Friday, February 6, 2009

February Fill-Dyke

February page from the Belles Heures February Activity: Warming Before the Fire The Zodiacal Sign of Pisces

Above, from left to right: Calendar page for February, from The Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry, 1405–1408/1409. Pol, Jean, and Herman de Limbourg (Franco-Netherlandish, active in France, by 1399–1416). French; Made in Paris. The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1); detail of the activity for the month; detail of the zodiacal symbol Pisces. See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.

February fill dike
Be it black or be it white;
But if it be white,
The better to like.

—From John Ray’s A Collection of English Proverbs, 1670

Rain or snow, the month of February was associated with precipitation and uncertain weather, and abounded in weather lore. Fine weather on the medieval feast of Candlemas (February 2) signified a long winter, and rainy weather an early spring, long before the American institution of Groundhog Day. The groundhog who may or may not see his shadow had European antecedents in the German badger and the Swiss wolf.

If Cannlemas day be lound and fair,
yaw hawf o’ t’ winter’s to come and mair;
If Cannlemas day be murk an’ foul,
haw hawf o’ t’ winter’s gean at Yule.

Blackburn & Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Calendar Year, 1999.

In the course of the Middle Ages, the feast days of the saints were linked with agricultural tasks or with weather prognostications that bore on the success of the agricultural year or of a particular crop; many such calendrical proverbs survive. So with the feast of Saint Eulalia, celebrated on February 12:

If the sun shines on Saint Eulalie’s Day
It is good for apples and cider, they say.

Saint Dorothea with a basket of roses

Detail from The Virgin Mary and Five Standing Saints above Predella Panels, 1440–1446. German; Made in Rhine Valley. The Cloisters Collection, 1937 (37.52.1-.6). See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.

Saint Eulalia is not the only February saint associated with apples. Today, February 6, is the feast day of Saint Dorothea of Caesarea, a fourth-century virgin and martyr widely venerated in the Middle Ages.  She is a patron saint of gardeners, as well as florists and brides. Roses and apples are her special attributes: in the earliest version of her legend, the saint was taunted by one of her persecutors, who mockingly addressed her as the Bride of Christ and demanded flowers and fruits from her bridegroom’s heavenly garden. Before her death, she sent the scoffer her headdress, miraculously fragrant with roses and apples. He was converted, professed himself a Christian, and died a martyr.

—Deirdre Larkin

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