Labours of the Month: November

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

Imagine you are standing at the edge of a forest on a cold November day. The periodic thump of a woodsman’s axe echoes in the still air and from the shade beneath the trees there comes the sound of many animals rooting around in the fallen leaves. You hear their grunts and the occasional thwack of the swineherd’s stick against a branch of an oak tree, knocking acorns to the ground for his pigs to eat. A pair of peasants are tending a large mound under which wood is smoldering away to become charcoal for fuel. As the fields have been harvested and replanted for the spring, this woodland is far from the remote wildwood of fairy tales. Instead it is busy with agricultural work and those pigs turning up the litterfall with their snouts are central to this work.

A swineherd beating acorns to the ground for his pigs to eat. Trin MS B.11.31
A swineherd beating acorns to the ground for his pigs to eat. Trin MS B.11.31.

In November, the Labour of the Month is the feeding of pigs in woodland pastures. In preparation for slaughter in December, pigs were fed on “mast”, the autumnal forest fodder including beechnuts, fungi, roots and acorns.  However, access to the forest for mast had to be granted to peasant farmers by their landlords. The right of tenants to pasture their pigs in their landlord’s woodland in exchange for payment was known as “pannage”. The word also applies to the practice of feeding pigs in wooded pasture and the payment made to the owner for the right to do so. Pannage, harvesting firewood and making charcoal were done in peasants’ spare time, when their labour was not otherwise needed by their landlord.

Pollarding was used in wooded pasture moreso than woodland, but often marked the legal boundaries between properties within woodlands. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Medieval woodlands were carefully managed resources that provided all of the timber for building as well as charcoal for fuel. In order to sustain the productivity of the woodland, trees were pollarded and coppiced, two techniques of systematic hard pruning. This protected trees from decay, thus extending their lives and ensured a continuous supply of wood for fuel, basketry, construction, tools and so on. Coppicing involved cutting the tree back nearly to the roots resulting in the growth of a cluster of thick branches growing from ground level while pollarding, pruning higher up the trunk, was a good way to prevent livestock in wooded pastures from nibbling the new growth before it could be used.

Pollarding may also have increased the yield of mast such as acorns, leading to better-fed pigs. The presence of pigs in turn benefited the trees by clearing the understory and turning up the soil, thus creating a fertile seedbed and allowing new trees to grow. Pannage was therefore a central part of the medieval agricultural year, ensuring that the forest yielded as many resources as possible year after year.

The November Kalendar page from Trin MS B.11.22.
A November calendar page showing three peasants obtaining acorns for a herd of swine and Sagittarius shooting an arrow at a trumpeting monkey. Trin MS B.11.22.
Sagittarius firing an arrow with a slaughtered pig on his back. Trin MS B.11.4.
Sagittarius firing an arrow with a dead boar or pig on his back. Trin MS B.11.4.

The astrological sign beginning in November is Sagittarius. This constellation was thought to look like a centaur, the mythical human-horse hybrid, though legends vary as to which centaur it represents. It is commonly said to be Chiron, who was renowned as a nurturer and teacher in contrast with the violent and lusty nature common to other centaurs in Greek mythology. However, Chiron is already represented in the night sky by the constellation Centaurus, so other sources say that Sagittarius was invented by Chiron himself to aid his pupil Jason in the quest for the Golden Fleece. The arrow of Sagittarius points to the “heart of the scorpion”, the star Antares, as if to strike down Scorpio to avenge Orion’s death, or perhaps to protect nearby Hercules should the scorpion attack.

Difficult as it is to believe that it is November already, we hope you have a good one, that your aim is true and that your bacon is spared from the fire (for this month at least)!

Further Reading

Birrell (1969) “Peasant Craftsmen in the Medieval Forest“, Agricultural History Review, 17(2).

Jørgensen (2013) “Pigs and Pollards: Medieval Insights for UK Wood Pasture Restoration“, Sustainability,  5, pp. 387-399.

Larkin (2009) “Pigs and Pannage“, The Medieval Garden Enclosed: The Cloisters Museum and Garden.

Larkin (2011) “Coppicing and Pollarding“, The Medieval Garden Enclosed: The Cloisters Museum and Garden.

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