Labours of the Month: September

Grape harvest from Trin MS B.11.31 (f.9r).
A man harvesting grapes from Trin MS B.11.31 (f.9r).

September has arrived and for many it is time of beginnings or endings. It is the ninth month of the Georgian calendar year, but only the seventh month of the Roman calendar, from which it derives its name. But while you may see September as the beginning of the academic year or the end of summer, to people in Northern Europe in the Middle Ages it meant only one thing: WINE.

Grape harvest and wine pressing. Trin MS B.11.4, f. v recto.
Grape harvest and wine pressing. M.R. James describes the scene thus: “Cuts grapes from vine with sickle and holds the hand of a nude man in a vat.” Trin MS B.11.4 (f. v recto.)

The labour of the month for September is the grape harvest. While the primary focus of the summer months was harvesting and processing the grains that would fill hungry bellies year round, September’s crop was nearly as significant. “The only agricultural product that rivals wheat’s importance in the cycle of the year is the wine grape, Vitis vinifera.” (Larkin 2009)

After all, wine was not only consumed by the merchant and noble classes with meals. It also had numerous medical applications and was central to the Christian liturgy, in the form of the Eucharist, as well as the Jewish liturgy. Before you start to think that people in the Middle Ages were in a permanent state of inebriation, it is worth noting that wine was drunk “new” (not extensively aged and therefore fairly weak) and/or watered down to offset the effects of the alcohol.

The growing of grapes was associated with noble and monastic estates owing to the intensive labour and expense of cultivating them in large enough quantities to produce wine. While mechanical wine presses were used by some producers, others used the traditional method of treading the grapes with their feet as shown above. This produced less wine per volume, however, since less pressure could be exerted on the grapes.

The religious significance of harvesting grapes and making wine is evident in the use of wine iconography in apocalypse manuscripts. In both examples shown, angels harvest the grapes while grotesque demons squeeze out their juice. These depictions reference Revelations 14:19, where a great and final reaping of sinful souls is likened to the gathering and crushing of grapes: “And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God.” (King James Version)

Angels and demons making wine, Trinity Apocalypse (Trin MS R.16.2, f.17r)
Angels harvesting grapes and demons pressing them into wine. Trinity Apocalypse (Trin MS R.16.2, f.17r).
Angels harvesting grapes, demons in the grape juice. Trin MS B.10.2, f.29r.
Angels harvesting grapes, devils in the grape juice. Trin MS B.10.2, f.29r.
Libra as a man holding balancing scales. Trin MS B.11.4, f. v recto.
Libra as a man holding balancing scales. Trin MS B.11.4, f. v recto.

Libra, the astrological sign beginning on 23 September, is usually represented as Themis, the Greek goddess of divine order and law, holding a pair of scales. Classical representations of Themis with her scales of justice often lead to confusion between her and Iusticia, Lady Justice, often seen blindfolded outside legal courts. Though Iusticia is often considered the Roman equivalent of Themis, she is the personification of moral force and fairness in human justice while Themis is considered the personification of divine law. Trin MS B.11.4, shown right, is therefore rather unusual for depicting a man holding the scales of justice.

The constellation of Libra is astronomically notable for the star Gliese 581, which has made news over the last five years as astronomers have discovered three “Earth-like” exoplanets orbiting the star and debated over their potential for supporting life.

So, whether you’re celebrating or bemoaning the return to school and the end of summer, or just astonished at how quickly the year is going by, why not take the time to enjoy a glass of wine and contemplate the small joys in life? Just don’t lose your balance.

Happy September!

References

Larkin, D. (2009) “The Vintage“, The Medieval Garden Enclosed: The Cloisters Museum and Garden.