Arts essay: Are almanacs about to make a comeback?

Lia Leendertz’s Almanac for 2019 is an Amazon bestseller

Food and garden writer Lia Leendertz is about to release her Almanac for 2019. An Amazon bestseller, it claims to “revive the tradition of the rural almanac”. Well, maybe. It certainly meets the ancient need for annual, practical information about the seasonal and planetary changes of the coming year but it does so with a modern interest in lunar gardening. Gone is the ancient almanac’s assumption that man’s daily work is underpinned by God’s divine plan.

Almanacs were the most frequently printed texts during the three centuries after the printing press came into being. They were small, cheap volumes containing crucial information for the year to come. Their short life span ensured their low survival rate: at the end of the year most almanacs were recycled as toilet paper, seals on pickling jars, wallpaper, garden mulch.

Their information was of local relevance (market days, weather forecasts, maps) and national relevance (news, feast days, the monthly calendar). It was from the planetary arrangements of the year that almanacs provided their readers with medical and agricultural guidance: when to plant, prune, feed and water crops and when to bleed, lance, sweat, fast, rest and exercise the body.

These volumes were steeped in the medieval and early modern belief that God’s plan was written in the stars and that man will reap the greatest blessings by conforming his daily work to the movement of the planets.

They not only predicted the coming year, but also narrated the past. The key (and sometimes only) events in the “history of the world” section of Elizabethan almanacs were: the birth of Christ, the Norman Conquest, Henry VIII’s seizure of Boulogne from the French, Elizabeth’s coronation, and the Spanish Armada.

Rather than record the dates of historical events, the Elizabethan almanac writer John Dade instead provided the number of years that had passed between the event and the year with which the almanac was concerned. In 1602, his list included: the creation of the world (5,564 years before 1602), the conquest of England (586), and Elizabeth’s coronation (44). This information featured on the same page as an overview of the year’s prognostications for when to shear sheep, sell crops and let blood.

However limited and parochial Dade’s list of historical events was, his almanacs offered a powerful vision of man’s place in the cosmos. They depicted the smallness of present time and common duties as the focal point of God’s larger plan.

In the 1590s the Puritan William Perkins advanced those arguments against almanacs that lasted well into the following century and eventually helped to undermine the form’s popularity. Chief among these claims was the view that almanacs drew men away from God by offering knowledge from a diabolical source. But for Catholics and mainstream Protestants, almanacs were not handbooks for understanding the movements of the planets as such but rather guides to attuning one’s daily work to God’s mind in order to draw on His fruitfulness.

The modern world has lost the ancient wisdom that sees God’s hand in the smallest movements of His created world. Catholics remain sensitive to this fact through natural law, which helps us to maintain the divine pattern in our bodies. And so it is that Leendertz’s almanac brings me some joy. As does another modern month-by-month glimpse of the local landscape in a new series by Summersdale: The Birdwatcher’s Year, The Walker’s Year and The Seaside Year.

But all of these titles are thoroughly terrestrial in their focus. By contrast, the Christian Almanac offers daily information on Scripture readings and feast days alongside historical world events. And the new Catholic Mother’s Planner helps busy mums to stay abreast of feast days and family prayers as they plan the household year. But in neither of these do we hear God’s own breath in the dirt and buzz of insects, the unfurling flower and the falling fruit.

By reading the created world man can discern God’s purpose and seek to conform his nature to the will of the Creator. As Caryll Houselander observed, Creation is God’s meditation on Christ:

the seed in the earth is the unborn child. The snow on the field is the Virgin Mother’s purity. The bloom on the black thorn, flowering through the land, His birth. The falling of the red rose leaves foretells His passion, the wheat is bound in sheaves because He is bound, it is threshed because He was scourged. The fruit is red on the bough because He was crucified; because He rose from the dead, spring returns to us again.

In its early form, the almanac knew that the Book of Revelation and the Book of Nature were written with the same hand and needed to be read in unison through the daily life cycles of the common man. For the many of us who both garden and pray the hours, such an almanac would be most welcome again.

Dr Bonnie Lander Johnson is a fellow, lecturer and director of studies in English at Selwyn College, Cambridge