The medieval calendar in May

Trinity College Library, Cambridge – Labours of the Month – May

Time flies when you have your head down and are typing manically. Since I last posted I’ve been banished from court, gone on an adventure to the West Indies and am now absconding to Tuscany via Naples having deserted a wife and five children under the age of eight. I’ve built a galleon and pinnace and my Italian has improved – no seriously, my Italian really has improved. My only problem is that it relates to ship building and piracy and neither of those two options are something I would consider to be part of a lovely holiday. However it has finally dawned on me that despite the weather here it is May – so time for an occasional calendar post. Normal service will resume this week.

May – time for a spot of falconry or courtly love. I’m not sure whether either one of them counts as a labour. The Book of St Albans (1486) lists the kind of bird of prey that you would be allowed according to your rank. Emperors can fly eagles whilst knaves can fly kestrels – hence the book title. It was a bit of an extravagant way of labouring for food.

Unsurprisingly Henry VIII’s book of hours is about courtly love but also contains images for the two star signs of the month – Taurus and Gemini.

Morgan Library MS H.8, fols. 2v–3r  April and May. Houses of Henry VIII

April in Medieval Books of Hours

April’s labours involve pruning, ploughing continuing from March and shepherds tending to lambs. All in all it’s very fecund. So, er well how do I put this, spring being in the air a number of medieval books fo hours depict couples doing what happens when spring is in the air. Although in more decorous texts this involves going for a very respectable stroll rather than anything more unseemly. In the image above courtship seems to be in the air on the bottom right hand side of the page. Illustrations also include spring flowers in both nature and more horticultural surroundings – and often the astrological illustration of Aries or more often Taurus. The British Library holds early books of hours depicting feasting in April because of the feast of Easter coming after Lent.

The tres Riches Heures (April)

This particular illumination has flower picking, tree blossom and a bit of light flirtation by the looks of it. I love the detail of the fishermen in their boats.

The Earl of Cornwall –

King Henry I

Reginald de Dunstanville, or Reginald FitzHenry, or Rainald rather than Reginald, was one of Henry I’s illegitimate sons by Sybilla Corbet.  The Complete Peerage calculates Sybilla´s identity from the charter under which “Reginaldus, Henrici Regis filius, comes Cornubiæ” granted property to “Willielmo de Boterell, filio Aliziæ Corbet, materteræ meæ” which he had granted to “Willielmo de Boterells in Cornubia, patri…predicti Willielmi” on his marriage, witnessed by “Nicholao filio meo…Herberto filio Herberti, Baldwino et Ricardo nepotibus meis, Willelmo de Vernun, Willielmo fratre meo…Hugone de Dunstanvill…”.

He was born circa 1110 , so after Henry vowed to give up mistresses when he married Edith/Matilda of Scotland.  His path followed that of many illegitimate children of the monarchy – his title and wealth came through a marriage arranged to an heiress in this case Beatrice FitzRichard the daughter of an important Cornish landowner. Reginald became Lord of Cardinham through the marriage. Having said that most sources indicate that the marriage took place in 1140 – five years after the death of Henry I. In 1141 Reginald found himself stuck in his castle in Launceston whilst Alan of Richmond roamed the county at the behest of King Stephen. There was also the small matter of an argument with the Church which involved knocking down some building work at Launceston Priory paid for by King Stephen.

Launceston Priory

But I’m jumping ahead of myself. When Henry I died in 1135 Reginald was fighting in the Contentin and did not return to England until 1138. Reginald was a key supporter of his half-sister Matilda in her claim to the throne according to the Orderic Vitalis which identified him as “fratre suo Reginaldo comite Cornubiæ.”  She named him Earl of Cornwall in 1141.  The earldom of Cornwall had originally been given by William the Conqueror to Robert, Earl of Morteyne but the Morteyne or Moreton family lost the title in the reign of Henry I. Reginald certainly fought for his sister. His presence is recorded at the rout of Winchester when Robert of Gloucester was captured. Some historians identify Robert as being Reginald’s full brother but Weir identifies Henry I’s favourite illegitimate son as the child of an unknown woman from Caen. Whatever the case the number of charters identifying Reginald as the son of the king demonstrate that Reginald knew that it was important to emphasise that his power and his land ownership came from his blood and that which was given to him by his royal father.

