Almost thirty years ago my wife Julia and I were walking through an underpass leading out of the tube station at Notting Hill Gate, when a large, unkempt figure in a mackintosh, with an enormous straggling beard, staggered towards us, bottle in one hand, books in the other. "Buy an Old Moore's Almanac?", he wheezed. Julia looked him straight in the bleary eye. "I am Old Moore", she said.
As a matter of fact it was true, or partially true. A lot of astrologers who had just achieved their diploma used to write a page or two for Old Moore's Almanac. They soon stopped doing so because the money was so bad, but it was one way of signaling that you had arrived on the astrological scene. And what better way'? After all, Francis Moore published the first edition of his almanac in 1699, and though one Victorian critic wrote that "having reached the mellow age of 200 years, he cannot read the stars as clearly as in his younger days", he has clung tenaciously to life for a century since then.
Old Moore's Almanac is, in fact, comparatively young in the history of almanacs, and if we think of it as something of a ragbag, it has nothing on its bedfellows of the 16th and 17th century, in which men and women are advised on how to plant cabbages and get children, how and when to seduce a handsome woman and how to keep your wife in order.
Printed almanacs first appeared in the 15th century, in the very infancy of printing - one was issued at Gothenberg in 1448, only eight years after the invention of moveable type; but in written form, almanacs had been circulating long before that. The omen-literature of the first millennium BC speaks of certain conjunctions, eclipses, or occultations of planets - and especially of comets which were associated with storm and flood, drought and earthquake - and these were 'published' in manuscript and by word of mouth. Popular prediction-books were published in this way during St Augustine's time, in the fourth century AD.
Almanacs in general began as simple records of astronomical events during the coming year: notes of market days, holidays and holy days as well as of days when eclipses would occur, on which the Moon was full or new, on which conjunctions took place, and so on. In the Middle Ages these were known as 'clog almanacs', made of metal, wood or horn, with notches and symbols marking the lunar months and the church feast days. Sometimes they were small enough to fit into a pocket; sometimes they were more decorative and hung on a nail at the fireside.
Within thirty years of the invention of moveable type almanacs were being regularly published in Germany, France, Italy, Hungary, the Netherlands and Poland. The Professor of Astrologia at the University of Bologna in the 14th century was contracted to publish his almanac for each year with planetary movements and conjunctions and so on, especially for the use of doctors of medicine. In 1437 the University of Paris decreed that every physician and surgeon should possess a copy of the current almanac as a vital aid to medical practice. Apart from which, they were enormously popular with the general public. In Beaumont and Fletcher's play The Woman Hater, a character measures his life by the almanacs:
Full eight and twenty almanacs have been compiled,
all for several years,
since first I drew this breath...
In England, the first almanac to be published was probably issued by an Italian, William Parron, in the 1490s, though Wynkyn de Worde, an assistant to the printer Caxton, published one in 1491. Parron worked for a while at the court of Henry VII, but vanished mysteriously just after the Queen died at the age of 37. This may or may not have had something to do with the fact that he had just predicted she would live into her 80s.
Parron's almanac was more or less purely astronomical; the first almanac which we would recognise as such was probably published eleven years later by Master John Thybault, 'mediciner and astronomer of the Imperial Majesty', which contained "records of the four parts of this year and of the influence of the Moon, of peace and war, and of the sicknesses of this year, with the constellations of them that be under the seven planets, and of the revolutions of kings and princes and of the eclipses and comets".
Most almanacs would begin with astronomical data; then would come the 'anatomy' or Zodiacal Man, showing those parts of the body governed by the various signs; then the forecasts: the weather forecast, the possibility of disease, notes on farming aid gardening, etc. There were usually predictions of dreadful wars, famines and plagues, but the prospect of these was often dampened down, perhaps not so much to avoid causing panic as to provide an escape if prediction proved inaccurate. Himbert de Billy in 1604, for instance, promised war, disaster, rebellion and the deaths of kings - but added that "none shall feel these calamities, except barbarous and strange nations, which call not upon God's holy name"!
Page from Partridge's Almanack, 1683, showing 'Zodiacal Man' and the rulership of the signs over the parts of the body
Some almanacs were written by rather odd people. In the 17th century there was William Poole, for instance, described as 'a nibbler at astrology', who had been a gardener, drawer of linen, plasterer and bricklayer, and used to brag that he had "been of seventeen professions". He was something of a wit - if a coarse wit. Accused by Sir Thomas Jay JP of stealing a silver cup, he waited until Sir Thomas was dead, enquired where the grave was, and left a note on it saying:
Here lyeth buried Sir Thomas Jay, Knight,
Who being dead. I upon his grave did shite.
The evidence, we are told, was nearby.
