Two Lists of Labors in Honor of Labor Day

by Martha Rust

Today is Labor Day in the United States, a holiday that celebrates laborers and the labor movement on the first Monday in September. As Wikipedia explains in a quotable list, Labor Day honors “the contributions that workers have made to the development, growth, endurance, strength, security, prosperity, productivity, laws, sustainability, persistence, structure, and well-being of the country.”[1] In addition to honoring work generally, Labor Day heralds the beginning of a new school year and the return of students and teachers to the labor of teaching and learning. While the American calendar thus pays tribute to labor annually, the western medieval calendar honored it monthly, observing a wider array of labors than its modern American counterpart.

In these perpetual calendars, each month of the year was given its own page, each of which featured two images: one of the labor of the month, and one of that month’s zodiacal sign. Since all the labors were agricultural, the specific labor of the month may vary according to where a book was made or the region of a book’s intended market. For instance, the most common labor for September was treading grapes, but images of harvesting grapes as well as images of sowing and plowing also appear on calendar pages for September. Find examples of these labors in the form of the following pictorial list:

Treading grapes, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Buchanan e.3, f. 6. Book of Hours made in the late 15th or early 16th century in Rouen, France (© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford).

Treading and harvesting grapes, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 8, p. xxi. Book of Hours made in the late 15th century, possibly by artists in the Italian colony in Bruges. (© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford).

Harvesting grapes, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 38, f. 5. Psalter, made c. 1300 in Flanders, possibly Ghent. (© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford).

Plowing, Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, Ludwig MS IX.18, f. 5v. Book of Hours (“The Spinola Hours”), made c. 1510-1520 in Bruges and Ghent.

Sowing, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Liturg. 396, f. 5. Psalter, made in c. 1250-1260 in Flanders, Bruges (© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford).

Sowing, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Add. A.46, f. 5. Psalter, made in the third quarter of the 13th century in Flanders, Liège.

Upon first perusing these images, we may be struck by how much they seem to be drawn from real, everyday life, how much, as art historian Colum Hourihane puts it, they seem to be “based in the here and now.”[2] Hourihane also notes that these images “focus on the positive,” never depicting “the destruction of nature or of life in their iconography.” In this way, for medieval readers, labor-of-the-month images celebrate work as the human response to God’s work of creation.[3]

From the point of view of listology, we may derive a more secular insight about labor–one worthy of Labor Day–by comparing the above pictorial list of the  traditional labors for September to the verbal list of all twelve months’ labors as they are set out in words in Roger S. Weick’s book Time Sanctified:

January: Feasting (or keeping warm)
February: Keeping warm (or Chopping Wood, Pruning, Breaking Ground, Feasting)
March: Pruning (or Breaking Ground)
April: Picking flowers (or Hawking)
May: Hawking (or Riding, Courting, Making Music)
June: Mowing (or Shearing Sheep)
July: Reaping (or Mowing)
August: (Threshing (or Reaping, Winnowing)
September: Treading Grapes (or, Harvesting Grapes, Sowing, Ploughing)
October: Sowing (or, Treading Grapes, Harvesting Grapes, Ploughing, Thrashing for Acorns)
November: Thrashing for Acorns (or, Slaughtering a Pig, Slaughtering an Ox, Baking)
December: Slaughtering a Pig (or Baking, Roasting Pigs) [4]

What is the difference between these two lists’ representations of labor? First we should grant that as a “hot” medium, images are dense in sensory information. The pictorial list thus depicts the climactic conditions of September’s labors in the kinds of clothes the workers wear. By contrast, words, which are “cool,” require readers to supply this kind of information from their own memory and imagination.[5] That difference between the pictorial and verbal lists having been noted, there is a crucial aspect of labor that is not represented in the list of gerunds (its nouns ending in -ing) in the verbal list: that is, the people engaged in the labor. No wonder this particular list of words seems not only cool but oddly vacant. Conversely, the pictorial list foregrounds laborers, rather than presenting their labors in the abstract. Indeed, as Hourihane observes, at “the core” of every labor-of-the-month image, there is a “narrative element or the tale it tells.”[6] In turn, the core of that tale is a person doing something, whether feasting, keeping warm, or picking flowers or treading grapes. Unlike the verbal list, the pictorial list recognizes that labors cannot be accomplished without laborers, hence their connection to modern-day Labor Day.

Yet another look at the September images of people at work reveals that in order to do their work, workers need tools, whether a barrel for treading grapes, a basket for harvesting them, a plow and horses for plowing, or a seed sack or dispenser for sowing. Similarly, as students and teachers get ready to return to schoolwork, they are gathering items on a list of the tools they’ll need for doing it: everything from backpacks to lunch-boxes, to books, and laptops. In a sequel to this post on the medieval labors of the month, we will consider a Middle English poem in words and pictures: words in the voice of a worker with pictures that depict his tools.

[1] “Labor Day,” Wikipedia,

[2] Colum Hourihane, ed., Time in the Medieval World: Occupations of the Months and Signs of the Zodiac in the Index of Christian Art (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2007), liv.

[3] Hourihane, Time in the Medieval World, lv.

[4] Roger S. Wieck, Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life with essays by Lawrence R. Poos, Virginia Reinburg, John Plummer (New York: George Braziller, 1988), 49-50. As Wieck notes, the full list of labors includes “a few leisures.” Numerous full sets of calendar pages are accessible online. Two outstanding examples are The Spinola Hours, held by the J. Paul. Getty Museum, and The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, held at The Morgan Library and Museum.

[5] Marshall McLuhan made the distinction between hot media and cool media, which respectively require less and more participation from an audience in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw Hill), 1964.

[6] Hourihane, Time in the Medieval World, liv, liii. Hourihane thus passes over in silence December’s labor, slaughtering (or baking or roasting) a pig.

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