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‘The Joys of January’

‘The Joys of January’

‘The Joys of January’
This prymer of Salisbury vse 
Rouen :  Impresse per Johannem le Prest pro Robertum Valentinum [sic], 1554.
Canterbury Cathedral Library, H/L-3-6

To begin this year’s series of ‘Picture this…’ the January page of a French primer created for the English market seems an apt choice. It was printed on paper in Rouen in 1554 by John le Prest for Robert Valentin, an engraver and publisher. Following the accession of Mary I to the English throne in 1553, there was a rush to produce new, Catholic, primers for sale in England, with printers in both London and on the continent quickly producing new editions of the pre-Reformation primer. A majority of those produced in France were done so in Rouen, where a speciality in printing materials for export to England had developed. Primers served as the successor to the medieval Book of Hours, and – as can be seen from Valentin’s output – were printed in large numbers throughout the sixteenth century. This particular primer is arranged according to the Sarum Rite, and contains an illustrated calendar, the canonical Hours, the Litany, the seven penitential Psalms and the Dirge and appears to have been popular, with two additional editions of the text being published in 1556.

The themes present in this picture definitively ties the image to the month of January, and also binds it to this first month’s  place in the lives of men and the passage of time. The first point of relevance is a direct representation of astronomical time portrayed through the zodiacal figure associated with January, Aquarius the Water Carrier. Here he is seen through a window in the sky, wreathed in cloud and pouring out his pitcher of water. His presence is overshadowed by the activity in the foreground of the scene, in which a room full of children play a number of games. The scene overall  represents the continuing of Christmas festivities into the New Year through the celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas, but the scene also contains an interpretation that is closely related to the poem seen below the picture, which likens the beginning of the year to that of the first of the twelve ages of man.

Those children at the left and the rear of the room are carrying toy windmills, while to the right of this main group a boy plays with a whirligig, which is the ball with cruciform attachment held in his right hand; he is pulling a string with his left hand in order to spin the arms of the cross. Below him, a girl sits holding the string of a tethered bird aloft. The toy windmill, either alone or, as in other images, when seen with a hobby horse, is a symbol easily recognisable by a sixteenth century audience as depicting youth and childishness. In addition to childishness, toy windmills held deeper significance, and are sometimes seen in the paintings of Bosch and his contemporaries as a reference to the powerless state that Christ subjected himself to through his incarnation as a child.

The twelve ages each last a six year period, giving a total lifespan of seventy-two years, and in this calendar every six year period is equated to a month of the year – from birth, childhood and weakness in January, through romance and pleasure in April, to ultimate old age and death in December. To aid in this interpretation of the image, paired with each month, and printed below it, is a rhyming quatrain in English that compares the particular conditions of the month to that age of life – January, being the first month of the year, is described as lacking in strength and courage to such an extent that it has no more of either than a six-year-old does:

The fyrst .vi. yeres of mannes byrth and atge.
May wel be compared to Ianyuere.
For in this month no strength no [c]ourage.
More than in a childe of the gece of .vi. yere.


H-L-3-6-textThe division of life into a distinct periods is hardly unique to this primer, and an example of this can be seen elsewhere, in the stained glass of the cathedral – window XIV, found on the north choir aisle, presents a division of life into six ages, from infancy to old age. Elsewhere in literature, and rather more well known, is Shakespeare’s famous speech on the division of life into seven ages from As You Like It.

The use of full-page images alongside the text of a calendar was an innovation of late-medieval Books of Hours, and to the mid-sixteenth century was still a relatively recent innovation, with decoration of calendars typically being limited to marginal decoration, until the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century that full page illustrations become more commonly found. The success of Valentin’s primers, with full-page illustrations being found in all five editions, clearly shows that there was amongst the book-buying public a demand for this decoration. The plates in H/L-3-6 were clearly inspired by an earlier edition of the primer, printed in 1551 (STC 16055) with Aquarius, windmills, whirligig and tethered bird being repeated and were subsequently reused in two 1556 editions.

Josef Reinbold: Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Kent.


Further Reading:

  • Gibson, Walter S., ‘Bosch’s Boy with a Whirligig: Some Iconographical Speculations’, Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, vol. 8, no. 1, (1975-1976)
  • Hindman, Sandra, ‘Pieter Bruegel’s Children’s Games, Folly, and Chance’, The Art Bulletin, vol. 63, no. 3, (Sep., 1981)
  • Pinson, Yona, ‘Folly and Childishness go hand in hand: Hans Holbein’s Dixit Insipiens‘, Source: Notes in the History of Art, vol. 22, no. 3 (Spring, 2003)
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