Peasants in Medieval Manuscripts

Herman, Jean and Paul de Limbourg, ‘July’ from Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1413-16), Ink on vellum, 294 x 210mm 8, Chantilly, Musée Condé
The Très Riches Heures and the Lutteral Psalter are the focus of historical research into the representation of peasants in Medieval art because they are unusually thorough depictions of peasant life. However, there has been a difference in opinion over whether these portrayals are accurate  and beautiful  or cruel and calculated. The Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry was the Duke of Berry’s prayer book and created between 1412-16. Created by the Limbourg brothers, it has full pages representing what happened in Berry’s estates each month. The Lutteral Psalter is an illuminated psalter created in England by anonymous artists between 1320-40. 

Herman, Jean and Paul de Limbourg, ‘September’ from Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1413-16), Ink on vellum, 294 x 210mm 8, Chantilly, Musée Condé

In the Très Riches Heures, although everyday peasant life is painted in the foreground, in the background are different castles and estates, dominating the scene. This was because of the contempt and fear felt by the Duc de Berry towards the workers on his lands.  Therefore, his castles are shown as a way to impose his power on their lives. The workers are also diminished by their postures. Here, they are shown as bent over at work and some show their backsides to the viewer, positions in which the more powerful in society would never be depicted.   In the ‘September’ miniature in the Très Riches Heures, a worker’s loose trousers expose his buttocks. He also stands in between an ox and a donkey. Alexander argues his “role is analogous to theirs,” in both his task and his unselfconscious behaviour.  Furthermore, Fehling argues there are sexual connotations to this display of nudity, as the exposed backside would be seen as submissive to superiors, further minimising and humiliating the workers.  

A page from The Luttrell Psalter (1325-1340), Ink on parchment, 350x425mm, London, The British Library 

This same method of using art to humiliate the poor, as well as displaying ownership, is also seen in Geoffrey Luttrell’s psalter. When writing about the servants depicted in the illuminations, Camille states the artist has not represented individuals but rather stations, places to be filled. In the feast scene, the rituals of the meal are emphasised rather than any personalities of the servants surrounding Luttrell. Camille suggests this reflects Luttrell’s desire for a particular dinner rather than him wanting to show his servants or specific people around him.  This surely suggests the way peasants and workers’ experiences are not represented in medieval art, but rather, their positions as owned objects are placed on the same level as food at a feast. Further evidence of Luttrell’s opinions of his servants can be gleaned from a comparison between his feast illumination and The Last Supper illumination, also in the psalter. In the last supper illumination, a small figure of Judas kneels below the figure of Jesus. In an almost identical scene, a servant serves food to Luttrell who is depicted as a Christ-like figure.  This resemblance lends an unfavourable view of the servant as a Judas-like character, demonising Luttrell’s servants in the art he commissioned. 

Detail from The Luttrell Psalter ‘The Luttrell Family at Table’ (1325-1340), Ink on parchment, 350x425mm, London, The British Library 

Detail from The Luttrell Psalter ‘The Last Supper’  (1325-1340), Ink on parchment, 350x425mm, London, The British Library 

Another reason that paupers were depicted in medieval art is that they were seen as embodying the sin of idleness. Medieval Christians believed God had punished Adam and Eve’s sin by making man labour in order to eat. They believed those who did not were lazy.  Thus, in medieval illuminations, the lazy peasant was used to illustrate the poverty awaiting those who did not labour. In depictions of Adam and Eve, they were sometimes accompanied by the figures of Dives avarus and Pauper Superbus, which displayed that man’s punishment was having to work to survive. The ‘Proud Pauper’ is too proud and idle to work. For instance, in the De Lisle Psalter, the Proud Pauper sits to the right, in the position associated with a king- as a sign of his pride- and listens to the devil, pointing at the corn which is rotting as he is too idle to cut it.    Evidently, the experiences of the peasant here are not being represented realistically, but rather they are being used as a didactic symbol for the more powerful and religious in society who believed poverty was the punishment for idleness. Research has also been conducted into the stances of the peasants in art where the allegorical meaning may be more subtle. In the later middle ages, the ‘idle-hand’ motif began to gain prominence. The poor were often shown with their arms crossed or with hands in their armpits. This relates to the biblical Proverb 19:24: “A slothful man hideth his hand in his bosom, And will not so much as bring it to his mouth again.”  This became symbolic of the idea that the poor could help themselves out of poverty if they only had the gumption and conscientiousness . An example can be seen in the ‘November’ miniature in the Très Riches Heures, during the acorn harvest, where one of the workers stands amongst the trees with his arms folded. This was continued in later centuries such as in Lucas Van Leyden’s The Beggars (1509) where a vagrant woman has inserted her hand into her armpit and even as late as the 17th century in Frans Hal’s Laughing Fisher-Boy (1628) . This further demonstrates that the lives of the less powerful- the poor- were not realistically shown, but were used as allegories for laziness. 

Attributed to the Madonna Master, A page from De Lisle Psalter “The Tree of Vices”, (1310), Ink on parchment, 360 x 235 mm, London, British Museum 

Herman, Jean and Paul de Limbourg, Detail from ‘November’ from Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1413-16), Ink on vellum, 294 x 210mm, Chantilly, Musée Condé
Too often the Très Riches is used for historical evidence about peasant life, because of the realism seen in many aspects of the miniatures such as the landscape painting. This ‘realism’ makes the miniatures seem as if they are created through neutral observation when in fact they are a highly constructed vision created by Berry and his artists. For instance, as Berry wanted to be seen as a landlord with prosperous tenants, the peasants in scenes such as ‘October’ are shown wearing clothes which would suggest an unusual prosperity . Similarly, Camille describes the Luttrell psalter as “ultimately symbolic… locating the viewer not in time or space but within Geoffrey Luttrell’s imaginary world.”   Therefore, these depictions are highly constructed and do not reflect the experiences of less powerful groups in society. Perhaps it would be easier for art history if the Très Riches were a realistic portrayal of peasant life. It has been called the “most beautiful Book of Hours in the world…”  and is one of the best surviving examples of French Gothic manuscript illuminations. Because of this, it would be beneficial if it also provided useful and realistic insight into the lives of the labourers it so beautifully illustrates. However, after analysis it is clear that medieval art such as this did not present the experiences of less powerful groups truthfully.  

Based on my first University essay- in which I got a first

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