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The Collation

Almanacs as Underdogs

The Folger houses many impressive texts and manuscripts. So much so, in fact, that it is easy to overlook the library’s equally vast and provocative collection of less illustrious genres. These texts will not require heavy lifting or elaborate stands. No one will likely toss an envious glance your way as you peruse these uninspired quartos in the reading rooms. Instead, these texts are often worn, somewhat fragile, and typically packed together with many others of the same year or by the same author.

But their very ordinariness is what makes them so valuable to scholars of the early modern period. In this Collation post, then, I’m rooting for the underdog in the archives. I’m referring to almanacs, texts that were widely printed and disseminated, trailing only Bibles in the numbers printed each year. These same texts are Shakespearean props in Richard III and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Find out moonshine! Find out moonshine!” Bottom demands of Quince, who obligingly refers to the calendar portion of the almanac to verify that the weather and the heavens are propitious for the night of their performance. I find these textual props suggestive, and reading almanacs alongside early modern drama reveals the influence of astral thinking in the early modern period.

Other playwrights also evoke the popularity of these calendars and prognostications, including Ben Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour (first performed in 1599 and published in 1600). In this comedy the rapacious farmer Sordido reads his almanac carefully for the behavior of the weather, seeking to gain a profit by hoarding his grain. Jonson mocks Sordido’s frenetic reading of the text onstage, in which Sordido pours over each day’s entry ecstatically:

‘The twentieth, twenty-first, twenty-second days, rain and wind’—oh, good, good. ‘The twenty-third and twenty-fourth, rain and some wind’—good. ‘The twenty-fifth, rain’—good still. ‘Twenty-sixth, twenty-seventh, twenty-eighth, wind and some rain’. Would it had been rain and some wind. Well, ’tis good, when it can be no better. ‘Twenty-ninth inclining to rain’. Inclining to rain? That’s not so good, now. ‘Thirtieth and thirty-first, wind and no rain’. No rain? ’Slid, stay, this is worse and worse. What says he of St Swithin’s? Turn back. Look, ‘St Swithin’s’—no rain? (1.3.15-22).

Jonson, of course, is poking fun at the tediousness of almanacs and their sweeping claims for predicting the weather’s behavior based on custom, experience, and reading the heavens. He can make fun of them, however, because of their very popularity, because everyone in the audience would recognize the conventions of the genre and its utility for such a wide range of professional and social classes.

Sordido’s lines might not be as funny to us as they would have been to early modern audiences familiar with the genre. Thomas Buckminster’s 1590 almanac, for example, lists the weather patterns for the month of July with the same tediousness: “The. xiiii. day, pleasaunt and dry. The. xv. and. xvi. Days, variable and somewhat freshe. The. xvii. and. xviii. Days, much lyke the former. The xix and xx days, very warme & dry” (D7r). Dry indeed.

page image showing the text quoted above

Folger STC 423.2, leaf D7r

And yet, given that we possess the same access today to that knowledge with our weather apps, it’s hard to criticize the need for such particular and necessary information. In an agrarian society like early modern England, such calendrical accounts of the environment’s behaviors were central to livelihoods.

Although I’ve presented the lists above and the texts themselves as monotonous, they are rather multifaceted, evocative texts. Scholars are returning to almanacs to look anew at how they give us access to early modern lived experiences. What I love about almanacs is how much they both serve the useful function of tracing the weather and yet feature highly idiosyncratic elements. There is something for everyone in this genre, including medical advice (when to shave, bathe, or have sex), religious diatribe, debates on the role of providence or fate, scientific explanations, political speculation, and snide professional rivalry among almanac authors.

As Edward Pond complains in his 1609 almanac, his and other almanacs are attacked for their imprecision, but “the errour is not in the Arte, but in the Professour of the Arte, who for Want of true practise, experience, and continuall obseruation, onely by following of auncient authours workes, written for other Climates, without Reduction or Calculation: Affecting more Antiquitie and Custome, then experience the mother of Trueth, haue published many errors amongst vs” (C1r). Albeit longwinded, Pond is here making a claim for the scientific validity of astrology.

These debates on the utility, efficacy, and legitimacy of astrology opened the way for another curious and fascinating genre in the period: the mock-almanac. The playwright Thomas Middleton composed one such work titled The Owl’s Almanac, whose frontispiece lampoons the esoteric materials accompanying the astrologer.

