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Labeur and Paresse: Ideological Representations of Medieval Peasant Labor
Art Bulletin, 72 (1990), pp. 443-452.
Writing on Bruegel's Fall of Icarus, Robert Baldwin has commented that, "Recent scholarship has explored a tradition of overwhelming negative peasant imagery from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries," The scholarship Baldwin refers to has mainly been concerned with literary and historical sources, and though representations of peasants in the sixteenth century have been the subject of an impressive amount of recent critical debate, much less has been written of earlier, that is, medieval peasant representations.' The aim of the present article is to examine some specific images of peasant labor and, equally important, of peasants not laboring, which range in date from the late twelfth to the early fifteenth century.
In the earlier, period,
class differences are made clear in the images, but peasants are presented in
most examples relatively neutrally, as they function in different roles. In
the thirteenth century, with its still expanding rural economy. the social structure
of peasants and landowners, was relatively secure. But some negative images
of the lazy peasant already appear. By the end of the period, as the social
structure was increasingly strained and open revolt occurred in both England
and France. Baldwin's observation receives support in overtly negative images.
These appear in various contexts in England and France, but I shall argue that
they are especially dear in one famous set of Calendar images, the Très
Riches Heures, painted for the Duc de Berry by Paul de Limbourg and his
brothers before 1416.
The Très Riches
Heures, as is well known, was described as unfinished in the inventory of
the duke taken at his death in 1416. because the three eldest Limbourg Brothers
apparently died that same year.Later in 1482-89 the Hours was completed for
Duke Charles of Savoy by the French illuminator. Jean Colombe. He painted the
miniature for /p. 437: November (Fig 12) and, according to Meiss, retouched
the images for March (Fig 4) and September (Fig. 10). It has recently been suggested
that a third artist was also involved in the calendar at some intermediate date,
probably ca 1440. Though some suggestive arguments have been put forward, I
remain unconvinced by the stylistic and other evidence so far adduced that there
was a third hand. In any case, even if another artist beside Colombe were involved
in some way with the calendar miniatures, it still seems likely that the cycle
as a whole was not only planned but in its essential features designed by the
The twelve calendar miniatures
depend on the medieval cycle of the Occupations of the Months as established
over two preceding centuries. The iconography to the end he twelfth century
has been traced by Webster. It originates in representations in Roman pagan
art of the Seasons and Months as figures accompanied by symbols, for example,
in the Roman Calendar of 354, where September is shown as a heroic nude carrying
a bunch of grapes. In the Carolingian period, as Schapiro has stressed, the
cycle displays a very significant shift to representations that show figures
in action. Thus, in a ninth-century astronomical treatise, September is represented
by a figure pruning vines.
The cycle of Occupations
only becomes widespread from twelfth century on, in the so-called "Second
Feudal ," if we adopt the terminology of Marc Bloch; and this cannot be
accidental. It is at this time, as Duby and others have shown, that the idea
is widely disseminated that society consists of three orders - those who pray,
those who fight, and those who labor. The cycle of Occupations, which represents
only the secular orders - nobility and peasants - and not the religious orders
- monks, secular clergy, or friars - is constantly replicated from around 1100
in both public and private spaces. The cycle occurs in contexts visible to all,
in monastic, cathedral, and parish churches of the Romanesque and Gothic periods.
It was carved on the exterior of these buildings, at Autun around 1130, and
Amiens around 1230, for example, and it is represented inside on pavements,
for example, in the late twelfth century at Canterbury Cathedral, in wall paintings,
and in stained glass.
The cycle was also painted
in the calendars of the liturgical church year, which preceded mass books, Psalters,
and Books of Hours. This was a more private space, normally only accessible
to the literate and the wealthy, since these were books used by secular priests,
cloistered monks, and nuns, and in the later Middle Ages by the higher nobility
and the richer bourgeoisie.
On church facades, the representations
are placed in subordinate or marginal relationship to the scenes of Scripture.
