The Almanac and the Cosmos: the First Self-Help Guide?


The meaning of the word ‘almanac’ or ‘almanach’ is uncertain. It has most commonly been attributed to Spanish Arabic because of the prefix ‘al-‘ and its relation to astronomy and medieval science, but according to John Ayto, there is not enough convincing evidence for this.

The Roots of the Almanac

According to Ben Schott on BBC Radio 4 documentary “Almanac: the Oldest Guides to Everything,” the almanac has its roots in Babylonian astronomy. In this form, the movements of the sun, the moon and the planets were recorded in order to make future political and economic predictions based on pre-existing patterns. The ‘modern’ almanac that rose in popularity in Medieval Britain started to become prolific from the beginning of the 14th Century, when Robert Bacon produced his in 1300. One hundred and fifty years later, the development of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg meant that this esoteric literary form was to grow even more popular, and Gutenberg wasted no time in spotting the sales potential.

What Did the Almanac Contain?

According to Schott, its content was a combination of “practical and moral” material. Close attention was paid to the relation between events and the dates on which they occurred, because medieval scientists believed that what has been observed in the past can be used to predict the future. The phases of the moon were studied for their effect on politics, and the sun was studied for its effect on crops and agriculture. The almanac was the most popular public outlet for the recording and publication of these dates.

The almanac also contained information on tides, information that was crucial to the maritime industries of Britain in the Middle Ages. What is perhaps more unexpected is the advice it dispensed regarding courting and marriage, based again on the patterns of the sun, the moon and the planets. We are reminded by this that ordinary people in the Middle Ages made life decisions based on belief and knowledge, which were closely allied with the unseen elements of the macrocosm – the moon, the stars, comets, the sun, rainbows.

Nick Greene describes how Leonard Digges, the inventor of the telescope, composed his own series of almanacs. These were known as “Prognostication Books,” in which he recorded data for “astronomy and astrology, calendars of church events and moon motions for several years, information on timekeeping and weather phenomena and even instructions for bloodletting.”

Schott describes in “Almanac: the Oldest Guides to Everything” how the front cover of the Almanac tended to be illustrated with the starsigns of the Zodiac. Again, this points to the medieval belief in the positioning of humankind in relation to the universe, and the hope of good fortune. Blank leaves were dispersed within its pages, for the reader to fill in their own personal diary and cross-reference it with the printed data that the almanac contained.

The Demise of the Almanac

The almanac’s popularity expired for a number of reasons. The role of organized religion in pre-Enlightenment Britain and Europe gained a stronger foothold, and strangled the belief in cosmic events as the decider of humankind’s fate. Where people had once believed in the stars, moon and planets as the ordering by which their own lives were orchestrated, the onset of plague coincided with the increasing influence of Christianity, and public belief in the macrocosmic forces was replaced by belief in a displeased God.

Move a little further along again in time, and modern scientific thinking sparked the great Enlightenment debate between science and religion. Verifiable evidence became the basis for acceptable knowledge, and the rise of the newspaper coincided with the demise of the almanac. According to Dr. Adam Smyth on BBC Radio 4, it had become degraded with false, sensational advertising, such as lozenges which claimed to cure the plague and all other kinds of disease.

By the second half of the 17th Century, according to Schott, the almanac was a “struggling form” that had lost its credibility. It became associated with “buffoonish” characters who lacked the apparent intellectual sophistication of modern science and knowledge.

The almanac had once been a literary form that rivaled the Bible. For centuries it earned its popularity in the way it married the esoteric with the everyday lives of ordinary people. After its popularity expired, according to Schott, old copies of the almanac were consumed as lining paper for pies … and as toilet paper.