Part of my book project examines drama’s relationship with early modern almanacs. I am also currently editing an edition of primary materials that include almanacs, mock-prognostications, and other vatic texts. Below is a summary of some of my current research:



During the height of revolutionary fervor in Jack Cade’s rebellion, the rebels capture a poor clerk. In William Shakespeare’s King Henry VI, Part Two, the damning evidence against the clerk is a chapbook with rubrication, or certain letters and symbols printed in scarlet ink: “H’as a book in his pocket with red letters in’t” (4.2.83). This text might have been a legal or religious tract, but another important genre in the period often featuring rubrication was the almanac. The clerk in Shakespeare’s play, in other words, suffers because he perhaps owns a text that outlines the movements of the stars and planets while also providing prognostications on forthcoming weather patterns. And yet many, including those in Cade’s cohort, would have valued such “red letter” texts, whose readership extended beyond individuals with university training or formal education. This curious genre trailed only Bibles in the print market of early modern England: small, cheap, and sometimes arcane, almanacs nonetheless served many crucial functions in the lives of individuals throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Discarded each year as ephemera, and used in the binding of other books, igniting the hearth, or in the privy, this number represents only a fraction of the almanacs printed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. According to Cyprian Blagden, between 350,000 to 400,000 copies were printed each year by the end of the seventeenth century.[1] With these numbers, one in three families might have purchased an almanac annually. Beginning in 1550, when the first printed English almanacs began to appear in significant numbers, the total of almanacs printed grew exponentially. Hanging as broadsides in the shops of barber-surgeons or as bound octavos carried in one’s pocket, almanacs were mentioned in contemporary stage plays, mocked in burlesque forms of the genre, and even participated vociferously in Royalist and Parliamentarian debates later in the seventeenth century.

For such an ubiquitous publication, scholars have only recently begun to study almanacs in detail, with a few exceptions by historians of science and book historians earlier in the twentieth century.[2] Nonetheless, perhaps surprisingly to modern readers, this genre was one of the most popular and influential set of discourses in the period, and almanacs merit close scrutiny for their participation in a wide range of early modern discussions. The early modern almanac was a yearly publication outlining astral and planetary movements, the weather, and dietary and medical regimens for the upcoming year. Appearing in the last two months of the year, readers awaited their publication with anticipation, sometimes following a particularly popular author. A wonderfully diverse type of treatise, the early modern English almanac ranged from arcane astrological principles to the most basic, informative outline of the forthcoming year’s climatological changes. Although following general conventions, almanacs differed in their emphases and, as detractors to astrology noted with glee, in their prognostications for the following year, sometimes darkly hinting at disasters while at other times promising healthy crops and propitious days for business and travel.

My annotated edition presents fourteen representative examples of the genre, capturing in part their variation and the growing specialization of these tracts for specific audiences. The texts little resemble our modern versions of the popular almanac, but we can still discover many parallels between the two—the proposed medical regimen, dates for sowing and harvesting, and “lucky” or propitious days for activities such as weaning, teeth-pulling, and, for early modern readers, blood-letting. Likewise, almanac authors monitored the pulse of early modern social upheavals and vices. Replete with social commentary, religious sentiments, and forewarnings of political revolutions, early modern almanacs were, in historian Louise Hill Curth’s estimate, “the first form of English mass media.”[3] Indeed, early modern almanacs are repositories for scholars seeking to understand such diverse topics as medicine, science, gender, religion, politics, and the daily rhythms of early modern life.

