SOCIAL HISTORY AT FIRST-HAND
ALMANACKS: 14 VOLS. 1667 - 1700.
A remarkable collection of Almanacks, both in quantity and quality, 185 in total bound in 14 volumes, all but two absolutely complete, covering almost the entirety of the last quarter of the C17th, during the heyday of the genre; an unparalleled insight into the popular culture of the period, with a great deal to tell us about the everyday lives of ordinary people, from farming, husbandry, diet, trading and market fairs, medicine (particularly safe times for bloodletting), literature, nature, religion, not to mention astrology amongst much else besides. These almanacs were the first form of mass media, and were the most ephemeral works, surviving in comparatively tiny numbers relative to their production.
“This curious genre trailed only Bibles in the print market of early modern England: small, cheap, and sometimes arcane, almanacs nonetheless served many crucial functions in the lives of individuals throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Discarded each year as ephemera, and used in the binding of other books, igniting the hearth, or in the privy, this number represents only a fraction of the almanacs printed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. According to Cyprian Blagden, between 350,000 to 400,000 copies were printed each year by the end of the seventeenth century. With these numbers, one in three families might have purchased an almanac annually. Beginning in 1550, when the first printed English almanacs began to appear in significant numbers, the total of almanacs printed grew exponentially. Hanging as broadsides in the shops of barber-surgeons or as bound octavos carried in one’s pocket, almanacs were mentioned in contemporary stage plays, mocked in burlesque forms of the genre, and even participated vociferously in Royalist and Parliamentarian debates later in the seventeenth century.” Dr. Katherine Walker. ’Finding out Moonshine: Early Modern Almanacs and Drama.’
These Almanacks vary much in tone but often give direct insight into the mood of the nation, such as the mention in the title of Wade’s Almanack of 1667, the year after the Fire of London, “calculated and composed for the late flourishing (now desolate) city of London.” These Almanacks could be satirical, especially those of William Winstanley who produced several, including the ‘Protestant Almanack’, and the hugely popular ‘Poor Robin’. He would often parody the accuracy of other almanack makers; in one headline stating that his almanack was “Calculated for the meridian of Saffron-Walden, where the May-pole is elevated (with a plumm cake on the top of it) 5 yards 3/4 above the market-cross..”
“For such an ubiquitous publication, scholars have only recently begun to study almanacs in detail, with a few exceptions by historians of science and book historians earlier in the twentieth century. Nonetheless, perhaps surprisingly to modern readers, this genre was one of the most popular and influential set of discourses in the period, and almanacs merit close scrutiny for their participation in a wide range of early modern discussions. The early modern almanac was a yearly publication outlining astral and planetary movements, the weather, and dietary and medical regimens for the upcoming year. Appearing in the last two months of the year, readers awaited their publication with anticipation, sometimes following a particularly popular author. A wonderfully diverse type of treatise, the early modern English almanac ranged from arcane astrological principles to the most basic, informative outline of the forthcoming year’s climatological changes. Although following general conventions, almanacs differed in their emphases and, as detractors to astrology noted with glee, in their prognostications for the following year, sometimes darkly hinting at disasters while at other times promising healthy crops and propitious days for business and travel. The texts little resemble our modern versions of the popular almanac, but we can still discover many parallels between the two—the proposed medical regimen, dates for sowing and harvesting, and “lucky” or propitious days for activities such as weaning, teeth-pulling, and, for early modern readers, blood-letting. Likewise, almanac authors monitored the pulse of early modern social upheavals and vices. Replete with social commentary, religious sentiments, and forewarnings of political revolutions, early modern almanacs were, in historian Louise Hill Curth’s estimate, “the first form of English mass media.” Indeed, early modern almanacs are repositories for scholars seeking to understand such diverse topics as medicine, science, gender, religion, politics, and the daily rhythms of early modern life.” Dr. Katherine Walker. ’Finding out Moonshine: Early Modern Almanacs and Drama.’
The broad-ranging almanacks in this collection are all extremely rare, almost all recorded in less that 10 copies in libraries, but a great many of these, in turn, are recorded in one or two copies only and are often more complete that the examples given in ESTC. Most of the almanacs seem to have been printed in two parts, often separately, the calendar proper, followed by a section of notes. Examples of titles are Swan, Poor Robin, Dove, Saunders, The Episcopal Almanack, The Protestant Almanack, Lilly, Andrews, Tanner, Coley, Pond, Swan, and Swallow amongst many others. It seems clear that the publishers of each almanack sought to brand their authors names. Almanacks were also designed to target specific audiences such as “The English Chapmans and Travellers” almanack which provided detailed information on “Wherein all the post-roads, with their several branches and distances, the marts, fairs, and markets in England and Wales, are alphabetically disposed in every month; so that the place where, an the days on which any of them are kept, is immediately found out. To which is added a table of accounts ready cast up, for the buying or selling of any commodity, by number, weight, or measure.” The work was clearly targeted for travelling salesman and market traders. The English Chapmans and Travellers Almanack for 1696 in this collection appears to be the unique surviving copy.
