Category Archives: ages

Labours of the Months

A note to the Living Field’s exploration of The Year. The Labours in Medieval art and craft. Labours in the remaining Easby church murals, Yorkshire, ca 1250. Adam and Eve in the tradition: delving and spanning. The reformer John Ball. Modern Labours and the Crow. 

The ‘Labours of the months’ was an artistic theme that recurred in cathedrals and churches across Europe in the middle ages, typically 1200-1400 AD or 800-600 years ago [1]. The Labours, depicting rural activities through the year, were sometimes paired with the signs of the zodiac. They were crafted in stone, wood and stained glass and occasionally in wall paintings (murals). The great cathedrals of France and Italy display many fine examples.

The Labours  had a role in reinforcing power and privilege. In the Très Riches Heures for example [2] the paintings show well turned out peasants about their seasonal activities, but overlooked and dominated by great palaces and castles. And not all the Labours were about the agricultural year: hunting with hawk and dog would also have been the preserve of the wealthy.

So now to Yorkshire …

The Easby Murals

In the church of St Agatha at Easby [3] Yorkshire, four of what are thought to have been 12  murals remain of these Labours of the Months, dated to around 1250 along with several murals depicting scenes from the Bible. There are apparently very few other wall paintings of ‘The Labours’ from medieval Britain, and none to compare with these. 
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These murals were originally painted on dry plaster, but found covered with lime wash, presumably to prevent them being seen and defaced during Henry VIII’s purges of the monasteries in the mid-1500s. They were uncovered in Victorian times and restored again in 1994 [4]. The remaining 8 have not survived.

A notice in the church states that two of the remaining Labours are from spring, sowing and pruning, and the others, digging and hunting, from winter. Those of sowing and pruning are the best preserved.

The church at that time was next to a monastery, Easby Abbey, now a well kept ruin [5], and the resemblance of monks’ hair styles (tonsures) in the labourers depicted suggests that the painter’s models were working canons from the Abbey rather than common people.

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Yet the presence of this ‘Labours’, so close to central Christian themes, and in a humble church, shows the importance of the year’s cycle to the people and the beliefs at that time. As in the great cathedrals, hunting on horseback with a hawk features in one of the four (lower right in the images above). The hawk itself looks more like a crow and not too different from the crow observing the sower.

Who was then the gentleman …?

Another of the murals, not part of the ‘Labours’, but one of a set on early Christian themes, shows Adam digging and Eve sat on a rock or tree stump spinning, symbolic mundane tasks that they would have to do for eternity after their ejection from the Garden in the book of Genesis.

lf_ntsmgs_stgth_dgspn_gs_750These symbols of husbandry and craft have resonated throughout recent history, not least when the preacher for social justice and equality, John Ball [6] wrote in the 1300s not long after the Easby murals were painted:

“When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman.”

He was querying why privilege and power should still so dominate and make miserable the lives of working people in what was purportedly a Christian country. That power was uncomfortable with the idea of social justice and John Ball came to a violent end, being cut into pieces and displayed in different parts of the country.

John Ball’s memory has also been kept in writings and songs, notably that by Sydney Carter [6].

In the mural at St Agatha’s, Adam is fully clothed, and Eve not quite, but in the folk tradition they can be without. In the song “Old Adam” – which has a delving and spanning refrain –  is the line “he never paid his tailor’s bills because he wore no clothes” [7].

Modern labours

The Labours of the months was given a new treatment by the writer and artist Clare Leighton in her ‘The Farmers Year’ published in the 1930s [8]. She begins with the Labours of Lambing, Lopping and Threshing, then in the month of April, Sowing; and the time of the engraving is more than 500 years after Easby, yet the farmer is broadcasting by hand, carrying the grain in a basket slung in front of him.

Her sower strikes a similar pose to that in the Easby murals, but with right arm back after flinging the seed. Her sower is more rugged, of the earth, not with smock and tonsure but with weathered face and trousers tied below the knee and having a wife waiting for him at the farm.

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Though she admits most sowing and other field work was then done with machinery, Clare Leighton chooses to engrave this sower, and writes ” ….. but here and there a farmer remains who still feels some warmth come up to him from the earth as he strides his fields, and to whom the land is a matter of emotion as well of economics.”

The crow?

The presence of the crow, following the Easby sower, recurs throughout the tradition. Crows observe the human condition, taking advantage where they can. In traditional song, two crows find a ready meal in a new-slain knight, deserted by his dog, his hawk and his lady. The crows are thinking aloud about which of them will feast on the eyes.

Of contemporary artists, Alan Stones has a special eye for crows and ravens [9]. In his lithograph – Brother Sun – a crow observes a man, a shepherd, coiling barbed wire. Another crow flies away low over the field. In a charcoal drawing, two crows peck before a gnarled hawthorn tree. His series ‘Divided self’ show crow-type birds standing on sheep and the series ‘Raven’ brings out the unearthly power of the great black birds.

The murals at St Agatha’s, Easby, are part of a European heritage and a continuing tradition [including colouring-in if that’s your fancy 10].