The latter scenes, largely chosen and controlled by the third order - those
who pray - are given priority, whether as sacred biblical narrative or as doctrinal
or moral truth. But the Occupations placed on the archivolt at Autun can also
be/p. 438: seen figuratively to frame the central message of religious judgment
expounded for the pilgrims in the tympanum of the church's west door. And at
Amiens Cathedral, they act as physical support on the socle for the religious
truths propounded by order of the bishop and chapter on the jambs and tympana
above. The Occupations thus complete and underpin the Church's spiritual and
In the manuscripts, the
Calendar scenes come first and thus precede any sequence of narrative images
of Holy Scripture that there may be. As with the sculpture, they are subordinated
in the hierachy of subject matter, and consequently they are typically smaller
in scale, usually placed at the top of the calendar text page, often attached
to the "KL" initials, while the accompanying Zodiac signs are inserted
in the margin half-way down the page.
the Très Riches Heures, however, the Occupations are shown in
twelve full-page miniatures surmounted by the zodiacal signs in an arch above.
The miniatures are painted on versos, with the calendar text on rectos opposite.
This reverses both hierarchy and expectation, and it is unique to this date.
The very first miniature for January also signals that the cycle will be startlingly
different from any known example preceding it, since the usual scenes of Warming
by the Fire and of Feasting are here combined and personalized by showing the
duke himself at table before a roaring fire and surrounded by members of his
This immediately indicates
the need in interpreting the miniatures to be particularly attentive to ways
in which the Limbourgs alter the normal cycle, since these alterations will
be suggestive signs of their own and the patron's ideology. The image of Berry
grandiosely present on the first page of the calendar clearly demonstrates the
perspective from which the succeeding images of peasant labor and aristocratic
pastimes are going to be seen. By "ideology" I mean to indicate that
these images embody attitudes held for the most part unconsciously, or at least
taken for granted, but reflecting the material interests of those holding them.
These scenes are constructs, and must not be seen, for all their "realism,"
as neutral. Even that "realism" is limited in various ways, as will
be argued below.
complex processes by which meaning is produced in the "network of difference"
are clarified by semiological theory. It is vital to examine the Calendar cycle
as a whole to know how meaning is created by contrast and juxtaposion. The second
miniature, February, shows members of the agricultural working class . Three
workers are inside on the left, warming themselves like the nobles of January,
though the fire is not so powerful, and three are outside, emphasizing the cold
of the snowy landscape. One seems to blow on his fingers to warm them, prior
perhaps to feeding the animals; a second cuts wood, and a third drives a donkey
to the distant village. What is the social status of these unnamed people and
what attitudes to them are being constructed by patron and by artist?
As Panofsky observed, the
duke and his court are warm, while some of the workers who produce both his
everyday sustenance and the resources to acquire the objects of conspicuous
consumption that surround him, are shown outside suffering from the cold. Panofsky
wrote: " A purely descriptive presentation of labor and leisure [in the
earlier calendar cycles], is transformed [in the Très Riches Heures into
an antithetical characterization of divergent milieus."
/p. 439: As indicated above,
it is not possible to consider earlier Calendar landscapes as "purely descriptive,"
but nevertheless Panofsky offered an important suggestion here. In spite of
this, the ideology behind the representations in Berry's manuscripts has not
yet been thoroughly investigated. Millard Meiss, for example, chose largely
to ignore it by concentrating instead on stylistic criticism to define hands
and on iconographical analysis of motifs and details. He traced, for example,
some of the images in the Calendar to similar images in Italian art, without
exploring the purpose and meaning of such borrowings and of the modifications
and alterations thereby made to the Northern cycle.
Panofsky's phrase "antithetical
characterization of divergent milieus" seems to leave open the possibility
that the artists intended a sympathetic contrast of the toil and hardship of
the peasants, some of whom at the same time are able to relax, even if not in
such great splendor as their lord. However, the explicit nudity of the most
distant man and woman, who reveal their sexual parts, suggests a different interpretation.
This depiction should be contrasted with the more restrained rendering of the
woman raising her skirt to show her petticoat in the foreground, a motif also
found in the northern Italian late fourteenth-century Tacuinum Sanitatis,
a medical health handbook now in Vienna, where the scene represents Winter as
one of the four seasons. If the Limbourgs' source for this particular motif
was, as seems certain, a similar Italian representation, they have first transferred
it to a different context and then deliberately altered it.
I would suggest that we
interpret the explicit nudity not as a piece of "Northern realism,"
as Panofsky does, but as an ideological representation showing the peasants
as uncultured, boorish, and vulgar. A similar interpretation of the miniature
has recently been suggested by Serafin Moralejo Alvarez, in a significant analysis
of nudity in a range of images in Romanesque sculpture. Moralejo draws attention
to both literary descriptions and sculptural representations of Marculf the
Fool, the opponent of King Solomon the Wise, in which the size of Marculf's
sexual member is emphasized, and he links these with the topos in Classical
literature, for example, Theophrastus, of the immodesty of the rustic.
