Voice of the stars : almanacs from the collections of the University of Reading exhibition

Almanac by John TrueThis exhibition, curated in partnership with the Department of History at the University of Reading, brings together examples of almanacs from various University collections, and examines the use and production of these fascinating publications.

The display forms part of Almanacs, Astrology and the Origins of Weather Forecasting, an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme (UROP) project, undertaken by Aoife Lintin and Dr Anne Lawrence.

The first purpose of this project is to study almanacs held in the Department of History, the University’s Special Collections, and the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication in order to compile a comprehensive handlist for use by researchers for further study.

Many of the almanacs have not been catalogued or studied before. The almanacs held in the University Special Collections cover a particularly broad range dating from the mid-sixteenth century to the late nineteenth century. The research focuses on the nature of the weather forecasts found, and the role of astrology in producing them.

Almanacs, which were produced annually, were amongst other things the forerunners of the modern pocket diary. They contained all sorts of useful information, including an accurate calendar for the coming year and lists of important dates and individuals like the Kings and Queens of England. They also made ‘prognostications’ for the weather and events of both political and national importance. They were as important to the ordinary individual in the past as the calendar is to us today. Almanacs are still sold today, though their status has changed.

Almanacs were essential tools for farmers. As well as providing weather forecasts for the coming year, they were also a source of advice on the best planting and harvesting times over the course of the farming year, and as such, present an interesting overview of the farming cycle. Almanacs were also a source of farming advice based on the phases of the moon for the best farming outcome. They provided essential information like the dates for the full moon, and the rising and setting times for the sun so that daylight hours could be used for work and moonlight could be used for night-time activities, such as travel. The blank pages of almanacs were useful for farmers to use for notes, and for use as planting diaries, as can be seen from the example on display in this exhibition case.

The compilers of almanacs were scientific people who believed that as ‘the moon affects the tides then the planets must have an effect on the weather’. They used astrological tables and astrolabes to calculate the movements and inter-relationships of the planets, for the whole of the coming year. Their weather forecasts were astrological forecasts. Almanacs were enormously popular and made their authors rich and influential.

The project research established that weather forecasts using astrology were published in England as soon as printing was introduced and long before the establishment of the Met Office in 1831.

A copy of the handlist is available to consult in the Special Collections reference book collection.

Please note that for security and practical reasons, a number of the exhibits have had to be displayed in reproduction. If you wish to view the original items, please ask a member of staff in the Special Collections Service reading room.

The exhibition was on display at the Special Collections Service from 30 March until 15 May 2015, and will be on display again at the University Library from 8 December until 24 January 2016.

List of exhibitsLeaf from Buckminster almanac

Early almanacs from the University of Reading collections

  • [A fragment of an almanac]. London : Printed … by John Herforde …, [1540?]. University of Reading holds two leaves only. JOHN LEWIS PRINTING COLLECTION UNIVERSITY OF READING MS 5317 Box 7:2

This is the oldest almanac fragment in the University of Reading collections, and states the distances between towns in Berkshire, perhaps for fairs. There is no date, but the printer John Herford is known to have been active in Aldersgate Street in London in the 1540s.

  • [A fragment of An almanack and prognostication, by Thomas Buckminster]. Imprinted in London : by Richarde Watkins and Iames Robertes, 1590. University of Reading copy contains July to December of the Prognostication only, including colophon, signatures C2 to C4. RESERVE--528.2-BUC [see image right]

This is the oldest weather forecasting fragment in the University’s collections, and the only known fragment of this almanac to survive. It proves that weather forecasts using astrology were printed in England, long before the Met Office was established in 1831. The printers Richard Watkins and James Roberts formed the Company of Stationers who were granted the monopoly to print almanacs by Queen Mary Tudor in 1557.

