Christian Works : A leaf from a folding almanac

Christian Works

<p style='text-align: justify;'>Cambridge, University Library, MS Add. 3303(3) is a single leaf of parchment that once formed part of a late medieval English folding almanac, of the kind described and analysed by Hilary Carey and J.P. Gumbert. It is not recorded among their published lists, though it is noted in part in the <i>Catalogue of incipits of mediaeval scientific writings in Latin</i>. Thanks to the data assembled by Carey and Gumbert concerning manuscripts of this kind, and to the digitisation of many by the libraries that hold them, it is a straightforward undertaking to place this further example in context.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The presence of both the Vein Man and Zodiac Man schematic diagrams, which are not found among the contents of continental folding calendars, confirms that this leaf is English, bringing the total number of such almanacs to 31. All of the evidence points to Add. 3303(3) belonging among the earlier manuscripts in the corpus. Most examples that date to before c. 1450 fold – like this one – into 2 x 3 compartments, whereas most later ones folded into 2 x 4 compartments. Without the accompanying calendars and astronomic tables and canons, precise dating is not possible, but the style of decoration suggests that it was made at the very end of the 14th century or at the very beginning of the 15th century, perhaps in London.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The tab that once connected Add. 3303(3) to other leaves is still visible beneath the feet of Zodiac Man. Since the leaf has been flattened and is mounted on a paper guard along its left-hand edge, it is not now possible to reconstruct the pattern of folding (as Gumbert has done for other examples). Its dimensions when open are 290 x 205-210mm and when closed approximately 145 x 65-72mm, placing it among the larger of the surviving examples. It bears no evidence of having been trimmed along any edge. The measurements of height, both open and closed, fall in the middle of the range, but Add. 3303(3) is wider than most other almanacs: only <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>British Library, Harley MS 5311</a> is larger, which has compartments of 76 mm width, and also folds 2 x 3. Add. 3303(3) is blank on the verso, though this need not undermine the hypothesis that it was once accompanied by other leaves: the calendar leaves of <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>Chicago, Newberry Library, MS Case 127</a> contain titles on the verso, but those bearing various tables (f. 5) and the unexecuted Zodiac and Vein Man diagrams (f. 6) do not.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Add. 3303(3) joins nine other almanacs in containing both the Vein Man and Zodiac Man diagrams. A further two have the accompanying text, with spaces for the diagrams left unfilled. Three other examples feature only the Vein Man, and three only the Zodiac Man, plus a further one where that diagram was not executed. Twelve almanacs feature neither diagram. Most of those that contain both date from the second half of the century, so Add. 3303(3) joins only two other survivals from the early 15th century: Harley MS 5311 and the privately owned almanac studied by C.H. Talbot in 1961.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>As is typical, Vein Man is a drawing, here executed in black ink, with slight shading in places and splotches on the nose and shoulder. Again typically, the image occupies a rectangular field with the text in columns on all four sides, rather than in roundels floating or arranged into a circular pattern as in other instances. It is common too, albeit mostly among the earlier examples, for Zodiac Man to be painted, as here, and to occupy an arrow-shaped space. The figure of Zodiac Man is now very dark: was this once silver, which has now oxidised? Whether oxidised silver or simply a dark pigment, this is unique among the corpus of English almanacs and may be unusual among depictions of Zodiac Man in other manuscripts besides almanacs. The figure is on a coloured ground with hatched pattern, and surrounded by a gold border, in similar style to the 'Talbot' almanac, Cambridge, Magdalene College, Pepys MS 1662, and Harley MS 5311. In its complete form, and given the quality of decoration, Add. 3303(3) would probably have belonged among Gumbert’s 'luxury group': like those examples, it may have been accompanied by another leaf showing the Ring of Urines, as well as the usual calendars and lunar tables, featuring illuminated initials and other decorative flourishes. Given the expense lavished on this leaf, it seems fair to echo Peter Jones' judgement that the almanac to which it belonged would have been 'owned with pride and [was] not just [a] working tool'.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Both the Vein Man and Zodiac Man diagrams belong to a much broader visual tradition, in both folding calendars and manuscripts, to say nothing of their continued transmission in print. Further stylistic comparisons within this small corpus would probably not be instructive; wider analysis of the figures, variations in their gestures, the emblematic zodiac signs and other features would benefit from art-historical expertise. It was a more than purely ornamental object, however. The accompanying instructional texts, which tailored the diagrams for the correct application and appropriate timing of blood-letting, indicate the intention to put it to practical use. This is in all likelihood a further example of Carey’s 'specialist medical almanacs', designed to aid the practice of lunar medicine at a simple level.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Finally, and perhaps most significantly, MS Add. 3303(3) is one of only two examples in which Vein Man and Zodiac Man are directly juxtaposed with one another on the same leaf. Besides concentrating the artist's work on a single leaf, which may have been more convenient to execute, this arrangement makes visually explicit the conceptual connection between the two diagrams: that blood-letting from a particular part of the body was determined by the ailment to be addressed (Vein Man) and its timing governed by the position of the moon in relation to specific constellations (Zodiac Man). This is one step from 'fused' diagrams, with Vein and Zodiac Man are overlain one another in a single figure and the accompanying texts brought together. </p><p>Dr James Freeman<br /> Medieval Manuscripts Specialist<br /> Cambridge University Library</p>

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