Labours of the Month: October

A man in a red hood sows seeds in a freshly furrowed field. (Trin MS B.11.31), f.10r

Sowing was the beginning and end of the agricultural season and was an important charge for the workers responsible. After the soil was loosened with a harrow and subdivided into furrows with a plow, the process of sowing was as follows:

“The field to be sown was measured, and the seed was measured into open sacks that were set out at each end of an open furrow. The sower then walked smoothly and steadily down the furrow, counting his steps and keeping them even for the length of the field, guiding his feet down two adjacent plow lines. He then reckoned how many steps he must take to each handful of grain he would cast. […] 

“Once the rhythm that determined how many handfuls of seed would be matched to the number of steps needed to cover the ground was established, it remained constant for the whole field. However, a skilled worker might be asked to sow more thinly or thickly in different parts of the field, which might be drier or damper in one place than another. He did this not by changing the rhythm, but by taking a little larger or smaller handful of grain.” (Larkin 2009)

If this was not done accurately the following harvest would be a disappointment and food shortages were a distinct possibility. Therefore sowing was a skilled and responsible undertaking.

A man beats a tree while three little pigs await a meal below. (Trin MS B.11.4, f.v verso)
A swineherd beats a tree while three little pigs await a meal below. (Trin MS B.11.4, f.v verso)

This month our two primary texts have a disagreement (not for the first time) about what one should do in October. For this month B.11.4, the 13th century English Psalter, shows a swineherd knocking down acorns for his pigs to eat.  Next month we will look more at pigs and pannage – the right of tenants to bring their swine into the woodland belonging to their landlord to forage – as this is the more common scheme for labours of the month cycles. However, it is intriguing to wonder why this manuscript is a month ahead of the usual scheme. Could it be an error in production, or evidence of a cooler climate that led to an earlier arrival of Autumn and the pannage season than in southern Europe? Could it be evidence of the onset of the Little Ice Age of the 14th-18th centuries or just a local idiosyncrasy?

A rather cuddly and benign-looking Scorpio. (Trin MS B.11.4)
A rather benign-looking Scorpio. (Trin MS B.11.4)

Scorpio is the astrological sign beginning in October and it is derived from the sun travelling through the constellation Scorpius, a long chain of stars that curved in a way that ancient people likened to the curve of a scorpion’s tail. Perhaps the connection with the stinging arachnid was reinforced by the fiery red Magnitude 1 star Antares (“rival of Mars”), located near the “head” of the Scorpion. Legends about Scorpio vary but they usually pit the scorpion against Orion, the hunter. In these legends the scorpion was usually sent to kill Orion and after a fierce battle conquered and killed the hunter. However, both were hung in the heavens as constellations, either as a warning against mortal pride or because Orion managed to flatter the Goddess Artemis before his untimely end according to two of the legends. So, while Orion “hunts” in the sky through the winter, he flees as the constellation Scorpius surmounts the horizon.

Paris' patron saint, Saint Denis, has his feast day on 9 October, shown in gold in this French manuscript. (Trin MS B.11.31)
Paris’ patron saint, Saint Denis, written in gold in this French manuscript. (Trin MS B.11.31)

If our North American readers are looking for something more creepy than crawly in this month’s post in preparation for Halloween, look no further than the feast day of the patron Saint of Paris, St. Denis, on 9 October, marked in gold in the French Hours. St. Denis was martyred c. 250 AD by decapitation. However, that was not enough to stop the Bishop of Paris. He reputedly picked up his own severed head and carried it 10 kilometres, preaching repentance the whole way.

Scorpio with a needle-like sting. (Trin MS B.11.7, f.5v)

So will your October be more sows or sowing? More cephalophores or scorpions? Whichever you choose we hope there’s no sting in the tail!

Happy October!




Larkin (2009) “Sowing Broadcast“, The Medieval Garden Enclosed: The Cloisters Museum and Garden.

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