Monday, 15 April 2013

The Planetary Predictions of the Prognosticators' Plottings

               Prognostications were viewed with suspicion in England. Prior to the early sixteenth century, those published in the country tended to be translation of foreign prognostications, possibly because of the dim view of prophecy taken by the Church. Pope Innocent VIII issued a Papal Bull Summis Desiderantes Affectibus (Desiring with Supreme Emotion) in 1484, which was instrumental in the Inquisition’s suppression of witchcraft in Europe. In 1542, Henry VIII’s Witchcraft Act defined witchcraft as a felony, punishable by death, and removed the right of Benefit of Clergy, whereby anyone convicted could be spared hanging if they were able to read verses from the Bible. 

George Kingsley - An Ephemeris, or an Astronomical State of the Heavens - 1723

In such an atmosphere, it is not unsurprising that would-be prognosticators cautiously kept their heads below the parapet; the first printed English Almanack and Prognostication, by Andrew Boorde, acknowledged in the preface that prognosticating was against the laws of both God and the realm. Henry’s statute was repealed by his son, Edward VI, in 1547, and another Witchcraft Act, of 1562, issued by Elizabeth I, was much more specific in its definitions of what constituted witchcraft, sorcery and divination. 

Iohannes Regiomontanus - Astronomical Diagram for June 1483

English prognosticators tended to issue quite mild prophecies, often regarding the weather and the diseases that might follow its effects, although they did get a little more voluble when eclipses and comets occurred, whereas their European counterparts were much more imaginative in their forebodings of death and disaster. From around 1540, the separate calendar and prognostication sheets began to be published together, annually, containing information on what weather might be expected, the changes of the moon, eclipses, an astronomical man with figures from the zodiac which ruled its bodily parts, the rules of phlebotomy and so forth. 

Astrological Figure - Rider's Almanack - 1767

The former separate sheets had been intended to be fixed on the walls of homes or merchants offices, but the later booklets were issued to be used as cheap and readily accessible works of reference. When Henry VIII began his reforms of the English church, the former practice of marking the years by the Saints’ Days began to be viewed with suspicion of popery, but the universities and the law, together with other bodies, used a specific Saint’s day (Michaelmas, Hilary, etc) rather than the day of the month, for marking deeds, leases, documents, term-times and so forth; following the Reformation, the lesser Saints’ days were removed, with only the major days noted. 

The Royal Kalendar - April 1765 - (Note only the more important 'Red Letter' days)

Although published together, it was normal practice for the almanac and the prognostication to be separated within the text, with separate title pages (presumably so that the more puritanical patrons could discard the bits that offended their sensibilities), and as they developed, blank diary pages were added, together with information about the principal fairs, highways, the dates of the monarchs and their birthdays, basic medical cures and recipes, and other useful or interesting facts. Although the almanacs were sold for 1d or 1½d, they were sold in such numbers that they rivalled only bibles as the most popular and lucrative works sold by booksellers and patents were jealously guarded. 

Rider's British Merlin - 1767

The Stationers Company required that all published books be entered at Stationers’ Company Register, where the right to sell copies were issued (hence, ‘copyright’), and stiff fines were liable if illegal copies were printed or sold (12d for every unregistered copy sold was not unusual). The Stationer’s Company rigorously protected what they regarded as their sole preserve, and in 1603, they formed the English Stock, funded by shares from the members, which controlled the highly lucrative trade in almanacs. 

Almanac Day at Stationers' Hall

The annual publication of the almanacs (on or about November 22nd), was marked with immense activity at Stationers’ Hall, as porters carried out great bundles of new almanacs to be delivered to booksellers throughout the country. They were perfectly comfortable selling the astrological prognosticators and, from the end of the seventeenth century, satirical works that openly mocked the reliance of the more gullible public on the spurious prophesying. Of the former publications, perhaps the most popular was Old Moore’s Almanack, written by a self-educated astrologer and physician, Francis Moore, which was first issued in 1697. 

Francis Moore - Vox Stellarum - 1831

His first almanac contained predictions about the weather, and Moore went on to write the Vox Stellarum (Voice of the Stars), which developed into his astrological Almanack, with predictions of world events for the coming year, together with more ‘conventional’ information, and continues to be issued today (not to be confused with Old Moore’s Almanac – spelled without a /k/ - which is an Irish publication). 

Poor Robin's Almanac - 1794

The more satirical almanacs began with Poor Robin’s Almanac, in 1664, which contained such useful speculations that in January,  
“… there will be much frost and cold weather in Greenland.” 
Under February, the prediction was, 
We may expect some showers of rain this month, or the next, or the next after that, or else we shall have a very dry spring.”  
Poor Robin’s Almanac continued to be published until 1828, and was a coarse mixture of the blindingly obvious with the down-right indecent, leavened with a health dose of scepticism, although later editions replaced the bawdery with blander home-spun homilies.

Tomorrow – I Prognosticate a more serious series of Almanacks

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