“In their most basic guise, early modern almanacs were annual publications available for a relatively cheap sum. John Securis claimed that his almanac was a New Year’s gift for his readers because the price was only “twoo poore pence, or three pence at the most.” Almanacs charted the movements of the seasons and the heavenly bodies—including the zodiac—, noted weather patterns, and specified the times for upcoming solar and lunar eclipses. They also included a calendar of saints days, a list of market fairs, and a chronology dating significant events from the creation to contemporary moments of importance such as the Gunpowder Plot or the beheading of Charles I. But what makes almanacs from the early modern period so fascinating is the manifold astral and non-astral amount of information also provided. Starting in the mid-sixteenth century, almanacs began to include prognostications, often with a separate title page, following the calendar of lunar cycles and significant holidays. These prognostications were much more diverse in their topics and the particular political or religious outlooks they offered to readers. Authors might, like Sarah Jinner, argue for women’s participation in medical and astrological readings, suggesting other medical texts: “It is better that they [women] should exercise their parts, in that which appertaineth to a vertuous life.” Often almanac authors debate questions of theological partisanship in their prognostications, as in William Winstanley’s explicit claim about his goals in publishing The Protestant Almanac: “It is one design of this Almanack, to observe to my countreymen what are the most knocking Arguments with which the Romanists use to confute Hereticks; they make a flourish with Father, Doctors, Councils; but […], when all is done, Club-law is their best weapon.” Both advocates and detractors to Anabaptists, Quakers, Episcopalians, and the Fifth Monarchists also appeared on the market. Ranging from cautious, ambiguous foresight of the year’s troubles to denunciatory rhetoric of apocalypticism, almanacs were textual pulpits from which authors advanced political and religious agendas based on the movements of the heavenly bodies.” Katherine Walker. ’Finding out Moonshine: Early Modern Almanacs and Drama.’
The first three volumes in this collection contain the last productions of perhaps the most famous Almanack maker of the C17th, William Lilly. They are considerably more substantial than the others in the collection, more than double their length. In 1644, during the English Civil War, he published the first of his many popular astrological texts and the civil war clearly provided the opportunity for almanacks to flourish. “‘The professors of astrology, hitherto scoffed at’, notes Plomer, saw in the rebellion ‘an opportunity they were not slow to seize upon, and year after year published astrological predictions as to the success of the armies, the nativities of great persons, and schemes for the ensuing year’. While the armies of King Charles and parliament fought in in the fields, the Astrologers chose to defend their causes with the almanacs in a personal and vitriolic battle of words. Many of the 17th century ‘Merlins’ became involved but two Astrologers, each gathering about him a band of supporters, emerged as the chief combatants: Captain George Wharton on the side of the Royalists and William Lilly on the side of Parliament. These men won no battles and decided no policy, but their effect on the national morale was great. A surprisingly large number of Englishmen excepted in some degree the validity of astrology, and many households as a matter of course, bought the almanacs for the weather forecasts, predictions, and astronomical data. .. because the almanacks had such a wide circulation, the potential audience was indeed significant. The almanacs and various kinds of predictions made by Wharton and Lilly were, therefore, watched carefully and treated seriously by many people in high offices, and the role of the astrologer as a propagandist .. became both significant and profitable.” Harry Rusche. ‘Merlini Anglici: Astrology and Propaganda from 1644 to 1651.’ By 1659, Lilly’s fame was widely acknowledged and his annual almanac was achieving sales of around 30,000 copies a year.
“In the seventeenth century, almanac authors and printers cultivated name-recognition, and authors used the almanac to advertise additional astral and medical services. Authors such as Edward Pond, Vincent Wing, and William Lilly became household names. Some authors’ names adorned the cover of almanacs long after they were alive: attribution to John Woodhouse, whose works first appeared in 1610, continued up to 1710, although Woodhouse himself had died in 1655. A popular Cavalier ballad published in 1643 assumed readers would have knowledge of authors such as Thomas Swallow, Jonathan Dove, and William Dade, and borrows readily from the available puns on the names of Pond and Peregrine Rivers.” Dr. Katherine Walker – ‘Finding out Moonshine: Early Modern Almanacs and Drama.’
An extraordinary collection of these rare and most fascinating works.
Longer description available on request.