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Book of the Month

January 2000

Rider's British Merlin

London: 1701


The first book for 2000 is an annotated almanac for the year 1701 which offers us a glimpse of  daily life  three hundred years ago.

Front cover

An almanac is a book which typically contains a calendar of the year along with a record of various astronomical phenomena such as data on phases of the moon and schedules of high and low tides; other miscellaneous information such as weather predictions and seasonal suggestions for farmers is often provided. Such handbooks were incredibly popular and proved to be bestsellers from the earliest days of printing when much of their content was devoted to astrological matter and predictions of the future. While much of this kind of "sensational" data had disappeared by the eighteenth century, almanacs remained popular and may be described as having evolved into a kind of folk literature containing - alongside the traditional calendrical data - interesting facts and statistics, moral precepts and proverbs, medical advice, jokes and sometimes even verse. Thus almanacs could provide entertainment when reading matter was scarce, while also acting as compendiums of instructive and useful information for a wide range of needs. This variety of roles, provided cheaply and concisely, largely explains their success as one of the publishing phenomena of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Our almanac is found in an attractive trade binding of a sort popular in the seventeenth century: these were produced fairly cheaply but intended to look expensive.

By the sixteenth century, the almanac had developed a secondary role as a diary: many, such as this one, were produced with blank pages facing the calendar for each month. Such a structure was designed to allow the reader to note his debts, expenses and other sundry affairs. Much of the research value of old almanacs which have survived until today lies such jottings, giving us an insight into the daily lives of the people who actually owned and used these handbooks.

This particular copy has several blank pages bound in at the beginning and end of the book, nearly all of which have been filled with notes. The memoranda displayed in the opening here are typical of the annotations found - descriptions of land let and rents charged with details of any conditions particular to the agreement.

The practical use made of the book as a pocket diary was obviously aided by its portability: its actual size is in fact shown here.



There were a variety of different almanacs produced each year; some of these were devised for specific regions or trades, but perhaps the most famous and popular of the more general sort was John Moore's Vox Stellarum (which is still published as Old Moore's Almanac). The book displayed here is the more modest Riders British Merlin which first appeared in 1656 and continued to be published well into the nineteenth century.

Riders was published under the control of the Stationers' Company which maintained a virtual monopoly over the lucrative almanac trade until the eighteenth century. The Company aimed to procure the maximum profit possible from these publications by keeping their printing processes efficient and at minimal costs: the fact that the almanacs were produced and therefore sold cheaply ensured that they were affordable to the masses. That is not to say that they were designed exclusively for the poor; users of almanacs in fact belonged to every social group, and the great majority of purchasers would have been yeomen, husbandmen and artisans.

By the eighteenth century the efforts of the Stationers' Company to maintain profits meant cutting costs which resulted in bad printing: the paper used was thin and cheap (often leading to "show through" from the verso, as in the title-page here) and the printing was often blurred and smudged. By this time, the contents were somewhat formulaic, with much of the data being reproduced exactly from year to year.

The opening displayed here gives an indication of the kind of practical information supplied by the almanac.

Before the calendar proper begins, there are several pages of miscellaneous information, much of which is geared to aiding business calculations. Other data includes a table of kings, a geographical description of the world and A computation of the most remarkable passages of the times, from the creation to the year 1701 where it is noted, for example, that 3994 years have elapsed since Noah's Flood.

In its function as a valuable reference book, the almanac would usually also contain substantial medical notes. Illustrated here is the "zodiacal" man - a figure, unchanged since classical times, which shows the organs and parts of the body controlled by various signs of the zodiac.

Dates of Terms, Zodiac Man and Explanation of Calendar

Observations for January

Appropriate medical advice is given in the observations for each month. In January, it is advised that blood should not be let, while the reader is warned to beware of taking cold, for Rheums and Flegm do much increase this month. Although much of this advice seems to be rather general and obvious, it should be remembered that this would be the only work of reference available to many unqualified physicians; it is said that the instructions supplied were followed religiously.

The farming notes were the other important part of the monthly observations. Thus, guided by the almanac, the farmer could estimate the proper time to begin seasonal farm work. Essential information for each month included weather forecasts and data on the phases of the moon. Before the arrival of lighting, knowledge of the moon's phases was obviously indispensable when venturing out in the dark nights of winter.

In this almanac, blank pages have been bound in between the calendar and the observations for each month. These were utilised as a kind of diary: here some school fees are noted.