And what about the Reverend William Bredon, Vicar of Thornhill in Buckinghamshire, who used to cast horoscopes at the altar in order to inform his parishioners as to the whereabouts of stolen horses and cattle, and (William Lilly tells us) was so addicted to smoking that when he had no tobacco he would cut the bell-ropes and smoke them. We shouldn't however forget that some extremely respectable men wrote and published almanacs, among them the astronomers Kepler and Tycho Brahe.
Johannes Kepler, born in 1571, whose studies of the positions of Mars recognised the elliptical motions of the planets around the Sun, graduated from the Faculty of Arts at the University of Tuebingen when he was 20. Taking up the post of a teacher of mathematics and astronomy in Gratz, capital of the Austrian province of Styria, he found that one of his duties there was to publish an annual astronomical almanac. He was pleased to do this, and not only because it brought him an income of 20 florins a time (his annual salary was only 150 florins a year) but because his interest in astrology was life-long.
Kepler's almanacs were very successful and, it seems, accurate. In the first one he predicted among other things a spell of very cold weather and an invasion by the Turks. Six months later he wrote tongue-in-cheek, to his friend Michael Maestlin:
By the way, so far the [almanac's] predictions are proving correct. There is an unheard-of cold in our land. In the Alpine farms people die of the cold. It is reliably reported that when they arrive home and blow their noses, the noses fall off. As for the Turks, on January the first they devastated the whole country from Vienna to Neustadt, setting everything on fire and carrying off men and plunder.
The English Merlin
William Lilly, of course, was one of the most successful of all almanac-makers. He published his first almanac Merlinus Anglicus Junior in 1644 and went on to publish an almanac every year until his death in 1681. His first almanac was a fairly slim affair of only twenty-two pages and about ten thousand words. Later that same year he published England's Prophetical Merlin, which came out in October, with 126 pages and over sixty thousand words, and a title page which announced that it was "The English Merlin revived, or his prediction upon the affairs of the English commonwealth, and of all or most kingdoms of Christendom". His Merlini Anglici Ephemeris was published annually from 1647 to 1681 - a long and successful run. Lilly also published occasional almanacs dealing with one particular astrological event. His Starry Messenger for 1645, for instance, looked in particular at the solar eclipse due in August of that year, which he says cannot but be the forerunner of some extraordinary mutation in most commonwealths of Europe.
Frontispiece of Lilly's 1678 edition of Merlini Anglici Ephemeris showing his portrait.
Lilly was a cautious chap, printing at the front of all his almanacs the motto "non cogunt - the stars do not compel". "Mention not a great evil to happen to any Prince", he advised, "only some danger of such a thing". In the first Prophetical Merlin, his note to the reader went:
It's far from my thoughts that there's any binding or inevitable necessity in what I predict by the radiation of heavenly bodies: the stars have no such unlimited laws - they are bounded, and give light to us, or some small glimpses of the great affairs God intends upon earth; but if we rely on our judgement without relation to the immediate rule of His eternal providence, alas, how soon of wise men we become errant fools and idiots!
However, later he successfully foretold the plague and the Great Fire of London, so successfully indeed that he was arrested on suspicion of starting it in order to make his prophecy come true. Other astrologers of Lilly's time were equally successful: John Securis in 1569 prophesied the coming of the Spanish Armada, John Booker the death of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden in 1632, Vincent Wing the death of Cromwell in 1658, and so on.
In the 17th century, one of the main purposes of an almanac was to advertise the services of its author. Advertisements were everywhere: pasted on doors, nailed to trees, posted on walls - but if you had your own almanac, you had a continual source of advertisement. We find William Davis in his almanac informing his readers that he attended at the Red Lion in Broomham, Wiltshire, every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday to resolve astrological queries and dispense pills. Daniel Woodward listed the names and addresses of shops where his patent medicines could he bought. And so it went.
And what sort of people subscribed to all this? Who actually bought the almanacs? The answer is, as it is today, people of every social group: King Charles I followed Lilly but also supported his great rival George Wharton; almanacs with the King's autograph are still in the royal library. Lord Burghley, Elizabeth's treasurer, left a copy in which he had carefully marked, for some reason, the precise moment at which the Sun entered Aries. Bishop Wren of Norwich, the Earl of Clarendon, Oxford dons, army officers - they all carefully preserved annotated almanacs, and when Lieutenant John Wheale put to sea under Admiral Black he took as part of his necessary equipment "a bottle full & ink, a pocket almanac and a sheet almanac". The ordinary people bought cheap almanacs in enormous numbers.
