Archive for October, 2009
Above, from left to right: The seed head of the cultivated form of teasel (Dipsacus sativus) in a bed devoted to plants used in medieval arts and crafts (2006); detail of the seed head of the teasel growing in the same bed this year; detail of the seed head of common teasel, or fuller’s teasel (D. fullonum), now in the medicinal bed.
Visitors to Bonnefont Garden are often surprised to find plants that they recognize as common weeds being carefully cultivated in the beds here. One ubiquitous weed found growing in waste places throughout this country is the common or wild teasel, Dipsacus fullonum, a plant which had various medicinal applications in the European Middle Ages. Read more »
Above, from left to right: Calendar page for October 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 Scorpio. See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.
The annual cycle of cereal production that dominates the depiction of the agricultural year in the medieval calendar tradition began and ended with the sowing of seed corn. Scenes of tilling and sowing typically appear as the activity proper to October, before the arrival of the winter rains. While a plow was used to turn the earth in spring, a harrow was used to prepare the ground in autumn, as in the Très Riches Heures. The harrow was also used to cover the seed once it had been sown. In the Belles Heures, as in many other calendars, a single sower represents the month, although a harrow appears at the edge of the scene.
In The Medieval Calendar Year, Bridget Henisch notes that the sower shown in calendar scenes is always male, although a woman may be shown walking behind him with a sack. Neither do women plow, but a female might be shown guiding the horse who draws the harrow.
In her masterly description of the art of sowing seed broadcast, Dorothy Hartley emphasizes that it was highly skilled and responsible work. (Depending on the grain and the weather, sowing was done either immediately after plowing or harrowing. ) The field to be sown was measured, and the seed was measured into open sacks that were set out at each end of an open furrow. The sower then walked smoothly and steadily down the furrow, counting his steps and keeping them even for the length of the field, guiding his feet down two adjacent plow lines. He then reckoned how many steps he must take to each handful of grain he would cast. (Field workers would not have been able to write or to count above ten, so agricultural tallies were kept by reckoning in four sets of five fingers, making a score.)
If a man sowed from a basket hanging from his neck, he might sow with his right and left hand in alternation. If he used a sowing cloth or apron, he would cast with one hand only and only to one side as he went up or down the furrow. Once the rhythm that determined how many handfuls of seed would be matched to the number of steps needed to cover the ground was established, it remained constant for the whole field. However, a skilled worker might be asked to sow more thinly or thickly in different parts of the field, which might be drier or damper in one place than another. He did this not by changing the rhythm, but by taking a little larger or smaller handful of grain.
Hartley, Dorothy. Lost Country Life. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.
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.
Above, left: Volunteer gardener Nuala Outes befriending a mantis in Bonnefont Garden last summer; right: one of three adult mantises seen recently on the asters now blooming in Cuxa garden.
The European praying mantis is so named because of the manner in which it raises and extends its grasping forelegs before seizing its prey, suggesting an attitude of prayer. This omnivorous species was not among the beneficial insects released in the gardens this summer as part of our biological pest control program, although several mantises already inhabited Trie and Bonnefont gardens. However, the mantis population does seem to be on the rise, and no less than three of the insect predators were recently spied in Cuxa garden on a windy day, clinging to a single planting of ‘Hella Lacy,’ a cultivated form of the native New York aster now blooming along the roadsides.
The sexual cannibalism for which the mantis is notorious seems to be more common in captivity; it is less frequently and readily observed by entomologists in the field and is the subject of scholarly debate. Autumn is the mating season for praying mantises in our climate, although we haven’t observed any unions. The compound eyes and binocular vision over a wide field—characteristic of mantises—make them at least as aware of us as we are of them, and they clearly register their consciousness of our presence when we encounter them in the gardens.
Above, from left to right: Hop bines grown in Bonnefont Cloister garden send out new shoots in March, reaching the roofline by the end of May and dying back to the ground in late autumn; a hop bine bearing female flowers, called cones, adorns the abacus of a column from Saint-Guilhem Cloister; detail of a bine bearing a male flower.
Hop (Humulus lupulus) has been used as a vegetable (according to the Roman natural historian Pliny, the young shoots of the plant were eaten), as both fodder and bedding for cattle, as a dye, and, like its close relative hemp (Cannabis sativa), as a fiber plant. It also appears as a medicament in medieval and Renaissance herbals. The fifteenth-century Herbarius Latinus recommends hops for purifying the blood, opening obstructions of the spleen, easing fever, and curing both headache and jaundice. However, the most important economic use of hops in the Middle Ages and at the present writing is in brewing beer. Read more »