  • Mercurius Cœlicus, sive Almanack et prognosticon vel speculum anni a nat. J. C. 1646 ... by John Booker. London : Printed by F. K. for the Company of Stationers, [1646]. University of Reading holds four leaves only. JOHN LEWIS PRINTING COLLECTION UNIVERSITY OF READING MS 5317 Box 7:2
  • Ephemeris, or, A diary astronomical, astrological, meteorological, for the year of our Lord, 1693 … by John Gadbury … London : Printed by J.R. for the Company of Stationers, 1693. This volume also contains other editions of Gadbury’s almanac for the years 1690-1699. RESERVE--528.2-GAD
  • [A fragment of The husband-man's almanack, or A new prognostication for the year of our Lord 1704 … by John True … ]. Edinburgh : Printed by John Reid … , 1704. University of Reading holds single title-page leaf only. JOHN LEWIS PRINTING COLLECTION UNIVERSITY OF READING MS 5317 Box 7:2 [see image at top of page]
  • The English apollo: or, useful companion, ... applied to this present year 1751. ... By Richard Saunders, ... London : Printed by A. Wilde, for the Company of Stationers, 1751. HISTORY DEPARTMENT COLLECTION
  • [Portrait of the printer John Day, frontispiece to Foxe's Book of Martyrs, 1564 (woodcut)].
  • [Colophon of John Day, with engraved printer’s device, from a book printed by Day in 1564]. Both John Day items from JOHN LEWIS PRINTING COLLECTION UNIVERSITY OF READING MS 5317 Box 1:1

John Day (1522-1584) was a printer who was Master of the Company of Stationers from 1580 until 1584. The Company of Stationers maintained the monopoly for printing almanacs granted to them by Queen Mary Tudor in 1557, and continued to enforce the monopoly until the nineteenth century.

This was both an extremely lucrative monopoly, due to the volume of almanac sales, and an important method of Government censorship. The Company of Stationers proofread all almanacs, and removed all political prophecies deemed to be against the interests of the state. Prophecies from astrology were a key element of almanacs, and were deliberately vague in order to keep on the right side of the law.

Medicine and the almanac

Medieval physicians were required by law to check the position of the stars before undertaking any medical procedures. In order to do this, they consulted almanacs for the astrological information and the ‘zodiac man’ to see how to apply the astrology to thZodiac man diagram from The Cambridge Almanace human body. If the moon is in the astrological sign linked to the part of the body needing medical treatment as assigned by the ‘zodiac man’, then it is dangerous to let blood until the moon has passed, for example, if the patient has a headache and the moon is in Aries.

It was believed that the worst time for medical treatment was when the Dog Star was in the sky, usually from July to September. However, this could be mediated by the position of other planets in the sky. Ordinary people also needed to know this information so that they could attempt to treat themselves, before resorting to seeing a doctor which would have been expensive.

  • The Cambridge almanack : an almanack for the year of our Lord God 1773 … by M.F. London : Printed … by W. Bowyer and J. Nichols, for the Company of Stationers, 1773. [See image above - a detail of the 'zodiac man']  
  • An almanacke for the yeere of our Lord God 1615, made and written by Jeffery Neue. London : Imprinted … for the Company of the Stationers, 1615. JOHN LEWIS PRINTING COLLECTION UNIVERSITY OF READING MS 5317 Box 7:2

This almanac features the traditional mnemonic rhyme ‘Thirty days hath September’, used to remember the lengths of the months in the Julian and Gregorian calendars.

  • Facsimile page from Ephemeris, or, A diary astronomical, astrological, meteorological, for … 1691 … by John Gadbury … London : Printed by J.R. for the Company of Stationers, 1691.

This page from Gadbury’s almanac for 1691 shows the ‘zodiac man’, indicating the times of the year at which it was believed to be dangerous to practice bloodletting on different parts of the body.

4. Page of advertisements, including an advertisement for a treatment for breast cancer, from Ephemeris, or, A diary astronomical, astrological, meteorological, for the year of our Lord, 1694 … by John Gadbury … London : Printed by J.R. for the Company of Stationers, 1691. RESERVE--528.2-GAD

Almanacs and weather forecasting

  • Leonard Dygges: A prognostication of right good effect … to iudge the wether for ever. [Imprynted at London, within the blacke Fryars, by Thomas Gemini]. This facsimile was published by Old Ashmolean Reprints, Oxford, 1926. HISTORY DEPARTMENT COLLECTION

The diagram displayed shows the astrological ‘houses’ in order, with their symbols, and those houses in significant positions (‘aspects’) in relation to each. The text on p[15] explains the interpretation of the planets’ positions for any day in terms of the weather to be expected.

  • Francis Moore [pseudonym]: Vox Stellarum: or a loyal almanack for ... 1804 [London: Printed for the Company of Stationers by Luke Hansard, Lincoln’s-Inn Fields, 1803] HISTORY DEPARTMENT COLLECTION

This best-selling almanac was the predecessor of the Old Moore almanacs still produced annually. April 1804 is displayed, with information for each day set out under 12 columns. The eighth column shows weather predictions. From 6th to 8th April Saturn and Venus are in trine, an aspect suggesting ‘fair and more pleasant weather’. Planets in conjunction with the Moon are listed on p. 9.