STC 6515.2 copy 1, title page

Surrounded by the tools of his practice, the Owl’s image lampoons the precision and complexity of astrology as a science. Nonetheless, such precision might be welcomed given the many important reasons why someone would read an almanac or turn to an astrologer in the first place—astrology could determine the most propitious times to undergo medical treatment, get married, or start a business venture. Like the ludic figure of Sordido, the mockery works here because of its proximity to actual practice.

The Owl’s Almanac focuses on the social ills that can readily be predicted with or without the stars. It also narrows in on the body. It emphasizes, in other words, the potential vulnerability that might arise for an individual so subject to the stars. Pictorially, the almanac contains a useful emblem for early modern conceptions of the body’s relationship to the heavens.

The Zodiac Man (or sometimes Woman), shows the human body segmented by the zodiac signs, signaling which constellations have power over particular parts of the body. The Pisces rule the feet, and thus in Edward Pond’s 1609 almanac the fish is firmly underfoot. But the other zodiac images indicate a penetration of the body: Sagittarius shoots an arrow directly into the thigh, affirming vividly the constellation’s domination over the legs.

STC 501, A4r

Recently I attended the Folger Seminar “Digging the Past: Writing and Agriculture in the Seventeenth Century,” led by Francis Dolan. The seminar was a powerful reminder of the scope and scale of agricultural thinking in the period. Not only did we revel in the beauty and knowledge of texts like Gerard’s Herbal, but we also discussed humbler texts, such as Thomas Tusser’s Fiue Hundreth Points of Good Husbandry. Tusser’s agricultural proverbs sound similar to the knowledge proffered in almanacs, in which rhyme as a mnemonic features as a way to disseminate important knowledge. Consider, for example, the following adage, quoted from the 1573 edition:

If weather be fayer, & tyedy thy graine,
make spedely carrige, for feare of a rayne.
for tempest & showers, deceiuith a meny:
& lingring lubbers, lose meany a peny. (Fol. 55)

Almanacs, too, enfolded agricultural writing into lyric, though they were also lampooned for their literary pretensions. As Gabriel Frende’s 1589 almanac presents, the Zodiac Man can be memorized through a simple verse:

Aries the Head; Taurus the Necke doth guyde.
Gemini th’ armes; Cancer Stomacke and Brest.
Leo the Hart; Virgo the Belly, Syde.
Reignes, Nauell, and Buttockes Libra loues best.
Scorpio keeps Secretes lure in his nest.
Sagittarius the Thyghes; the Goate Knees doth craue.
Legges Aquarius; Pisces the Feete wyll haue. (A4r)

It’s not great poetry, but neither do almanacs and agricultural manuals profess pretensions to higher lyric renown. Once again, the emphasis is instead on utility, and the shared linkages between agriculture and almanacs provided alternative, coextensive texts for reading and understanding idiosyncratic nature.

“Digging the Past” brought home for me the prevalence of agricultural and environmental thinking in the early modern period. By environmental thinking, I mean here simply the pervasiveness of knowledge about how to read and manipulate the environment. It was not pastoral, but frank and realistic, gritty in a way that we rarely glimpse, and involved a familiarity with working the land that almanacs from the period emphasize. An almanac also focused on its heterodox offerings for the early modern reader, in which one can learn when to sow, when to shave, and when to set out on a promising journey. One might also learn of large-scale political upheavals and religious turmoil. One might enter in an accessible way the heady debates of the so-called scientific revolution. A reader could also, alongside Quince, simply “find out moonshine.” Such inquiries were all open to the almanac reader.

They may not be the most visually provocative texts in the Folger’s collection, but almanacs, as the underdog, have much more gumption than we might originally give them credit for. Such gusto is an important reminder of the world in which the early moderns lived: one conditioned so directly by the weather, farming, and the labors of the land. While reaching up to the heavens, almanacs simultaneously bring us back down to the materials of the land.



Almanacs are fascinating. Many years ago I went through as many as I could locate, noting down the predictions for eclipses, and checking those dates against the current NASA website of historical eclipses. The old almanac makers were pretty accurate on the whole. Regrettably, I’ve lost all my notes of that foray. It would have made an interesting article.

William Ingram — March 19, 2019


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