Moralejo also draws attention
to the sexual implications of the Spinario figure as used in Romanesque sculpture,
and quotes Classical texts known to the Middle Ages indicating spring as a time
of renewed sexual activity. We should ask, therefore, whether in the relatively
private space of the early fifteenth-century manuscript book, these figures
were subjected to the voyeuristic gaze of the duke. Other images in the duke's
manuscripts may confirm such a suspicion: for example, the erotic emphasis on
Eve's nudity after the Fall as shown on folio 25v, or the torture of the half-naked
Saint Catherine in the earlier Belles Heures, also illuminated for the duke
by the Limbourg Brothers./p. 440: Because male and female, not just female figures
are shown on the February page, it seems to me likely that the power exercised,
though still voyeuristic, is that of class rather than of gender.
Jean de Berry was born in
1340, the third son of Jean Ie Bon, king of France. His elder brother, Charles,
succeeded their father, King Jean le Bon, as King Charles V of France in 1364
and died in 1380. After the disastrous French defeat by the English at the Battle
of Poitiers in 1356, when Jean le Bon himself was captured, the French signed
the Treaty of Bretigny of 1360 and ceded territory to the king of England, including
the County of Poitou, formerly held as his apanage by Jean. In compensation
Jean was made duke of Berry, the area of France of which Bourges is the capital,
and of Auvergne. Later, when the French finally retrieved Poitou in 1375, Jean
persuaded his brother Charles V, to allow him to retain his lands in Berry and
Auvergne as well as regaining Poitou.
Berry's extortionate demands
in taxation through his agents were well known to contemporaries. Froissart
gives a chilling description of the fate of one of these agents, Betisac, when
Charles VI made a tour of the south of France in 1389. He was accused before
the king at Béziers of "stripping the surrounding districts of everything
he had been able to lay hands on," and, abandoned to his fate by the duke,
was tortured and burned to death. Only fifty years before, the Jacquerie had
not waited for the king's intervention but had risen and massacred a number
of the land owners and their deputies before their rebellion was put down with
Berry's social and historical position can help to explain the contrasts in the Calendar that Panofsky noted between "the overstylization [of the aristocrats] equally foreign to the unchallenged feudalism of the past and to the secure bourgeoisie of the future" and the representations of "the charms of the simple life, the quaintness of the lower classes, in short the genre and particularly the genre rustique." In my view, however, the representation in the Très Riches Heures has an added edge of personal hostility, so that where Panofsky describes Berry's attitude as 'half sympathetic and half amused, half supercilious and half nostalgic," I agree only that he seems "half amused, half supercilious." My conclusion is that the peasants are here subjected to a gaze that is contemptuous and not without fear, as the dominating castles in each miniature show. Whereas Berry can be seen today as a cultivated and by implication "innocent" lover of art, for his contemporaries the connection between the taxation exacted by an individual whom Froissart called "the most avaricious man in the world" and his art collecting was clear.
In the succeeding Calendar
miniatures, a number of Berry's most important castles are represented or alluded
to, thus repeatedly calling attention to his enormous landed wealth and the
military power necessary to protect it not only from the national enemy, the
English, but also from rival feudal lords, such as his nephew, Jean sans Peur,
duke of Burgundy, and last, but perhaps not least, from the peasants themselves.
In the miniature for March, showing the/p. 441: occupation of ploughing, the
duke's castle of Lusignan in Poitou is depicted (Fig. 4); and in April (Fig.
5), often represented by a woman holding a flower, but here by a scene of aristocratic
betrothal, the castle may be either that of Dourdan near Paris or possibly Pierrefonds.
In the May and June miniatures, showing aristocrats riding and peasants haymaking
(Fig. 6-7), we see first the distant roofs of buildings on the Ile de la Cité
in Paris, and then a closer view across the Seine. The June view is that from
the Hôtel de Nesle on the Left Bank of the Seine (Fig. 22). This had been
given to Berry as his principal town house by his nephew, Charles VI, in 1381.
In July (Fig. 8), harvesting, the castle is that of Poitiers. In August (Fig.
9), hawking, the castle is that of Étampes near Paris, and for September
(fig. 10), the vintage, the castle shown is that of Saumur. In October (Fig.
