Credit: ©The Royal Society
    Image number: RS.21069

    May 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 May from a folded medieval almanac made up of multiple calendars.

    The sign of the new zodiac entered in May is Gemini, the twins. Shown in the almanac as a pair of interlocked male figures behind a shield, each holding a club. The shield bears an armorial design which has not been identified with a particular family and was likely an invention of the artist. The crest includes floral attributes, a red saltire and crescent moon (usually delineating a second son, perhaps in this case the second twin or perhaps just called to the artist’s mind by the astronomical elements elsewhere in the almanac). The shield is a common motif for Gemini, the clubs less so. The twins appear under the heading ‘Sol in geminis’ denoting that the sun is in the longitude of the sign of Gemini.

    A ground line appears to have been ruled across the compartment and the figures’ legs cut off at this point with no feet. Both figures wear close-fitting, high-neck tunics, short and belted at the hip over bi-coloured hose. The yellow pigment of the clubs and the right twin’s right leg (foremost) has been identified as orpiment, an arsenic based pigment, the use of which was largely discontinued by the 15th century when it was replaced with the brighter more stable lead-tin yellow. Identification of orpiment in MS/45 has helped narrow the likely date of the almanac to late 14th century.

    The almanac’s recommended labour for May is falconry or hawking. It shows a figure in long red and green tunic and red domed hat, with a bird of prey balanced on their gloved left hand. The type of bird is not identifiable but hunting with birds would normally have been a pursuit of nobility and the type of bird employed would have been strictly delineated by rank.

    The image is headed ‘VI Iunius XVIII’. Underneath each numeral the same number is rendered in a cipher ‘c.’ (very faded/obscured) and ‘oc.:’
    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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