Credit: ©The Royal Society
    Image number: RS.21065

    March sign of the zodiac and labour

    Object type
    Archive reference number
    height (sheet): 194mm
    width (sheet): 1488mm
    height (compartment): 97mm
    width (compartment): 62mm
    Content object
    Sign of the zodiac and labour for the month of March from a folded medieval almanac made up of multiple calendars.

    The sign of the zodiac for March is Aries, represented by a curve horned ram on a grassy slope. Seen in profile, it seems to climb upwards from left to right of the compartment. The genitalia and cloven hooves are clearly rendered and there is a suggestion of a long winter fleece still on the animal. The ram appears under the heading ‘Sol in Ariete’ denoting that the sun is in the longitude of the sign of of Aries.

    The almanac’s recommended labour for March is pruning. A figure is shown grasping a vine in one hand, the vine is green though still without leaves. In the other hand they hold a double-edged billhook or serpette, a curved knife with a spike designed for pruning. The same tool was known to the Romans as a falx, it is still in use in viticulture today.

    Labours associated with winemaking recur in later months of the almanac, suggesting it originated or was in use in a warmer southern climate suited to growing vines. Vineyards were widespread in southern England at this time, some almanacs from southern Europe e.g. Spain suggest pruning vines even earlier in the year.

    The composition of the image is very similar to an illustration, from the Breviari d'amor (c.1288) a book of hours written in Occitan (probably in Béziers, France) by Master Ermengaud (d.1322), though this version is much less sophisticated and ornate than the Breviari. Neither artist is known but both images likely originate from stock types copied and adapted over many years.

    The image is headed ‘XII March XII’. Underneath each numeral the same number is rendered in a cipher ‘o:’ and ‘o:’
    Object history
    Robert Moray FRS donated the manuscript to the Royal Society library in 1668 (JBO/3/104: Journal Book, vol. 3 p.232). The provenance of the manuscript, before it came into the hands of Moray, is unknown.

    The presence of the feast day ‘Translacio Edwardi Regis’ (13 October) entered on the calendar as a red letter day shows an importance being attached to Edward the Confessor great patron of Westminster Abbey where his relics were a popular site for pilgrimage, this may suggest a London origin. While the inclusion of ‘Translacio Mildride’ (13 July) honouring the Anglo-Saxon princess Mildred, suggests Kent. Mildred was Abbess of Minster-in-Thanet, where she was first buried and her relics were later moved to Canterbury. Four Archbishops of Canterbury also feature in the liturgical calendar, strengthening the connection with Kent as a possible place of origin. The inclusion of cultivation activities early in the annual calendar of labours (digging/planting in February), a later hay harvest (July rather than June) and viticulture (March and September) suggests a temperate southern English climate in support of one of these locations rather than a warmer Mediterranean location or a cooler northern one.

    The calendar has been dated to the late 14th century based on the textual content and analysis of the pigments used. Saint George’s feast (23 April) written into the calendar in brown-black ink demarcating it as a lesser feast, indicates the calendar was produced before the elevation of the feast to a red letter day after the battle of Agincourt in 1415. Whilst the presence of the feast of St. Anne, which was not promulgated until 1383 suggests this as the earliest likely date. The presence of the yellow pigment orpiment supports a date in the late 14th century as it was widely replaced by use of lead-tin Yellow around 1400.

    An example of a mid-quality almanac. The range of pigments used demonstrate it was produced economically but not with the cheapest available materials. No gold leaf is present and indigo dyes are used for blue rather than more expensive minerals, however vermilion red is employed over cheaper organic sources. The uniformity and selection of pigments (gallo-tannic black rather than carbon-based) suggests that there was a single creator, rather than a scribe and an illustrator as would be expected for a finer document. This is borne out by the fairly crude rendering of the illustrative material and mistakes or omissions in the layout of information, see for example figures missing feet where these would have extended below a ground line and numbers missing from zodiac headings.

    Conserved in 2021 with the support of the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust.

    Video demonstrating the format of the almanack and relationship of the calendars available here:

    See P Robinson, 'A 'very curious Almanack'; the gift of Sir Robert Moray FRS, 1688', Notes and Records, 2008 vol 62 pp 301-314.
    Related fellows
    Robert Moray (1608 - 1673, British) , Natural Philosopher
    Associated place
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