The Early Modern Almanac

In their most basic guise, early modern almanacs were annual publications available for a relatively cheap sum. John Securis claimed that his almanac was a New Year’s gift for his readers because the price was only “twoo poore pence, or three pence at the most.”[4] Almanacs charted the movements of the seasons and the heavenly bodies—including the zodiac—, noted weather patterns, and specified the times for upcoming solar and lunar eclipses. They also included a calendar of saints days, a list of market fairs, and a chronology dating significant events from the creation to contemporary moments of importance such as the Gunpowder Plot or the beheading of Charles I. But what makes almanacs from the early modern period so fascinating is the manifold astral and non-astral amount of information also provided. Starting in the mid-sixteenth century, almanacs began to include prognostications, often with a separate title page, following the calendar of lunar cycles and significant holidays. These prognostications were much more diverse in their topics and the particular political or religious outlooks they offered to readers. Authors might, like Sarah Jinner, argue for women’s participation in medical and astrological readings, suggesting other medical texts: “It is better that they [women] should exercise their parts, in that which appertaineth to a vertuous life.”[5] Often almanac authors debate questions of theological partisanship in their prognostications, as in William Winstanley’s explicit claim about his goals in publishing The Protestant Almanac: “It is one design of this Almanack, to observe to my countreymen what are the most knocking Arguments with which the Romanists use to confute Hereticks; they make a flourish with Father, Doctors, Councils; but […], when all is done, Club-law is their best weapon.”[6] Both advocates and detractors to Anabaptists, Quakers, Episcopalians, and the Fifth Monarchists also appeared on the market. Ranging from cautious, ambiguous foresight of the year’s troubles to denunciatory rhetoric of apocalypticism, almanacs were textual pulpits from which authors advanced political and religious agendas based on the movements of the heavenly bodies. 

The specific etymology of “almanac” is uncertain, but the term reached English from Middle French and Latin. During the medieval period, influenced by astrological and prophetic works from antiquity and by Arabic commentators, almanacs circulated in the court and among medical practitioners.[7] One of Gutenberg’s earliest printings was an almanac in 1448. The period also witnessed the use of the “clog almanac,” a stick with calendrical markings that continued to be used throughout the eighteenth century.[8] In England, almanacs with strictly calendrical data, were printed separately from prognostications. Continental sources, however, combined the two genres into a single text in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Throughout the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries almanacs in England derived primarily from these Continental authors, including the famous Laet family.[9] Around the 1550s authors in England began composing vernacular almanacs: Capp lists the works of Henry Low of Salisbury (fl. 1554-74), William Cunningham (c. 1531-86), George Williams (fl. 1558-67), Lewis Vaughan (fl. 1559), Thomas Hill (fl. 1553-75), Alexander Mounslow (fl. 1561-81), and John Securis (fl. 1540-82).[10] Similarly, Anthony Askham, brother to the famous humanist Roger Askham, produced almanacs from 1548-57, which included reasonable if commonplace adages for diet, such as “Eate and drynke temperately, to your age and complexcion.”[11] Most almanac authors, who often advertised their own medical and mathematical expertise on their title pages, echoed Askham’s emphasis on diet and regimen. As we shall see, the medical content of almanacs was highly influential in disseminating physical and dietary knowledge among a wide class of readers and auditors.

            In the seventeenth century, almanac authors and printers cultivated name-recognition, and authors used the almanac to advertise additional astral and medical services. Authors such as Edward Pond, Vincent Wing, and William Lilly became household names. Some authors’ names adorned the cover of almanacs long after they were alive: attribution to John Woodhouse, whose works first appeared in 1610, continued up to 1710, although Woodhouse himself had died in 1655. A popular Cavalier ballad published in 1643 assumed readers would have knowledge of authors such as Thomas Swallow, Jonathan Dove, and William Dade, and borrows readily from the available puns on the names of Pond and Peregrine Rivers: “My sight goes beyond / The depth of a pond / Or rivers in the greatest rain.”[12] The terms for authors of almanacs varied widely. The most common term for a student of the celestial movements was “mathematician,” though other epithets included “astrologer,” “doctor,” “student of physics,” and in one particularly interesting cognomen, “welkin-wizard.” Composing almanacs could be a lucrative venture for publicizing one’s astral services, and several authors gained notoriety. William Lilly’s portrait adorned the cover of his almanacs beginning in 1649, although he had only begun compiling yearly prognostications in 1644.[13]