Title page from Lilly's Starry Messenger, published 1645
Everyone had his or her own reason for being interested in almanacs and often those reasons were political. The part played by the so-called 'War of the Almanacs' during the English Civil War is still insufficiently explored by historians. One commentator noted that the two astrologers, William Lilly and George Wharton, "led the commons of this kingdom as bears are led by the nose with bagpipes before them". The dispute is fascinating and comic by turns and certainly did not lack vigour. Lilly, Wharton said, looked "like a pig, over-roasted" - but at least Lilly escaped arrest; Wharton ended up in the Tower, though he managed to escape, while Lilly was instrumental in procuring the hacksaw with which King Charles' cut his way out of his cell in Carisbrooke Castle.
There is some foundation for the claim that the period of the Civil War was the most important in the history of the almanac. It was a vital tool both to Cavalier and Roundhead leaders, especially for the encouragement of optimism in the troops. The men who actually fought the Civil War were not professional soldiers with a duty of obedience and an enormous enthusiasm for their cause. Enthusiasm for the King or for Oliver Cromwell was the prerogative of the upper classes, the gentry who formed their troops and battalions, and led them. The troops themselves were for the most part plucked from the farms and the fields - if your squire went off to fight, he naturally took you with him, whether you would or no.
So it was important to keep up the spirits of the ordinary fighting men, and Lilly prophesying success for the Roundheads and Wharton prophesying equal success for the Cavaliers did much to send men into battle if not exactly happy, at least confident that with the stars on their side, they would triumph. There are accounts of men being seen marching into battle actually holding Lilly's almanacs!
Lilly and Wharton and their colleague John Booker were splendid polemicists, who pulled no punches. Wharton published a whole almanac denouncing "all such as have heretofore had the misfortune to be cheated and Deluded by that Grand and Traitorous Importer of this Rebellious Age, John Booker" - then Booker, in his 1644 almanac, came back with an attack on the Royalist Wharton:
As for the word Rebel, I tell thee rogue (it is thy own name) I can give thee no other title; and I meant thee and all thy adherents that have thus rent almost in pieces the most flourishing Kingdom of the Christworld...
Wharton replied in yet another almanac, attacking both Booker and Lilly, whose "sole endeavour hath hitherto been by most disloyal and ambiguous phrases to animate and hasten on the rebels and other conspirators to plot and attempt mischief against His Majesty..." and in the Starry Messenger for August 1645 Lilly predicted disaster for the King and all his followers:
Oh what skulking, sneaking, running into corners, mouse holes, sawpits, rabbitholes, tossing and tumbling the ungodly out of one county into another, do I foresee. "Face about, gentlemen", says one, "for our honour, as you did at Newbury, that is with a good pair of heels, or all's lost say I." Oh, the way to Bristol, for there to Exeter, then into Cornwall, then into a safe harbour, if any can be found for malignants.
I have always thought that one of the most moving documents of the Civil War is Wharton's Bellum Hybernicale, published in 1647. The King was
imprisoned, and all was lost. After dismissing Lilly and Booker as two astrologers so incompetent that they couldn't even draw up a proper chart, Wharton poignantly expresses his horror at the outcome of the war:
Oh, good God - what is the world become? Saints are turned to serpents, and doves into devils; the English nation, which hath been accounted fierce only against their foes, and always faithful to their friends, are now become both fierce and faithless against their lawful and loving Prince, and have most barbarously betrayed him. Who would ever have thought that Christians, that civil people, that any men would thus have violated all religion, all laws, and all honest and civil demeanour?... Well, let them be able to blind the world.., yet shall they never be able to escape either the sight or vengeance of Almighty God, which we daily expect, and earnestly desire to be poured upon them.
Surprisingly, it wasn't long before some astrologers were engaged in quiet insurrection against the second Charles. The leader of this band was John Gadbury, labelled 'the Pope's astrologer', who was accused of calculating the best time for an attempt on the King's life. Gadbury was actually arrested in November 1679, and examined in the presence of the King who enquired
whether he could prophesy to which prison he would be sent. He turned a little quiet after that, but when Catholic King James ascended the throne suddenly became a great enthusiast for the monarchy, with the result that he was left in peace (though his rival John Partridge was forced to flee abroad, complaining that "England was grown too hot for him".) Anyway, King James now banned any mention of politics in almanacs. Partridge returned to England in triumph with William of Orange in 1688, and Gadbury, now on the wrong end of the see-saw once more, paused only to publish a special edition of his almanac forecasting the failure of the Revolution. Then, when it succeeded, once more fell silent.
The use of almanacs for political propaganda depended a great deal more on the astrologers' ambitions for the success of one cause or another than on anything happening in the heavens, it seems. But the fact that they were taken so seriously by Kings and governments shows how important they were in swaying public opinion. They also educated the public in politics: they published lists of the boroughs returning MPs to Parliament, and the names of the MPs. Many of them - certainly Lilly's - contained an unastrological summary of political events in England and throughout Europe.
