Medieval Writing
Reading a Calendar
The way that time is measured and recorded reflects the needs and concerns of a society. Among the villagers and peasants and country gentry of the middle ages, time revolved around the turning of the seasons and their relationship to the agricultural round. It was necessary to know the time for sowing, for harvesting, for storing food for the long winter. It was necessary to work lengthy hours in the long days of summer in order to store up resources for the long nights of winter, enlivened with feasting and stories and foolishness. As with all agricultural societies, this was related to the movements of heavenly bodies; the sun, the moon, the planets and the constellations of stars.
office Among the literate clergy, it revolved around the complex cycle of rituals and feasts that made up the church calendar. The missal and the breviary, as they became by the later middle ages, detailed an intricately varying mode of celebrating the mass and the divine office, depending on the day in the calendar. The calendar itself comprised interlocking sets of feasts or commemorations. A relic of this which survives in our society is that we celebrate Christmas on December 25th, but Easter can fall on a different day every year.
A liturgical calendar became a major component of many religious manuscript books, including the various works of liturgy, the psalter and in the later middle ages, the book of hours. The simplified office used by the laity and recorded in the book of hours did not vary in the same complex way as that performed by the clergy. The office was the same for every day of the year, but the calendar served to indicate major feasts and saints' days. (See Wieck 1988 also the Catholic Encyclopedia either in hard copy or online.)
While the calendar in manuscript books was fundamentally for the recording and computation of religious festivals, the concerns of ordinary people for the seasonal round were not excluded. This was mainly expressed in the decoration of the pages, which frequently included the signs of the zodiac and depictions of the labours of the months. The zodiac signs have today become a degraded form of popular culture, but they represent the constellations which are seen near the horizon and which cross the sky according to an annual sequence. They are used by agricultural societies in many cultures and religions to plan their annual round of activities.
calenar page Libra
The Julius Calendar and Hymnal (British Library, Cotton Julius A VI, f.7b), by permission of the British Library.
This 11th century English work, shows the zodiac sign in the upper left corner and the labour of the month along the bottom of the page. The sign for October is Libra and the labour is hunting, which suggests upper class preoccupations here. Why a bunch of Anglo-Saxon lads are shown apparently hunting ostriches is a bit of an enigma, but suggests an exotic, probably Classical, source for the illustration.
The full cycle of illustrations from this and another related example can be found on the web at An Anglo-Saxon Calendar.
There were two major cycles of feasts in the Christian calendar. The Temporal, or Proper of the Time, included Sundays and all the feasts associated with the life, death and resurrection of Christ. The whole cycle began the week before Christmas with Advent and finished with the Ascension. They were themselves divided into two groups. One group was based around Christmas. These were held on fixed days of the calendar. The second group revolved around Easter, which was a movable feast that occurred at a different time every year. More about that later.
        The Ascension depicted in stained glass in the church of All Saints, Pavement, York.
The second cycle was the Sanctoral, or Proper of the Saints. These were days commemorating the saints, including the Virgin Mary. Some feasts, like that of the Annunciation, were universal holy days of the church and celebrated in all places. But there were multitudes of saints and nowhere did they celebrate all of them. There were saints particular to local areas and the calendars reflected the areas for which they were produced. St Bavo was probably a bit of an unknown quantity outside Ghent although he appears in Flemish manuscripts sold abroad, St Fermin was special to Amiens and appears in northern French calendars and it is a mystery why a group of churches in Picardy is dedicated to St Apollonia, patron saint of toothache sufferers, but there will be a reason lost to history.
The Annunciation depicted in stone on an outer wall of Amiens Cathedral.  
As well as being noted in the calendar and affecting the performance of the services, these feasts were represented in the general visual culture of the church. The events of the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary, depictions of the saints and sometimes graphic depictions of their martyrdom were part of church art in establishments great and small. Candles were set up in front of images and they were venerated on their feast days, so they were a part of participatory culture even for those members of the community who did not own a manuscript with a calendar. The calendar directed the spiritual life of the community.


Dating Manuscripts
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