Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Almanac Content

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Almanac Content

Article excerpt

A close reading of the HRC sample offers an example of almanacs' utility as historical evidence and demonstrates the close parallels between the stationers' communal values and the thematic rhetoric of their products.

Almanacs and the Scientific Revolution

Considered from a modern perspective, the most foreign element of almanac content is astrology-the notion that the stars affect human events. Book almanacs varied from region to region, but many-particularly the English variety as it developed through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries-were essentially astrological documents. Astrological practitioners in Elizabethan and Stuart England aggressively promulgated their craft through the genre until "almanac maker" became nearly (though not quite) synonymous with "astrologer." In his seminal work on the subject, Bernard Capp makes astrology the benchmark for judging the historical significance of the almanac genre; the more active and creative the astrology, the more important the almanac. In this view, eighteenth century almanacs represented a decline from the golden age of almanac making in the mid-1600s. If one accepts this standard, it is difficult to argue with Capp's view; the astrology in eighteenth century almanacs is stale, repetitive, bland, and parasitic. It plagiarized heavily from earlier astrological work and contributed nothing new to the art. Judged in this way, almanacs apparently offer strong evidence for a rapid and decisive shift from an irrational, archaic worldview to a rational, modern outlook. In short, they seem to affirm the traditional account of the scientific revolution and the emergence of modernity. Yet one can interpret almanacs to confirm a different view of early modern science, one which describes historical actors in their own terms rather than contemporary ones. Viewed from the latter position, almanacs offer a glimpse of the cosmology by which the people of early modern England understood their world, and their concerns become more intelligible.

Two Views

The traditional account of the scientific revolution tells "the appealing story of technical and conceptual innovation."1 It is a Whiggish history, part of the rhetoric of enlightenment which has saturated our own culture with a reflexive belief in human development. Proponents of this view present a pantheon of intellectual pioneers-Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Descartes, Galileo, Bacon, Harvey, Boyle, Newton, etc.who debunked the prevailing ignorance of older times with the insight of pure reason. Their courageous efforts, often in the face of persecution by their ignorant contemporaries, freed mankind from the shackles of superstition and allowed humans to take control of their destiny. It is a dramatic story, and a plausible one because it describes some obvious historical facts: we do think differently from our ancestors, and we can make and do and know things of which they did not even dream. This account's fundamental appeal lies not just in the narcissism of self-congratulation or even the reassurance of self-justification but also in its neat explanation of historical change. By reducing human belief into two categories-subjective superstition and objective knowledge-the present world becomes the inevitable outcome of a struggle between truth and falsehood. Human beings, it says, developed two basic hypotheses of the world: the old one is superstitious and the new one is rational. As the old ways of thinking were tested, their inadequacy relative to the new way became obvious. The old was discarded and the new embraced. In this view historical change is logical, with all of the inevitability-perhaps even predictability-of logic.2

The problem with the traditional account is that while it accounts for the present admirably well, it has trouble with the past. Busily dividing history up into heroes and villains-the relevant and irrelevantit unconsciously assumes "that their thought patterns were fundamentally just like ours. …

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