Halcyon Days

Working at the Wren Library we are sometimes fortunate enough to catch sight of a kingfisher on the banks of the Cam. This is good news at a time when we learn that the numbers of breeding pairs in the UK are in decline.

The Kingfisher from Illustrations of British Birds by Henry Leonard Meyer (Grylls.7.245, vol 1) published in four volumes around 1840. The illustration is a black and white lithograph, hand-coloured with wash.
Halcyon from R.14.9, f.101r

Around the time of the winter solstice the halcyon, a mythical bird identified with the kingfisher, was believed to lay eggs in a nest floating on the sea. For the seven days of incubation and a further seven days after the eggs had hatched, the halcyon charmed the sea which remained unnaturally calm.

This 14 day period of calm was known to sailors as ‘halycon days’ when there was little threat of a storm.

The myth is referred to, for example, by Isidore in his Etymologies and in Bartholomew de Glanville’s, De Proprietatibus Rerum. Halcyon comes from the Latin word – alcyon – for kingfisher and the term ‘halcyon days’ has come to denote peaceful, happy days from the past.

This time of year is also closely associated with Thomas Becket. He was born on 21st December probably in 1120. As a clerk, archdeacon and later royal chancellor, he was a wealthy, trusted and prominent member of the court of Henry II and in 1162 was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.

Very soon controversy arose over conflicts between Church and State which resulted in Becket’s disgrace and exile to France in 1164. Complicated controversies continued, but Becket took the decision to return to England after 8 years. His murder in Canterbury Cathedral took place on 29th December 1170.

B.11.18, f. 5v
B.11.18, f. 5v

Almost immediately a cult associated with the curative powers of his blood arose in Canterbury. A number of miracles were described and Becket was made a saint in 1173. His shrine and cult were both extremely popular and lucrative throughout the medieval period.

As a symbol of the conflict between the relative powers of Church and State, the cult became an especial focus during the English Reformation. The shrine was destroyed in 1538 and then, in November of the same year, a Royal proclamation demanded that Thomas Becket should no longer be considered a saint, images should be destroyed, his festival should not be observed and his name should be “erased and put out of all the books”.

There were varying degrees of compliance with this decree: his festival remains documented in the Liber Eliensis (O.2.1) but has clearly been erased from another of our liturgical manuscripts – B.11.4.

B.11.4, f. vii
B.11.4, f. vii
The erasure occurs against the 4th kalends of January (29th December) at the bottom of the page.

Further Reading

Frank Barlow, ‘Becket, Thomas (1120?–1170)’, The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (first published 2004)

Views of Constantinople: The Freshfield Album online


black rhino
A young black rhino, from the Freshfield Album (Trinity College Library MS O.17.2)

One of Trinity College Library’s more intriguing manuscripts is an album of sketches of the architectural highlights of Constantinople. Several of the drawings are dated 1574, and it seems that they were produced by a Western artist visiting Constantinople as part of the diplomatic entourage sent to the Levant by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II. The album, a simple gathering of folio sheets sewn into a plain vellum wrapper, was presented to Trinity in 1935 by Edwin Hanson Freshfield, a member of the College with antiquarian interests, whose father (also Edwin) had acquired it in the late nineteenth century. It has been available to researchers ever since, and has now been made freely available online for the first time as part of the Wren Digital Library. The original manuscript will also be on display in the Wren Library during normal opening hours for the next three months.


Gilles title page
The Column of Arcadius, on the title page of a later edition of Petrus Gyllius, De topographia Constantinopoleos (U.3.14)

The Freshfield Album contains 21 sketches in watercolour and ink. Nine of the pictures are of columns too high to illustrate on the pages of the album and have folded sheets attached to extend them. Several of the illustrations include notes derived from the French topographer Pierre Gilles, whose guide to the antiquities of Constantinople, De topographia Constantinopoleos, had been printed in 1561.


Freshfield, who delivered a lecture to the Society of Antiquaries in 1922 on the subject of his album, proposed that the artist may have been Stefan Gerlach, chaplain to David Ungnad von Zonneck, the Imperial envoy to Constantinople. More recently it has become clear that the volume is in some ways a companion volume to an album of Ottoman costumes compiled in very similar style by Lambert de Vos, a Flemish artist also resident in Istanbul in 1574 as part of the Habsburg embassy. This manuscript is now Ms. or. 9 in the Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek in Bremen. A near-identical manuscript to the Bremen album is available online at http://gl.onlineculture.co.uk/ttp/ttp.html. The drawings in the Freshfield Album are so detailed that it might be that they were intended for use as copperplate engravings, but no evidence has yet been found of their reproduction elsewhere at the time. In the twentieth century the album become better known as a major source of iconographic information, and several pictures have been reproduced in studies and exhibition catalogues.

view of IstanbulA panoramic view shows the Hippodrome at Constantinople, with the basilica of Hagia Sophia in the background and the obelisk of Pharaoh Thutmose III, the Bronze Serpent column and the Walled Obelisk of Constantine VII in the foreground. More detailed illustrations of each of these are found earlier in the album, together with a painting of Constantine’s Column.

