Thursday, 3 January 2013

Meditation on medieval illustration of "Winter"

Meditation on Book of Hours 1540 : "Winter" - staying warmth


I find this medieval illustration from a "Book of Hours" (1540)  by illustrator Simon Bening (Bruges) rather topical today. I recognise that it offers us important lessons for us today for non-fossil fuel living.

It features renewable energy (windmill for grinding flour), biomass (dried kindling from local woods), good insulation (wattle and daub) and in-house cattle as a supplementary central heating systems. Manpower is also useful for snow games (see bottom inset of man being pulled by others on a sledge through snow).

In the distance, on the snowy white hill, a large church without doors looks very uninviting indeed.  People are returning from a service, looking frozen to the bone, with extra cloaks. The foreground woman is preparing to boost the fire with kindling, chopped by her husband in the yard, possibly to warm returners up.  Those who are too busy to go to church, such as the mother inside suckling her infant, are warm enough, seated at a comfortable table, with food and a tablecoth.

The warmth in this well-insulated house is being topped up by in-house cattle.  Clearly, the horned cattle are living in the main body of the building, behind a partition. It is well known that cattle were housed indoors over winter, not just for their own well-being, but also to warm the residents during winter. Indeed, this is still the case in some medieval houses in Europe, including some in the Alps.  The woman with her head out of the door has possibly just fed them, with straw.

We have also recognised that wattle and daub is very good building and insulation material. In fact, the best insulated house in the UK is said to be built in the late 16th century.  Modern building experts are trying to copy it, using hemp, straw etc.  Perhaps the next step is UK farmers offering to lend a cow to top up your biomass heating system?

Is the message of this medieval picture slightly subversive - something like:

"If you go to church in the snow you risk your life.  Better to stay at home and pray by the fire"? 

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