            Like the science of astrology itself, authors themselves were subject to mockery. Those who poked fun at almanac authors cited their greediness, the unreliability of their predictions, and the derivative nature of each almanac, appearing so ostensibly uniform to lack distinction among editions. The Characters, attributed to Sir Thomas Overbury, anatomize contemporary “quack” professions. Reserving special ire for the almanac-maker, the author claims that such a prognosticator is “a creature compact of figures, characters, and cyphers: out of which he scores the yeere, not so profitably, as doubtfully.”[14] The Characters also lampoon the almanac author’s literary pretensions, mocking the “Inke-borne tearmes” that may merely “serue for an Almanacke.”[15] By the early seventeenth century, almanacs appeared in legion each year. So popular were they that the Stationers Company acquired a royal grant in 1603, which provided them with the right to “ymprint the Bookes of private prayers, prymers, psalters and psalms in English or Latin, & Almanrackes and Prognosticat[i]ons wthin [sic] this Realme.”[16] From this grant, the Company virtually controlled the tenor of yearly almanacs, although these strictures would break down in the later civil wars.

            Most almanacs were in octavo, though broadsides, quartos, and sextodecimo versions entered the market as well. Printed on thin, cheap paper, the physical qualities of the almanac evoked its ephemerality. The almanac proper and the prognostication had separate title pages. Usually beginning with a brief letter to the reader, the almanac itself almost invariably featured the “Zodiac Man” in its first few pages (See Figure X). The Zodiac Man was typically a naked body with the signs of the zodiac surrounding him. Different signs held influence over various parts of the body and lines or the proximity of the sign to the body part (sometimes transposed directly over it) suggested to viewers the time and aspect of specific ailments based on the movement in the heavens. The popularity of the Zodiac Man was cause for complaint and satire. 

The calendar itself was divided by months. Toward the latter end of the sixteenth century, almanacs with spaces for readers to annotate with their own entries appeared. These almanacs, called “blanks,” were distinguished from those without room for notes, which were called “sorts.” As Adam Symth notes from his research on annotations found in extant almanacs, “[they] were diminutive volumes, but they made claims to a kind of totality of scope: as such they represent that Renaissance interest in epitomizing vastness into as small a form as possible.”[17] The Elizabethan divine William Perkins charged almanac authors with deliberately obscurantist language: “for they perceiuing well that their deceits and lies may bee soone espied, haue inuented straunge tearmes to colour them, and to cast a miste before thine eyes that thou mayst not see their naughtie dealing.”[18]

Early Modern Astrological Thinking

Astrological discourse suffused early modern modes of thinking and discourse. Ranging from complex calculations and theories deriving from Aristotle, Manilius, and Ptolemy to more practical adages of the stars’ influences upon landscapes and the moon upon the tides, knowledge of the cosmos was an important facet of sixteenth and seventeenth century worldviews. Almanacs transmitted cosmological theories of the workings of the universe to a wider group of readers. It would be difficult to overestimate the pervasive influence of astrology as a cultural and epistemic component in the lives of not only the courts and universities, but among the urban and rural classes throughout England. This star-struck culture imbibed astral imagery and conceits in the literature, visual arts, and throughout practices such as medicine, geography, and mathematics.

            Early modern almanac authors and readers inherited a rich tradition of charting the movements in the heavens and deducing significance of these cycles on human affairs. An Egyptian papyrus dating from around 1300 BCE notes lucky and unlucky days, and astrological science certainly predates this text.[19]

            Renaissance astrology asked how the stars, planets, and their movements affected the earth and the creatures upon it. It derived from a long and venerable tradition, and although the field certainly had its critics, astrology continued to flourish up until the mid-seventeenth century, when mechanistic philosophy and figures of the Royal Society brought about its disfavor, or at least elision, within academic circles.[20] Nonetheless, astrology was remarkably persistent as a field of knowledge, and individuals to this day continue to rely on predictions of the stars to structure their lives.[21] Importantly, astrology and astronomy were not distinct scientific fields of inquiry, but rather both scientific approaches were mutually engaged in the art of reading the movement of the heavens for meaning.[22] Mathematician and astrologer Leonard Digges, for example, in citing thirteenth-century astrologer Guido Bonatti, ignores the distinction between the two, for Bonatti “sheweth what Astrologie or Astronomie is, and ought not (sayeth he) by any meane […] bee reprehended.”[23] Nonetheless, astronomy and astrology were different practices, at least in theory. In the religiously inflected tract titled The Mystery of Astronomy Made Plain to the Meanest Capacity, the author includes a glossary at the end of the text. Here, astronomy is defined as “a Science teaching the knowledge of the courses and motion of the Planets and Stars; and their distance, greatness, and form.”[24] Astrology, on the other hand, is “a Science teaching the knowledge, vertue, and influence of the Stars.”[25] Put succinctly, astronomy is an exact, mathematical inquiry, whereas astrology requires in each instance an expert’s interpretation. Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos (2nd century A.D.) describes not only the science but the commonsense worldview that served as the foundation of astrological inquiry: “A very few considerations would make it apparent to all that a certain power emanating from the eternal ethereal substance is dispersed through and permeates the whole region about the earth, which throughout is subject to change.”[26]

