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The season of winter in art and literature from Roman North Africa to medieval France

The season of winter in art and literature from Roman North Africa to medieval France

By Carol Elizabeth

MA Thesis, University of Manitoba, 2000

Abstract: The role of winter in the daily lives of Romans in North Africa was investigated, using evidence provided by the mosaic of Neptune and the Seasons at La Chebba and the calendar mosaic at El Jem as well as Columella’s agricultural manual, ‘ De re rustica.’ Selected works of art and poetry from the Carolingian period and from twelfth-century France were examined in order to determine whether the experience of winter during these later periods differed from that of the Romans. Illustrations of the winter months in the Vienna Calendar of 818/830 and in Wandalbert von Prum’s Martyrology of St. Goar were studied along with several Carolingian poems including Wandalbert’s ‘De duodecim mensium. ‘

The medieval period was represented in art by a cycle of the labours of the months sculpted onto the west facade of Chartres cathedral. Several Christian Latin poems were examined in order to investigate their relationship to the theme of winter in the illustrated calendars on church facades. The Christian poems were compared with secular poetry from the ‘Carmina Burana.’

Winter activities commonly represented in the art of all three periods were feasting, eating and drinking, and hunting boars or killing pigs. The effect of the cold winter weather is consistently represented by a warmly-dressed personification of the season. The symbolism of winter is connected with the recurring annual cycle of the months and seasons, indicating the passage of time. In literature, winter is described as a period of relative inactivity and relaxation. This is sometimes regarded positively and sometimes negatively.

Introduction:┬áVergil describes with admiration a poor but contented farmer who manages to coax an abundant harvest from his little plot of land, The “old man of Corycus” lives a simple life in the country, closely attuned to the land and to the cycIe of seasons that marks out the progression of the year:

Yet, as he

planted herbs here and there among the busbes,

with white lilies about, and vervain, and slender

poppy, he matched in contentment the wealth

of kings, and returning home in the late evening,

would load his board with unbought dainties. He

was first to pluck roses in spring and apples in

autumn; and when sullen winter was still bursting

rocks with the cold and curbing running waters

with ice, he was already culling the soft hyacinth’s

bloom, chiding laggard summer and the loitering

zephyrs.

Spring and autumn are seasons of abundance, and the warm breezes of summer are eagerly awaited. But what of the winter season? Winter is the “harsh,” “sullen,” “sad” season, so severe that it breaks stone, and so opposed to al1 living things that it holds back the course of the running waters. It is undeniably appropriate for twentieth-century Manitobans to think of winter as a harsh and gloomy, life-denying season, considering the extremes of a Prairie climate. A Mediterranean winter is less severe than ours, yet Vergil’s negative view of the season should not be unexpected. Even in the Mediterranean, winter is difficult in comparison to other seasons. Nevertheless, as the following study will demonstrate, the Romans did not always perceive winter as tristis hiems, the “mauvaise saison.”

Click here to read/download this thesis from the University of Manitoba

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