  • John Partridge [pseudonym]: Merlinus Liberatus : being an almanack for ... 1801 [London: Printed for the Company of Stationers by William Thorne, Fleet Street, 1800]. HISTORY DEPARTMENT COLLECTION

This more technical almanac sets out its detailed astrological information in 16 main columns. The Moon’s phases for April are in the box on p. 15, with its rising and setting times in col.15 below. Daily positions for Sun, Moon, Mars, Venus and Mercury are in cols.4-8, and lunar aspects in 11. Col. 9 has ‘Aspects and Weather’, and a solar eclipse on 13th April presages storms on the 14th-17th.

  • J.G. Cotta (Ed.): Almanach des dames pour l’an XIII (1805). [Paris: Printed by C.F. Cramer, 1804]. HISTORY DEPARTMENT COLLECTION

This French almanac shows that demand survived the Revolution, but that a plainer format, using the new calendar, was required. The new month of Germinal is set out in relation to the old Mars and Avril, with Sundays and Easter in col.1. Saints’ Days are in col.2 and phases of the Moon in col.3; but astrological information and weather forecasting is replaced by a religious print.

  • Francis Moore [pseudonym]: Vox Stellarum; or, a loyal almanack for ... 1824. [London; printed for the Company of Stationers by Luke Hansard, Lincoln’s-Inn Fields, 1823]. HISTORY DEPARTMENT COLLECTION

This edition follows the Old Moore format, with a short poem at the top of p. 8 and planets ‘conjoint’ with the Moon at the top of p. 9. Planetary aspects and resulting weather are in col.8, with the tense ‘square’ of Venus and Jupiter on 21st April meaning that fair weather soon turns to storms. Reports on weather in previous years are in italics in col.13, for comparison with previous forecasts.

  • Francis Moore [pseudonym]: Vox Stellarum: or, a loyal almanack for ... 1848. [London; printed for the Company of Stationers by J & H Cox, Lincoln’s-Inn Fields, 1847]. HISTORY DEPARTMENT COLLECTION

Again in standard format, but showing advances in printing, this opening for April still shows planets in conjunction with the Moon at top right. The ‘Mutual Aspects and Weather’ are dominated by ‘squares’ between positive planets, giving good, but rapidly-changing conditions. The ‘new’ planet, Uranus, appears on 7th and 29th April, added into the system, while weather reports are featured on p. 9.

  • Sarah Jinner (‘Student in Astrology’): An almanack and prognostication for ... 1659. [London: printed by J. S. for the Company of Stationers]. HISTORY DEPARTMENT COLLECTION

This almanac is one in a volume of facsimiles of almanacs issued by women compilers, 1641-1700. The original is in the Huntington Library. Here April is fitted onto one page, with the zodiac positions for the Sun in col.4 and the Moon in col.5. Aspects and weather are in col.6, on the right. Here the square of Jupiter and the Sun on 14th brings winds and rain. 

Almanacs in the seventeenth century

The golden age of the English almanac was from 1640 to 1700. This was a time of great upheaval in the history of the British Isles, and was the time of events such as the Civil War, the execution of Charles I and the restoration of the monarchy.

The almanac, containing mundane information such as the calendar and weather forecasts, would have had a calming and grounding effect on those who bought it, and the promise of normality. The great almanac compilers of the time included Francis Moore (Old Moore), John Partridge and John Gadbury.