To study astronomy almost invariably meant that one was also versed in astrology; many of the major figures of the scientific revolution, such as Tycho Brahe, Galileo Galilei, and Johannes Kepler were not only making advances in astronomical calculation and observation, but were also drafting nativities for patrons or speculating on the sublunar effects of planetary aspects. As court astrologers, scholars like Brahe were called upon to draft horoscopes for their princes. John Dee was famously aligned with his monarch Elizabeth, and was requested to draft an electionary horoscope regarding the date “appointed for her Majesty to be crowned in.”[27]  Scholars such as Dee were responding to a tradition of celestial study which hearkened back to Greek philosophers and, notably, the work of Ptolemy. Ptolemy’s two works, the Almagest and the Tetrabiblos, are, respectively, individual treatments of a mutually constitutive scientific endeavor. The Almagest seeks to outlay the mathematical movement of the heavenly planets and the physics of observable planetary phenomenon. The Tetrabiblos, on the other hand, systematized the practice of celestial observation and interpretation, and speaks at length about the influences of the skies upon bodies on earth.[28] Drawing upon Ptolemy, astrology in the medieval and early modern periods had four subdivisions: mundane, natal, horary, and elections. Mundane or world astrology applied to an entire society and concerned predictions with large-scale social, political, and physical impact. In almanacs, mundane astrology makes up the largest portion of the prognostications. Natal prognostications charted the destiny of a single individual, with the accompanying chart of one’s birth and the planetary locations at the moment of birth known as a “nativity.” Horary or interrogations addressed specific questions, such as the arrival of a lost ship at sea or the culprit of stolen goods. Finally, elections determined the most propitious time for an event, such as a coronation or marriage.

Almanacs and the Body: Medical Content

Physicians and medical practitioners in the Renaissance ascribed to the theory of the body as composed of four substances—blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm—that required careful monitoring. Ancient sources by Galen and Hippocrates dominated medical training, which was primarily a textual study of ancient and medieval sources rather than hands-on training. As contemporary wisdom went, and as almanacs themselves advocated, any dominance of a particular humor in the body could lead to illness, mental disturbances such as melancholy, or other bodily problems such as miscarriages and cancers. The body’s health and astrology were closely related in a subfield of astrology known as iatromathematics, or medical astrology. Most medical pratitioners in the period also studied the skies for influences upon patients’ bodies. Although the term itself seems to suggest a convoluted and complex understanding of the body’s relationship to the skies, in reality iatromathematical thought infused the period’s many levels of discourse regarding human susceptibility to environmental change. Significantly, almanacs prescribed the correct times for purging and blood-letting, which was thought to rid the body of noxious humors. Such a practice, however, could also endanger the body if undertaken at the wrong time. Particularly hazardous were the “dog days” in late July and August, when phlebotomy might harm the body’s balance of the four humors. Recognizing his readers’ reliance on such medical content, Gabriel Frend’s 1595 almanac included an image of the major veins in the body for blood-letting.

