As we found out last month, the wheat harvest was a crucial part of keeping people fed year-round in the middle ages. In August, the Labour of the Month is threshing. By using a flail to beat bundles of wheat, the edible grains were shaken loose from the rest of the stock. Threshing wheat is best done indoors to stop the edible parts of the grain from blowing away. For this reason threshing was also a winter activity, allowing agricultural workers to perform warming labour in dry barns. It is also a good indoor activity for typically British summers like the one we’re having this year. It may be hard work, but at least you’ll stay dry!
It is worth noting at this point in the year the level of attention paid to portraying agricultural tools in the manuscripts featured. We tend to think of wealthy landowners – i.e. those who had enough money to fund something as luxurious as an illustrated manuscript – as being fairly removed from the process of growing food. The detail provided in picturing equipment, such as the flail, scythe, mattock and so on, speaks to the fact that the artists and the patrons of these works would have been more familiar with the tools and rhythms of agriculture than many of us are today.
Virgo, the zodiac sign beginning in August, is the second largest constellation in the sky after Hydra, and the largest constellation in the zodiac. There is a diversity of opinions as to who exactly Virgo represents. Some link her with the goddess Demeter/Ceres, making her a figure of fertility and plenty, symbolised by the wheat she often carries. The brightest star in Virgo (and the 15th brightest star in the sky) is called Spica. Its name comes from the Latin spica virginis, ‘the virgin’s ear of grain’, referring to classical representations of the constellation as a winged goddess holding a sheaf of wheat. Other sources, such as Ovid, connect Virgo with Astraea, daughter of Dusk and Dawn and a virginal goddess representing purity and innocence.
Christianity adopted elements of the Classical representation of Virgo, but to the medieval Christian mind there could be little doubt who Virgo best represented. “The palm frond, an emblem of victory and an attribute of virgin-martyrs—as well as a symbol of the Virgin Mary herself—was given to Virgo. Wheat, too, was identified with the Virgin, and these Christian elements were incorporated into the calendar tradition inherited from antiquity.” (Larkin, 2009) Virgo, then was an amalgam of ancient and Christian sources, symbolising a wide range of concepts from fertility to purity to victory.
This relationship between Classical antiquity and medieval Christianity – with its ambiguity between Greco-Roman gods and Christian figures – might seem strange to us. However, scholars, artists and patrons in the Middle Ages felt they had much to learn from the pagan past and therefore preserved and appropriated ancient sources within a Christian context. The comfort with which pagan mythology and Christianity sat side by side in the medieval mind is evident in medieval manuscripts, where religious allegories and scenes from the life of Christ inhabit pages alongside pagan zodiac symbols and the sign of Virgo might be the Virgin Mary or the Greco-Roman Goddess of purity.
Wet or dry, barren or fruitful, enjoy your August!
Herren, M.W. (2014) “Classics in the Middle Ages“, Oxford Bibliographies.
Larkin, D. (2009) “The Zodiacal Sign of Virgo“, The Cloisters Museum and Gardens.