The Golf Book (Book of Hours)

The Golf Book (Book of Hours) f. 27r, calendar, September

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f. 27r, calendar, September

In the bottom margin on f. 27r, on the edge of a farm and in front of a house with a man watching them, are three boys playing a ball game similar to present-day golf. The boy on the left is about to strike the ball, the one in the middle is listening to comments by a middle class man and waiting for his turn from the boy on his knees about to knock the ball into a hole. This theme is not uncommon, but not frequent either, in Flemish book illustration, and can be found at the top of calendars in earlier works such as the Mayer van den Bergh Breviary (f. 6v) and the Spinola Hours (f. 6v), both by Gerard Horenbout, and the Croÿ Hours, which Simon Bening himself or an artist with a very similar style must have worked on. The origin of the game of golf is not clear. A pastime known as paganica existed in the Roman Empire which used a curved stick and a ball made of feathers. Other similar games were kolven, played since the 14th century in the Netherlands (the Dutch word kolf means stick) and the French pall mall, a forerunner of which was chôle – already played in the 13th century – found in the north of France and Flanders from 1353 onwards and which the Scottish discovered in 1421 when they helped the French in their battle against the English at Baugé. The basic difference between golf and the games mentioned above, however, in which the ball was aimed at a pre-determined spot, was the fact that the ball entered a hole, an innovation that possibly occurred between 1421 and 1457 in the east of Scotland, when James II promulgated a law to avoid archers being distracted from their archery practice by this game. The balls were sometimes made of hard wood or, more frequently, bull or horse hide, and stuffed with wool or goose or chicken feathers. The finished ball was painted white to make it more visible. Because of the characteristics of the balls – particularly those made of hide which could burst but were not allowed to be changed during the game – the game depended more on the player’s skill than the distance because holes were shorter than nowadays.
On the right side of the margin is a medallion, with a cartouche reading “scorpio”, that contains a scorpion seen from above, quite different from the fresh-water crab representing Cancer, particularly as regards its wide tail ending in a sting, similar to the one in the Très riches heures du duc de Berry (ff. 10v, 11v). In most of the cycles by Gerard Horenbout and Simon Bening, however, it is shown in profile. Mention must be made of a mistake made in all of them: the Scorpion sign of the zodiac is situated in September and Libra in October, thereby reversing the normal order.

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