Chronicle of Life
Politics apart, one of the fascinating things about the almanacs is what they tell us about the life of the ordinary people of England. Some reactionary historians might be tempted to see astrologers as a gang of dangerous lefties, for most of them were on the radical side of politics. They were on the whole extremely sympathetic to the hard lives which most of their readers led. Several of them complained about a society which was ready to ignore the poverty of many of its people, but quick to hang them if they stole to keep alive. William Ramesay pointed out in one almanac that "A poor man shall he hanged for stealing a sheep, when, it may be compelled by necessity, whereas a great man in office may safely rob the whole nation, and undo thousands." Lilly cried out that "justice is gone to heaven! - the little man dies for stealing a sheep, the great one steals ten oxen and yet is pardoned... Doth not God see this? and is he not angry at this partiality?"
On the other hand there was not a great deal of sympathy for either wives or servants (and the two were often equated). Almost every year astrologers predicted that wives would seek to challenge the subordinate position they held in society. As for servants, well, William Parron had complained as early as 1498 that they would be "proud, disobedient and hard to keep", and the view of servants as an under-class which must be kept in its place was one which was held for centuries. "Why dost thou delve and drudge?", asked one astrologer of the middle class gentleman, "since servants spend all, and yet ever grudge". While the Elizabethan astrologer John Securis stated it as a fact that "servants shall be as they were wont to be of late years: that is, they shall be negligent, careless, given to much sleep, going about their work and business like snails creeping, short, slack enough in all things - saving in their tongues".
Astrologers were, alas, no different from other citizens of their time in holding views which we now find difficult to countenance. On matters of race, for instance, they were mostly irredeemably fascist: Henry Season, the 18th century astrologer, invariably compared his enemies to Hottentots, the lowest form of human life. Richard Saunders dreamed of improving the human race by scientific breeding: if people observed the stars in human reproduction, the degeneration of man could be reversed and "we might possibly find such heroic spirits and famous worthies of valour and learning in the world as past ages have produced." Perhaps it is just as well that Hitler wasn't interested in astrology.
There was plenty more acceptable advice - on personal hygiene, for instance. John Woodhouse, in 1642, offered rather a lot of guidance on the subject. "Comb your head the hair backwards", he wrote - "it purgeth rheum and cleareth the eyes. Wash behind your ears with cold water, an enemy to toothache, wash hands often, feet more seldom, head not at all". A bath should be taken at least an hour after rising, after taking exercise, and only when the Moon was in Libra or Pisces. Incidentally, I find The Husbandman's Guide, published in Boston - the American Boston - in 1712, advising that "it is good to bathe with the Moon being in Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn: it is best bathing two or three days after, or at, the full of the Moon". (I offer all this merely for information).
Page from a popular 15th century almanac, the Shepherd's Calendar, showing July, ruled by Cancer and Leo
A lot of astrologers were highly puritanical in their views. "What vicious lives many live", Vincent Wing lamented: "how they drink, roar, swagger, domineer, revel and what not … How rudely they dress, looking more like fiddlers and players, than good Christians". When they turned to sex, astrologers - like so many other people of their time, were pretty shrewd. Looking at the public baths and saunas, for instance, they were quick to see that the sexes bathing naked together did so "rather for pleasure than for cleanliness". So one should "refrain from hateful stews" for excess brought "insatiable torment", and "decayeth the body or dulleth the mind".
They referred of course to venereal disease, the scourge of Europe. But, many of them also took the moral stance: John Booker reminded his clients that "Rome's great and potent state did never shrink till they began to wench, to coach, and drink". Prostitutes were "an intolerable liberty in a Christian commonwealth", almanac readers were told. As for sex in the home, where it belonged, there too careful rules were to be observed. Indeed, so many astrological instructions were given as to when it was desirable to make love to your wife that if you observed them all you would have had a busy time of it.
It was generally agreed that it was best to restrain your desires during the summer months, especially in the 'dog days' of July and August. Some evidence that readers observed this advice comes from a writer in a non-astrological journal, who said in 1662 that there was "high dissatisfaction among women" during July, because "men this month observe the rule of astrology too much". Many wives indeed were said to have turned to adultery on the grounds that "if husband won't, another must". Interestingly enough, if we look at parish registers there is some historical evidence that people indeed followed the astrologers' advice - there is a fall in baptisms in the summer months.
Happily, all astrological advice in these matters was not negative. During May, 1581, Walter Gray advised: "Let Venus be embraced!" A fellow astrologer urged readers to "embrace Venus honestly" in May, and "entertain Venus daintily" in November. Dorothy Partridge - one of relatively few woman astrologers, advised in January that "a lusty squab fat bedfellow is very good physic at this season". In general, it was recommended that the best time "to be a husband to thy wife" was when the Moon was in Sagittarius, for then she was most likely to conceive - though Nicholas Culpeper conceded that "where the desire for children moves one to the act of copulation, the pleasure in the act moves a hundred".
