Sunday, 14 April 2013

The Earliest Examples of the Astronomical Almanacs

                Almanac. Or Almanack. Or even Almanach. It doesn’t matter how you spell it, we don’t know for sure where the word comes from. The al bit at the beginning would point to an Arabic etymology – it means the – as in algebra, alcohol or alchemy. The latter part of the word could come from menākh, and al-menākh appears in Pedro de Alcala’s Arabic-Castilian Vocabulista (1505), referring to the climate, with manah (probably intended as the same word) as a word for a sundial, but the word isn’t found elsewhere in Arabic. Walter Skeat, in his Concise Etymological Dictionary (1882), is unequivocal that the word has no connection with Arabic whatsoever. 

Manuscript strip almanac - 1433

The Greek άλμενεχιαχοīςalmenichiaká – was used to refer to the ancient Egyptians’ use of horoscopes, astrology and the powers of their gods to cure diseases but this does seem to equate to our sense of an almanac. Samuel Johnson, in his Dictionary, has the Arabic al and either the Hebrew manah – ‘count, compute’, or the Greek μην – ‘month’, (although he does not say why he thinks the word should be derived from two completely different languages). The first use of the word appears in Latin, in Roger Bacon’s Opus Majus (1267), where he mentions ancient astronomers discussing tables that are called almanacs – 
In expositione tabularum, quae almanac vocantur.” 

Iohannes Regiomontanus - Kalendarium - 1482

A calendar is simply a list of days whereas an almanac has further information about those days - the occurrence of holidays and moveable feasts, astronomical and astrological data and specific information of use to specialist groups, e.g. sailors, farmers, gardeners and so forth. Old prayer books quite often contained calendars in which the fixed saints’ days were recorded, as these were intended to be used over a number of years, whereas an almanac was produced for a specific year, and contained information for that year alone – the conjunction of planets, the dates of eclipses, the positions of the Sun and the Moon, etc. There are no extant examples of the earliest almanacs remaining, but Robert Plot, in his Natural History of Staffordshire (1686) describes the Danish ‘clogg’ almanacs brought to this country by the Vikings, with a representation of a facsimile of one of these. 

Example of a Clogg Almanac

These were square sticks of box, or some other hardwood, about eight or twelve inches in length, with a ring at the upper end, by which they could be hung up. On each of the four sides notches corresponding to days were inscribed, with a larger notch representing Sundays, with three months shown on each of the four sides of each stick. Various dots, marks and symbols represent an aid to calculating the phases of the moon and the cycle of the Sun, and for counting the days throughout the year. Alongside the marks are hieroglyphs representing the Saints’ days, with an attribute of a particular saint used to mark their day – a lover’s knot for Valentine, a harp for David, shoes for Crispin, keys for Peter and so on. The northmen called these runesticks, runestaffs, reinstocks, runici, staves, stocks and clogs, and similar runic carvings were placed on pilgrim staffs, with the pagan symbols replaced by Christian ones from the fourth century onwards. 

Table from Regiomontanus - 1482

The first printed almanacs date from 1447, published in Mainz by Johannes Gutenberg (eight years before his famous Bible of 1455), and from 1472, almanacs were produced by John Muller, under the name Iohannes Regiomontanus, in Nuremberg, Germany, in which he gave the characters of the year and the months, together with tables for calculating eclipses and so on, for thirty years in advance. 

A Shepherds' Kalendar - 1908

A Sheapheard’s Kalander, translated from French, was the first almanac printed in English, in 1497, with verses for each month and extraneous astronomical and astrological information. This information was used in an attempt to predict forthcoming events, and formed a separate section of the almanacs; these were called prognostications

Jaspar Laet - Prognostication for 1524

From the earliest times, all manner of wizards, conjurors, seers, mystics, scryers, astrologers and crystal-gazers have sought to look into the future; an understandable, if somewhat impracticable, undertaking (let’s just take it as a given, for now at least, that time tends be a linear, one-way sort of a thing). For the most part, the prognostications of the prognosticators were not good things - wars, famines, disasters, the death of kings, which were not really unusual occurrences in the late middle ages, and the sorts of things that you’d be lucky to get an even money bet on with any half-decent bookmaker that they’d be happening again in the very near future. 

Wynkyn de Worde - Prognostication for 1498

Even today, you can make quite a comfortable living in the prognostications trade if you have very, very few scruples when it comes to separating the gullible from their savings, and this was just as true, if not truer, in the times when almost everybody believed that their fate was written in the stars. 

Anatomy of the Body Governed by the Constellations

At a basic level, this might only involve selling printed charts of the calculated movements of the assorted rocks and balls of gas in the sky to the hard-of-thinking, although you don’t need to be a prognosticator to recognise that here was a reasonably guaranteed route to a sizeable increase of your disposable income.

Tomorrow – I foresee more almanacs in your chart.

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