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Pills, Potions, Predictions, and Poison: Almanacs in the Emmerson Collection

State Library Victoria, RAREEMM 611/22

Pills, Potions, Predictions, and Poison: Almanacs in the Emmerson Collection

by Paul Salzman

22 Nov, 2021

Categories: Almanac | Annotation

Almanacs were the most popular publications in the seventeenth century: it is estimated that there were around 350,000-400,000 printed each year. They ranged widely in format, from single sheets that were made to be pinned on the wall, like a modern calendar, through to small books, filled with information, and often supplied with blank leaves as well so that they could serve as a combination notebook and diary. The Emmerson Collection contains hundreds of examples, most of them in bound volumes that collect a number of almanacs, rather than individual items.

There are three main types in the Collection: a small selection of almanacs from the middle of the seventeenth century, which often contain a significant amount of what we might call political content; bound collections of almanacs, mostly from later in the seventeenth century, some interleaved and containing a significant number of manuscript entries ranging from medicinal formulae through to accounts and appointments; and a selection of mainly eighteenth-century almanacs, most of them with ornate bindings.

Almanacs often contained quite elaborate predictions, many of which had political overtones, and some astrologers became famous for their apparent ability in this area. One good example is William Lilly, who began publishing almanacs in 1644. Lilly’s fame and selling power is testified to by the fact that eventually he began to place a large engraved portrait of himself on his title page; Emmerson has a particularly good example of a 1651 almanac:

Lilly’s title claims him as the English Merlin. Many almanacs were named ‘ephemeris’ which is an astrological term referring to the position of celestial objects. (Lilly’s Latin motto means ‘small things flourish through concord’, and is taken from the classical Latin writer Sallust.) Lilly happily includes overt political commentary in his predictions: “Certainly these men does our Parliament more mischief, and the whole Nation more prejudice, than an Army of Forraign Forces would doe” (sig. A6). While almanacs vary a great deal in content, there are some features which are usually present. Many have a figure known as the astrological body, which assigns the zodiac to different body parts:

Almanacs usually listed term dates (ie law terms), and then, broken up for each month, dietary suggestions; times of sunrise and sunset; the moon’s cycle; significant contemporary historical events (eg ‘the 30 of this moneth K.Charles was beheaded at White-hall 1 yeare since’); a chart of historical events from 5599 years ago (‘the creation of the world’) through to more recent years; a summary of the nature of the four quarters of the coming year; a map of England showing counties and shires and a chart showing their distance from London; a chart showing the dates of all Kings and Queens since the Conquest; a rough weather chart; a list of common remedies, and oftentimes things to be avoided; charts of measures and weights and times of moonshine, and often charts showing astrological and lunar phases.

By the 1651 Merlini Anglici Ephemeris, Lilly had the almanac formula down pat. In the address ‘To the English Nation’, signed 16 October, 1650, Lilly makes no bones about his political allegiances (he was a strong supporter of Cromwell), claiming that victory against Scottish forces is imminent. Then Lilly offers an extremely detailed set of predictions for the coming year, where the astrological movements are mapped onto specific political, social and meteorological events; for example, ‘unlesse the Scot will fight or stand to it, we cannot kill him or them, but if he dare stand, I have now prophesied his end, and what our men do not, by Civill quarrels amongst themselves will be done’ (B6). This prose set of predictions and political/social commentary is followed by the month by month sections. This is what we night call the really practical section of any almanac, serving as something like a combination calendar, diary, and again more detailed predictions. Lilly’s almanacs focus more on the predictive side of the process, while other almanacs offer more medical advice, and, as noted above, lots of practical information.

A good example of this kind of almanac in the Emmerson Collection is White’s 1653 almanac, which has a nice version of the astrological human figure, medical/nutritional advice tailored to each month, lists of fairs, geographical information including a map of Britain with shires marked, a list of rulers, of distances between major locations, and an astrological chart which, it is suggested, could be cut out of the volume and ‘placed into any Book of Accompts [ie accounts], Table-book [a kind of diary], or other’.

The most interesting bound early set of almanacs in Emmerson is a group of almanacs and astrological works by Lilly, collected by the astrologer Samuel Jeake. This is a fascinating example of the general interest in astrology by people of all levels of society. Jeake trained as a lawyer and was a strong supporter of Parliament in the 1640s – hence perhaps his particular interest in Lilly. Jeake held a number of civil offices in the town of Rye, where he was born and raised, but as a nonconformist, he lost all his offices at the Restoration. Jeake had an extensive library, and according to his entry in the ODNB, most of the books are not traceable, making this example quite special. The volume shows that Jeake valued Lilly’s almanacs long after their first publication. He carefully signed the flyleaf of the volume, and on the title page of a number of the almanacs he signs his name again, and notes the price paid (6 pence). The volume is bound very simply: it is stab stitched (rather than sewn into the binding) and bound in limp vellum over pasteboard. But as a compilation it attests to the value and usefulness of almanacs even after their first appearance.

