Marking Time: Astrology, Almanacs, and English Protestantism

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C. John Sommerville argues in The Secularization of Early Modern England that early modern Protestantism inadvertently allowed for a greater secularization of English culture by making religion more a matter of internal belief than of actions located in space and time. As a result, places and physical acts that had once been invested with holy meaning no longer held the same spiritual significance. Sommerville thus defines early modern secularization not primarily as a decline in or absence of religion, but rather as a "change in religion's placement." (1) He opens his book with a chapter entitled "The Secularization of Space" and follows it with one entitled "The Secularization of Time and Play," and these chapters foreground the idea that the religious changes occurring in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England were tied to new understandings of two fundamental axes of human experience. He argues that Protestantism, broadly conceived, produced a different understanding of space, one in which specific locations--church altars, shrines, monasteries, and so on--were no longer seen as qualitatively holy in their own right. The experience of time also changed as the ecclesiastical calendar was revised and as saints' days lost much of their earlier significance. We might usefully think of the medieval--as well as the early modern Catholic--sense of time and space as intrinsically more sacred than others. Undoubtedly post-Reformation religious culture retained much of this sacred understanding--the Book of Common Prayer, for example, did not abolish all holy days, and Protestant bishops continued to consecrate their churches as holy places--but by the end of the seventeenth century, English Protestant culture as a whole was characterized by a smoother and more homogenized understanding of space and time than that predominating two centuries before. (2)

At the risk of grossly oversimplifying two centuries of complex cultural, social, and religious change, I rehearse these broad shifts as the necessary background to my primary subject: the rise of the astrological almanac and the consequent expansion of an astrologically informed awareness of the significance of time and space. Perhaps because astrology is regarded today as intellectually bankrupt, it has been marginalized in discussions of the early modern period. (3) However, by failing to take early modern astrology seriously, we create an imbalanced view of the past. Although challenged by the rise of both empirical science and Calvinist theology, astrology had remarkable currency and credibility in the early modern period. (4) Belief in some degree of celestial influence was nearly ubiquitous in early modern England, and only a minority regarded astrology as a disreputable form of the occult, embraced only by the less-educated or the credulous. Nor was it seen as irreconcilable with Christianity. Furthermore, the development of the almanac--fueled by advances in print technology and by a consequent increase in both literacy and reader demand--allowed astrology to be widely disseminated in a printed form beginning around the middle of the sixteenth century. (5) Astrological almanacs enjoyed a remarkable rise in sales over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and were arguably the most popular books of the early modern period: for example, well over one million copies were printed in England just between 1664 and 1666. (6) This level of demand made printing and selling almanacs highly lucrative, and so almanac compilers constantly modified their texts to adjust to changing market needs: adding one feature, dropping another, expanding a section, and so on. (7) The almanacs' flexibility and their near ubiquity in English society make them useful textual barometers for early modern assumptions and reading practices.

Although almanacs as a genre are far too diverse to be summed up in a single article, one broad textual trend is discernible in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century almanacs and serves as my central focus here: the tendency of these texts to provide complicated and precise descriptions of both place and time. …