Humble Almanacs, Immense Influences: Bernard Capp’s Astrology and the Popular Press, English Almanacs 1500-1800

Thursday, March 5, 2020


Bernard Capp’s Astrology and the Popular Press, English Almanacs 1500-1800, published in 1979, arrived at an opportune moment for scholarship in the history of science and the history of ideas.[i] Expanding on the provocative, but brief, discussion of almanacs in Sir Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic (first published in 1971), Capp takes these humble documents even more seriously.[ii] As a result, Capp’s contribution to historiography is two-fold: demonstrating methodologically the rigors of a more local, focused reading of a genre and putting to productive use the ubiquity of almanacs. Capp gestures to the central role that astral modes of thinking played throughout the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. Through these means, then, Capp’s work anticipates some of the later trends in the field of history of science, including the sociological study of knowledge production and the many figures, not merely the heroes of the so-called Scientific Revolution, who contributed their beliefs, observations, and knowledge to the period’s growing market of new ideas about the natural world. 

If Thomas elaborated upon the intricate entanglement of different forms of encountering the natural world that today we would label magical, pseudo-scientific, propitiatory, or experimental, Capp’s contribution was to show how a careful and thorough reading of a single genre can also provide scholars with new access to an early modern understanding of the cosmos. That worldview at times feels impossibly remote, at other times more intuitive than our contemporary separation of disciplines and expertise allows for today. Few historians are able to bring the full import of such an embedded way of approaching the world to their readers, but Capp’s narrative allows for us to get closer to an early modern perspective that allowed not only for astrological influences to shape the human self, but also other preternatural and supernatural causes to directly impact terrestrial beings.

Capp’s subject is how the almanac and related texts, variously disclaiming against or arguing for the relevance of reading the heavens closely, shaped a wide array of early modern thought. Capp, that is, illustrates the vital interplay among vernacular and popular beliefs about the cosmos and wider proto-scientific practices, institutions, alongside both well-known and marginalized individuals engaged in looking at the heavens. But what can his work, located firmly in history, offer to those of us who study literature? As I hope to make the case for here, Capp’s work should appeal to not only historians of science, but also literary scholars seeking to gain closer access to early modern lived experiences. Such access is afforded, as Capp’s work makes clear, by paying attention to the unimposing genre of the almanac—the yearly astrological publication outlining the behavior of the weather and the heavens, and offering advice on bleeding, purging, bathing, financial transactions, and propitious times for undertaking a vast array of social and monetary endeavors. If this sounds broad, it is. And yet as literary scholars we are prone to lose sight of the very real and far-reaching influence of almanacs because we might approach astrological language as metaphorical or merely topical, or as a handy means for determining the performance dates for plays. But when Gloucester expresses disaffection with contemporary natural philosophy in King Lear—“These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us” (1.2.109)—he is articulating a real fear that the universe is vividly signaling the downfall of the English political state and the natural social bonds that bind society together.[iii] This is no moment of simple allusion, but rather works tonally to counter Edmund’s more famous critique of astrology just a few lines later. The passage points up Gloucester’s intense fear that indeed the cosmos is indicating that something even more ominous is on its way. What we might forget amid the play’s poetry is that ultimately Gloucester is correct: regardless of what Edmund says, the heavens in the bleak world of King Lear do seem to betoken the disorder that affects everyone in the play, king and beggar alike.

Forty years after Capp’s book, scholars are returning to the genre of the almanac with renewed attention to what these vastly popular and widely circulated texts reveal about early modern culture and knowledge.[iv] But while scholars focusing on early modern astrology are taking up Capp with enthusiasm, I want to make the case for why literary studies in particular, alongside book history and broader cultural historicist work, might find Astrology and the Popular Press useful. Yes, we might learn of great political upheaval that almanacs could cause, as when William Woodhouse’s 1601 almanac was suppressed following the Essex uprising.[v] But we also discover how significant such almanacs could be for the average individual, in which one might refract important life decisions—marriage, procreation, purgation, and even nail-cutting—through the lenses of this yearly publication. Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender is modeled on the seasonal divisions of the almanac and, like the texts from which it borrows a structure, blends the far-reaching and the mundane together into a means for commenting on the location of the human self, within time, a heterodox cosmos, and within natural philosophy.[vi] Astrology was not quaint, and not simply something that amused the leisured classes or was taken seriously by those who were “superstitious” (an anachronistic term if meaning “not scientifically valid”), but rather was intrinsic to how people perceived their connection to a wider, more animate, cosmos. The almanac thus offered a way to understand the natural world, political allegiances, the human body, and history. It also served as a way to mark the very personal world of an early modern reader, tracing births, monetary transactions, and simple observations. At once both on individual and the global levels, almanacs, like the period’s literature or drama, had something for everyone.

