Labours of the months

Ottranto mosaic

This was supposed to be published two years ago, but was somehow left among the drafts.

The ‘labours’ begin from January, but assign the emblems according to the visible sky, so that (as in the Voynich manuscript)  the Scales are the sign for October.  (In the astrological system Libra’s scales refer to the period from  September 23 – October 22 and are usually pictured for September).

The mosaic has some problematic elements and some evocative figures for the ‘sea-dragon and sea-dog’ (illustrated further below) which makes it all the more interesting for our purpose.

October is written in  ‘Frankish’ form, which coincides in this case with modern English.

The mosaic’s figure for October is sometimes described as a Plowman,  but he is breaking the ground as preparation for sowing, the ploughing being an activity of early winter.

In medieval England, for example, the first day of the plowing was the first Monday after the feast of the Epiphany [still known as Plough Monday]. Like most events of the agricultural year, Epiphany its set celebrations in religious and community ritual.

The Greek church celebrated Epiphany  early in January, calling it ‘the Day of Lights’ [hē hēmera tōn phōtōn], or simply The Lights’ [ta Phōta], though its festival occurred.  This time of year also marked the beginning of the fiscal [tax-] year and  coincided (more-or-less) with the Jewish  festival of Lights [Hanukkah] from which it descended.

Sowing, though, was the October labour. Here it  is, beautifully pictured from a French Book of Hours  nearly contemporary with ms Beinecke 408.

Such works combine the layman’s calendar of labours with the refined calculations of the astrologus, and in this case the labour shown below, in the vignette for October, is matched by the representation in the heavens beyond this mundane sphere, where the Scales are in their astrological place: if I read it correctly, assigned to June (?!).

Astrological position for Libra ~ detail from ‘October’ in the Duc de Berry’s Book of Hours (1416AD)

Why does the  Sicilian mosaic show a ploughman in October? I don’t know, but it may have something to do with the winged ‘sea-dog’ and ‘sea-dragon’ motifs which appear after the tenth century in Norman regions and in maritime imagery to as late as Brouscon’s charts, known as the ‘Breton charts’. The types are seen in the Ottranto mosaic and are illustrated below.

A  French  zodiac can be seen in a large jpg image (493.64KB) through a site of Trinity College, Dublin. (493.64 KB)


In order, but beginning with Pisces:-

*Two fishPisces [March]. Medieval imagery lays the fish in parallel.

*Sheep or RamAries [April]

*BullTaurus [May]

*Human twins, young and of the same sex  – Gemini [Jne]

*Crab (single) – Cancer [July]
*LionLeo [Aug]

*Woman/Angel/spike of wheat etc.- Virgo [Sept]

*ScalesLibra [Oct]

*Scorpion  – Scorpius [Nov]  & *Sun-archer/CentaurSaggit.  [Dec]

The sign for terminus (i.e. – of the year) is a series of encircled dots.


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