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INFORMATION CONNECTED WITH THE CALENDAR, CELESTIAL CHANGES, AND ASTRONOMICAL PHENOMENA.
The following account of the present state of Almanacs, compared with that of former times, is taken from the Companion to the British Almanac, for 1829, published under the superintendence of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.
The history of Almanacs, and even the etymology of the word Alma. pac, are involved in considerable obscurity. By some, the name is derived from the Arabic al manach, to count. Verstegan makes the word of German origin, Almonat ; and says that our Saxon ancestors were in the practice of carving the annual courses of the moon upon a square piece of wood, which they called Almonaught—(al-moon-heed). Almanacs became generally used in Europe, within a short time after the invention of printing; and they were very early remarkable, as some are now in England, for the mixture of truth and falsehood which they contained. In 1579, their effects in France were found so mischievous, from the pretend. ed prophecies which they published, that an edict was promulgated by Henry III, forbidding any predictions to be inserted in them, relating to civil affairs, whether those of the state or of private persons. No such law was ever enacted in England. It is singular that the earliest English Almanacs were printed in Holland, on small folio sheets; and these have occasionally been preserved, from having been pasted within the covers of old books. In the reign of James I. letters patent were granted to the two Universities and the Stationers’ Company, for an exclusive right of printing Almanacs. These, in 1775, were declared to be illegal. During the civil wars of Charles I., and thence onward to our own times, English Almanacs became conspicuous for the unblushing boldness of their astrological predictions, and their determined perpetuation of populár errors. At the present day, none of the Almanacs of the continental states contain any misleading matters of this nature; -and the Almanacs most similar to some of those extensively circulated amongst our intelligent fellow-countrymen,
are produced in Persia. A modern Persian Almanac is thus described in the Encyclopædia Metropolitana :--The first page contains a list of fortunate days for certain purposes ; as, for example, to buy, to sell, to take medicine, to marry, to go a journey, &c. &c.; then follow predictions of events, as earthquakes, storms, political affairs, &c. after the manner of Moore's. Alınanac, except being apparently more concise.' This resemblance between the productions of a highly cultivated nation, and one which is remarkable for its general ignorance, is certainly no proof of our boasted emancipation from ancient prejudices.
Our popular superstitions with regard to the weather—the lingering belief, in which some still indulge, of the doctrine of nativities and the settled opinion in a few minds, that what are called malignant aspects of the stars, as well as coinets and meteors, portend evils to mankind, were the most cherished convictions of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors; and it may not be entirely fanciful to consider the prevalence of such notions still among us, as shoots of the tree of ancient prognostication. Mr. Sharon Turner, in his History of the Anglo-Saxons, has an interesting passage upon this subject:
• Their prognostics, from the sun and moon, from thunder and from dreams, were so numerous, as to display and to perpetuate a most lamentable debility of mind. Every day of every month was catalogued as a propitious or unpropitious season for certain transactions. We have AngloSaxon treatises which contain rules for discovering the future fortune and disposition of a child, from the day of his nativity. One day was useful for all things; another, though good to tame animals, was baleful to sow seeds. One day was favorable to the commencement of business; another to let blood; and others wore a forbidding aspect to these and other things. On this day they were to buy, on a second to sell, on a third to hunt, on a fourth, to do nothing. If a child was born on such a day, it would live; if on another, its life would be sickly ; if on another, it would perish early. In a word, the most alarining fears, and the most extravagant hopes, were perpetually raised by these foolish superstitions, which tended to keep the mind in the dreary bondage of ignorance and absurdity, which prevented the growth of knowledge, by the incessant war of prejudice, and the slavish effects of the most imbecile apprehensions.'
Many of our English Almanacs have had no inconsiderable share in keeping alive errors like those of a thousand years ago-errors which are equally opposed to the progress of knowledge, and to a pious confidence in the wisdom and goodness of an Almighty Providence. It may be curious, and not uninstructive, to observe how very similar are the prejudices wbich still maintain a decrepit existence among us, to those of our forefathers; and how very little the general progress of education has done towards the destruction of evil publications which long habit has rendered
popular. We will take the Almanacs of 1678, (the year the Habeas Corpus Act was passed, in the reign of Charles II.)-of 1771, (the eleventh year of the reign of George III.)--and those of 1829, which have just been published.
The most famous “ Astrologer' of the seventeenth century was William Lilly. He began to print his Ephemeris in 1644, during the greatest heat of the civil wars. He uses many hard words and much Latin in his predictions; and constantly invokes the Divine assistance to deduce a judg. ment of things to come, from what he calls « rational and experimental grounds of art.' The year 1677 had been distinguished by the appearance of a comet; and of course 'this is a fruitful subject with Lilly, whose business was to fill the minds of men with superstitious fears. He says, all comets signifie wars, terrors, and strange events in the world. The venerable Bede, more than eight hundred years before him, had affirmed that comets 'portend change of kingdoms, or pestilence, or wars, or tempests, or droughts.' Lilly explains the prophetic character of these bodies very curiously : 'the spirits, well knowing what accidents shall come to pass, do form a star or comet, and give it what figure or shape they please, and cause its motion through the air, that people might behold it, and thence draw a signification of its events.' What is called the murrain was very common in those days, when the diseases of cattle as well as men were imperfectly understood ; and, therefore, a' comet, or blazing star, appearing in the sign Taurus, “portends,' according to this crafty astrologer, 'mortality to the greater sort of cattle, as horses, oxen, cows, &c.' But the comet has not only to answer for this mischief, but it also portends,
prodigious shipwracks, damage in fisheries, monstrous floods, and destruction of fruit by caterpillars and other vermine,'--evils which the most superstitious of men have now pretty well agreed to refer to their natural causes. Comets, according to Lilly, also produce “very hard and nipping weather, frosty, dark, cloudy, much snow and wind, strange or unusual hail and tempest.' This is absurd enouzlı; but it is not more absurd than an assertion that Saturn, the planet which, with the exception of Uranus, is the most distant from the Sun, should produce storms and tempests in January 1829, by its influence on that luminary. The following passage occurs in the first page of Moore's Almanac, for 1829.