Contact / author: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk, visited St Agatha’s on 9 July 2017.

Sources, references, links

[1] Labours of the months: for general background and examples, see the Wikipedia page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labours_of_the_Months; and The Paradoxplace web site shows Labours and Zodiac in stained glass at Chartres, France c1217

[2] The illuminated manuscript, Très Riches Heures can be viewed at Public Domain Review: https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/labors-of-the-months-from-the-tres-riches-heures/.

[3] Easy Parish Church – a brief guide. Bargate Publications, Richmond, North Yorkshire, www.bargatepublications.co.uk. A notice on one of the walls states that the murals were originally painted on dry plaster and pre-date the Florentine Giotto (c. 1267-1337) and the Sienese Duccio (active 1278-1319). The church contains a replica of the Easby Cross, of sculpted stone, now in the V&A London. The photographer and historian Stiffleaf has a bank of images at http://www.ipernity.com/tag/stiffleaf/keyword/28360/@/page:69:18

[4] The Easby Church guide states: ‘…. they were uncovered during the Victorian restoration and restored again in 1994 by Perry Lithgow (a company specialising in architectural restoration) assisted by a grant from English Heritage.’ More photographs of the murals can be viewed at Wasleys.org.uk.

[5] Easby Abbey was founded in the 1150s for the Premonstratensian Order, itself founded in about 1121 in Prémontré, in France. The Abbey was destroyed in the 1540s in Henry VIII campaigns. Information at English Heritage http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/easby-abbey/

[6] John Ball: the Wikipedia entry gives general background. Sydney Carter wrote the song ‘John Ball’ for the 600th anniversary of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. Perceptive commentary at ‘Songs that grow like trees: an appreciation of Sydney Carter (1915-2004)’ on the web site Early Music Muse – musings on medieval, renaissance and traditional music by Ian Pittaway. Chris Wood sings ‘John Ball’ on his album Trespasser:  ChrisWoodMusic.

[7]  The traditional song “Old Adam” is performed (2016) by Fay Hield and the Hurricane Party on the CD album Old Adam, 2016, Soundpost Records, www.fayhield.com.

[8] Clare Leighton, 1898-1989, writer, artist and engraver. For examples of works, see clairleighton.com. Source: Leighton, C. 1933. The Farmer’s Year – a calendar of English husbandry. Little Toller Books, Dorset.

[9] Alan Stones at www.alanstones.co.uk.  ‘Brother Sun’ and other early lithographs can be viewed at Lithographs – Farming (1984-1992); crows and ravens at Lithographs (1996-1999).

[10] Institute for Medieval Studies University of Leeds
Downloadable page for colouring, Labours of the Months, January to March https://www.leeds.ac.uk/arts/download/2753/labours_of_the_months

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[Edited 17 September 2017]

Feeding the Romans

Thoughts on a visit to the exhibition Roman Empire – Power and People McManus Dundee, on 14 March 2015.

This fine, informative display gave evidence of the Roman presence north of the Antonine Wall (between Forth and Clyde) around 2000 years ago. They set up marching camps and lines of communication, patrolled a long and complicated frontier, built great fortresses, then retreated. Yet few things remain to tell of their everyday life.

One was scale armour, known as lorica squamata [1], fragments found at the site of the fort at Carpow, near the junction of the rivers Tay and Earn in Perthshire. These small samples, linen cloth as backing, sown with 1-2 cm wide sheet-bronze scales, are stated to be the best preserved of this type of army gear in north-west Roman europe. They are rare intact because the linen cloth usually rots and disappears. Someone might have worn this armour to help protect them from a thrown stone or spear or a body blow from wood or metal. It is not known whether the fibre plant flax Linum usitatissimum used to make the linen was grown locally or even whether the cloth was made here [2]. There was a trade in linen throughout the empire.

Another was an amphora (a clay pot), reconstructed from pieces found at Carlungie, Angus, lying in one of the dwellings adjoining an earth-house or souterrain, used as an underground storage chamber. Amphora such as this were used to move wine, oil and other essentials round the empire. A note by the exhibit told the amphora was from Gaul (France) and contained French wine. Who brought it here is not known, but you can imagine the party.

The Tay from the bank opposite the site of the Roman legionary fortress of Inchtuthil looking west, a landscape probably little changed (Squire/Living Field)

Forts and fortresses along the northern frontier

These exhibits were some of the few fragments remaining in this area from the massive resourcing of the empire’s northern frontier. The Romans made Britain a province in 43 AD and by the 70s AD had established fortified lines and supply routes through (what are now) Perthshire, Angus, Aberdeenshire and Moray. They patrolled well north of the Antonine Wall, which itself is more than an hour’s car-drive north of Hadrian’s Wall in northern England.

They built and manned forts close to transport routes by land and water from the south and east, as at Carpow, and camps and signal towers along the Gask line that ran north of Stirling and continued north east along fertile Strathmore as far as the east coast near Stracathro, and from there, dog-legging north and north west across Aberdeenshire to Moray. A long way to march. A long way from home.