Although these blank pages are often used to catalogue business transactions with many notes of monies received for rents, some of the comments are of a more personal nature. Other examples offering glimpses into the minutiae of life in the early eighteenth century include notes of trips made (9 June: My mother & Frank to Peterborow with my bro. Wm.), and of medical events (4 July: I was cut by Mr. Bernard to prevent a fistula. He came to me about 3 weeks & then I went into ye Country. I gave him a Guiney at 1st & afterwards 12 Guineys more).

Other notes give us evidence about the cost of living and the conditions of service at this time; it is recorded, for example, that a coachman named Griffith Rowland has been hired at a wage of 6 pounds plus 10 shillings towards washing - but an addenda warns that he is not to have his livery away except he serve out his year.

Calendar for May

Calendar for October

On the 13th of October, the birth of a son is duly noted. A later memorandum for 5 December states that a birth tax of 1.2.0 was paid.

Although we do not know for certain the identity of the almanac's original owner, from the evidence of the annotations it can be assumed that he was a fairly wealthy and substantial landowner. There are interesting records of annuities being paid to brother William; below the details of these payments is written in a clearly different hand from much of the other writing: Sept. ye 25th 1701 Recd as above fifty pounds due at Lady Day last by me Wm Langton. A different note in yet another hand declares Recd ye 30th November 1701 of George Langton Esqr ye sume of Twelve pounds... by me John Clutterbuck. It is possible, then, that the squire George Langton was the owner of the almanac, and the person responsible for the annotations which make it such an interesting read today.

Other editions of Rider's British Merlin (imperfect run of the series from 1701-1784): BD14-i.40 & Hunterian Ct.3.26-34.
Some other almanacs: Lilly's new Erra Pater. Or, A prognostication for ever ... (Glasgow: 1701): Sp Coll 643; Goldsmith : an almanack ...with ms. diary by Owen Briggstock (1680) BD14-i.44; Aberdeen's new prognostication (1772) and A new almanack after a new fashion ... calculated ... for the antient kingdom of Scotland ... (1748-1751): Mu7-i.43; An almanacke, and prognostication, for the year of our redemption, 1607 ... Faithfully supputated for the meridian and inclination of Wolverhampton (London, 1607) BD1-k.9; A new prognostication for the year ... for the most part of Scotland, but more especially for our city of Glasgow (1681-1686, 1691-1692, 1694-1694, 1696-1698, 1702-1702) Mu23-f.34,35; A new prognostication for the year[s] of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, 1667-1673 (Edinburgh & Glasgow) Bh13-b.35; Prognostication everlasting of right good effect, fruitfully augmented by the auctor, contayning plaine, brief, pleasaunt, chosen rules to iudge the weather ... with a briefe iudgement for euer, of plenty, lacke, sicknes, dearth, warres, etc... Corrected by Thomas Digges ...( London, 1592) Bk4-g.19; Vox graculi, or Iacke Dawes prognostication. No lesse wittily, then wondrously rectified, for the eleuation of all vanity, villany, sinne, and surquedri sublimate, keeping quarter in the courts, cities, and countries of all Christendome; for this yeare 1623 BD1-c.80; An new almanack or new prognostication (1727) and Perth's true almanack; or a new prognostication for ... (1718-1719) Mu1-f.34; Vox stellarum; or, a loyal almanack (1732): Mu2-y.35; Rabelais Pantagrueline Prognostication ...pour 1535 (Lyon: 1534) Hunterian Cm.3.25

UPDATE: This feature was spotted by Lincolnshire researcher David Hamilton who recognised the annotations in the almanac as having belonged to George Langton (1647-1727), a Lincolnshire landowner and businessman. Several other almanacs previously in George's possession are in existence and have been studied by David Hamilton; he has written a fascinating book about these 'diaries', putting George's life into the context of his time; furthermore, since discovering our almanac, David Hamilton has kindly provided us with a complete transcript of all the annotations, including useful notes  about the various characters and places mentioned. For more information, see:
The diaries of George Langton (1647-1727): the unpublished diaries of a Lincolnshire landowner & businessman transcription & commentary by D. H. Hamilton (Holton-le-Clay,1998); our copy is accompanied by an unpublished typescript supplement of transcription and additional information relating to our 1701 diary: Sp Coll Euing Add. f11

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Julie Coleman January 2000