Academic journal article Studies in Philology

"Daring to Pry into the Privy Chamber of Heaven": Early Modern Mock-Almanacs and the Virtues of Ignorance

Academic journal article Studies in Philology

"Daring to Pry into the Privy Chamber of Heaven": Early Modern Mock-Almanacs and the Virtues of Ignorance

Article excerpt

In the early seventeenth century, playwrights such as Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton composed mock-almanacs. These texts aimed to undermine the contemporary fascination with almanacs and the astrological determinism housed in such directive texts. Pushing against the idea that knowledge of one's body, the future, and the stability of the nation-state can be articulated in a single, calendrical text, mock-almanac authors instead adopted a position of playful ignorance as a means for counteracting the hubris of the new science of the period. This essay contextualizes the growing interest in and critique of astrology and looks to how literary authors responded to this phenomenon in print. The mock-almanac is a unique genre, participating in the culture of audience response to scientific understanding while at the same time undermining the means through which readers and audiences encountered such a proliferation of totalizing narratives in celestial influence. In arguing for a serious consideration of the virtues of ignorance in these satiric texts, this article highlights the critical distance between our modern sensibilities and the state of purposeful unknowing espoused in the jest pamphlet culture of the period.

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TRAVESTYING the tradition of associative recollection in the arts of memory, Weatherwise rehearses a homely narrative of the twelve zodiac signs in Thomas Middleton's No Wit/Help Like a Woman's (1657, alternatively titled The Almanac): (1)

   This Libra here that keeps the scale so even
   Was i' th' old time an honest chandler's widow
   And had one daughter which was called Virgo,
   Which now my hungry tenant has deflower'd.
   This Virgo, passing for a maid, was sued to
   By Sagittarius there, a gallant shooter,
   And Aries, his head rival; but her old crabbed
   Uncle Cancer here, dwelling in Crooked Lane,
   Still cross'd the marriage, minding to bestow her
   Upon one Scorpio, a rich usurer.
   The girl, loathing that match, fell into folly
   With one Taurus, a gentleman in Townbull Street,
   By whom she had two twins, those Gemini there,
   Of which two brats she was brought abed in Leo
   At the Red Lion about Tower Hill.
   Being in this distress, one Capricorn,
   An honest citizen, pitied her case and married her
   To Aquarius, an old water-bearer,
   And Pisces was her living ever after;
   At Standard she sold fish where he drew water. (2)

Fanatical in structuring his life according to the ordinances in almanacs, Weatherwise fashions an intricate banquet, complete with poesies and twelve dishes that mirror the characteristics of the zodiac, which then furnishes witty conceits among his dinner guests. (3) In burlesquing the means for remembering the order of the twelve signs, Weatherwise reveals his ignorance of astrological science and the classical tradition of literary allusions to the cosmos, including illustrious works in both antiquity and the medieval period by Plato, Macrobius Ambrosius Theopanying alternate rhyme to the image of the Zodiac Man: "In heade and face is Aries dosius, and Dante Alighieri. (4) The virtue of such ignorance in Weatherwise's transmutation of classical narrative, however, is that it enables tongue-in-cheek humor, much like Littlewit's puppet play in Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair (1640). (5) Selecting astrological determinism as his object of satire, Middleton evokes the diverse registers of astral and prophetic discourse in circulation during the Renaissance. (6) He turns to a tradition that by the early seventeenth century was familiar to audiences, variously positioning astrology as a means to diagnostic or vatic certainty, pure fiction, or somewhere indeterminately located between legitimate natural philosophical inquiry and farce. Middleton himself composed two mock-almanacs, and he and other playwrights frequently employed the trope of specious astrological determinism for ludic results in their dramas. …

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