Empress Matilda

Reginald wrested power in Cornwall back when Stephen’s alternative earl – Alan of Richmond – was captured at the Battle of Lincoln. He very sensibly opted to apologise to the Church as well. Ultimately Reginald served not only his sister but also his nephew Henry II. Records show that Reginald held 215 knights fees in Cornwall – manors capable of supporting a knight, his family, his staff and providing equipment necessary for war.

Reginald had five legitimate children and two illegitimate ones but like his father before him died with out legitimate sons so the title went into abeyance before Henry II passed it to his son John. For a brief time Reginald’s illegitimate son Henry Fitz-Count held the title but he resigned it to Henry III in 1219.  

In 1173 he was granted a charter to free burgesses of Truro. It was a this time he also became Sheriff of Devon. Launceston Priory benefited from links to the Dunstanville family as can be seen in its chartulary. The name Dunstanville is from Reginald’s grandmother Adeliza de Dunstanville. Reginald witnessed six charters for the priory.

Reginald died at Chertsey in 1175 and was buried in Reading Abbey where his father was buried.

And as a complete aside the ruins of St Stephen’s Priory Launceston were completely lost after the dissolution until they were uncovered during the Nineteenth century when a railway was built.

 ThompsonKathleen. “Affairs of State: the Illegitimate Children of Henry I.” Journal of Medieval History 29 (2003): 129-51.

The Wheel of Fortune

Detail of a miniature of the Wheel of Fortune with a crowned king at the top, from John Lydgate’s Troy Book and Siege of Thebes, with verses by William Cornish, John Skelton, William Peeris and others, England, c. 1457 (with later additions), Royal 18 D. ii, f. 30v.

The wheel of fortune or rota fortunae features in Chaucer’s writing and in Shakespeare’s. Both Hamlet and Lear have something to say on the topic.

Dating from Classical times the goddess Fortuna is pictured blindfolded with a cornucopia in one hand and a wheel or a rudder in the other. The original concept of the wheel or even sphere was linked to the astrological frame in which the signs of the zodiac were placed. Boethius, writing in the sixth century, extended the idea. The problem with Fate was that it was pagan and the Church didn’t necessarily approve.

But by the medieval period the rota fortunae was being used to remind people that it was probably best to concentrate of God and the hereafter rather than earthly things because Fortuna can bring luck, fortune and power or can remove all those things at a slip of the wheel and because everyone is bound to their wheel they have no choice but to accept what Fate throws at them. Fortuna isn’t being capricious – she’s more of a Heavenly enforcer. It is God’s will whether your business venture is successful, whether there is a famine, whether you suddenly find yourself being usurped from your throne.

The concept of destiny is an important one in the medieval and Tudor world views. It is linked also to the concept of the Great Chain of Being – everything has it’s place and shouldn’t try to step out from the place that God has allotted. Another way of describing the Great Chain of Being is to call it Divine Order. Essentially the more “spirt” something has the closer it is to God so therefore the higher up the Great Chain of Being it is – ladies you will no doubt be delighted to know that we’re lower down the chain than men. You are where you are in a rigid social hierarchy because God wants it that way – so please don’t revolt because if you do the Divine Order will be upset and this will reflect across the universe…there will be storms and floods and strange and monstrous happenings.

So – we’ve all been given a place in the universe based on the Great Chain of Being. Our destinies are in the stars and allotted to us when we’re born – remember horoscopes are cast as part of the medical process and Books of Hours contain dates which are more auspicious than others for things like moving house, having blood taken and going on journeys. The wheel of fortune is in the background as the main controlling force in life – explaining all life’s successes and adversities, joys and tragedies. It helped explain all those things for which there seemed to be no explanation.

Of course the Renaissance and the concept of humanism sees things a bit differently.

Radding, Charles M. “Fortune and Her Wheel: The Meaning of a Medieval Symbol.” Mediaevistik, vol. 5, 1992, pp. 127–138. JSTOR, Accessed 16 Feb. 2021.

February, blood letting and monasticism

Today I’m combining February’s calendar page information (yes, I know its the middle fo the month) with monasticism. Bloodletting was an important part of medieval health. If you were a monk you would pop along to the warming-house/room, usually in the late morning or early afternoon having had a snack in the refectory first. Monastic blood letting seems to have been akin to letting a vampire do his worst because accounts suggest that monks might lose up to four pints of blood during a letting. In fact monks were so weakened by the experience that they needed to spend time recuperating without the requirement for labour and with a relaxed dietary regime. On the third day after the bloodletting, the monk joined the rest of the community for some of the offices and might start doing a spot of light reading.  