11), sowing the corn, the fortified palace of the Louvre, built by Berry's brother,
Charles V, is shown, again in a view from the Hotel de Nesle. Then is no recognizable
castle in the November miniature, which, painted by Colombe, shows the feeding
of pigs. In December (Fig. 13) the royal castle of Vincennes, where Berry was
born, is in the background.
Thus there are three scenes
in which aristocratic occupations are shown - January, April, and May - and
seven in which peasant occupations are shown - February, March, June, July,
September, October, and November. The two remaining scenes, August and December,
are at first sight more ambiguous, but should be ranged with the aristocratic
occupations. In the August miniature, the aristocrats fill the foreground. even
though peasants work in the distance. The scene for December, the killing of
the boar at the climax of the hunt, is an aristocratic pastime, even if the
duke's servants rather than the duke himself are shown. The scene must also
have been planned originally to contrast with the preceding peasant occupation
of feeding the pigs, thus completing the cycle as it had begun, with an opposing
pair of representations.
Though the scenes are not
simply alternated, the artists/p. 442: being to some extent constrained by the
pictorial tradition, clearly the aristocratic recreations of April and May,
riding in the woods and courtly love, are also contrasted with June and July,
in which the peasants are shown working. In all these scenes, the dress codes
make the contrasts most forcibly evident, with the aristocratic garments being
of the greatest splendor and fashionable luxury.
The miniature for March
(Fig. 4) shows a peasant ploughing to the left in the middle ground and three
other peasants pruning vines. All the figures on the page are bent, not upright,
and the one in the center turns his posterior to us. An older art history praised
the artist's virtuoso ability to depict the figure foreshortened in space, a
motif traceable to Italian sources. But I suggest that this should also be understood
as a means of diminishing and mocking the peasants. A similar but even more
explicit figure is on the September page (Fig. 10), which shows the grape harvest,
a miniature designed by the Limbourgs and completed by Jean Colombe. Here a
peasant is placed at the very center of the page and flanked by brute beasts,
a donkey and a pair of oxen. His role as constructed in this representation
is analogous to theirs, both in his task and in his unselfconscious behavior,
with his stockings falling down and his underclothes showing. It would be unthinkable
to show /p. 444: any of the aristocrats in this way.
The figure ploughing painted
in the foreground of the March miniature is a figure filled with ideological
meaning in the later Middle Ages, as Michael Camille has recently demonstrated
in relation to the English early fourteenth century Luttrell Psalter. The ploughman
stands as the virtuous laborer whose hard work supports the rest of society.
In the Luttrell Psalter also, the representations of the peasants at work are
played off against the representations of the landowner, the feudal knight Sir
Geoffrey Luttrell, shown feasting, or in heraldic glory on horseback, armed
for combat by his faithful wife and daughter-in-law.
These representations of
peasants at work, however, need to be contrasted not only with those of the
landowning aristocracy, but also with representations of peasants not at work,
that is, with images of the lazy or idle peasant. These depictions have not
been surveyed. They are certainly much rarer, which in itself indicates the
ideological role the Calendar scenes performed by their constant replication
of peasants at work, the "natural' function for them/p. 445: intended by
God, as frequently stressed in literature and sermons.
Agricultural labor as most
commonly represented in the Middle Ages can be divided into two major themes.
The first is shepherding; the second, the stages of growing the cereal crops:
ploughing, sowing, reaping, and threshing. Here the importance of the hidden
or indirect social representation within Christian scenes in medieval art should
be emphasized. This is very different from the hidden symbolism that Panofsky
postulated. Rather than learned allusions depending on literary texts, such
scenes are ideological representations, accessible both by repetition and by
public placement, which reflect and reinforce social norms. Biblical narrative
scenes represent contemporary medieval social coding and behavior and therefore
give them the authority of God's will by transference. Thus at the beginning
of Genesis, human labor is visualized indirectly but powerfully by way of biblical
exemplars, Adam digging and Eve spinning. Their children, Cain and Abel, bear
their respective gifts to God, a lamb for pastoral labor, and a sheaf of corn
for agricultural labor. John Ball's famous slogan in the Peasants Revolt in
England of 1381. "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?'
was aimed directly at the familiar pictorial image of humankind after the Fall,
not at the biblical text where the nature of their labor is left unspecified.