Surprising is the size of some of the garrisons. The one at Carpow, close to the Tay estuary and not far from the North Sea, and thought to be occupied between 180 and 220, was designed to hold 2000-3000 people. The massive base at Inchtuthil – a legionary fortress – by the Tay river west of Meigle (image above), commanded the way north from Perth and was estimated from its dimensions and excavated buildings to house 20,000 to 50,000. A small town! To do its job today, it would need to be sited a few miles farther west to command the A9 and railway from Perth to Inverness.

Roman Inchtuthil existed only for a few years in the AD 80s before it was purposely abandoned. Even if not fully occupied, these garrisons must have held thousands to tens of thousands of people, many of whom were soldiers with big appetites.

Across the Tay to the site of the Roman legionary fortress at Inchtuthil on the raised ground beyond the tall trees (Squire/Living Field)

How to feed thousands of soldiers

They all had to be fed. They would have brought and tended some of their own livestock and perhaps grown some crops and vegetables nearby, but the staple food would have been grain – wheat, barley or oat. (There was no maize, potato or turnips then.) Just think how many packets of porridge oats would be needed to feed all those men every morning [3], and that grain would have had to be transported over long distances from the south or else stolen or coerced as tribute, or tax, from local people.

The SCRAN entry states: “The Roman army was adept at self-sufficiency. At Inchtuthil the legionaries exploited local resources of wood, stone, gravel, and clay to build their fortress. They manufactured their own lime, bricks, and pottery on the spot. Food and other raw materials such as leather would have been obtained from the natives, probably in the form of tax. The massive granaries at Inchtuthil hint at the scale of such levies.” And these granaries, or grain stores, were big, as shown by the diagrams and aerial images made during archaeological digs (online references below).

The exhibition says that when the Romans came the area was populated by farming communities of native tribes, scattered and based around fortified hill tops. This was the late Iron Age, so agriculture would have been widespread, but even so it would have been very hard pressed to support tens of thousands of soldiers in addition to the existing people. Imagine working hard all year to grow crops and then when they were harvested, you had to give away a lot of the grain for the privilege of having the Romans living nearby. The invaders can’t have been popular and presumably that is why they had to build these lines of communication and massive fortresses.

Coppiced birch, last cut 20-30 years ago, near the site of a Roman signal tower in Strathmore (Squire/Living Field)

In conclusion

The Romans did not stay long. They arrived (in what is now Scotland) in the 70s (AD), which is about one thousand nine hundred and fifty years ago, but they were gone in less than 150 years. Their leaving is said to be the result of things happening elsewhere in the empire. Rome was too stretched – but (you have to ask) – was it the midge!

The iron age skills of growing crops and tending stock continued to the present time. So did working hard all year and giving away the harvest to those wealthier or more powerful. The Romans had no monopoly on oppression. It became endemic to northern agriculture.

Notes

[1] Squamata is the scientific name now given to reptiles that have scaly skin, the lizards and snakes.

[2] Flax is one of the oldest fibres plants, grown in Britain for several thousand years, see the Living Field’s page on Fibres.

[3] A packet of porridge oats weighing one kilogram contains 25 servings. To make 1000 servings would take 40 packets, and 10,000 servings 400 packets; and that would be just for one breakfast.

Ploughed land, line of trees through to stubble fields, near the site of the Roman fort of Cardean, Strathmore (Living Field)
Ploughed land, line of trees through to stubble fields, near the site of the Roman fort of Cardean, Strathmore (Living Field)

Sources and references

Introduction including material for schools

BBC Primary History http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/primaryhistory/romans/romans_in_scotland/

SCRAN Trust: information on the fortress at Inchtuthil and on   grain stores http://www.scran.ac.uk/packs/exhibitions/learning_materials/webs/56/Inch.htm http://www.scran.ac.uk/packs/exhibitions/learning_materials/webs/56/Garrison.htm#granary

See also links to SCRAN for Carpow and Gask Frontier from the above pages.

Looking south-east across arable and grazing land from the site of a Roman signal tower, Strathmore (Squire/Living Field)
Looking south-east across arable and grazing land from the site of a Roman signal tower, Strathmore (Squire/Living Field)
Books and articles

Jones, RH. 2012. Roman camps in Britain. Amberley Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK. Available as ebook via Google Books.

Hoffmann, B. 2013.The Roman invasion of Britain – archaeology versus history. Pen and Sword Archaeology, Barnsley, UK.

Wolliscroft DJ, Hoffman B. 2006. Rome’s first frontier: the Flavian occupation of Northern Scotland. Tempus publishing.

Archaeological investigations and records (RCAHMS)

Carpow: http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/30081/details/carpow/

Inchtuthil: http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/28592/details/inchtuthil/

Contact

geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

Photographs on this page taken early April 2015.

Towards the site of a Roman signal tower, now occupied by planted Scots Pine, bulb field in the foreground (Squire/Living Field)
Towards the site of a Roman signal tower, now occupied by planted Scots Pine, bulb field in the foreground (Squire/Living Field)