Friday, December 30, 2022

English Almanacs

Once printing became a recognised trade in England it was of course monopolised by the state and censored by the church. But the monopoly was farmed out to the Stationers’ Company who were, though jealous, also corrupt, and it could therefore be subverted: while the censorship work was tiresome and so was delegated to a fairly lowly functionary, who often did it without enthusiasm. The opportunities for profit inbetween the cracks were therefore sufficient, and numerous authors and printers took advantage of them.

The most popular printed items outside devotional works were almanacs. They sold in their thousands. The wise almanac-makers gave their products an air of piety by including saints’ days and church festivals in their calendars, and an air of utility by offering practical hints on agriculture and medicine. But what their readers most wanted was their prognostications. It was the astrology that sold. Further, the stormier this was the better.

Nobody seemed to care very much whether the cryptically-couched forecasts came true or not: what mattered was that they were vivid and vigorous reading. Mysterious wording was an advantage to the drafter, as it left room to manoeuvre: but it was also relished by the reader who could see in it what they wanted, as in an obsidian mirror. Almanacs appealed to the perennial lust for wonder and weirdness in the world. They were the fantastic literature of the day.

As Bernard Capp describes, in his engrossing study Astrology and the Popular Press: English Almanacs 1500-1800 (1979), from the early 17th century onwards, almanacs poured from the press. There were occasional skirmishes: some of the more incautious or belligerent prophets and printers got themselves into trouble; sometimes the Stationers or the Archbishop’s Chaplain would stir. But among cobblers and hatters, and pedlars and signwriters, and blacksmiths and wheelwrights, prevalent among the artisans and the independent trades, there was a strong appetite for this sort of literature and it had to be appeased.

This literature was by its very nature subversive. It provided an alternative form of knowledge and speculation to the church. The person who was obliged to sit in a pew on Sundays and listen to scripture readings and sermons could in their own home or workshop or at the inn peruse an entirely different way of looking at and interpreting the world.

It was one in which the stars had influence on earthly affairs, comets and meteors portended great things, dragons could be seen in clouds, prodigies might at any moment appear, rulers (usually, though not invariably, abroad) might be overthrown, and there were rumours about the Sultan of Baghdad, the Czar of Muscovy and the Emperor of Cathay. It would be too much to call astrology and prophecy a rival religion, but it was certainly a rival spirit.

And it was hard to contain. The church could hardly condemn astrology outright without implicating the Magi of the nativity story, who had become popular saints, with their shrine at Cologne a fervent focus for pilgrimage. It had to content itself with a fitful petulance about its privileges which the cannier astrologer and printer could easily avoid disturbing.

The upsurge in this sort of prognostickatory and apocalyptic literature grew even higher in the Civil War period. The War itself prompted many more effusions, both political and religious. But it also meant that both the monopoly and the censorship were ragged. They could not be enforced where the King’s writ and the church’s influence no longer ran.

It is true an alternative authority issuing from the puritan divines and military commanders of the Roundheads might sometimes exert itself, but they were busy with the war. Further, this side was itself an uneasy alliance of several different persuasions, and could not afford yet to separate the sheep from the goats: that could come later. Thus, from about 1640 to 1650 there is a marvellous eruption of eccentric publications from all sorts of prophets and visionaries.

Once unleashed, the almanac and the prophetic work could not easily be suppressed, and they continued to be produced in numbers after the Restoration and beyond. The first dedicated scholar of the subject, the splendidly-named Ernest Fulcrand Bosanquet, wrote in 1917: ‘For three and a half centuries the Almanack has been the most popular book in the English language; and together with the Bible has been the basis of practically every household library in this country; in fact in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries these two books were probably the entire library of many families.’

The work of visionary writers such as Christopher Smart and William Blake may be better appreciated when understood within the context of this world of both the Bible and the Almanac. The symbolism of astrology, as perpetuated by the almanacs, infuses Yeats’ poetry (and practice), and also the work of other modernists such as T S Eliot, Edith Sitwell and Joseph Macleod.

By the time of the mid-19th century the number of different almanacs had become concentrated into a few highly popular ones (Old Moore’s, Zadkiel’s, Raphael’s), some locally printed ones, and a few occasional interlopers. The trade name of the major almanacs became a valuable incorporeal property and was passed on from one astrologer to another in a sort of sidereal apostolic succession.

Despite this, almanacs have received very little attention. They feature in accounts of the Civil War and of the various sects that arose from this, and sometimes are noticed in discussions of later prophetic movements, but they are rarely studied as literature in their own right. Acres of academic exposition have been devoted to the Gothic novel, which was the preserve mostly of a coterie of the wealthy, but barely anything upon the popular Gothic of the almanac (or, for that matter, the chapbook, broadsheet and ballad). It is as if only the bored rich matter.

The world of the almanac offered to the common reader a different dimension to their everyday lives. It was an alternative to the church’s solemnities. It depicted volatility, strangeness, magic, upheaval. It proclaimed that kings could fall and priests be confounded under the wheeling of the stars.


Eustace Fulcrand Bosanquet. English Printed Almanacks and Prognostications. A bibliographical history to the year 1600. London, 1917.

Bernard Capp. Astrology and the Popular Press: English Almanacs 1500-1800. Faber, 1979.

Deborah M. Valenze. ‘Prophecy and Popular Literature in Eighteenth-Century England’, The Journal of Ecclesiastical History Volume 29 Issue 1, January 1978, pp. 75-92

(Mark Valentine)

1 comment:

  1. "This literature was by its very nature subversive. It provided an alternative form of knowledge and speculation to the church. The person who was obliged to sit in a pew on Sundays and listen to scripture readings and sermons could in their own home or workshop or at the inn peruse an entirely different way of looking at and interpreting the world."

    This is probably an overstatement, particularly "an entirely different way of look at and interpreting the world." It wasn't "entirely different" because almanac readers among the common folk would generally have understood the influence of the stars as under Providence; at least, I would need evidence to support the idea that they conceived the stars as "gods" directing the course of human events in a universe they had created, or that these readers thought they had an "alternative" to church teaching in the almanacs. Nor, surely, was astrology a "subversive" underground thing since the court astrologer was a familiar public figure serving royalty without scandalizing the clergy. In other words, astrology coexisted with natural science and the truths of revelation celebrated by the church. As knowledge increased, it was found wanting as various inaccurate physiological concepts were; manifestly, astrological predictions about weather, harvests, etc. were undependable. I imagine that those are largely what the farmers wanted to know about. My understanding is that, in so far as astrology -was- opposed by ecclesiastical figures, this was because astrology tended to determinism, minimizing the individual's personal responsibility for his acts. On this topic, see passages in a couple of C. S. Lewis's books, English Literature in the 16th Century Excluding Drama and The Discarded Image. There may have been astrologers who denied Christianity, but my guess is that these were a few "clerks" who were inclined atheistically on other grounds and who held to some revisionist notion of astrology as an explanation for why things happen as they do given the rejection of divine Providence. However, while I have asked my university library to buy a copy, I haven't read Capp's book, and maybe he adduces information that would cause me to modify my understanding.