The Early Modern Almanac: Nostalgia and Temporality
Time of Publication : 14:12 - 20/07/21
‘O thoughts of men accursed! Past and to come seems best; things present worst’.
Often dismissed as a comical line, the commentary on the tendency of men to see the present as an unsatisfactory state of temporality is a prominent theme within the character of the Archbishop in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV. Although the Archbishop was referring to the popular opinion of King Richard II, his words strike a deeper chord. They are reflective of a broader commentary on reminiscence, and linked to this, the feeling of nostalgia for an easier time, with the hope that this feeling will come to light again in the future. Shortly after the Archbishop’s comment on these feelings, a solution occurs; in the form of ‘Saturn and Venus this year in conjunction!’, to which Prince Henry asks, ‘What says the almanac to that?’.
Almanacs and a sense of longing for the past were two distinct aspects of early modern England. However, their prominence within the period is not synonymous with their prominence in its historiography. Often, they have been looked at as separate entities but hardly viewed together. The almanac was a calendar for the year, or for the season, used by the majority of the English population in the early modern period. They usually contained prognostications for the upcoming year, as well as key religious festival days, astrological predictions, and medical advice. Almanacs gave ‘ordinary people tools with which to interpret nature, which could be used to keep themselves safe’, most likely due to their low price and concise yet important information. Their accessibility made them the single most printed material in England at this time, and by the seventeenth century, one in every three households had and used an almanac. However, it is precisely this accessibility that meant for a long time, they were neglected as a topic of serious historical enquiry. Louise Hill Curth asserts that almanacs have been ignored in the historiography of the early modern period because they have been viewed by historians as ‘cheap, insubstantial little booklets with a life span of 365 days’. Because they were not composed by learned or noble people, and instead intended for ‘popular’ use, they have largely been discarded despite the fact that they could have been the ‘first true form of English mass media’. This is echoed in Adam Smyth’s article ‘Almanacs, Annotators, and Life-Writing in Early Modern England’, where he draws attention to the fact that often almanacs were discarded after use.
The consequence of this is that in historiography ‘almanacs became synonymous with transience’, despite the almanac being an ‘extremely widespread textual form’. Even when almanac studies became a more widely researched practice their value was restricted to the realm of health and medicine. Hill Curth’s impressive volume showed how almanacs were important in the medical sphere for two main reasons: firstly, they helped to reinforce classic Galenic/Humoral ideas within the public domain, and secondly, they began to include advertisements for medical products, showing the emergence of an early ‘consumer society’. Focusing on early American almanacs, Thomas Horrocks helped to verify much the same idea: that the most important role of almanacs was to confirm pre-existing, traditional medical beliefs. Looking through a gendered medical lens, Chantelle Thauvette used the almanacs of Sarah Jinner to show that women had a degree of control over their own body and reproductive cycle. The astrological content of these almanacs shows this by suggesting ideal dates and times for a woman to reproduce. It seems then, that the medical value of almanacs has laid the groundwork for future scholarship to be written on almanacs through new lenses that build on this previous work. Phebe Jensen’s book published just last year certainly allows for this to occur, in which she effectively ‘translates’ an early modern almanac for a modern-day reader, providing explanations for the tables, dates and popular imagery found in almanacs.
In the peroration of Hill Curth’s book, she concludes that ‘almanacs contain a vast amount of material waiting to be explored by other types of social and cultural historians’. By analysing almanacs through an emotional history lens, this is exactly what this thesis aims to do. Previous studies on this topic from this period typically tend to view the almanac through a top-down approach, or as scholars reacting to a ‘new culture’ which emerged during the early modern period with the advent of religious dichotomy and overseas exploration. By studying a range of almanacs widely read and written by the laity, this thesis will argue that the early modern almanac shows the wider population (and not just the elite) as conservative. The driving force behind this conservatism was a sense of nostalgia that is evident in the content of these almanacs. Almanacs were therefore a means of resisting change that were produced during a time where change appeared omnipresent. By cataloguing medieval festivals, using traditional astrology and recording highly specific dates and places, almanacs were a vehicle that people used to demand a fairly linear view of the past. This in turn helped people to make sense of their body in time.