Astrology and the Popular Press begins with a modest claim. Capp hopes that this “general survey” of almanacs and astral thought in the period will convince scholars of the import of a neglected resource for understanding early modern science and England’s intellectual history. Notwithstanding the preface’s humility, however, Capp’s focus on astrology alongside vernacular science is decidedly not a simple survey. We learn quickly, for example, of the sheer scope of astrological frameworks in the period; this form of thinking acted as a miasmic influence that trickled down to the equally expansive and wide-ranging almanacs of the period. Of true value here is Capp’s affirmation and demonstration of the prevalence of magical and scientific belief in the period. The stars are both fodder for literary expression but also, more importantly, active agents in the cosmos. “Astrology,” Capp avers, “lay at the heart of mediaeval science, its ramifications leading to medicine, physiology, botany and metallurgy.”[vii] And we can only access the scope of early modern astrological thinking by paying serious attention to these cheap, popular almanacs. The most powerful articulation of this perspective occurs at the end of the book, where Capp demonstrates the ubiquity and influence of the genre:

In terms of historical significance, however, the major role of the almanac was not sensationalism but, perhaps paradoxically, education in the broadest sense. At the most humble level, the almanac was valuable as a cheap handbook supplying a wide range of miscellaneous information available elsewhere only in specialized works far beyond the price-range of most of its readers.[viii]

Such a recognition should make us pause when we encounter the many almanacs on the early modern stage. King Richard III’s demand to look upon an almanac moments before the Battle of Bosworth Field highlights his persistent desire to read through the many lines of causal forces bearing down on him—providence, fortune, and mere weather—before he comforts himself with the idea that the universality of his almanac applies equally to his enemy: “Tell the clock there. Give me a calendar. / Who saw the sun today?” (5.3.276-277).[ix] Richard seeks a textual confirmation, “by the book” (5.3.278), of heaven’s favor or omens, despite the fact that in this instance the almanac proves incorrect in its prognostication for sunlight. Correct or not, for the King of England to demand such a popular text at this momentous moment highlights its ubiquity and the promises the almanac offered for those seeking to understand an often inexplicable cosmos.

Capp’s broader claims about the extent of astrological practice and knowledge, however, are less useful than the many details that this survey provides as provocations for others to research. We learn, for example, of the diverse cast of figures either praising or condemning almanacs, a cohort that includes figures who often appear in New Historicist works, such as William Perkins (the cleric), John Dee (the magician), Lord Burghley (the Lord Treasurer), and Gabriel Harvey (the scholar and brother to astrologers John and Richard). The list prompts the question of how often men and women in the period carried around the almanac. It speaks to an expansive intellectual network that enfolded both learned traditions, the new science, and folk psychology.

This heterodoxy of participants in the almanac’s history points us to the ways in which other genres took up the challenges that almanacs presented. For almanacs were not neutral texts, but highly partisan along religious, political, and social lines. They expressed their author’s political goals, as in the famously royalist almanacs of John Gadbury or the highly Parliamentarian publications of William Lilly. They furnished the material for the odd mock-almanac, including Thomas Dekker’s The Raven’s Almanac and Thomas Middleton’s The Owl’s Almanac.[x] These texts lampoon the strict regimen proscribed in almanacs and the overreliance on almanacs that is also ridiculed on the early modern stage in plays like Ben Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humor. Capp admits, however, that the influence of almanacs on literature may be less obvious, and it is likely a philological approach would be revelatory: “Perhaps the most important literary role of the almanac was indirect. Terms relating to almanacs, as well as to astrology in general, pervade Elizabethan and early Stuart literature.”[xi] Given the revised interest in philological methods in literary studies, such a prompting might urge us to think about the charged astrological terms, for example, in All’s Well That Ends Well, including “retrograde,” “fated sky,” “blazing,” and other terms that variously discount or celebrate the imbrication of human and cosmos.[xii]

Capp collects other literary responses to almanacs that surely need to be reread for their engagement with vernacular science. We find surprising new ways to think about the valences of particular texts and terminology on the stage. For example, we may take Capp’s conclusion, which compares English almanacs to Continental traditions, as a fruitful ground for consideration. If “in France the almanac and the prognostication developed as two largely separate genres” (272), in England they remained firmly together as one genre. Perhaps, then, there are hints at a proto-nationalism in the unique English almanac tradition, one that also alters when they become much more satirical and topical in colonial America.

Although I am primarily concerned with early modern drama and almanacs, almanacs are a fascinating case-study in the history of the book as well. Printers were often granted monopolies for their printing from the Stationers’ Company, and we learn that “James I issued a new monopoly to the Company of Stationers, in whose hands control remained until the late eighteenth century.”[xiii] From Adam Smyth’s recent work we can gather the multiform ways in which readers and writers used almanacs, including how they recorded their daily transactions and momentous events in these yearly publications.[xiv] Moreover, Capp points us to the idiosyncrasies of the genre, in which newer almanacs attempted to offer even more useful material for consumption. Thus, an author named Fly provided a template for a will in his almanacs, and almanacs began to feature many advertisements and contemporary solutions to problems regarding the body, mathematics, and one’s finances.[xv] Early eighteenth-century almanacs contain riddles to which readers would submit answers. When we access almanacs in special collections or view them through online databases like Early English Books Online, we might notice continuities but also divergences as printers experimented actively with different formats for conveying useful information to its thousands of readers.