Literary Almanacs/Almanacs and Literature

With almanacs on bookstalls, gracing the walls of households and stalls, and in the pockets of so many readers, contemporary literary culture referred to their presence and, in varying levels of rancor, mocked the prevalence of the sidereal sciences. On the stage, such as at the Globe, a canopy of stars and the zodiac reminded viewers of the ever-present influence of the heavenly bodies upon both players and audiences alike. Nonetheless, playwrights such as Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Thomas Middleton satirized strict astrological determinism. Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour, for example, features the hapless Sordido, a farmer who relies assiduously on the information in the almanac for prospecting when to withhold grain supplies for future gain. His first entry onstage features an almanac with a prognostication, and Sordido gleefully reads the author’s forecasts for the upcoming year. Cherishing his almanac, Sordido evokes a charm that the almanac will prove true:

Never, never

Laid I penny better out than this,

To purchase this dear book; not dear for price,

And yet of me as dearly prized as life,

Since in it is contained the very life,

Blood, strength, and sinews of my happiness.

Blest be the hour wherein I bought this book,

His studies happy that composed the book,

And the man fortunate that sold the book.

Sleep with this charm, and be as true to me

As I am joyed and confident in thee. 1.3.46-56

Despite his panegyric, Sordido’s expectations are thwarted, and the almanacs’ promises fail to materialize. Instead of rain, Sordido witnesses fair weather and bountiful harvests, which render his own prospecting a waste of energy and resources. Despairing, Sordido vows to hang himself, blaming those “star-monger knaves” (3.2.11) whose texts led him astray. Rescued by some “rustics,” Sordido never appears onstage again, his role in supplying comedic commentary on such a pervasive reliance on almanacs complete.



As we can see, almanacs were multi-generic periodicals that interacted with a diversity of early modern discourses. The goal of my research is to show how these and other vernacular genres in the period were in conversation with the literature and drama of the period. Almanacs have much to tell us about how early modern individuals conceptualized time, their bodies, reading and recording practices, and the environment.


[1] Cyprian Blagden, “The Distribution of Almanacks in the Second Half of the Seventeenth Century,” Studies in Bibliography 11 (1958): 107-116.

[2] See the Bibliography a. Notable works on almanacs include Capp, Louise Hill Curth,

[3] Louise Hill Curth, English Almanacs, Astrology, and Popular Medicine, 1550-1700. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2007: 52.

[4] John Securis, A prognostication for the yeare of our Lorde God M.D.LXXVI made and written in Salisburie by Iohn Securis. London: 1576: B2r. 

[5] Sarah Jinner, An almanack and prognostication for the year of our Lord 1659 being the third after bissextile or leap year : calculated for the meridian of London, and may indifferently serve for England, Scotland, and Ireland / by Sarah Jinner. London: 1659: B1v.

[6] William Winstanley, The Protestant almanack for the year from the incarnation of Jesus Christ 1668, our deliverance from popery by Queen Eliz., 109 being the bissextile or leap-year : wherein the bloody aspects ... of the papacy against the Lord Christ ... are described ... / by Philoprotest, a well-willer to the mathematicks. London: 1668: A2v.

[7] Footnote about medieval almanacs

[8] The British Museum houses a clog almanac dating from the mid-seventeenth century. See for images and details.

[9] Capp, 27.

[10] Capp, 28.

[11] Anthony Askham, An almanacke and prognostication, for the yere of our Lord God. M. CCCCC.L.IIII. made by Anthony Askham physition. London: 1554: A4r.

[12] Martin Parker, “The King Enjoyes His Own Again,” London: 1660-1665[?]

[13] William Lilly, Merlini Anglici ephemeris. Or Generall and monthly predictions upon severall eclipses and celestiall configurations for the yeare 1649. / By William Lilly, student in astrology. London: 1649 [i.e. 1648].

[14] Sir Thomas Overbury (attrib.), Sir Thomas Ouerburie his wife with new elegies vpon his (now knowne) vntimely death : whereunto are annexed, new newes and characters / written by himselfe and other learned gentlemen. London: 1616: G1v.

[15] Ibid.

[16] See Cyprian Blagden, The Stationers’ Company: A History, 1403-1959. Stanford: Stanford University Press, rpr. 1977: 75.

[17] Adam Symth, Autobiography in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010: 16

[18] William Perkins, Foure great lyers, striuing who shall win the siluer whetstone Also, a resolution to the countri-man, prouing is vtterly vnlawfull to buye or vse our yeerly prognostications. London: 1585. F7v.