Many astrologers, especially those that dabbled in medicine, advertised aphrodisiacs for sale, and a good many of them gave contraceptive advice, though we may think it not entirely dependable: John Swan recommended
the juice of honeysuckle as an 18th century substitute for a vasectomy - "drunk by a man by the space of 37 days shall make him that he shall never beget any more children". If that seemed a little radical, Sarah Jinner, another woman astrologer, suggested that rue made a man "no better than a eunuch", though on the other hand it "fills woman with lust", which might lead to discord in the home. Sarah Jinner published aids to conception in her almanacs, and one popular almanac included astrological advice on how to conceive sons rather than daughters.
Even a cursory glance at almanacs shows that women were universally agreed to be naturally inferior to men. Almost every almanac ranted on and on about how unhappy marriage would probably make their male readers: quarrels, runaway wives and attempts to secure divorce were foretold each year. "I cannot but rejoice when I consider I am not married", said William Ramesay; and a prophet foretold for the year 1659 that "Women will scold their husbands, a thing of no great moment". Poor Robin (there is a long series of almanacs with that title) anticipated "civil wars between drunken husbands and scolding wives, mothers-in law and their daughters". The Erra Pater, another popular almanac, published a very long list of days with the warning that anybody marrying on any one of them "will soon be parted, or else they shall live together with much sorrow" - the only two happy days of married life were the first day, and the day of the wife's funeral. The Arcandam carefully worked out the fate of women according to the Sun-signs. A Taurean wife would be a thief, a Geminian a liar, a Scorpio a harlot, a Sagittarian a witch, and so on. The tongues of wives were always busy: "Many ladies shall prove with egg, not with child", predicted Poor Robin, "and this may be made out by their cackling". And of course women were naturally promiscuous: even Sarah Jinner published a recipe for an anti-aphrodisiac which, she said, "may be a good medicine for the preventing of young girls throwing themselves away upon madcap fellows". Poor Robin suggested that in spring fathers should look to their daughters, for "The blood beginneth now to rise which makes some maids to scratch their thighs'', and he went on to issue a warning about erring wives, listing no less than nine ways in which they commonly cuckolded their husbands. On the other hand the Reverend John Swan provided a herbal prescription which would help a wife to look suitably sad at her husband's funeral.
A few women clearly showed signs of budding feminism, for almanacs regularly warned that they were plotting to overthrow the husbands supremacy within the family. There were even suggestions that they were beginning - especially after the French revolution - to show an interest in politics, though one astrologer pointed out that a Parliament of Women was an impossibility, for all the members would want to be Speaker. Sarah Jinner was ready, as we have seen, to join in the Fun of baiting women - but she couldn't keep up the pretence, and pointed out that her sex had natural ability, despite the fact that "it is the policy of men to keep us from education and schooling, wherein we might give testimony of our parts by improvement".
But I really haven't over-emphasised the misogynist element among almanac-writers, though many of them clearly did recognise the part women played in the running of a household. There are references to the work they did in ploughing and sowing, weeding of corn, shearing of sheep, gelding of cocks, managing the dairy and supervising the servants. One astrologer mildly advised "With love and not with fury let her know her error's ground, for thence amendments grow" and even Poor Robin was on the side of married love: "He who marries where he doth not love, will soon love where he doth not marry" - and recalled the story of the wife who "one day found her husband kissing his maid in a dark hole behind the parlour-door; who asking her how she spied him out in that place? returned him answer, That formerly she had been kissed by several men in that place herself."
Almanacs reflect something of the ordinary pleasures of everyday life - apart, I mean, from sex. At Easter, we read, there were popular outings and feasts with cakes, custard, stewed prunes and bottled ale; on May Day, dancing around the Maypole, new clothes for the women, in London perhaps a visit to Spring Gardens to watch the races, both on horseback and on foot, several of the livelier young men (Poor Robin noted disapprovingly) running naked - streaking, as we would say. There really is nothing new!
Witchcraft & Religion
One of the problems the almanac writers had to face was how to deal with witchcraft. Many clerics were telling their flocks that astrologers were more or less witches anyway, but they were in fact among the most vehement opponents of witchcraft, quoting Biblical denunciations of it, and instructing magistrates to enforce the law against it. It's not true that there was ever a close relationship between astrology and witchcraft; but the problem that was more relevant was the relationship between astrology and religion.