Utility can be provocative if we are willing to let these less-than-illustrious texts speak for themselves. These were texts that furnished material for mockery and skepticism, but also took astrology seriously. Capp makes this point explicitly throughout Astrology and the Popular Press, as when he articulates the historical distance we have to a now largely discredited science:

“The stereotype of the astrologer—the ingenious cheat of Ben Jonson’s plays—is, however, unconvincing. Given an intellectual climate in which astrology was widely accepted, it is absurd to imagine that all its practitioners were frauds, though a large number of ignorant charlatans certainly existed. While professional standards may often have fallen far short of the ideal, there is no reason to doubt the astrologers’ belief in their science.”[xvi]

Almanacs were actively taking the pulse of early modern English society. As the field of literature continues to seek new ways of understanding the often-fraught relationship between text and world, I would suggest that almanacs can provide us with a closer look at early modern experiences. In additional fields, as well, there is much more work to be done on almanacs as, for example, women’s history (a starting point might be the later seventeenth-century’s handful of almanacs purportedly written by women), sexuality (how many individuals truly followed the sexual proscriptions in almanacs?), and studies in race and nationhood (later almanacs take up the issue of national identity and England’s fraught histories.[xvii] Above all, almanac authors were working towards synthesis of the flurry of new ideas and old traditions circulating in early modern England. Capp’s work provides a pathway through that intellectual terrain, one with optional detours ripe for new inquiries in a multitude of disciplines.

What we have to admit, or rather admire, is that Capp’s topic is still on the fringes, pushing against the now-old narrative of the beginnings of the supposed Scientific Revolution, a notion of an epoch that is more readily contested today than it was in the late 1970s. This is why the work should appeal to a multidisciplinary audience, one invested in understanding the historical contingency of knowledge about nature and the broader epistemological implications that an understanding of texts from the period can reveal. However sensational and problematic we find Frances’ Yates’ The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, most historians of science would agree with the overall point that what we today might label as pseudoscience, including astrology, alchemy, and general occultism, did indeed shape many currents of thought in the period, notably for Yates the perspectives and interests of leading members of the Royal Society.[xviii] As we have seen, it also influenced in very real and direct ways the period’s literature, including drama but also satire, poetry, and other genres.

Capp is less interested in those leading figures of capital-S Science, focusing instead on equally or more so famous names in the early modern period that we have forgotten now, including Thomas Bretnor, Richard Allestree, or even John Gadbury. As Capp shows, however, it was not simply the elite members of experimental practice—however nebulous and heterodox such experimentation in the period was—who were invested in what, today, we might be willing to dismiss as less foundational for our modern scientific partitions. In accounting for a plurality of different perspectives on the influence of the astrological in an early modern framework, Capp has prompted us to explore the outer edges of the period’s astral ways of thinking.


[i] Bernard Capp, Astrology and the Popular Press, English Almanacs 1500-1800. London: Faber & Faber, 1979.

[ii] Sir Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.

[iii] William Shakespeare, King Lear. Edited by R.A. Foakes. New York; London: Bloomsbury Press, 1997.

[iv] See, for example, Patrick Curry, Prophecy and Power: English Almanacs, 1500-1800. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989 and Louise Hill Curth, English Almanacs, Astrology and Popular Medicine: 1550-1700. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007;

[v] Capp, Astrology and the Popular Press, 69.

[vi] See Edmund Spenser, The Shepheardes Calender in The Shorter Poems, edited by Richard A. McCabe. New York; London: Penguin, 2000.

[vii] Capp, Astrology and the Popular Press, 16.

[viii] Capp, Astrology and the Popular Press, 285.

[ix] See William Shakespeare, Richard III. Edited by James R. Siemon. New York; London: Bloomsbury Press, rpr. 2009.

[x] See Thomas Dekker, Thomas Dekker, The Raven’s Almanac. London: 1609, and Thomas Middleton, The Owl’s Almanac. Edited by Neil Rhodes. In Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino, editors, Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007.

[xi] Capp, Astrology and the Popular Press, 230.

[xii] See William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well. Edited by Suzanne Gossett and Helen Wilcox. New York; London: Bloomsbury Press, 2018.

[xiii] Capp, Astrology and the Popular Press, 29.

[xiv] Adam Smyth, Autobiography in Early Modern England, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[xv] Capp, Astrology and the Popular Press, 145.

[xvi] Capp, Astrology and the Popular Press, 56.

[xvii] See Capp, Astrology and the Popular Press, 77 and ff.

[xviii] Frances Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. New York: Routledge, rpr. 2001.