ColumnThe most important pictures in the Freshfield Album are three depictions of the triumphal Column of Arcadius, completed in 421 as a commemoration of the Roman triumph over the Goths in 400. The column was some fifty metres tall, topped by a statue of Arcadius which had fallen off by the time the drawings were made. The illustrations also show the cracks which had appeared in the column and the metal bands which had secured it, but these were not sufficient to save it from collapse following an earthquake in the early eighteenth century. Only the core of the base section survives today, now surrounded by newer buildings in central Istanbul, with the entry to the spiral staircase that had led to the top. The close attention to detail in the Freshfield Album allows a full understanding of the narrative content of the spiral frieze, and constitutes the major surviving evidence of one of the grandest monuments ever erected in the later Roman Empire.


column detail
Detail of the column

The Album also includes illustrations of the mosque and tomb of Suleiman the Magnificent, who had died in 1566. Another picture on a separate sheet of paper later added to the volume shows a contemporary event. In 1574 Suleiman’s son Sultan Selim II died, sultan tombsand was succeeded by his son Murad, whose first act as Sultan was to prevent the risk of insurrection from within the family by having his five younger brothers strangled. The artist shows the tombs of the deceased family displayed in a tent between the former basilica of Hagia Sophia and the Imperial Harem.


grey rhinoFinally, there are two paintings of young rhinoceroses, reportedly brought to Constantinople from Abyssinia. It is known that there was a menagerie near the Hippodrome, so these smartly-attired beasts were probably among the animals on display. Although somewhat later than Albrecht Dürer’s famous woodcut of 1515, these images still rank among the earliest Western depictions of the rhino.

Labours of the Month: December

December: a bad month in which to be a pig. Trin MS B.11.31.
December: a bad month in which to be a pig. Trin MS B.11.31.

Last month we looked at pannage, feeding pigs on the autumnal fodder in wooded pastures, particularly on acorns. December, however, is less auspicious for our porcine friends. Vegetarians and vegans should look away now because after November’s pannage, December’s Labour of the Month is the slaughter of pigs.

The December page from Trin MS B.11.22.
The December page from Trin MS B.11.22.



It may seem odd to us that this was such a seasonal practice as we tend to have red meat available year round. However, agriculture and the food that people consumed in the middle ages were very closely tied with the cycle of the year. Over the winter months bacon grease replaced butter as the principal source of fat and pork when cured could provide the necessary protein to sustain tenant farmers until the spring when fresh food was more readily available. Additionally, adult pigs were not “overwintered” unless they were breeding stock since they quickly lost weight when food was scarce. Feeding the pigs on mast in November maximised how much food each animal would provide once they were slaughtered in December. “The cycle of swine fattening on acorns followed by slaughter was so important within the medieval agricultural cycle that it became the standard calendar depiction for either October/November or November/December.” (Jørgensen 2013) Actually, in MS B.11.22 (shown above) it is an ox or cattle that is for the chopping block, while MS B.11.4 has the slaughter of pigs as the labour for November, once again demonstrating the regional variation between the calendars in our manuscripts.

Closer to most of our hearts this month is the Labour of the Month from Trin MS B.11.4, f.vi verso, feasting.
Closer to many of our hearts in December is the Labour of the Month from Trin MS B.11.4, feasting.

It was, of course, essential that peasants had plenty of provisions for the winter months, particularly in preparation for all that feasting by the fire in January and February. In fact, manuscript B.11.4, the 13th century English Psalter, seems to recommend that you get an early start on the feasting. One of the most famous December feasting traditions from the middle ages is the Boar’s Head Feast. While the slaughter of domestic pigs was the province of peasants, the hunting of wild boar was a decidedly elite pursuit and the serving of a Boar’s Head at noble tables is recalled in the 15th century Boar’s Head Carol, excerpted below:

The boar’s head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all this land,
Which thus bedeck’d with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico.

Looking back over the past twelve months it is striking that, while the spring and summer months focused largely on agricultural activities, the calendars also featured pursuits of the wealth such as Maying and Feasting. Far from a utilitarian list of what essential tasks needed to be done in each month, along the lines of a modern Farmer’s Almanac, the medieval Labours of the Months cycle depicted agricultural work and other secular scenes as a way of showing how the material world responded to the divine ordering of things. Their context in Psalters and Books of Hours created for wealthy patrons reinforces the link between every day life and a religious understanding of the universe.

Capricorn from Trin MS B.11.4, f.vi.
Capricorn from Trin MS B.11.4, f.vi.

The final astrological sign in our twelve month cycle is Capricorn, the mythological “sea-goat” that is part mountain goat and part fish or sea serpent. The association between the stars that make up the constellation Capricornus and the sea-goat is one of the oldest consistent associations in astrology, dating back to the Middle Bronze Age. As one of the four cardinal signs of Classical astrology, the first day of Capricorn marks the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. However, due to the change in the position of the Earth’s rotational axis the sun now traverses Sagittarius on the Winter Solstice.

And so we come to the end of the cycle of the year and begin anew, accompanied by the resounding clatter of our old 2015 wall calendars landing in the bin. To see the medieval calendars we have featured throughout the year in the context of their full manuscripts, as well as many of the library’s other treasures, please have a look at the James Catalogue online. We wish you a happy December and a joyous New Year!

Further Reading

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

Larkin (2009) “The Death of the Boar“, The Medieval Garden Enclosed: The Cloisters Museum and Garden.