Plenty of priests and bishops made use of astrologers - indeed a number of them, including one or two Popes, were amateur astrologers themselves. One particular use they made of astrology was fixing the best time to lay the foundation stone of a new cathedral; and many of the cathedrals have astrological symbols built into their fabric, for example at Canterbury there is a zodiac laid into the floor only a few feet from the original resting place of St Thomas, the holiest part of the building.
The real difficulty arose when astrologers claimed to be able to predict events: theologians argued that if they did they were suggesting that the planets supplanted God and undermined his power - in which case there would be no room for moral responsibility.
Not surprisingly, astrology became caught up in religious and political differences of the day. The Protestant Almanac, as you might suppose from its name, took a virulent anti-Catholic stance, publishing a list of adulterous or incestuous Popes, 24 of whom were conjurers or sorcerers. One issue, for August 3 1689, said that the "bloody aspects, fatal oppositions, diabolical conjunctions and pernicious revolutions of the Papacy against the Lord and his anointed" are described, and the articles in it are "calculated according to art for the meridian of Babylon, where the Pope is elevated one hundred and fifty degrees above all reason, right and religion".
Doom, Gloom & Paradise
Astrologers have always been good at predicting doom and disaster, and from the Elizabethan almanacs onward there is a steady stream of predictions of the Apocalypse, some extremely particular: a man called Richard Harvey predicted that at noon on April 28, 1583, a great wind would spring up which would mark the beginning of the end of the world. His prediction was based on a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter and aroused great interest and no little consternation. When everyone found themselves on the following January 1st still alive and well, astrologers (as always) sought excuses; William Farmer, who was among those predicting the end of the world, pointed out that there had after all been a nasty flood in Lincolnshire! There had also been the Spanish Armada, which might have seemed pretty ominous.
The Civil War and the execution of Charles I understandably suggested to astrologers that the end of the world was nigh; but when Charles II was crowned they went swiftly in reverse and began to predict the coming of paradise on earth. They very much liked the sound of things in 1662, when all the planets were in conjunction in Sagittarius. But though Charles II had a good time, as we suppose did his mistresses, there's no indication that the rest of England profited much.
An early almanac commenting upon an eclipse of the Sun
A lot of good educational work was done in the field of astrological medicine; and a great deal of space in the almanacs was given to advising when operations or bleeding should take place, when a purge should be administered, or herbal medicine given. Popular almanacs weren't of course used by physicians; they had enough knowledge to do without them, for they studied astrology as they studied medicine, in the universities - and we might remember that William Ramesay became physician to Charles II, and Gadbury and Partridge were physicians to Queen Katherine and Queen Mary II respectively.
Almanacs didn't give specific advice on the treatment of illnesses, but they did advise on herbal treatment (though some of their advice wasn't especially good). One almanac printed a list of specific days when particular herbs would do you good, which was claimed to have been first dictated by an angel to Job.
There was other useful information. In the days before watches, one almanac gave handy instructions for discovering the time by picking things up at random from the ground. If what you picked up was vegetable, the time was one, four seven or ten o'clock; if it was mineral it was two, five, eight or eleven; if inanimate but dead say, a twig - three, six, nine or twelve. There was also a certain amount of what we would now regard as nastiness: if you dissected a magpie alive and applied the reeking bits to your body, they would cure your gout. Bats blood allowed you to see in the dark; if you buried a live toad in your field it would protect your crops against lightning.
Strange as it may seem, even the College of Physicians in London accepted some of this sort of stuff: its official handbook suggested the head of a black cat, well baked, was a cure for the falling sickness; while a human skull - off a fresh corpse, boiled, then powdered - was good for all sorts of things.
Almanacs & Science
One might think from some of the arguments in the press that the present generation is unique in witnessing a great opposition between scientists and astrology, but the almanacs show this not to be the case.
They were written for ordinary people, so of course they weren't very technical about the advance of science; but it's clear that the astrologers who wrote them were well aware of the scientific advances of the times. In the 16th century, astrology was in the mainstream of thought, and books like Lilly's Christian Astrology were welcomed as much by scientists as by astrologers. The new astronomical data coming in from the astrologer/astronomers - Kepler and Tycho Brahe, and so on - was reported and discussed; and the more progressive astrologers were exceptionally excited by the discovery of new stars (which they often tried to pass off as new planets), and would try to explain new astronomical discoveries to their readers.
The almanacs played an important part in educating ordinary people about the advance of astronomy and the understanding of the universe. In the 16th century even quite well educated people had what now seem extraordinary ideas about this: John Reeve, the co-founder of that splendidly titled group the 'Muggletonians' believed that Heaven was only six miles from earth; Nathaniel Nye, a supporter of Copernicus, nevertheless taught that the Moon was larger than the earth; and ordinary people had even wilder ideas. But astrologers on the whole were instrumental in explaining that the world was indeed round, that the planets and stars were extremely distant bodies; and they demystified the events in the solar system by showing in diagrams how they happened - so there was no reed to be frightened when there was an eclipse (for as one astrologer wrote, "a solar eclipse doth terribly amaze and fear them which have no notion in astronomy, considering the sudden dark"). They also explained meteors, how the stars twinkled, and so on.
