Saint Hildegard and “Labors of the Months”

English Fleta and other European manuals on model agricultural practices for landlords and manorial managers appeared widely in the late thirteenth century, followed by others like Pietro de Crescenzi’s exceptional fourteenth century Agricultural Calendar. Although many of these manuscripts were heavily influenced by the classic Latin treatises of Varro and Columella, that they were penned in vernacular languages was significant and reflects the growing appreciation of agriculture beyond abbeys and royal libraries as a subject worthy of intellectual interest and susceptible to systematic improvement.

Hildegard of Bingen, The Wheel of Life
Detail showing harvest reaper at center left
Codex Latinus 1492 (Liber Divinorum Operum)
State Library, Lucca, Italy; Wikimedia Commons

The progression of European summer climate from Mediterranean to continental influenced these artistic arrangements with representative reaping scenes in Italy typically shown in June (Cancer), and in July (Leo) in France. Similar views are found for August (Virgo) in Germany and England, though fewer depictions of the “labors of the months” are known during this time in northern Europe.  In de Crescenzi’s Calendar the emerging Italian conception of realism holds colorfully active sway with men and women in period clothing shown more naturally working together to reap and thresh the crop. De Crescenzi’s illustrated treatise on agriculture, Liber Ruralium Commodorum (Book of Rural Benefits, c. 1309), became the first printed book on the subject when it was published in Augsburg in 1471.

                                                                    | I. La Tène Angular Sickle     >     Viking Sickle (c. 500 AD)

Bronze Age (“Lake-Dwelling”) Sickle (c. 1500 BC)

                                                                                           /                                                   \ II. Short-Handled Scythe     >      Northern Short Scythe (c. 700 AD)
Stone Age Crescentic Sickle

                                                        \                                                    / III. Balanced Sickle (c. 250 BC)                             

Bronze Hook Sickle   >   Transylvanian Hook Sickle (c. 1500 BC)

                                   | IV. Long-Handled Scythe (c. 100 AD)


Roman Era Sickle and Scythe Development with Early Medieval Artistic Depictions

(After A. Steensberg, 1943)

Personified cycles of diligent rural endeavor, which often prominently feature lightly clad men and women in wide-brimmed straw hats, are typically shown with accompanying signs of the zodiac and more realistically depicted than earlier, passive symbolic forms in earlier illuminated manuscripts like the Calendar of Salzburg (c. 820). Benedictine abbess and visionary mystic Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)—the “Sibyl of the Rhine” who wrote extensively about botany and plant cultivation, composed and illustrated her remarkable Liber Divinorum Operum (Book of Divine Works) from 1163-1174 which described a holistic cosmology of the temporal and divine realms. Hildegard conceived of a natural world (in regno mundi) that remained vital and inseparable from Christ’s divine kingdom (in regno Christi) as people lived in accordance with the perpetual calendar of natural processes and religious observances. In this way of viriditas (fecundity), the microcosm of an individual’s life could more fully conform to the universal divine macrocosm as revealed in Scripture, evident in nature, and shown in the Book of Divine Works’ illuminated Universal Wheel of Life that depicts the entire calendar from fall sowing to summertime harvest.