshing and winnowing the wheat – removing the edible grains from the stocks and then separating the chaff or inedible husks from the grains was done indoors over the winter. Incidentally, this is where we get the phrase “separate the wheat from the chaff”, meaning to divide what is good or helpful from what is useless. Wheat fields also needed regular weeding, as dock, dead-nettle and other weeds proliferated among the crops. In what we would now understand as a “sustainable farming” model (the concept would, of course, be anachronistic to medieval farmers), these weeds would be plowed back into the fallow fields to return nutrients to the soil. The back-breaking labours of July were often performed on nearly empty stomachs as grain stores were at their lowest in this month, so the wheat harvest was one of the least pleasant tasks for medieval agricultural workers. What little food they had was supplemented by foraging or even poaching.

Leo from Trin MS B.11.31, f.7r.

The zodiac sign beginning in July is Leo, represented by the lion. Leo is one of the earliest perceived constellations, dating back to the Mesopotamian zodiac around 4000 BC. The lion may have originally represented a monster from the epic of Gilgamesh, and in Babylonian astronomy the star Regulus was known as “the star that stands at the Lion’s breast” and the “King Star”. In Greek astronomy, Leo was identified as the Nemean Lion, who was slain by Hercules in one of his Twelve Labours.

Lion imagery is so common in medieval European artwork, from heraldry to religious artifacts, that we seldom recall that most Europeans would never have seen a lion in real life. Lion iconography and symbolism came to northern Europe from Biblical and Ancient sources that flourished in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, where lions were relatively common in the wild. But it was probably an early Christian book on animal symbolism by Physiologus that had the greatest influence on medieval lion symbolism, for it was this book that popularised the idea of the lion as the “King of the Jungle”. The allegorical significance of the lion as Christ in medieval Christianity only reinforced these regal associations.

Arms of Trinity College, Cambridge

Thanks to their regal associations, lions are a recurring motif in royal symbols, especially heraldic devices. Here at Trinity College, Cambridge we are quite fond of heraldic lions. Our crest, shown right, is emblazoned with a lion passant guardant, also known as a “lion of England” as three lions appear in this same posture on the royal arms of England. This particular leonine posture is also confusingly referred to as léopard by French heralds.

The posture or pose of an animal, mythical beast or human figure in heraldry is referred to as its attitude, and certain attitudes are reserved for predatory beasts, and others for birds and winged creatures. Every graphical device, colour and shape has its own terminology, usually derived from Old French, so that one could faithfully reproduce a coat of arms from its description – known as its blazon – alone. For the purposes of such descriptions, animals who are passant (or trippant, the equivalent for stags and other beasts of the chase) always face dexter, the viewer’s left, as default. Guardant in the description passant guardant describes the positioning of the animal’s head as facing the viewer. A lion passant would be looking in the direction it was striding (dexter), and a lion passant regardant would be looking over its shoulder (sinister, or the viewer’s right).

Leo from B.11.4, f iv recto.
Leo from Trin MS B.11.4, f iv recto.

So, even if you have a sinister attitude or the hunger of a lion from working in the fields on an empty stomach, we hope you have a lovely July!

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