What the stained glass of Notre-Dame de Chartres cathedral tells us about stockraising

In the medieval Occident, ‘the countryside is everything’: nearly 90% of the population tilled the earth, and in the portals of churches, in frescos, stained glass windows or in prayer books, we see ever and again the works of the months, most of them relating directly to the main sectors of agriculture – grain-growing, wine-production and stockraising. The paramount objective of these calendars, with their origins in Antiquity, is above all to lend meaning to how time passes and is felt. As soon as Christianity took up this theme in the Carolingian period, the Church conferred religious symbolism to time and transformed the simple time-work association into a lesson: the works of the months are to remind the faithful of the necessity of labour, the ransom of original sin, since God imposed on Adam cultivating the earth for his livelihood after the Fall.

These calendars were in their heyday in Romanesque monumental art, most particularly in sculpture, but from the thirteenth century on, this subject was also adopted for stained glass to decorate cathedrals such as in Paris, Lausanne or Chartres. For that matter, the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres can boast three calendars: two in sculpture, one of them in the portal of the western façade, the other in the north porch, and the third in a high stained glass window of the ambulatory dating to 1217-1220, called Count Thibault’s window, which is the object of this article.

Stockraising, like grain-growing and wine production, played an important role in the nutritional balance of people in the Middle Ages, and above all provided the indispensable source of energy to pull the plough or harrow. In the Notre-Dame de Chartres stained glass window, stockraising is shown in two medallions: indirectly for July through haymaking and in December for slaughtering the pig. 

Grass meadows were the main source of fodder for large farm animals over the winter, at least in northern France, and their importance is confirmed by the nearly systematic evocation of hay-making in the works of the months in France from the twelfth to the thirteenth centuries, whether in sculpture, painting or stained glass. Although haying usually typifies the beginning of the greater summer works and took place in June, in the Chartres window, it appears in July, as attested by the inscription ‘julius’ on the upper side of the medallion.

Haying was done with the scythe, a heavy implement requiring strength and skill, always shown being used by a man. In fact, the scythe is so intimately linked to hay meadows that it served in medieval France as a measure of hay-land: a meadow was said to be two or four ‘scythes’ in size. Since making a scythe required a considerable amount of metal, it was a highly valued implement. In Chartres, the blade has a slight arc and is reinforced on its outside edge with a ridge made by folding the metal over to give it greater rigidity and bite. The snaith, which appears to be nearly two meters long, has two grips, one in the upper third used with the left hand, and the other set into the lower third, held by the right hand on the opposite side of the snaith from the blade: hence, the scythe-wielder was pushing the scythe with his left leg bent and his right leg held straight.

Due to the heat in July, the peasant here is wearing only a short tunic and breeches split down the sides up to the knees to facilitate movement, and a hat protects his head. He is working barefoot, as so often in the summer work portrayed in many calendars.

Sharpening the blade is an integral part of haymaking, since the blade goes dull especially fast and a sharp cutting edge enables quicker and more careful work. Ethnographic testimony tells us that a scythe-wielder at work would whet his blade every five to ten minutes (after about twenty strokes) and peen (hammer) the blade every day. The pot set near the side of the meadow is most likely filled with water to facilitate whetting: you can also see a whetstone and a split hammer to peen the blade.

Aside from this indirect reference to haymaking, stockraising is only evoked in the Chartres stained glass by a single animal: the pig, as in the majority of French calendars. Whether in sculpture or stained glass, these seasonal cycles always devote at least one month to pig-raising, either by showing the swine feeding on mast or slaughtering the pig, and both events can be portrayed successively. The pig’s pre-eminence is linked to the fact that it is an essential element of meat in the diet, the only animal raised for food, and its meat was preferred over that of ruminants which would have been old or overly greasy at the time they were consumed. Furthermore, pork that was smoked or kept salted lost less of its taste than other sorts of meat and its fat was a staple in cooking. Swine also had another advantage in the Middle Ages: as omnivores, they did not need to be stabled and could survive outdoors, especially in forest areas where the ate roots, fruit and berries, most especially acorn and other mast.

In French calendar cycles, slaughtering the pig took place in November, or even more often in December, as in the Chartres window. However, the word ‘December’ at the bottom of the medallion seems to be an error, since it is followed by another month with the same name. Whether slaughter was in November or December, it was always done when forest pannage was over and food for the animals became scarcer, but could also take place when the temperature assured easier keeping of the meat.

The pig slaughtered here is covered with stiff brown bristles that form a sort of mane standing up on its arched spine. In addition to its tusks, it also holds its ears upright, since domestic pigs were still close in appearance to their wild boar cousins. Domestic swine were raised in oak forests and breeding between the tame and the wild animals was frequent.

An average pig weighed some 80kg, for 50kg of meat, when slaughtered at 18 months or two years of age. There were several ways to slaughter the animal, linked to ancestral traditions and well defined geographically. In France, and in particular in the Chartres window, the peasant kills the pig with the head of an axe, before slitting its throat and bleeding it. This axe is quite similar to the ones used in regular forest work and the peasant holds its handle in both hands with the blade turned towards the back before striking the animal.

There is a pile of acorns right in front of the pig to keep it from struggling. However, this is surprising, because in preindustrial society, people used to make swine fast for at least twenty-four hours before killing them, so that their entrails would be empty.

Like all iconographic documents, these images relating to stockraising communicate to us the intellectual perception people of the time had of the rural world and so must be interpreted with caution. They do enable us to see tasks that were carried out again and again in the fields and with animals, the gestures and the implements being used, and let us enter into the daily life of peasants in the Middle Ages.

Perrine Mane, CRH-CNRS, Paris, France

Translated by Cozette Griffin-Kremer