Monks, certainly Cistercians, were bled four times a year including February. Basically the idea was that blood letting was a restorative that sharpened the mind and quenched the kind of urges that might get monks into trouble. If the truth was told the quarterly blood letting probably meant that the monks had more blood taken than they had baths each year.

The ‘vein man’ – a guide to blood letting. Wellcome Images L0020781

Candlemas on the 2nd of February ended the Medieval Christmas cycle. It was also often depicted as a time to rest – there are many images of agricultural labourers toasting their feet and warming their hands in front of a roaring fire in February.

The astronomical signs for the month began with Aquarius and ended the month with Pisces. Books of hours contained the astrological symbol for each month because it helped decide on medical practices – so letting blood from mid January to mid February was good because it is good to do things that last only a short while under Aquarius. But once the star sign changed it wasn’t a good idea to have anything medical done to your feet- not sure where you stand on clipping your toe nails as my medieval medical understanding isn’t that well defined.

In fact whilst we’re on the subject of blood letting – it depended on the month as to where blood should be taken and also what condition it was good for.

An example of the ‘theory’ of melothesia in which a particular parts of the body are associated with zodiac symbols. WI no. L0047652

There is a name for the way in which parts of the body are associated with different zodiac symbols – melothesia – if you please. It had a Babylonian background so we are back to the transference of knowledge via the Arab world.

Try this link for more information about health care and monasticism:

Medieval calendar – January

British Library – calendar page for January  ‘Isabella Breviary’ (Add MS 18851)

This calendar was created for Isabella of Castile in the 1480s.

Remember medieval calendars are perpetual.

The Roman numerals or golden numbers on the left hand side of the page tells you when the new moon will appear and logically when 14 days later the full moon will appear. The numbers are from 1 to 19 and represent the metonic cycle.

Thus you need to know where you are in the 19 year cycle to work out which of the 19 numbers is the new moon fo 4th year you happen to find yourself in.

The metonic cycle basically works on the premise that across a period of 19 years there are approximately 235 lunar cycles after which the cycle will repeat itself on the same day ie the moon will be in the same place in the sky with the same stars. The cycle was discovered by the Ancient Greeks.

The golden number of any calendar year (Julian or Gregorian) can be worked out by dividing the year by 19. Now add 1 to the remainder, and that number is the golden number for the year. 


2021 divided by 19 = 106 remainder 7

7 + 1 = 8. So in 2021 the Roman number 8 will provide the day in the metonic cycle on which a new moon appears. Of course you’d need to know which days fell where within the cycle to do the calculation. Then it’s a question of counting on 14 days to calculate the full moon. This was important for working out when Easter would fall in any given year (the first full moon after the Spring equinox.) Across the metonic cycle Easter could only happen on 19 specific dates and if you knew where you were within the cycle you could calculate this.

Calculating the golden number for any given year. table to work out when the new moon would fall in any given month using the golden number.

2021 is the eighth year of the metonic cycle but applying the medieval perpetual calculator to work out the date of the new moon in 2021 won’t work because of the drift in the Julian calendar – when we changed to the Gregorian calendar we lost 10 days! The first new moon of 2021 falls at about 5.00am on January 13th and is apparently a wolf moon whereas the Golden Numeral method of calculation states that the new moon falls on the 6th…which is clearly not correct!

The calendar page for January often depicts Aquarius- usually a bloke pouring water from a downturned jug. There may sometimes be an image of Janus – the two-headed god after whom January is named looking towards the future and back towards the past.

The main agricultural/seasonal illustration is often a winter scene or someone warming themselves by the fire as above.

The British Library has a lot of useful information on medieval calendars.

Peacock anyone?

Fifteenth Century French illustration

Clearly this is a medieval festive food and only for the incredibly important diner. Essentially the bird was baked or even turned into a pie. Then the tail would be reattached – on occasion the whole skin with feathers would be saved and the cooked bird reinserted – it was a statement meal but records suggest it wasn’t always very edible ( Adamson – Food in Medieval Times). And quite frankly draping an uncooked skin over a baked meat sounds like an invitation to the worst kind of food poisoning.