Another form of almanac testifies even more to the idea of them, or at least a category of them, being not ephemeral, but rather intended for longer use than a single year. These are almanacs that were sold interleaved with blank pages, so that they could serve as a diary or notebook as well as a more conventional almanac. (Or sometimes buyers had their almanacs interleaved after they were purchased.) The Emmerson Collection has two especially interesting examples of interleaved almanacs. I have discussed one of these in some detail in the ‘HerBook’ blog. ( This is a George Parker almanac of 1700. It is interleaved with a considerable number of medical prescriptions (for example, for rickets, for dropsy, to stop violent vomiting), and alchemical formulae, including an especially intriguing recipe for a ‘Merry Pill’. This material is carefully written out in a clear hand and was obviously intended for long and continuous use, which is also testified to by short entries from a number of different hands, including a nativity for an Ann Burgess, ‘born the 15th of June about 5 in the morning, 1683’, and appointments with a number of women who may have been suppliers of materials needed for alchemical and medical formulations, notably a Mrs Shakemaple of Rosemary Lane and a Mrs Ludwell at a chandler’s shop in Beech Lane.

The second intriguing example of an interleaved almanac is a 1692 almanac by William Winstanley, whose almanacs appeared under the name of Poor Robin. This volume seems to have gone through a number of uses and there are at least two, perhaps three, different hands evident. We can begin with the apparent initial ownership signatures on the reverse of the front binding, where the volume is signed by Peter Sykes followed by Hannah Sykes, who forthrightly states that this is ‘her Book’ (a phrase frequently used by women who signed books: see the Herbook blog cited above for many examples.)

Then on the series of blank pages that are inserted at the beginning of the volume, there are eight pages of diary-like entries made by Hannah Sykes, but beginning seven years after the date of the almanac. The second entry contains some big news: ‘I was marryd December ye 17. 1701’. Hannah Sykes then charts a considerable series of women who join her household, beginning with the third entry: ‘Susana King came to live with me January the 13. 1701/2’ (1701 or 1702 because the old date change for the year was 15 March though this was gradually changing to 1 January). The dates vary, but by the end of the first page, which has eight entries, five women have come to live with the Sykes family (Hannah changes from ‘live with me’ to ‘live with us’ after the first reference). In fact, the only other entries on the first page are a note of the marriage of Madam Potts, and a note of a household move to Bromley in Kent: ‘we came to brumly to live November ye 4 1702’.

In the entries that follow we hear of almost thirty women who join the household up to the final entry in 1736. It is difficult to determine whether these women are servants, possibly being replaced one after another, or boarders of some kind – it would be more usual to call servants only by their first names, so some sort of lodging is certainly possible. While a number of women are described as coming to live with the family, there is also a Patt who ‘began to help us’ in April 1707.On a more personal level, Hannah notes the arrival of a nurse in November 1705. More intriguing are a series of entries on a Dickory Wright: ‘dick’ry wright began to dance October ye 9. 1711’, then ‘dick’ry wright began to dance again July ye 16. 1715’, and finally ‘dickry went to board at burntwood September ye 4. 1716’. There’s also an entry for a Peter, who ‘went to board to mr Ashpools June ye 19. 1717’. The final entry in these pages is ‘Jane Smith came to live with me November the 18. 1736’. No more personal entries follow nor are there any in the actual almanac, but on the final blank pages of the volume, turned upside down, are a series of accounts for household items, such as ‘servants sheets’, ‘a canister’ and ‘china sconces’.

This glimpse into a busy domestic life, however partial, underlines once again the enduring usefulness of this kind of almanac cum diary/notebook/account book, and the long life many almanacs had – as well as a glimpse into a female domestic space.

The final set of almanacs in the collection are all about the outside of a volume rather than the inside. They are mostly eighteenth-century almanacs, and they have all been chosen for their exceptionally beautiful bindings. The bindings themselves are generally original, and the pristine nature of the almanacs indicates that they began their lives as objects of beauty rather than use, perhaps even, in many cases, as presents. Here are two examples: the first is a 1770 bound pair of almanacs, the second a collection of fourteen almanacs from 1741.

A final example of a finely bound almanac also involves a story reminiscent of some aspects of The Name of the Rose, where a book might poison you:

This is a 1708 almanac, with beautiful green binding. Recently, green pigment has been traced back to the use of arsenic, and although it is less likely in early eighteenth-century binding than in later examples, the green now sounds a note of warning, and rare book librarians like to issue readers of a book like this with extra thick gloves, or warn gloveless readers not to lick their fingers after turning the pages.

So taken as a whole, almanacs can be seen as a kind of sub-collection within the Emmerson collection, forming a wide-ranging and representative selection of a most fascinating genre, especially in relation to varied usage throughout the period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Further reading:

•The pioneering study by Bernard Capp, English Almanacs 1500-1800: Astrology and the Popular Press (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1979).

• A detailed analysis from the perspective of medical history which has a bibliography of surviving almanacs: Louise Hill Curth, English Almanacs, Astrology and Popular Medicine, 1550-1700 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007).

• A chapter that analyses annotated almanacs as examples of early modern life writing: Adam Smyth, Autobiography in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), chap. 1.


Paul Salzman

Paul Salzman is Emeritus Professor of English Literature at La Trobe University, and a Conjoint Professor at The University of Newcastle. He has published widely on early modern women’s writing, literary history, and the theory and practice of editing. His most recent publications have been Editing Early Modern Women co-edited with Sarah C. E. Ross (2016) and Editors Construct the RenaissanceCanon, 1825-1915 (2018). He has also produced an online resource through La Trobe University titled Mary Wroth’s Poetry: An Electronic Edition. In 2022-23 Paul will be David Walker Memorial Fellow in Early Modern History, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, working on the project "Almanacs and their Readers 1600-1760: a comparative study."