Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Images of Medieval Life Corresponding to the Text

       Nicolas Pioch's The WebMuseum, Paris has made available, online, some extremely beautiful and accurate images taken from the Limbourg Brothers' Tres Riches Heures, an illuminated book of hours executed in 1408-1416 for Jean, duc de Berry. For a general background on the book and its images, consult this address:  Though the book was created for a C15 French nobleman, its images would have been part of the common culture of France and England during this period, only about 300 years after the Norman Conquest.  Medieval culture still had the power to resist change and to rehearse its ceremonies of annual renewal, though in another 200 years, much of this worldview would be swept away in England by cultural changes associated with the bubonic plague, increased vernacular literacy rates. 

        The pages linked below are from the "Calendar" portion of the book of hours, which helped worshipers keep track of which services to prepare for in association with each month of the year.  The months, like the biblical events associated with the far more numerous other prayers, were introduced by their own "home pages" decorated lavishly with images appropriate to the activities on the duke's vast estates during that period.  Readers of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight fyts 3 and 4 will find especially useful the images for January (New Year's gift giving), May (the "joli mois de Mai" procession with riders wearing the green "livrèe [Mod.E. "livery"] de mai," and December (calling the "mort" at the death of the boar).

        January's scene is embellished by the tapestry behind the feast table, a scene depicting the troops of Troy issuing forth (in full medieval armor, of course) to confront the Greeks. The chamberlain in the middle ground of the image says "Approche approche!" ("Come near, come near!") to invite the guests to receive the duke's largesse. Note the duke's pet dogs have free run of the table, which is loaded with small roast fowl and other delicacies, and the duke's courser (the lean hound below the table) is being carefully fed choice scraps by an attendant. The duke's largesse extends to all (cf. ll. 60-84, 491-95, 875-900, 970-1028).

        May's scene depicts three princesses (in green) who are the object of the admiring gaze of a young man in the royal livery of France (black and white beside red), probably a prince of the blood and heir to the throne. The musical accompaniment by horns, trombones and flutes suggests this is a formal "progress." The figure in the gold brocaded blue gown, it has been suggested, may be the duke. The wearing of green was symbolically associated with celebrations of May, spring's return (cf. 150-222).  When described verbally in literature, as in the opening lines of the Canterbury Tales, the return of spring of the landscape is a famous and common trope sometimes called a "reverdie" (Fr. "re-greening") or "naturingang" (Gr. nature-opening).

        December's scene captures the hunt's climax when the dogs carry their prey, a wild boar, to the ground in a furious assault. The huntsman in the background has begun to pull them off the boar in order to save it for the duke's dinner table. The huntsman playing the "mort" on his horn is echoed by the call of the huntsman on the left who, with his spear, has just dispatched boar (cf. ll. 1583-1600).

        Note that the remaining images on the other "month" pages are drawn from biblical subjects to illustrate in cyclical fashion the story of the universe from creation (St. John's vision on Patmos) through the Resurrection and the anticipation of the Second Coming. The manuscript was nearly finished when both brothers died in an epidemic in 1416. After the duke's death, the manuscript passed to his heirs, who hired an artist named Jean Colombe to complete the final images in 1485-9.  The manuscript is stored in the Musée Condé located at the Château de Chantilly in Picardy, in the north of France.