If you’d care for more detail please see the following fifteenth century recipe:

Adamson, Melitta. (2004) Food in Medieval Times.

Boar’s head anyone?

Day 4: Throughout the medieval period the boar’s head was regarded as a key part of the Christmas festivities – unfortunately by the time of Henry VIII there weren’t any left so Henry was reduced to wild boar pate sent as a gift by the king of France.

The Boar’s Head Carol dates back to the fifteenth century and references the “rarest dish all the land.” The actual serving of pigs at this time of year dates back much earlier to Neolithic times. Archeologists at Durrington Walls have discovered pits of pig bones that tell a story of midwinter feasting. The Anglo-Saxons referred to November as “blood month” because animals that couldn’t be kept over winter were slaughtered and many medieval books of hours depict November with a pig about to meet his end. Even the Vikings get in on the pig eating act with sagas recounting feasting upon wild boar.

Elizabeth Ayrton’s Cookery of England (1975) provides a recipe for the boar’s head, her recipe substitutes a pig’s head with that of a boar (incidentally can you still by such things?)

In wealthy medieval households the boar required much preparation. The head itself was stuffed with forcemeat and often gilded and decorated – it’s tusks may have been retained to make it look more lifelike and it might be given eyes created from sugar paste. It was carried to the table amidst much fanfare.

These days there are once again wild boar in England – follow the link for more information. I think I’ll stick to pigs in blankets and sausage rolls though.

A rendition of the Boar’s Head Carol can be found here:

Cooking and Dining in Medieval England by Peter Brears. 167-171.

East Lenham – another monastic manor

In my last post I talked about the manor of Lenham which belonged to St Augustine’s Abbey. Today I shall discuss East Lenham. Queen Ediva, the second or even third wife of King Edward (son of King Alfred) lived in the tenth century. She was a patron of the priory of Christ Church in Canterbury. A picture belonging to Christchurch bears the legend:

To Christs church of Canterbury did give indeed, Mooketon and Thorndenne the monks there to feed, Mepham, Cleeve, Cowling, Osterland,
East farleugh and Lenham as we beleeve

The year Domio MLXI of Christy incarnation.

She effectively chopped out part of the manor of Lenham – to the tune of five plough lands and gave it to the priory creating East Lenham in the process. Importantly she gave it to the monks free from secular service aside from the repair of bridges on the land and the repair of any fortifications.

In 1066 William the Conqueror (and I know that the people of Kent are very proud of their county motto invicta meaning unconquered) declared all the land was his. He retained 1/5 for his own use and gave a 1/4 to the church. The Archbishop of Canterbury became his tenant-in-chief. So just as the manor of Lenham was returned to St Augustine’s the manor of East Lenham was returned to Christchurch. Archbishop Lanfranc is identified as William’s tenant in chief – which is fine so long as the archbishop and the monarch were getting along without any problems. Unfortunately the Normans and the Plantagenets weren’t always known for their smooth working relationships with the Church.

Meanwhile East Lenham was a world in itself. It was an economic and political unit – not the same as a parish. It had to be self sufficient and to administer the law – in this case a mixture of Church law and common law. In the medieval period you had to know where you were as to which laws applied to you. There were also issues of who held the right to a fair, woodlands and mills. The use of the mill, the bakery or even a cider press was subject to the customary laws of the manor as were the rights to hunt, forage or to graze your animals. All of this would be recorded by the manor court.

In East Lenham the hierarchy shifted early on to add a secular lord to the dimension. In 1066 the archbishop was the tenant but by 1087 and Domesday Godifred, or as we would call him Godfrey, Dapifer who had previously been the archbishop’s steward was now holding East Lenham as a sub tenant to the value of a knight’s fee. So in time of conflict Godfrey had to present himself in return for his manor at East Lenham demonstrating that Ediva’s generous terms weren’t returned exactly the same way. Further investigation reveals that the archbishop’s knight held lands in Sheppey as well.

East Lenham was taxed at the rate of two shillings, it was composed of two carucates of demesne land – so the lord’s own land worked by villeins of whom there were 15 and 2 borderers or cottagers who held an additional four carucates between them. So think three field strip system. There were also six acres of meadow, a mill and a wood that would provide pannage for ten hogs. The villeins had 4 plough teams whilst the lord had a further 2 teams. Interestingly the two teams are described as belonging to the priory suggesting that perhaps the change of landlord was a recent transition – but that is only speculation and could have course been a secondary source assumption.