[19] Thorndike, Vol I. page 14.

[20] This disfavor can be tracked by not only anti-prophecy and anti-astrology tracts in the latter seventeenth century, but also by the fact that influential figures such as Issac Newton disapproved of judicial astrology. See A History of Western Astrology. Vol. III. Edited by Nicholas Campion. New York: Bloomsbury, 2009: 177.

[21] Of the many twentieth and twenty-first century examples one could cite here, perhaps the most akin to Queen Elizabeth’s reliance on the astrologer John Dee is President Ronald Reagan’s consultation with astrologers throughout his presidency. See the 1988 Times article titled “White House Confirms Reagans Follow Astrology, Up to a Point,” by Steven V. Roberts (May 4, 1988). Web. Accessed May 29, 2016.   

[22] The literature on classical, medieval, and early modern astrology and astronomy is vast. Studies that have influence my own include Carroll Camden, Jr., “Astrology in Shakespeare's Day,” Isis 19.1 (Apr., 1933): 26-73; Bernard S. Capp, English Almanacs, 1500–1800: Astrology and the Popular Press. Cornell University Press: Ithaca, 1979; Patrick Curry, Prophecy and Power: Astrology in Early Modern England. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989; C. Scott Dixon, “Popular Astrology and Lutheran Propaganda in Reformation Germany,” History 84 (1999): 403-418; Roger French, “Foretelling the Future: Arabic Astrology and English Medicine in the Late Twelfth Century,” Isis 87 (1996): 453-480; Anthony Grafton, Cardano’s Cosmos: The Worlds and Work of a Renaissance Astrologer. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1999; Helen Lemay, “The Stars and Human Sexuality: Some Medieval Scientific Views,” Isis 71.1 (Mar., 1980): 127-137; Lynn Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science. 8 Vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960; Sara J. Schechner, Comets, Popular Culture, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997; Laura Ackerman Smoller, History, Prophecy and the Stars: The Christian Astrology of Pierre d’Ailley, 1350-1420. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994; Lynn Thorndike, “The True Place of Astrology in the History of Science” Isis, 46 (1955): 273-278; Alexandra Walsham, “‘Frantick Hacket’: Prophecy, Sorcery, Insanity, and the Elizabethan Puritan Movement”, The Historical Journal, 41.1 (Mar., 1998): 27-66; Peter Wright, “Astrology and Science in Seventeenth Century England,” Social Studies of Science, 5 (1975): 399-422.

[23] Leonard Digges, A prognostication euerlasting of right good effect fruitfully augmented by the author, containing plaine, briefe, pleasant, chosen rules to iudge the weather by the sunne, moone, starres, comets, rainbow, thunder, clowdes, with other extraordinary tokens, not omitting the aspects of planets, with a briefe iudgement for euer, of plentie, lacke, sicknes, dearth, warres, &c. opening also many naturall causes worthie to be knowne. To these and other now at the last, are ioyned diuers generall, pleasant tables, with many compendious rules, easie to be had in memorie, manifold wayes profitable to all men of vnderstanding. Published by Leonard Digges Gentleman. Lately corrected and augmented by Thomas Digges his sonne. London: 1605: A3v.

[24] W. B., The mystery of astronomy made plain to the meanest capacity, by an arithmetical description of the terrestrial and celestial globes briefly shewing (by way of question and answer) the wonderful works of God, from the earth, his footstool, to his throne of heaven ... : also two tables, the one for contents, the other for explanation of hard words / by W.B., an honourer of arts & sciences. London:1655: K4v.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos Book I, edited by Frank Egleston Robbins. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1940: 7.

[27] Qtd. in Glyn Parry, The Arch-Conjurer of England: John Dee. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011: 49.  

[28] Ptolemy, Almagest. Translated by G. J. Toomer. Foreword by Owen Gingerich. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998; Tetrabiblos. Translated by F. E. Robbins. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1940. 

My personal 1689 copy of "Syderum Secreta" by John Harrison

View my full personal collection of almanacs here.

© 2020 by Dr. Katherine Walker

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