The Hours of Charles of Angoulême

The Hours of Charles of Angoulême Calendar: August (f. 4v)

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Calendar: August (f. 4v)

Peasant pushing an old woman along in a wheelbarrow 

An old woman holding a bottle, a fork and a flail for threshing grain sits in a wheelbarrow being pushed along by a peasant. The scene is set indoors, probably in a barn judging by the three sheaves of wheat on the right. The old woman is obviously drunk having partaken liberally of the bottle  – with a crown in the middle suggesting she may have stolen it from the lord she works for – so much so that she is unable to walk, hence the wheelbarrow transport courtesy of a friend – unless he is drunk too and is wheeling her about for fun.

Few illuminations of the months show peasants misbehaving. They are often depicted at work stooping obediently over the land being cultivated. When they play, their games are often very innocent: they dance. Here again, the fact that this illumination by Robinet Testard was based on a print is not unrelated to this far less idyllic vision of peasant life. He was inspired by an engraving by the master of the Amsterdam Cabinet, copied by master BXG, about the same subject apart from a few changes [...] Unlike illuminators, German etchers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were not kind to peasants. They ridiculed them, deliberately depicting them as dirty, slovenly, lustful, greedy, dancing, getting drunk, visiting brothels or fighting. They also sometimes showed them with traits typical of madmen. At the end of the Middle Ages, society was not as lenient as it might have been with this third class, previously deemed by certain theologians to be the virtuous pillar of a system that could not do without them. Indeed, the troubled Europe of the Hundred Years War was the backdrop to several peasant movements that sought to shake off their condition, looting the countryside and reacting against tax abuses, at the same time as traditional knights were being challenged by the emergence of the urban bourgeoisie. The upper classes would not tolerate upstarts, for in medieval times there was nothing worse – particularly in the opinion of the nobility, those patrons of engravings and books – than rising above one’s station.

Séverine Lepape
Curator
Musée du Louvre
 

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