Friday, March 5, 2010

Pruning the Vine

March activity March activity from the Belles Heures jde_aries_150

Above, from left to right: Detail of the activity for the month from the March calendar page of The Hours of Jeanne d’??vreux, ca. 1324???28; detail of the activity for March from the Belles Heures of Jean of France, duc de Berry, 1405???1408/1409; detail of the zodiacal symbol Aries from The Hours of Jeanne d’??vreux. See the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History to learn more about manuscript illumination in Northern Europe, or see special exhibitions for information about the exhibition “The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry” (on view at the Main Building March 2 through June 13, 2010).

The month of March marked the return to work in the fields for the medieval peasant, and the pruning, cultivation, and manuring of the vines was the first task of the agricultural year???these essential chores constitute the activity almost always chosen to represent March in medieval calendars. (The spring ploughing of the fields might be shown instead in books of hours made in locales where wine was not produced.)

The cultivation of the soil beneath the grapes, the association of vine-dressing with the month of March, and the tools with which the toilers in the vineyard worked, all derive from Roman tradition. Falx was the Latin name applied to any agricultural knife with a single curved edge. Specific variations were designated by adding an adjective to indicate special usage. The pruning hook wielded by the peasant on the left of the image from the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux is the Roman falx vinitoria, described by ancient agrarian writers like Cato the Elder, Columella, and Palladius, all of whose works were consulted throughout the Middle Ages.

The very similar tool used for pruning fruit trees was known as the falx arboraria or silvatica???this tool was the emblem of the goddess Pomona. In addition to its agricultural uses, the falx was also used as a weapon, as was the mattock (see “Iron Implements and Appliances” from The Roman Era in Britain by John Ward) wielded by the man cultivating the soil around the vine stocks in the detail from the Belles Heures shown above. (In antiquity and the Middle Ages, March marked not only the return to the fields, but also the return to military campaigns.)

For more information about the month of March in the cycle of the medieval year, see “Marching Out,” March 9, 2009. For more about medieval viticulture, see “The Vintage,” September 4, 2009.

???Deirdre Larkin


Boehm, Barbara Drake, Abigail Quandt and William Wixom. The Hours of Jeanne d’??vreux. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.

Henisch, Ann Bridget. The Medieval Calendar Year. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

Hourihane, Colum, ed. Time in the Medieval World: Occupations of the Months and Signs of the Zodiac in the Index of Christian Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Husband, Timothy B. The Art of Illumination. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008.

P??rez-Higuera, Teresa. Medieval Calendars. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1997.

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Comments (2)

  1. wendy stein Says:

    Dear Deirdre,
    Thank you so much for your kind words, posted at The Art of Illumination. They mean so much more, coming from you, the Queen of the Garden Enclosed. Your eloquent, erudite blog, with its heterogeneous insights, is an inspiration and an unattainable pinnacle.
    In gratitude,

  2. Jay Chua Says:


    I really enjoyed visiting every single blog posting here.

    All these postings really taught me lots in regards to ancient history and various plant species I’d never heard before. Look forward to learn more from the blogs.

    Jay Chua

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