More frequently represented and even more powerful in its effect must have been the depiction of the shepherds of Bethlehem. The Good Shepherds are those who are "keeping watch over their flocks by night," awake and vigilant to protect them against predators (Fig. 14). In the Très Riches Heures, we may note in passing that the shepherds' costume, ragged as it is, shows pretensions above their status. The buttoned tunic of the shepherd on the left is bursting open. Buttons were a sign of wealth and status, and here can only mean that the shepherd is wearing a cast-off and thus ridiculously aping his betters. Sermon literature of the period castigates peasants for dressing above their station. Another striking example of overdressed peasants is found among the misericords at Worcester Cathedral, carved ca. 1379, where both Adam and Eve and the three mowers wear exaggerated finery. The latters' large hats and tight tunics, once again with numerous buttons, are quite unsuited to their strenuous occupation (Fig. 15).
The earliest example of the bad or lazy peasant pertinent to this discussion occurs in an English bestiary of ca. 1200 now at Aberdeen and shows a shepherd asleep (Fig. 16). Here are demonstrated the consequences of the shepherd's lack of watchfulness. The wolf, which also doubles as a signifier of the Devil in a Christian context, steals the sheep committed to the shepherd's care. The Aberdeen Bestiary has a twin in the Ashmole Bestiary in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, but neither there, nor, so far as I know, in any other Bestiary is the sleeping shepherd shown.
Unfortunately, the original
patron of the Aberdeen Bestiary is unknown. But it is interesting to note that
another example of the sleeping shepherd belonged to a Cistercian monastery
(Fig. 17). This reformed Benedictine monastic order, which in its twelfth-century
origins proclaimed a new strictness of discipline, spread with astonishing rapidity
all over Europe. By the thirteenth century it had acquired huge landed holdings,
and it used the holdings, especially those in remote and wild terrain, to develop
new and sophisticated techniques of sheepfarming, which brought the order immense
The miniature is in the
early thirteenth-century pattern book from the Cistercian abbey of Rein, Austria.
A sequence of scenes that includes a number of crafts, such as carpentry, weaving,
and leather-working, starts with a couple embracing juxtaposed with a sleeping
shepherd /p. 446: (Fig. 17). His unattended goats destroy the trees above, and
below a wolf again seizes one of the Iambs. Though the interpretation of this
sequence of images as a whole is problematic, it seems likely that the two images
represent the vices of lust and Idleness.
Another example in the monastic
context occurs in De pastoribus et ovibus written by Hugo de Folieto,
Prior of an Augustinian priory near Amiens, who died ca. 1172. The work is a
treatise on the monastic life, and a number of copies contain a frontispiece
illustration, possibly designed by the author, Christ as Good Shepherd is shown
giving a crook to the abbot, and, below, the good sheep on the left are contrasted
with the bad goats on the right (Fig, 18), Captions explain the images, contrasting
the "vigilant shepherd" at the bottom on the left with the "complacent
monk" on the right. This particular text seems to have circulated with
other works by Hugo in a number of Cistercian houses, and an early thirteenth-century
example is from the Cistercian abbey of Clairmarais. The frontispiece is also
found in two copies of unknown provenance but made in northwest France ca, 1270
and ca. 1277, both now in the J. Paul Getty Museum.
In this context of twelfth-
to thirteenth-century monasticism, the emphasis of the image is on monastic
discipline under the abbot as directed by the Rule of Saint Benedict. The abbot's
authority is still signified in this early medieval ambiance by differentiation
of size rather than costume. The monk who fails, however, is represented not
directly but indirectly, as a sleeping shepherd. It must not be forgotten that
the monks were linked to the nobility as land owners, and were for the most
part also members of it by birth. The contrast of class, however, is masked
here, since the monk's habit, with its pointed cowl, as worn by the abbot above,
was adopted to signify humility and does so precisely because it is not so very
different from the shepherd's hooded scapular, as worn by the good (but not
"the bad) shepherd below.
In a later example, however.
social status in the secular sphere is more overtly contrasted. This occurs
in a Somme le roi, a treatise on the Virtues and Vices written for the
king of France, Philip III. by his Dominican confessor Frere Laurent in 1279.
A number of illustrated manuscripts survive, none apparently the original dedication
copy. In a late thirteenth-century manuscript, the miniatures, which have captions
in French explaining their subject matter show the Virtues and Vices mainly
as either female personifications or as biblical figures. In a few cases, however,
/p. 447: they are shown as contemporary types. Thus on fol. 12lv (Fig. 19) the
Virtue Prowess is contrasted with the Vice Laziness ("Paresse"). For
the former, a female personification stands holding a disc with a lion, still
a potent symbol of courage. Below her is the biblical scene of David vanquishing
Goliath. On the right, Laziness is a peasant asleep, having abandoned his plough
and horses. Below him, "Labeur" is represented by a man sowing corn.