It was insisted that astrology was a scientific instrument - John Gadbury claimed for instance that Ptolemy was as certain as Euclid - one real experiment is of greater worth, and more to be valued, than one hundred pompous predictions, he said. Many astrologers used the almanacs, though they were aimed at a popular audience, to explain how astrology worked. Lilly's Prophetical Merlin begins with a long technical essay on the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn which took place on February 15, 1643. He notes the effects of nine previous conjunctions before proceeding to his conclusions, which are gloomy, and to the effect that he is not surprised that England is in her present unfortunate state (it was the second year of the Civil War); but he promises a settlement in 1660) by which time all would be well again. 1660 was time year of the Restoration, which caused Lilly (as a supporter of the Commonwealth) some anxiety - but I suppose in a sense he was right.
Hieroglyph form Lilly's almanac, 1652, which predicted the Great Fire of London
Gadbury was keen to prove experimentally that astrology worked but met the same opposition that we meet today - scientists and some astrologers claimed that there could be no dependable way of proving or even identifying planetary influences. Others were sure proof was possible, for astrology worked in a practical sense, by exerting a very real influence. One astrologer thought that the stars operate by invisible wires; some, unknown magnetisms, or by balsamic atoms emitted from the stars, as well as corroding ones. Gadbury's almanacs contained experiments, detailed interpretations of horary problems; and special attention in showing that astrological weather forecasting could be highly accurate. One even published a table showing what weather would follow each New Moon for the next 30 years. If astrology couldn't stand up to scientific examination, Gadbury believed, it was nothing.
Astrological weather forecasting has a very considerable history. The most famous, and most amusing, of all the weather forecasting almanacs is that written by Leonard Dygges and published in London in 1555 by Thomas Gemini, who chiefly published agricultural books. Dygges Prognostication contained "plain, brief pleasant chosen rules to judge the weather for ever by the Sun, Moon, stars, comets, rainbows, thunder, clouds, with other extraordinary tokens, not omitting the aspects of the planets, with a brief judgement for ever of plenty, lack, sickness, death, wars, et cetera".
Strangely, the popular almanacs - or at least some of them - did their best to dampen down any feeling that astrology was invariably accurate and not to be questioned. At the end of his life Gadbury wrote that although he could not bid goodnight to astrology, he no longer felt able to advance many of the theories that he had formerly put forward. And as time went on more and more people advanced in the almanacs their ideas of how astrology actually worked. In the 18th century, Robert Boyle suggested that each planet emitted a different kind of light, which affected the air and which in turn through some peculiar tincture, virtue or power, influenced the spirits or subtler parts of all bodies.
It's perhaps worth pausing for a moment to look at the practical success of the almanac as a publishing venture. In the 17th century the sale of most books was restricted by the Stationers' Company (which had control of publishing) to around 1500 copies. But almanacs, Like prayer-books, grammars, and catechisms, were exempt from this restriction, and Lilly's Merlinus Anglicus of 1646 sold 13,500 copies; the following year 17,000; in 1648 18,500 copies, and by 1649 he could count on a sale of somewhere near 30,000 copies. This, it should he remembered, in an age when by no means everyone could read. Most almanacs sold for twopence each, the larger ones for sixpence - two and a half pence in today's money, but of course worth a very great deal more. It's always difficult to be anywhere near exact in comparing the value of money 300 years ago with that today, but in 1652 Lilly was able to buy Hurst Wood, a large house at Hersham, near Walton-on-Thames, for the equivalent of perhaps £150,000 in today's money, and in the l660s was probably making in our terms about £30,000 a year: he charged half a crown for a consultation, perhaps the equivalent of £8 or so today, and gave about 2000 consultations a year - so that accounts for perhaps £16,000; the rest would have come from his almanacs.
Unfortunately, the ridiculous side of almanac-writing let serious astrologers in for a good deal of satire. They presented the satirists with pretty easy targets, after all; and there was never a shortage of writers ready to give firm predictions such as "the very aged may shortly die", "the very poor will go hungy", or "a great person is likely to die somewhere in Europe, America, Africa or Asia".
Some editions of Poor Robin were purposely absurd, as Private Eye might produce a cod edition of the Astrological Journal.
