Great Hours of Anne of Brittany

Great Hours of Anne of Brittany The Calendar: May, f. 8r


The Calendar: May, f. 8r

At the top is the constellation of Gemini in the form of one male and one female figure, both naked and lying down, possibly because of the evocation of the month of May itself which, like April, is a time of love, and one of its images in calendar cycles is two lovers. The star formation is depicted underneath as two young  twins in identical garb, holding each other’s hand and bearing blossoming branches of white hawthorn (or frons festa as they are known in Latin) for May is the time when this fragrant, white, rosaceae blooms, and the time to enmaïoler or emmayer, i.e. when men give these branches to their beloved, a recollection of the Indo-European tradition of the green man, a character with powers of fertility and rebirth. The figure of the two noble persons stems from a far older model known as Robigus or the prince of spring, whose iconography harks back to the repertory of Antiquity. It is highly likely that this image and the meaning of its feast influenced the development of the iconography of the spirit of spring, so common in funeral sculptures of Late Antiquity. Due to the influence of other texts too, the model would have been modified subsequently during the Carolingian and Ottoman periods, and been incorporated into the medieval calendar. Added to this rich, artistic and literary tradition is also the backdrop of feasts associated with the month of May.
Depicted in the earthly part is one of the activities of the month, the May festivities, or Maïerolles as they are known in Old French, to be precise. Certain festivities in late spring of pre-Christian origin, such as the ancient floralia, had no religious meaning, whilst others were associated with the Phrygian goddess Cybele or Maya as she was also known, responsible for making the fields blossom, the trees grow green again and the fertility of all living creatures. After Christianity was established as the Empire’s official religion, it did not pervade all regions to the same extent, hence certain basic elements of the ritual, stripped of their pagan facet but not of their association with fertility and eroticism, persisted as entertainment and were generally very popular in folklore customs: particularly those in early May, a month still considered to be a time of rebirth of life and love.
Alongside the two young men is the maypole – maiolier in medieval French – with its slender trunk decorated by a golden ribbon wound around it above three circular discs of greenery one above the other made of interwoven willow, hazel or chestnut branches – the best technique because it was very quick to make. The tree was pruned as required into superimposed crowns decreasing in size, held in place by metal rings, from which orange balls or citrus fruit were hung. The maypole was a key community feast with both religious and social considerations. Consequently, in the context of this month and its association with love, the tree with metal balls or fruit arranged in three platforms might have represented the three levels of love and the ensuing prize. Behind it, next to a wood, are three men each holding a branch of green leaves; they might, according to the texts, be guards preventing all but lovers from entering the wood. Young people used to go to the countryside or a neighbouring wood at dawn on the first day of May to cut green branches (quérir le may) which they used upon their return to bedeck their homes and streets and even to decorate people or certain tools to celebrate spring coming to life; but the main reason was to bring the maypole, deemed to be virtually a sort of idol whose trunk was decorated subsequently. It was usually a young tree dragged by oxen followed by a crowd of men, women and children. Efforts made by the Church to assimilate these festivities led to the commemoration of the Invention of the Cross or the Vera Cruz, as it is also known, on May 3rd – highlighted in gold ink in the text of the calendar, Inue[n]tio sancte crucis. Once again, it must be said that unlike the scenes of peasant tasks mentioned previously and later in this study, this image and the previous one mark the difference between social strata, and the refinement of the higher classes, the otium cum dignitatem mentioned earlier.

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