Almanacs for ladies and gentlemen

  • The ladies’ diary: or, Woman’s almanack, for the year … 1807 … designed for the use and diversion of the fair sex … London : Printed for the Company of Stationers, by J. Adlard … and sold by G. Greenhill …, [1807]. RESERVE--529.5-ALB
  • Facsimile copy of title-page of The gentleman’s diary, or, The mathematical repository: an almanack for the year … 1807 … London : Printed for the Company of Stationers, by Nichols and Son … and sold by George Greenhill … , 1807. RESERVE--529.5-ALB
  • Goldsmith. An almanack for the year … M.DCC.XCV ... Calculated by John Goldsmith. London : Printed for the Company of Stationers; and sold by Robert Horsfield, [1795]. PRINTING COLLECTION—305.9-GOL
  • London almanack … 1809. London : Printed for the Company of Stationers, [1809]. RESERVE—052
  • Facsimile reproduction of The womans almanack for the year … 1688 …by Mary Holden in The early modern Englishwoman : a facsimile library of essential works. Series II. Printed writings, 1641-1700: Part 1, Volume 6, Almanacs. (Ashgate, 2002). HISTORY DEPARTMENT COLLECTION
  • Riders (1725) British Merlin ... made and compiled for his country's benefit by Chardanus Riders. London : Printed by E. and R. Nutt for the Company of Stationers. RESERVE--305.9
  • Two almanacs for 1883 and 1889 by Kate Greenaway (London : George Routledge and Sons). CHILDREN'S COLLECTION--052-GRE
  • Pawsey's ladies fashionable repository (1865) London : Suttaby & Co and Peacock & Mansfield … , 1865. RESERVE--305.9 10.
  • Facsimile reproduction of An almanack and prognostication for the year … 1659 … by Sarah Jinner in The early modern Englishwoman : a facsimile library of essential works. Series II. Printed writings, 1641-1700: Part 1, Volume 6, Almanacs. (Ashgate, 2002). HISTORY DEPARTMENT COLLECTION

Almanacs and the calendar

  • A copy of Vox stellarum: or, A loyal almanack … 1741 … by Francis Moore containing handwritten notes on farm operations. MERL D83/5/1

This almanac for 1741 by Francis Moore, or ‘Old Moore,’ has blank pages for the user to write notes. These notes were the fore-runner of the modern diary. These pages were known as ‘blanks’, and are the origin of the phrase; ‘Life is a blank page.’Calendar page from a book of hours 

  • Facsimile copy of the calendar page for the month of August from a Book of Hours Horae. For Paris use, c. 1420. University of Reading MS 2087. [see image right]

The earliest calendar page in the University’s collections is in this Book of Hours. This is a fifteenth century French prayer book, and the calendar page was for a perpetual calendar where dates were worked out by the reader using the ‘golden number.’

  • Facsimile copy of an astronomical diagram of the planets, showing the time it takes for each planet to orbit the sun, from Ephemeris, or, A diary astronomical, astrological, meteorological, for the year of our Lord, 1695 … by John Gadbury … London : Printed by J.R. for the Company of Stationers, 1695. RESERVE--528.2-GAD

The movements of the planets and stars were used by ancient man to calculate time and the calendar.

An essential part of the traditional almanac was an accurate calendar for the coming year. After the Reformation English almanacs reflected Protestant England with Catholic feasts omitted and the list of saints days greatly reduced.

  • Calendar showing saints and sinners days in Poor Robin. 1759: an almanack … written by Poor Robin … London : Printed for the Company of Stationers, [1759].
  • Poor Robin. 1762: an almanack … written by Poor Robin … London : Printed for the Company of Stationers, [1762]. Both copies from HISTORY DEPARTMENT COLLECTION

The ‘Poor Robin’ comic almanac shows a ‘saints’ and ‘sinners’ calendar page, and mocks the Catholic calendar with its extensive listing of saints days. The list of ‘sinners’ includes ‘Jane Shore’, mistress of Edward IV and Sancho Poncho of ‘Don Quixote’ fame.

  • Facsimile copy of calendar for September 1693 showing both the English and Roman calendar (and also questioning the date of the Virgin’s birthday as 8th September) from Ephemeris, or, A diary astronomical, astrological, meteorological, for the year of our Lord, 1693 … by John Gadbury … London : Printed by J.R. for the Company of Stationers, 1693. RESERVE--528.2-GAD

This calendar page shows both the English and Roman calendar which differed by ten days. England maintained the inaccurate Julian calendar and not the Roman approved Gregorian calendar for religious reasons. The ‘Blessed Virgin’s’ birthday on 8th September was removed in favour of the birthday of Elizabeth l on 9th September but has been returned in this edition for 1693.

  • A selection of Old Moore almanacs, including a recent edition published in 2014 and a facsimile copy of a printed sheet for the 1845 edition, together with a selection of Merlinus Liberatus almanacs by John Partridge. HISTORY DEPARTMENT COLLECTION. Printed sheet for Old Moore from JOHN LEWIS PRINTING COLLECTION UNIVERSITY OF READING MS 5317 Box 7:2
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