Whan that Juine

Welcome to June, and to the return of my monthly medieval calendar posts.*

According to medieval calendars, June is the month of Cancer, the crab, usually represented as the sort of weird lobster beast you might draw if you’d never seen a crab and only had one described to you years ago by someone else who’d also never seen one. Like so:

For the medieval doctor, Cancer was the sign that governed the upper chest, and thus the organs therein: heart, spleen, lungs, and the top of the stomach, as well as the ribs.  So if you have a hankering to drain some blood from the general area around your spleen, have at it this month.  But because Cancer is a watery sign, bloodletters get a rest when the moon moves through it; then it’s phlegm that’s the hip body fluid all the cool kids will be expelling.

Old and Middle English thunder-books warn that thunder heard in Cancer means “there shall be great hunger and butterflies shall destroy fruits”**

Unlucky days for June, according to the old Sarum Missal, are the 10th and 15th, so watch out! To quote F.C. Husenbeth’s fanciful translation:

The tenth a palid visage shows,
No faith nor truce the fifteenth knows.***

A couple of bonus Cancers

The agricultural task for the month of June is scything, as I noted in this calendar post two years ago. But if scything isn’t your thing, the Old French monthly rules recommend shearing your sheep instead.****

Famous medieval saints whose feasts are found in the month of June include Boniface, Barnabus, Alban, Anthony of Padua, and Margaret of Scotland. Peter and Paul share a feast, and John the Baptist’s nativity gets one, too. For more on saintly matters, attend this pair of posts from last year.

Folklore has it that you should only eat shellfish with human faces on days of the week without a d in the name.


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  1. * As you may have noticed/will soon notice (depending on when you read the footnotes), I’ve decided to ease up on the astrological stuff, on account of not really knowing enough medieval astrological lore to fill up a monthly post without serious research. []
  2. ** In the later Middle English, “Whenne it thundreth in Cancro thenne shall be moche hungre And boturfleus shull distroye fruytus.” []
  3. *** Denns pallescit; quindenus federa nescit. []
  4. **** Juin. En ce mois on tond les moutons. []

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Brian J.

    Interesting; I wonder if medieval agriculturalists just completely misunderstood the role of butterflies in the pollination process, or if ‘butterflies’ was actually a metonym for a class of flying insects generally.

    • http://leatherworkingreverend@wordpress.com Wayne

      It’s an early reference to the chaos theory. They just hadn’t discovered the Amazon and so couldn’t put the butterflies there to flap their wings and really do some damage.

    • http://www.gotmedieval.com/ Got Medieval

      To tell you the truth, I think the Latin word for caterpillar gets crossed up with the word for butterfly when it comes over to English through Old French. So it’s probably describing caterpillars, which eat damn near everything (or at least it seems ’round here, though not in June).

  • http://www.mpe.mpg.de/~erwin/ Peter Erwin

    the sort of weird lobster beast you might draw if you’d never seen a crab and only had one described to you years ago by someone else who’d also never seen one.

    You know, I could buy that as an attempt to render a crayfish (“What does a crab look like, anyway?” “Hmm… I think they’re sort of like crayfish.”), especially given that you can find crayfish in streams and rivers away from sea. (And apparently the Spanish term for crayfish is “canregjo de rio” — literally, “river crab”.)

    • http://www.gotmedieval.com/ Got Medieval

      Oh, I think they probably are trying to draw crawdads or lobsters. They’re bad at that, too, but not as bad as if you think they’re starting with crabs. Still, added a few more of my favorite bad Cancers to the post above.

    • Angus

      Yeah, I also thought the first two illustrations resemble crayfish or freshwater shrimp. The third illustration is pretty freaky; it looks like a giant hideous bug of some sort–a bug with fingers at the end of its legs, which makes it all the creepier. By contrast the fourth illustration actually seems refreshingly whimsical.

  • http://comofo.wordpress.com Callum James Hackett

    In my university college in Oxford, there is an archway with a collection of medieval astrological sculptures under it. It too was carved by someone with unreliable information on the appearance of crabs (or maybe scorpions?), as evidenced by the unearthly creature in the centre-right of this image:

    http://bit.ly/mCKTau

  • JRC

    And, having just been to the Harvard Peabody Museum yesterday, I’d also suggest the trilobite as exemplar. I mean, why not?

    • Angus

      The fourth illustration does resemble a trilobite (albeit with a whimsical moon-face). I used to live on the east coast, and that illustration reminded me of a caricatured horseshoe-crab, especially because of its long tail.

    • Tom

      Peabody Museum is at Yale, no? Not that this impacts their trilobite collection in any way.. .

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