Essentially although there are secular tenants in the role of lord of the manor throughout the medieval period- the family of Godfrey Dapifer was superseded by the Hornes for example- the land remains Church land. Feudal incidents become more important with the passage of time. Rather than military service knights paid scutage or shield tax.

The social hierarchy shifted with the Black Death that reduced the number of available labourers, the Peasants revolted destroying, in many cases, the manor court records which recorded who was free and who was not.

Then along came Henry VIII with his marital difficulties. The priory of Christ Church was dissolved along with all the other monastic foundations but Cromwell recognised that the dioceses and the archbishops needed to be maintained so rather than the land being sold off or becoming Crown estate an act of parliament passed East Lenham back to the church. The archbishop duly let the manor for a term of 21 years at the annual rate of £55. East Lenham moved from the feudal system to the more modern lease hold.

By 1557 when the Wotton Survey was undertaken East Lenham had changed a little. Thomas Wotton held land on twenty manors including Robyns Tenement in East Lenham and Goldhurdfield.

Over time the field system shows piecemeal enclosure of some of the common land – those 6 acres of meadow mentioned in the Domesday Book.

By 1643 Sir Robert Honywood of Charing held the lease and from there it passed into the hands of Philip, Earl of Chesterfield. After his death the lease was sold to George Gipps who sub-let the manor to the Knatchbull family taking us to the eighteenth century with the Church still being the landlord. The Kent History Centre holds a bundle of Knatchbull papers pertaining to the Manor of East Lenham.

And before you ask does the Church of England still own land at East Lenham? The honest answer is I don’t know unless I applied to the land registry for information. Currently the Church owns 0.5% of England – which isn’t bad going. At the Reformation it received back from Henry VIII some two million or so acres – and that is the number based on Victorian glebe land calculations. By 1976 this number had dropped to 111,628 acres. In 2004 Shrubsole estimated that there was about 70,000 acres of land left but a 2019 figure was higher – because land is rather valuable these days if it’s in a prime location to be built upon. And it should be noted that the Church Commissioners aren’t required to publish a map of their landholdings.

Edward Hasted, ‘Parishes: Lenham’, in The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 5 (Canterbury, 1798), pp. 415-445. British History Online [accessed 30 November 2020].

Guy Shrubsole Who Owns England? 

Martinmas, geese and weather prediction

St Martin – aged 18 cutting his cloak in half to provide warmth for a beggar.

St. Martin’s Day falls on the 11th of November. Martinmas, or Martlemas, celebrates the feast of St. Martin of Tours. It was on this date that the agricultural work of the year came to it’s fruition. Pigs and cattle that could not be overwintered were slaughtered. Geese were sent to market. The sowing of autumn wheat was now complete. New wine could be tasted. Farm labours moved on and sought new work at fairs.

It is about this time of the year that the so-called “Goose fairs” are held before being known as goose fairs many were called Martinmas Fairs. Lenton Priory in Nottinghamshire was granted the right to hold a fair at this time of the year by Henry II.

The wine of St Martin after Breugal the Elder

It was also supposed to heal the preparations for Christmas – which did not involve as many festive meals as possible and a mad dash to the shops. It was supposed to be a period of fasting that lasted 40 days. It was called “Quadragesima Sancti Martini“,

Over time that changed and then during the seventeenth century was got rid of by the Commonwealth. In all fairness they had a point. The Anglo-Saxons called November “Blot Monath” Bede explained that it was so called because the cattle that could not be kept over winter were slaughtered in part of a sacrifice to the gods.

St Martin’s symbol was a goose – the former Roman soldier didn’t want to be a bishop so he hid in a goose shed but their honking gave him away. It became part of the feasts traditions to eat a goose on his feast day. In 1455, the physician, Johannes Hartlieb, wrote –

‘When the goose has been eaten on St Martin’s Day the oldest and wisest keeps the breast-bone and, allowing it to dry until the morning, examines it all around, in front, behind and in the middle. Thereby they divine whether the winter will be severe or mild, dry or wet, and are so confident in their prediction that they will wager their goods and chattels on its accuracy.’

According to weather folklore, if you haven’t got a handy goose wishbone, the weather on Christmas day will be the opposite of what it is at martinmas – so if muddy on the 11th November it will be icy on December 25th and vice versa.