Here, then, is a complex play-off between the aristocratic virtue of Prowess
or Bravery, represented indirectly and annexed to biblical, God-given Truth
in the scene of David's triumph over Goiiath; the Vice of Laziness, which is
identified with the agricultural working class; and, thirdly, the peasant's
virtuous, that is, socially approved activity. "Labeur" is depicted
in terms of the familiar calendar scene of sowing, as it is also shown in the
Très Riches Heures for October (Fig. 11). The image has biblical overtones.
recalling Jesus' parable of the sower, which is represented, for example, in
the well-known image in stained glass at Canterbury Cathedral.
In some copies of the Somme
le roi, though not in this particular one, texts that appear to have originated
as instructions to the illuminator are included. For the images of peasants,
the instruction reads: "Et devant la dame doit avoir i. homme qui dort
et fait muser sa charrue. Et dessous lui doit avoir I. homme qui seme ble en
terre. Le nom. . . de celui qui dort paresce et de celui qui semme labour."
It is interesting that here, as in the Hugo de Folieto manuscripts, the specific
reference to the lazy peasant ("qui dort") and thus the ideological
significance reside not in the original written text but in the image that the
adviser (the author himself?) and the artist, whether separately or jointly,
annexed to it.
Another representation of
peasant laziness as both a sin against God and a moral iniquity appears in the
Tree of Vices in a devotional book with pictures, the Psalter of an English
magnate, Robert de Lisle, illuminated probably in London by a court artist around
1310. According to standard medieval exegesis, the root of the Vices is Pride,
and it was that which led Eve and then Adam to eat the fruit profferred by the
serpent in the Garden of Eden. But here in the early fourteenth century, two
new images reflecting contemporary ideology are juxtaposed with the ancient
and ubiquitous image of the Fall of Man (Fig. 20). On the right sits the "Proud
pauper" - "Pauper suberbus," as he is labelled. As a sign of
his pride, he sits enthroned, crosslegged, a position associated with a king,
and he listens to a devil who points at the corn he should be cutting but which
is rotting because of his idleness. Again, the image becomes comprehensible
only by contrasting it with the more usual calendar scene of the peasant cutting
corn, seen, for example, in the background of the August miniature of the Très
Riches Heures (Fig. 9).
The "Pauper superbus"
on this page is in addition physically juxtaposed to the "Rich miser."
"Dives avarus," who hoards coins in his heart and in so doing heeds
the Devil, not Christian council. This latter relates tellingly to Jacques Le
Goff's recent examination of medieval attitudes to the merchant and condemnation
of the sin of usury. Here I would only note that once again this is an ideological
image, opposing Avarice to the aristocratic virtue of Largitia - generosity
or gift-giving. Fol. 136v of the thirteenth-century Somme le Roi also represents
the miser in its catalogue of sins. But he is not shown anywhere in the Hours
of the Duc de Berry, Froissart's "most avaricious man in the world"!
In the October scene (Fig.
11), the distant figures walking up and down the opposite bank of the Seine
are perhaps the only representation in the Très Riches Heures
of the bourgeois of Paris, who fifty years earlier, in the person of /p. 448:
Étienne Marcel, had challenged aristocratic, though not yet royal, power.
The calendar scenes of later Flemish Books of Hours from the merchant cities
of Bruges and Ghent will maginify the higher bourgeois and their leisure pursuits.
For example, in the early sixteenth-century De Costa Hours from the workshop
of Simon Bening in Bruges, this class has taken possession of the river, as
it were, in the scene for May (Fig, 21).