Saturn a direful ray
From Cancer's lofty mount
And clouds on that account
And storms and tempests soon shall rise."
Just at beginning Saturn's cloudy eye
Causeth a very dark and cloudy skie.' The modern falsehood is only different from being clothed in more lofty language.
1 The natural causes of Eclipses are now pretty generally known; and even the most ignorant of mankind, in civilized countries, have ceased to consider that they either produce, or are prophetic of evil. The certainty with which their exact time can be calculated, is a beautiful exemplifica, tion of the truth of the great principles of the science of astronomy. In this work for 1928, the folly of any superstition arising out of eclipses was exhibited. Almanacs, even to our own day, attempt to keep up the popular delusion upon such subjects ; and the following parallel instances will show the little variation in the cheat:John Lord's Almanac and Prognosticator, for John Partridge's Merlinus Liberatus, an AT. 1678.
manac for 1829. • The fourth eclipse of the moon on Oc October, 1829. The late visible eclipse tober, the 19th day. This threateneth great of the Moon, which happened in the latter and rich men with loss of goods, or decay of part of the sign Pisces, may be considered to substance, likewise death and diseases among relate to Portugal and 'Spain, betokening incattel, beasts and sheep, and such as chew surrections, troubles, and discords, amongst the cud; also dearness of corn and seed sown the common people, with mutinies amongst ppon the earth; this will or may chiefly be- the soldiers, &c.' long to Ireland, Russia, Polonia the Great, and such others as are under Taurus.'
Our ancestors had a great many ridiculous notions about the possibility of prognosticating the future condition of the weather, from the state of the atmosphere on certain festival days. The festival of the Circumcision (January 1) was thus supposed to afford an evidence of the weather to be expected in the coming year. For St. Vincent's day (Jan, 22) there is an ancient admonition to note down whether the sun shine. The Conversion of St. Paul (January 25) was considered throughout Europe as particularly ominous, not only of future weather, but of coming events ; and there were some Latin rhymes of the middle ages to this effect, which the English prognosticators thus rendered :
• If St. Paul's day be faire and cleare,
It doth betide a happy yeare.
Then wars shall trouble the realm full oft.' Candlemas day (February 2) supplied another of these irrational inferences from the weather of one day to that of a distant period :
• If Candlemas day be fair and bright,
Winter is gone and will not come again.'
A few of these notions are still prevalent in remote districts. Mrs. Grant, in her account of the superstitions of the Highlands, says, that if the days between the 11th and 14th of February are particularly stormy, the prognostic for the weather of the coming year is most favorable. In many parts of Germany there is a belief that if St. Urban's day (May 25) be fair and calm, there will be a good vintage. The prognostications connected with St. Swithin's day (July 15) have kept the firmest hold upon the popular mind. A continuance of rainy weather generally takes place about this period; but the belief that if it rain on that day the rain will continue for forty days, is as absurd as any of the other prejudices we have mentioned. Ben Jonson laughs at the notion in one of his plays,* where a character, looking into his penny almanac, (almanacs were sold at a penny then, as they are to this day at Hamburgh), says, 'O here, St. Swithin's, the 15th day, variable weather, for the most part rain, good !—for the most part rain ? why, it should rain forty days after, more or less ; it was a rule held afore I was able to hold the plough, and yet here are two days no rain; ha! it makes me muse.'
We have mentioned these silly notions of former tiines, to observe how very nearly they have become eradicated by the real knowledge produced by a wider diffusion of education. But it is not so with the weather prophecies of the almanacs. They still continue to be printed, as in the days of Lilly; and are still believed by hundreds and thousands of credulous farmers and country people, who have their hay and corn too often spoiled through their reliance on these false predictions. That they contain as little novelty as wisdom, may be seen from the following extracts for the month of JUNE:
1829. 5 Winds and rain at| A close air, with drisling showers. Fair Intervals of fair the beginning of and clear, but soon it lowers.
weather. the month. 10 Winds and rain And now, my friends, you may again ex- A moist atmosphere,
about this time. pect winds, thunder, and showers of rain. attended with rain 15 Some thunder about But now again it seems the air is moderate, and thunder in mathis time. serene, and clear.
Sultry and hot some ny places. 20 Blustering storms of days together. But then comes some windy
wind and rain. weather. But at this time the case is plain, Fair and hot; charm25 Some storms of rain we shall have pleasant showers of rain. But ing weather for forand good weather the air clears up and is fair again.
warding vegetation. 30 intervened.
According to these several prophecies of 1678, 1771, and 1929, rain and thunder invariably take place from the 10th to the 20th of June. It is perfectly impossible that these predictions can be any thing but mere guesses ; often, of course, very false guesses--and guesses certainly not applicable, if they even approached the truth, to all parts of the kingdom, -for it may rain in a mountainous country, and be fine in the neighboring
** Every Man out of his Humor, Act I, Scene 1.