Their influence goes beyond their medical importance to reveal a broader significance; one which was conservative in the sense of not subverting the past and maintaining a kind of communal identity which was happening in tandem with public demand, and thus was an expression of popular agency. This thesis will demonstrate this by looking at three main features of the early modern almanac. The first theme, the significance of astrology, shows how people used almanacs to establish a link with medieval identities by preserving past astrological traditions. The second, the prominence and continuation of medieval festivals in almanacs, shows exactly what this link was – a form of resisting change by maintaining a sense of communal identity. The third, tracking highly specific times and places, shows that this link arose from a desire to exert a sense of control during an uncertain and potentially anxious time. More broadly, this study is important in the historiography of the early modern period for two main reasons: firstly, that it challenges Jacob Burkhardt’s infamous assumption that the Renaissance period was characterised by a complete shift from the medieval, ‘dark’ past. Secondly, it shows how important the relatively new field of the history of emotions is as a category of historical analysis. Looking at the past through the lens of emotions such as nostalgia can help to disprove assumptions and provide novel insights.
However, it is first necessary to define what exactly is meant by ‘nostalgia’, and how this seemingly ‘modern’ term can be used to describe a ‘pre-modern’ era. The word ‘nostalgia’ was introduced into the English language in 1688 when a Swiss Doctor felt a new term was necessary to describe the trouble his patient was feeling ‘provoked by excessive attachment to a distant homeland’. This would come to include a ‘pathological attachment to any faraway place and… distant times and persons’. Although officially coined in 1688, the feeling predated its terminological inception. The fact that the word was first used in the early modern period ‘suggests that something new- a new way of feeling… was entering the world’. With this in mind, this thesis will use Christopher Shaw’s and Malcom Chase’s definition of nostalgia, which is ‘experienced when some elements of the present are felt to be defective and when there is no public sense of redeemability through a belief in progress’. This definition allows the term to be used to describe this feeling at any point in time, rather than for the word nostalgia to be inextricably linked with a present-day occurrence. Katharine Hodgkin has identified how studies of historical nostalgia have often neglected the early modern period because the feeling of nostalgia is typically associated with being a relatively ‘modern’ concept. However, although she admits that the concept of nostalgia was certainly different in the early modern period to its meaning now, this does not mean that this feeling was completely absent from the period in question. We can find traces of nostalgia in history even if the word was not available to describe it, since the history of emotions argues for ‘its constituent parts [to] be explored before the concept comes into being’.
Barbara Rosenwein’s seminal work emphasised the value of emotional history as a gateway to understanding more about the past. The key to looking at history through this lens rests on the fact that ‘there is… no teleology in the story of emotions… and, certainly no civilizing process’. In other words, emotions do not become more ‘sophisticated’ or ‘civilised’ as time passes, but instead, are evident in varying forms throughout history. Adhering to this notion, there have been numerous works examining a sense of nostalgia in early modern England. The idea of a ‘Merry England’ has proven popular, a nostalgic conception of England that was prevalent during the early modern period. It explains that people longed for a ‘Merry England’ – an imagined past of a simple life in the peaceful countryside, without the ‘problems’ time brought with it. Ronald Hutton argues this is an ‘enchantment of backward vision which is the essence of nostalgia’, shown through the preservation of traditional rituals and festivals. This study has undoubtedly prompted other historians to find evidence of early modern nostalgia, whether that is through the lens of life writing, autobiographies, broadside ballads or the works of popular poets. For example, Philip Schwyzer has concentrated on poets such as Shakespeare and John Denham, specifically their references to the destruction of monasteries in the English Reformation as ‘“late” or recent events’. He argues that by doing so, they were refusing to let this loss disappear with time and wanted to keep it close to their memory. Schwyzser terms this nostalgia as a ‘still-sharp perception of loss’; meaning that, by thinking these events were always ‘recent’, the pain of loss is purposely subverted, it ‘insists on the intolerability of these losses by preventing them from receding too far into the past’. The poets and their readership may be subconsciously perceiving something as recent so as to perhaps try and prevent past destruction, as a form of nostalgic wishful thinking. However interesting Schwyzer’s study and other similar studies are, there is a lack of consideration for the existence of nostalgia in the most common of popular publications in the early modern period: the almanac. Although traces of nostalgia are perhaps not as explicit in almanacs as they are in other sources which directly refer to and desire a ‘simpler past’, they are important nonetheless because they captured feelings which touched all strata of society.
Read the full dissertation below: