Above, from left to right: Calendar page for September 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 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1); detail of the activity for the month; detail of the zodiacal symbol Libra. See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.
Images of peasants sowing, reaping, threshing, winnowing, and storing wheat in the appropriate months dominate the medieval calendar tradition—the only agricultural product that rivals wheat’s importance in the cycle of the year is the wine grape, Vitis vinifera. (For more on wine grapes and wine in the Middle Ages, see “Grapevines at The Cloisters,” March 13.). In the Belles Heures, as in many another Book of Hours, the cultivating and pruning of the vine stocks marks the return to fieldwork in early spring (see “Marching Out,” March 6). Once the grain had been brought safely in, it was time to bring in the grapes. The vintage culminates in the wine drunk at the winter feasts depicted in the months of December and January (see “Works and Days: The Medieval Year,” January 9).
In wine-growing regions, the grape harvest is the calendar activity for the month of September or October. In twelfth- and thirteenth-century calendar cycles, a single figure is often shown severing the fruit from the vine with a knife or a billhook, but this is an iconographic convention that probably derives from the personification of the season in the Roman calendar tradition. Like reaping or threshing, the grape harvest was a communal activity, as depicted in the Très Riches Heures, which was also commissioned by the Duc du Berry and painted by the Limbourg brothers. In harvest scenes like these, grapes are gathered into baskets or panniers, but the fruit would be transferred into wooden vats, like the one depicted in the Belles Heures. The grapes might then be trampled underfoot to express the juice or the juice might be extracted by means of a wooden screw press. (For information about wine pressing, see www.larsdatter.com/winepresses.htm.)
The former method was hallowed by ancient tradition; wine that had been mechanically extracted was sold as such and reaped a lower price than wine from trodden grapes.
Once the juice had been separated from the grapeskins, it was put into wooden barrels and casks for fermentation, storage, and shipment. The making of these vessels was the work of the cooper, a skilled craftsman who began the long process of making and finishing a barrel by cleaving wooden staves from the trunk of an oak (preferred, although other species could be used) rather than sawing them. If the staves were not cut properly, taking advantage of the wood’s structure, the barrels or casks would leak. (For a collection of images of medieval coopers at work, see www.larsdatter.com/coopers.htm.)
The making and repairing of the vessels to hold the wine was an important job and was itself a calendar subject for the month of August in some medieval calendars. As Bridget Henisch observes, the wine barrel is the only manufactured object to be given this honor in the calendar tradition.
Henisch, Bridget Ann. The Medieval Calendar Year. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.
Pérez-Higuera, Teresa. Medieval Calendars. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1997.
Husband, Timothy B. The Art of Illumination. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008.
For more information on medieval viticulture and the wine trade, see Wine and the Vine: An Historical Geography of Viticulture and the Wine Trade by Tim Unwin.