Prelude: ‘Labours of the Months’ and the Chronograph of 354.
I have to write this preface before treating the mosaic (introduced in the previous post in this series), because Webster’s study of European “Labours of the Months” in which it was illustrated, argues a connection between the mosaic and medieval Latin “monthly labours” imagery. This argument Webster developed presuming that the Roman calendar was ultimately the origin of every calendar known to the Mediterranean world. This, now, we know is not so.
Webster refers in detail to one classical/early medieval/seventeenth-century work, the Chronograph of 354. I learn from J-B Piggin, via Roger Pearce that its illustrations are now online at the Vatican Library website – here.
That manuscript is a seventeenth-century copy (or version) which was formerly in the Barberini collection and now Vatican Library cod. Barberini lat. 2154, and although it includes a folio showing small vignettes for six of the twelve Roman constellations, for the most part it is no more than a list of Roman classical feast-days illustrated by images of domestic and foreign observances as perceived in classical Rome.
The ‘Chronograph’ includes no “labours of the months” series in the sense we use that term for medieval works in which emblems for the 12 constellations are sometimes shown together with an illustrated roster of peasants’ (and later, of nobles’) seasonal occupations.
During the pre-Roman and the earlier Roman periods, the agricultural year’s activities were depicted by showing bucolic characters being cute, and the fruits of each month’s harvest – and winter’s lack of any. If months and seasons are personified, they are normally noble-looking.
Within the Christian west, the older bucolic idea, when joined to the 12 constellations’ imagery changed its character. The series with or without the emblems of constellations was chiefly intended to ensure that the illiterate labourer had no excuse for not performing his allotted tasks in their correct time – month, year after year after year – and his children and grandchildren after him as often as not.
A rural year was now not defined in terms of official holidays, public circuses and all the rest. Nor was it a series of celebrations of earth’s bounty. The “monthly labours” of medieval Europe are just that: a work roster supposed immutable and which ran without a break, seven days a week, twelve months of the year.
Those bound to the land had their life by grace of their lord, who expected from his peasants’ labour not only a sufficiency of food and drink, but enough to maintain his castle and his luxuries including jewels, clothing, objets d’art, books and all the stuff of war.
The “labours of the months” include no holiday. What there were, were due to the church’s liturgical calendar and its ‘holy day’ or ‘holiday’.
There is nothing astrological about inclusion of emblems for the monthly constellations: they ensure that the illiterate peasant doesn’t get lazy. When this sign is in the sky, or that, this job or that is what the lord should see him doing.
Despite some of its outmoded ideas, Webster’s book published in 1938 still deserves to be read:
J.Carson Webster, The Labors of the Months in Antiquity and Mediaeval Art to the end of the Twelfth Century (1938). Online (here).
You’re probably curious, now, about the Chronograph of 354 and whether it might inform the Voynich manuscript’s calendar.
It certainly helped me understand one detail on folio 86v – from its image for June. (I see this post was a bit too long: this is a convenient point to break it. The rest will go up in an hour or so.)