There is one in which the Saints' Days gave way to Sinners' Days, so we have the feast day of Old Mother Shipton, of Jack Pudding, Gargantua and the Queen of Spades, and are told that, on May Day, the grass being slippery, we shall have many ladies in Hyde Park turned topsy turvy, that the Sun shall shine bright all this month if no clouds appear, and a blind man shall see as well at midnight as at noonday. Even the serious astronomical pages were parodied, one Jack Adams stating that there were 13,060,519 stars in the sky, not one more nor less, and another mock almanac showed the latest astronomical instrument - a stick protruding from the back side of a bending peasant, with instructions how to calculate the time from the shadow cast.
A parody of saint's days. Part of the text reads: "Some few sentinels stand at the Guards blowing their nails, which is the greatest thing of Action we can expect from the Souldiery this month".
The great age of the serious almanac was probably around the 1840s. Francis Moore, the original 'Old Moore', published his Vox Stellarum, and had an enormous success. In 1768 it sold 107,000 copies; 1789, 365,000; 1839, 560,000 - in an age of relative illiteracy! Moore made a fortune: well over £600 a year, when others might make £7 or £8 a year.
Well, it is a remarkable almanac: it has very full accounts of the latest astronomical information, explanations of eclipses and comets, including the transit of Mercury in 1799 which caused a great deal of discussion. It was the first popular magazine to contain the news of the discovery of Uranus; it gave astrological weather forecasts, and was generally very much ahead of its time. At its centre was Moore's astrological judgement, which reviewed the events of the coming year. His opinions were very radical for his time - for instance when the American War of Independence ended, he proposed that despite the fact that it had been fought against England, it paved the way for freedom, and before long other enslaved people would "with a noble and manly daring assert their liberties, and break off the shackles which had so long oppressed them". He welcomed the French Revolution as "a display of the glorious and happy spirit & liberty, the prevalence of reason, of truth and of knowledge in France, which must illuminate all around".
It's difficult for us now to credit just how popular Old Moore's was in its great days: on publication day life simply stopped until everyone had read it. One contemporary wrote that the day of its publication is an epoch in the history of the year: "With what eagerness are its political prognostications devoured! Even the weather, the alpha and omega of the countryman, on this occasion is a secondary consideration". It was read by all sorts of people, especially countryfolk, as we can imagine from John Clare's poem of a farmer sitting in a tavern reading:
Old Moore's annual prophesies
Of flooded fields and clouded skies:
Whose Almanacs thumb'd pages swarm
With frost and snow, and many a storm,
And wisdom, gossip'd from the stars.
Of politics and bloody wars
He shakes his head, and still proceeds,
Nor doubts the truth of what he reads
Although this article has concentrated on English almanacs, in Europe they were just as popular; and we might remember that the earliest book yet known to have been printed in America, in 1639, was an almanac. One historian asserted that, except for the Bible, no book was held in greater esteem or more widely read in the colonies in the 18th century than the almanacs. Another historian, Moses Coit Tyler, wrote in 1881: "No one who would penetrate to the core of early American literature ... may by any means turn away in lofty literary scorn from the almanac - most despised, most prolific, most indispensable of books, which every man uses, and no man praises; the very quack, clown, pack-horse and pariah of modern literature; the supreme and only literary necessity even in households where the Bible and newspaper are still undesired and unattainable luxuries."
In Europe, almanacs continued to be read long after scientists had dismissed astrology as rubbish. The novels of Hardy show how widely they were still read at the end of the last century; but by then they had become much cruder, and on the whole the great days of the almanac were over.
Almanacs continued to be published, of course, and through the Victorian age were extremely popular but though retaining the sillier aspects of early almanacs, they don't have any of the serious input. The only earnest use of almanacs in our own time has been their use for propaganda during the war, when not only were some forged and dropped over Germany, but in England (according to the Mass Observation archive) astrologers were quietly instructed to emphasise inevitable victory for the Allies, and to play down any discouraging or pessimistic indications.
Today, the almanac's place has been taken by such magazines as Horoscope, which while not entirely flippant, again lack the seriousness of the best historical almanacs. It's difficult to suggest that they will recapture that seriousness, at least in our time.
began his career as a journalist. Within the staff of TWW, an independent television station in Cardiff, Wales, he worked as announcer, newscaster, scriptwriter, presenter and interviewer. Derek and his wife Julia are amongst the most well known and prolific writers in astrology. In 1971 they jointly authored The Compleat Astrologer
, a world-wide best-seller which has remained in print for over a quarter of a century. Since then they have published over 40 books between them on a number of subjects, including fiction, travel, mythology, magic and dream interpretation. They have lectured all over the world and frequently appear on British, American and Australian television and radio. Full details of their books are available on their website: http://www.parkeriters.com
© Derek Parker. Published online December 2004. This article appeared in the The Traditional Astrologer Magazine
, issues 10 and 11.