One of the most beautiful books ever was a book of hours made for the Duke of Berry around 1416 known as Les Tres Riches Heures, The Very Rich Hours. The book of hours was the first type of book made outside the monastery scriptoria by secular craftsmen for a secular market. It was a kind of personal prayer book based loosely upon the monastic breviary, an ancestor of the Book of Common Prayer. The book was an object of piety, and of conspicuous consumption. In that preindustrial made-to-order economy, the expense of the book was based on how much decoration and illustration embellished the text. No two of these books are alike, and there were once thousands of them. Hundreds still survive in rare book collections all over the world.
Jean, the Duke of Berry, was the younger brother of King Charles VI of France, and the older brother of Phillip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. He stayed out of the bloody business of dynastic politics and concentrated on his very rich and productive estates in and around Bourges. He was a rich, luxury loving bon vivant who prized expensive objets d'art, and had a huge collection of them. He employed hundreds of craftsmen and some of the finest artists in Europe to make several books of hours for him. Some of the finest ever made came from his artists. Among the artists in his employ were 3 Dutch brothers named Pol, Herman, and Jean Limbourg. Together, they made the Duke's finest and most famous books of hours. Their masterpiece is the Tres Riches Heures.
Here is the whole book open to its most famous part, the calendar.
The calendar of a book of hours was like the calendar in the Book of Common Prayer. It was the list of saints' feasts by month. It usually formed a small section in the front of the book.
The Limbourg Brothers transformed that small section into the showpiece of the whole book with illustrations of the zodiac signs and the labors of each month, similar to the carvings here on the west front of Amiens cathedral from almost 200 years earlier.
These greatest of all calendar pictures illustrate work and activities on the Duke's estates and in Paris, and are valuable historical documents as well as spectacular works of art. There's remarkably little if any religious content in any of these pictures.
Here is the page for October showing the planting of winter wheat in what is now the Left Bank of Paris. The building in the background is the Louvre as it looked in the 15th century.
Not much has changed in the life of peasants in the 200 years between this calendar page and the carvings on Amiens cathedral. Not a lot has changed in how people felt about their work. It was taken for granted like the weather. That humankind must win its bread by the sweat of its brow was the curse of Adam, and was as old as Adam. Such labor was around in the beginning of time, so people believed, and would be around and unchanged at the end of time. As the Duke's older brother was destined by God to be King of France, so also the peasants were assigned their role and their labor by God from before the world's creation.
The Limbourgs painted the labors, and the trials, of the peasants who lived and worked on the Duke's estates with remarkable candor. We see in the October page birds eating the seed almost as soon as it falls on the ground, and the peasants' efforts through scarecrows and strings with cloth pieces waving in the wind to keep the birds out of their newly planted fields.
We would be wrong to read any kind of sympathy toward the peasants on the part of the Limbourgs or the Duke. As far as the Duke was concerned, the peasants were part of the property, and but a step above the cattle. I doubt the Limbourgs felt any differently.
This is the February page showing a bitterly cold winter day with the animals huddled closely together to keep warm. Starving birds eat what little feed is spilled on the ground. Woodsmen cut firewood for sale in the nearby town. Peasants idled by the weather spend the day warming themselves by the fire in a flimsy looking house with a dirt floor.
This picture contains a nasty little joke at the peasants' expense and for the amusement of the Duke. Keep in mind that this is supposed to be a religious book.
Here is a detail of the February page showing us that the Limbourg brothers gave the Duke a voyeuristic peek up his peasant's skirts at their privates as they warmed themselves by the fire. Sympathy for oppressed (and humiliated) peasants would not begin to appear until the 18th century. The peasants in central Europe would take matters into their own hands in the 16th century in the Peasant's War. I think these illustrations in the Tres Riches Heures explain a little why that war was so bloody and ferocious.
This is the month of August with some of the stylish young nobility in 15th century Europe's richest and most fashionable court going out falconing while the peasants mow hay and bathe in a stream to escape the summer heat. Before we judge these people too harshly, let us ponder for a moment our own hierarchical society with its calcifying class structure from within our gated communities.