final calendar miniature in the Très Riches Heures the December
scene (Fig, 13), is, like the January and February scenes, dramatically different
from the usual scene of the pig being killed for Christmas. By this date, such
an episode can be shown as taking place in the city in a butcher's shop, as
in the Hours illuminated ca. 1420-30 in Paris, for John, duke of Bedford, regent
in France for Henry VI of England. The Limbourgs significantly reject this representation
of city life, and instead end the Calendar as they began it, with a scene of
aristocratic extravagance and pleasure, forming a contrasting diptych, as already
observed, with the peasant labor of fattening the pigs on acorns in November
(Fig. 12). The Limbourgs' December miniature shows the climax of a boar hunt,
with the animal being torn apart by the hunting dogs for which the duke was
famous. Again, the source of the central motif, as is well known, was an Italian
composition, which is found almost identically in the Bergamo sketchbook of
the Milanese artist Giovanni dei Grassi, who died in 1398. But here as well
the scene should not be viewed simply as a naturalistic representation. It,
too, is transformed in the Très Riches Heures into a claim to power,
the right of the king and here by extension his closest kin, the royal dukes,
his uncles or cousins, to hunt the royal forest of Vincennes, whose keep once
again towers theateningly in the background. In medieval Forest Laws, stringent
and horrible punishments were inflicted on the peasantry for any infringement
of royal rights, rights that became a source of struggle in later peasant rebellions,
Though the duke himself does not appear in the December scene, the members of
his household who organized his sport are shown, just as some of those who organized
his table are represented /p.449: in the January miniature (Fig 1).
Finally we may consider
the signs of intersecting class and gender in the images of upper and lower-class
women in the Calendar. In the miniature for June (Fig. 7), the women in the
foreground help in the harvest by raking up the bay the men have cut. As active
women, they can be contrasted with the aristocratic women in the month of August
(fig 9), who accompany the hunt with their falcon. Here, two women ride behind
their men as mere spectators of the sport. This opposition between the women
of the lower class represented as active and those of the upper class shown
as passive is a regular feature of medieval images.
In the background of the
August scene, three peasants cut and gather the corn, while others are shown
refreshing themselves from the heat by swimming. Again, the latter's nudity
contrasts with the exaggerated luxury of the clothing of the aristocrats. Theirs
is not a heroic classic nudity, as in the Renaissance, however, but represents
nature as opposed to culture. The peasants' labor for the lord in the fields
is set against the diversion of the lords and ladies, and their diversion is
in turn contrasted with that of the peasants themselves, once again possibly
with voyeuristic overtones.
My reading of the images of the Très Riches Heures must remain tentative in many respects, and three areas encourage further investigation. First, though I would argue that these images do not represent "reality," it would nevertheless be desirable to ground them within what can be discovered not only more generally of peasant conditions /p. 450: in France in the early fifteenth century, but more specifically on Berry's lands. As is well known, the population loss caused by the Black Death was in some respects beneficial to certain members of the peasant class. Wages tended to go up and some serfs were able to buy their freedom. In the Très Riches Heures, the peasants are represented as subservient, but not as starving or indigent.
Second, it might prove fruitful
to analyze the way space is represented in the calendar pictures, once again
not in terms of "realism," but of the way in which space is dominated
by aristocrats rather than peasants. The nature and extent of the images of
enclosure and exclusion, for example in the March or April miniatures (Figs.
4. 5), may also be significant. It could be asked, who goes freely and where,
who is constrained, who is alone and who is accompanied? Are any spaces hostile
or impenetrable - the forest of Vincennes, for example (Fig- 13)?
Third, there is the question of "realism" in representation and the development of landscape painting. Panofsky related this to subject matter in the Très Riches Heures, whereas Meiss linked it to the individual artistic talent of Paul de Limbourg; and more recently scholars have posited a later hand in the most "advanced" miniatures, especially that for October. My argument has tended to side with /p. 451: Panofsky. But though the views of the Ile de la Cité and of the Palace of the Louvre (Figs. 7. 11) can be accepted as "realistic" in detail - in the sense that certain similarities can be verified against surviving buildings or by excavation, for instance, the Louvre and the church at Mont St. Michel - they are not "real" as general views." The Hotel de Nesle was situated in the west corner on the south bank of the Seine, for example, where the walls met the river in a sharp triangle (Fig, 22). There were fields outside the walls at this point, but it seems unlikely that this open space was the foreground of any vantage point from which the Palace of the Louvre or the Ile de la Cité could have been seen. /p. 452: It even seems doubtful whether those open spaces just outside the walls were used to sow corn or cut grass, as opposed to growing vegetables or feeding animals.
The wider question of whether naturalism in the calendar scenes is a matter of conventional or natural signs is too complex to be discussed in this essay. What needs to be stressed in conclusion is that the view of the peasants was in fact constructed, but its "realism" made it seem merely a neutral observation. Such is the case even today, as the calendar pictures are still frequently considered illustrations of historical "reality."