Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Almanacs: The Oldest Guides to Everything

In this Radio 4 programme, Ben Schott charted the history of the most influential form of mass publication in the 16th and 17th centuries:

At their height, apart from the bible, almanacs were the bestselling books on the market, with over 400,000 sold annually. Almanacs played a central part in spreading knowledge, literacy, popular journalism and advertising. Ben digs up early adverts for pills, potions and all manner of quackery. But they were also mocked in all kinds of ways. The blank pages inserted into almanacs were used for jottings of accounts and personal memos, so they also gave us the personal written diary.

The origin of the almanac can be traced back to ancient Babylonian astronomy, when clay tablets were used to record seasonal changes, as well as marking the night sky with tables of planetary periods. The first almanac in the modern sense, as a compendium of miscellaneous and assorted calendrical information was probably that produced by Solomon Jarchus in 1150, although that seems to have been largely a celestial almanac, giving details about the stars. Another precursor of the modern almanac was Petrus do Dacia, around 1300, and his almanac survives in a manuscript copy in the Savilian Library at Oxford. In this almanac the influence of the planets is thus stated;

'Jupiter atque Venus boni, Saturnusque maligns;
Sol et Mercurius cum Luna sunt mediocres.'

However, copying by hand was slow and laborious, and it was not until the advent of the printing press that the almanac really took off. Eight years before the famous Gutenberg Bible, in 1457, Gutenberg (always with an eye for the commercial value of printing) published the first printed almanac at Mainz.

By the 17th century, English almanacs were bestsellers, second only to the Bible; by the middle of the century, 400,000 almanacs were being produced annually. But these were not all bound books. Timothy Feist, in an article on early almanacs, explains that there were sheet, pocket, and book almanacs.

Sheet almanacs functioned very much like wall calendars of day - significant public and commercial days and other features being prominent, along with such information as phases of the moon. They would be placed on walls much as today's calendar.

Pocket almanacs were "cut to miniature size and stitched together for portability".

The book almanacs were sometimes bound, and sometimes sold as loose leaf. Retailers often interleaved book almanacs with blank sheets for note taking and diary keeping and sold them in bindings of varying quality. In this way, the almanac became the precursor of the modern diary and filofax.

What was the content of these. Timothy Feist lists these items:

Almost all contained weather predictions; dates for the terms (Michaelmas, Lady's Day, etc.); a regal table listing English monarchs and the dates of their reigns; instructions for astrological farming, tide tables, and a historical chronology; detailed information on comets and eclipses; and rising and setting times for the sun, moon, and major constellations. Depending on the title, a customer might also get lists of fairs and major highways (sometimes with a woodcut map), formats for drawing up legal documents, tables for calculating interest, tables of weights and measures, or instructions for basic surveying. Many almanacs included essays on astronomy, astrology, and mathematics-along with some bad poetry. Because most almanac makers had been astrologers since the sixteenth century, sorts were often divided into two sections: a calendar and an attached "ephemeris" or "prognostication."

As Ben Schott noted in the Radio programme, predictions and astrology played a significant part. Astronomy and astrology was much more interwoven than today - Newton notably both worked in his theories of planetary motion and applied himself to planetary predictions. Indeed, the term often used at the time was "Applied Astronomy" rather than astrology.

And in each almanac, there would almost certainly be a woodcut called the "Zodiacal Man". This lists a set of correspondences between the human body and the universe. Each part of the body was associated with astrological signs:

Aries - Head, eyes, adrenals, blood pressure.
Taurus - Neck, throat, shoulders, ears.
Gemini - Lungs, nerves, arms, heads [sic], fingers.
Cancer - Chest wall, breasts, some body fluids.
Leo - Heart, spine, upper back, spleen.
Virgo - Abdomen, intestines, gallbladder, pancreas, liver.
Libra - Lower back, hips, kidneys, endocrines.
Scorpio - Reproductive organs, pelvis, urinary bladder, rectum.
Sagittarius - Thighs, legs.
Capricorn - Knees, bones, skin.
Aquarius - Ankles, blood vessels.
Pisces - Feet, some body fluids.

The publishers, keen on turning a good profit, would use the same engraved woodcut from year to year, and it would be faded and damaged - Ben Schott noted one in which part of the head was missing. This was a mass market, and quality didn't really count for much at all.

Timothy Feist notes that "Like calendars today, almanacs made natural Christmas and New Year's gifts. Folklorists list books among traditional English New Year's gifts; being cheap, individualized, and intimately connected with the calendar, book almanacs would have filled that bill nicely." Also some almanacs would be branded in the same way that companies today use calendars with corporate logos. He cites the example of "a hatter who gave round sheet almanacs imprinted with his business address-suitable for storage in a hat crown-as gifts to his holiday customers."

Sociologically, the popularity of the almanac can be linked in part to the increased urbanisation of the population. With enclosure, and the rise of the industrial towns. As with the cult of Pan, which (as Ronald Hutton noted) also became widespread as a harking back to a lost rural paradise, the almanac provided a means of marking the passage of time that had been lost to the city dweller. Feist notes that "production sheet almanacs-essentially wall calendars-quadrupled even as book almanac production decreased by a third"

The almanacs began to decline as modern wall calendars, diaries and newspapers began to take their place, along with the cheap "penny dreadful" to provide entertainment. But some are still around. The most famous - Old Moore's Almanack - is a largely astrological almanac which has been published in Britain since 1697, when Francis Moore, a self-taught physician and astrologer who served at the court of Charles II began publication.

In Jersey, the Jersey Evening Post Almanac used to be an essential feature for finding someone, or simply being nosey about whom your neighbours were. For the family historian, it was invaluable as an additional primary document. But since the advent of new Data Protection Laws, it now only records roads and house names or numbers, although it still contains all kind of other useful information. It is, however, a purely factual guide, and for all the astrological predictions for the coming year, and the Zodiacal man, the reader must look elsewhere. Perhaps we could have an astrological crapaud?

"Almanacs" by Timothy Feist, in "Transactions of the American Philosophical Society" (2005), Vol 95, Issue 4, pp 15ff.

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