Radio Almanacs: The Oldest Guide to Everything RADIO 4 Reasons to be Cheerful RADIO 4
Today we have science, but we also have horoscopes and homeopathy and religious hysteria. Humankind has always liked to mix fact and fiction: how else to explain the Daily Mail? In the 16th and 17th centuries they had almanacs, 400,000 of which were sold annually in their pomp. Ben Schott, of Miscellany fame, charted their super soaraway trajectory in Almanacs: The Oldest Guide to Everything - which recalled among other things the sex tips of the day: "Embrace Venus honestly" in May, but "Entertain Venus daintily" in November.
They became associated with buffoons - Bottom consults one in A Midsummer Night's Dream - but aside from the astrological claptrap, they were full of useful info such as the dates of trade fairs, law terms and rent days, tips on planting crops and how to draw up legal documents. Then there were the medical ads: "The cordial pill - the grandest, the most excellent preparation of all the opiates ever invented". And after all those Venus-related shenanigans there was always "the safest, speediest and surest cure for gonorrhoea".
Pepys liked to take the previous year's editions down the tavern with his mates and have a laugh comparing the predictions with what actually happened. And in the end, real life did for almanacs: they failed to foresee the execution of Charles I or the Restoration, not to mention the Civil War, the plague and the Great Fire of London. Rabelais parodied them: "This year the blind …