OLIVER MITCHELL // The Medieval Calendar: Locating Time in the Middle Ages READ

The Medieval Calendar: Locating Time in the Middle Ages

Roger S. Wieck

New York: The Morgan Library & Museum in association with Scala Arts Publishers, 2017, 95pp, ISBN: 978-1785511073.


The Medieval Calendar: Locating Time in the Middle Ages, published to accompany the stellar Morgan Library exhibition Now and Forever: The Art of Medieval Time, has a straightforward objective: to be a ‘simple handbook on the medieval calendar’. Author of this new book, curator of the Morgan exhibition, and world authority on books of hours, Roger S. Wieck is well qualified to write such a guide. The Medieval Calendar follows 1988’s Time Sanctified and 1998’s Painted Prayers as his third book to touch on the subject of medieval time and represents the distillation of that expertise into a slim volume with a clear structure.

In three parts, the book explains the basic textual and pictorial components of medieval calendars, reproduces in full the calendar of a thirteenth-century breviary, and explains Wieck’s own step-by-step guide to localising these documents. Together these three chapters aim to equip the reader with the essential tools to set about analysing and understanding medieval calendars and the books in which they are contained.

Chapter 1 offers a primer in the terminology of medieval calendars, summarising the functions of Dominical Letters and Golden Numbers and how these are used to find the date of Easter and other moveable feasts. Wieck also explains the different colour-coded grading systems of medieval calendars and describes the standard iconographic motifs that are usually found in their pages. This introduction is, like the rest of the volume, sumptuously illustrated with examples from the Morgan’s exceptional collection, which accompany Wieck’s summary of the changing fashions in representing the Labours of the Months and the signs of the Zodiac between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The second chapter indulges in a meticulous, day-by-day examination of the calendar from a Breviary made for use in Paris’s Sainte-Chapelle (MS M.1042). It appears to have belonged to Jeanne de Navarre, queen to King Philip IV of France. The text of the twelve calendar pages is transcribed in full, and each month’s feasts are subjected to a thorough interrogation for hints as to where this calendar was made to be used. There are some unambiguous clues, such as the inclusion of the Dedication of the Sainte-Chapelle on 26 April, but Wieck is committed to his demonstration of how less obvious choices in the calendar’s creation also offer valuable information.

Although the author’s treatment of the Morgan Breviary’s calendar is more descriptive than interpretative, its publication here in full is doubtless a contribution in and of itself to the growing body of scholarship on the liturgy of the Sainte-Chapelle. Moreover, Wieck’s ruthless attention to scribal errors – many saints’ feasts are inscribed a day early, and even the obit of Philip III (Jeanne’s father-in-law) is written on the wrong date – offers a model of diligence. Only once, on page 50, is the author’s prose ambiguous: it seems to suggest Louis IX died at Mansurah in 1251, whereas he in fact died at Tunis in 1270.

Wieck’s approach, the efficacy of which was painstakingly yet instructively demonstrated in Chapter 2, is fully explained in Chapter 3. His method was developed over the course of fifteen years spent teaching medieval manuscripts at the Rare Book School (University of Virginia), and is made openly available to a general readership for the first time in this publication. The author gives his five-step guide to localising a medieval calendar along with a list of necessary online sources, and then once again shows his working through a series of carefully chosen examples. All told, The Medieval Calendar boasts forty-nine colour figures for its ninety-five pages in addition to numerous full-page illustrations, hinting at Wieck’s curatorial flair as well as his intimate knowledge of the Morgan Library’s collections.

The Medieval Calendar describes itself as a small book with a simple aim, so to criticise omissions or a lack of depth in certain fields seems unfair. From an art-historical perspective, however, the fascinating relationship between text and image in the runic calendar (MS M.1009) seems to deserve more in-depth treatment than the paragraph summary received here. Given that the layout of the calendar itself does not correspond to others described and analysed elsewhere in this volume, and that the tools offered for interpreting medieval calendars are inapplicable to its contents, its inclusion here seems unjustified.

pastoral scene of two workers cutting hay
MS M.399, Da Costa hours (MS M.399), fol. 9v, Ghent, Belgium, ca. 1515.

Although Wieck’s focus on medieval France is evident in his choice of examples throughout The Medieval Calendar, this is never explicitly stated. This makes the revelation in Chapter 3 that the author’s method applies only to calendars produced in France or the Francophone Low Countries disappointing. Readers interested in medieval Spanish, Dutch, and British calendars are directed to existing publications, most between fifty and one hundred and fifty years old. This Francocentric focus is reflected in Chapter 1’s summary of the Labours of the Months, which fails to mention iconographic variations between calendar images produced in France and those produced in, for example, Italy or England.

Nevertheless, The Medieval Calendar accomplishes no mean feat in being at once precise and broad, both compact and expansive. Wieck demonstrates a masterly understanding of his material, and shares his insight and experience with the reader generously. Its geographical focus ought not impinge too much on its interest and utility to scholars of medieval history in a range of disciplines, not least in the history of art. Books containing calendars – psalters, missals, breviaries, books of hours – and their decoration are foundational to the training of many students of medieval art, and the kind of greater understanding of those calendars advocated by Wieck in The Medieval Calendar can only be enriching.