By Lucie Laumonier
The medieval season of love and flowers.
Nowadays, in the Northern hemisphere, Spring starts on March 21, which corresponds to an equinox, when daylight and nighttime are equal in length. Medieval authors too associated the beginning of Spring with March. In his seventh-century encyclopedia known as the Etymologies, Isidore of Seville wrote that March is “also called the month of new things, because the month of March is the beginning of the year. It is also called the “new Spring” from its signs of germination…” But why did Isidore qualify March as “the beginning of the year”, you might wonder? In several regions of medieval Europe, civil calendars followed the Annunciation model, with a change of year on the Feast day.
In Annunciation-style calendars, therefore, March 24 was the last day of the year, and March 25 marked the beginning of the new year. The Annunciation is a Christian holiday falling on March 25, that celebrates the archangel Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary, when he told her she would be the mother of Jesus Christ the son of God. The new calendar year therefore began with Spring, a season linked to new life. This powerful association between Spring and rebirth was both religious (the Annunciation) and empirical, that is, based on observation (with Spring come new leaves, grass and the return of migratory species).
How did medieval people perceive the arrival of Spring? How was Spring depicted in medieval calendars and literary texts? And, was Spring the “mating season” for humans, as it is for many animal species?
When is Spring?
Arguably, the division of the year into four well-defined seasons each associated with a specific date of occurrence is artificial. Local climate impacted – and still impacts – individual experiences and perceptions of seasons. In Siberia, Winter does not abruptly end at the end of March; while, at the same time, in warmer regions of the globe, Spring is already underway. Regardless of the month of the year it arrived, Spring, Isidore of Seville explained, in Latin ver, got its name “because it ‘is green’ (virere), for then, after winter, the earth is clothed with plants and everything bursts into flower.”
In classical calendars, Spring began in February and Summer in early May. The reasons were astronomical and empirical. In classical times and from the Greek-Roman perspective, the centre of the world was the warm Mediterranean basin, where crops germinate earlier than in the North. By the twelfth and thirteenth century, however, European writers had modified the classical calendar to adapt it to their Christian culture and Northern climatic realities. In classical calendars, equinoxes and solstices fell in the middle of the seasons, but for medieval authors, they marked their beginning. In the Northern hemisphere, Spring springs in March since the Middle Ages.
Local differences in the arrival of Spring influenced agrarian calendars. Thirteenth-century French author Vincent of Beauvais noted for instance that, in Northern latitudes, the pruning of vines should be done in March instead of in February, like southern farmers do, because of the colder climate. Appropriate dates for agrarian work depended on the local context and the weather. But, across Western Europe, artistic conventions guiding the work of artists adorning lavish calendars associated Spring with the month of April. On the late medieval calendar pages inserted inexpensive books of prayers, March appears as an in-between month.
Arts and Literature: the Season of Love (and Rape)
On the March page of late medieval calendars, trees still laid barren but the ground, formerly brownish or covered with snow, was painted in greener tones while the first signs of Spring manifested. In March, peasants were at work, usually pruning trees and vines or tending to their crops. April opened the Spring cycle with pleasant outdoor scenes, bathed in warmer sunlight with blooming flowers and trees full of leaves.
Spring scenes often departed from the labours of the month to turn towards the nobility – the actual owners of such calendars. In April, artists often depicted a man courting a woman, picking flowers for her, or a couple engaged in an outdoorsy activity. The month of May sometimes kept going with a courting/outdoor scene or featured the noble Spring leisure of hawking. From June, the scenes moved back to the peasantry and the labours of the months. These courting scenes were fairly common and strengthened a literary association between Spring and the season of love.
The “reverdie,” or “re-greening” is a literary genre celebrating Spring and love that emerged in the courtly poetry of the High Middle Ages. Its stylistic conventions are vague but the reverdie is featured by its themes: Spring and love. Reverdies celebrated the months of April and May, they evoked the warmer light and delightful weather, the beauty of nature, its leaves and flowers, the sound of springs and bird songs. Even the opening verses of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales borrow to the reverdie genre when they evoke the “sweet breath” of April’s winds, its “sweet” showers, the “tender shoots” and the “small fowls” singing their “melody”. The reverdies usually featured noble characters: poets, knights and ladies; the same that appeared on the calendar pages, holding a flower or a falcon.
Scenes of reverdie were later inserted in romances to open the story or to bring new narrative developments. The reverdie theme also appeared prominently in another literary and lyric genre called “pastourelle.” Pastourelles tell the story, usually set in Springtime, of a knight attempting to seduce a shepherdess and, often, having sexual relations with her or, if she refused, raping her. At the end of the story, the knight often escaped. Pastourelles were then considered naughty or saucy, or downright erotic. Some historians hold that the genre developed in response to courtly poetry, more restrained and oriented toward consensual unconsummated unions. Pastourelles mimicked courtly literature insofar that they too borrowed to the reverdie and featured a “love” story. But why this association of Spring with Love? Was Spring the mating season for humans as well?
Marriages and Births: Was Spring the Humans’ Mating Season?
The analysis of late medieval marriage contracts and dowry payments suggests that February and March marked a low ebb in the cycle of marriages. At the Ramsey Abbey, England, in the late fourteenth and fifteenth century, few marriage licences were given to peasants of the manor during those two months. But the number of marriage licences granted surged in April and in May. The reason was Lent, the Christian period of fasting, during which people should turn toward God, avoid eating meat and having sex. Theologians considered that people should refrain from marrying during Lent as well as during Advent, and during the three weeks before the Feast of St. John.
The issue with Lenten marriages connects to the role of sex in the validity of Christian unions. To be fully valid, a marriage had to be consummated by the spouses. But if a couple married during Lent and respected the no-sex rule, their marriage barely stood. Marriages contracts from the South of France show that there too, marriages during Lent were a no-go. In the Montpellier area, the season of marriage fell between Christmas and Lent, that is in January and early February. Virtually no marriage occurred after mid-February and in March, in tune with the Lent restrictions. Marriage contracts made a comeback in sources during Spring, but without reaching the January level.
Spring, therefore, was indeed the season of marriages, at least in contrast with the restrictions looming over Lent. As for sex and procreation, medieval sources rarely enable historians to precisely pinpoint the time of the year when births (and conception) occurred. Early modern documents however grant that privilege. Although they postdate the Middle Ages, the perpetuation of traditions across centuries and the role of the Church in influencing private matters enable some hypotheses. In seventeenth-century France, the peak of births occurred between January and April, indicating that the children were conceived the year prior, from April to June, that is, after Lent. In a mirror effect, births dropped nine months after Lent, suggesting that many respected the no-sex rule that prevailed in February and March.
The seasonality of births in the Middle Ages likely followed a comparable path, framed by religious prescriptions that many people respected. Spring was indeed the season of love and marked the beginning of a new cycle of life. As flowers were blooming, animals were mating and people went back to marrying and making children.
Ardis Butterfield, Poetry and Music in Medieval France: From Jean Renart to Guillaume de Machaut (Cambridge University Press, 2002).
Colum Hourihane, Time in the Medieval World: Occupations of the Months and Signs of the Zodiac in the Index of Christian Art (Penn State Press, 2007).
Deborah Youngs, The Life-Cycle in Western Europe, c.1300-1500 (Manchester University Press, 2006).
Top Image: 15th-century depiction of Spring – British Library MS King’s 24 fol. 17