‘Tis the season for almanacs

December crocodile

December crocodile

As our two commenters on the last post sussed out, this month’s crocodile mystery is a detail from an almanac, the black “Swallow” overprinting the red “Dove” the names of authors of two different almanacs. Below is the full title page of the work in question, Swallow 1633. An Almanack for the yeare since the nativity of our Saviour MDCXXXIII Being the first after Bissextile or Leap-yeare, and from our Saviour’s passion 1600. Calculated properly for the famous Universitie and Town of Cambridge, where the pole is elevated above the Horizon 52 degrees and 17 minut.

title page of Swallow 1633

title page of Swallow 1633

So why was Dove overprinted with Swallow? In order to appreciate that, we need to talk a bit about almanacs. Almanacs were, as you probably know, annual books (booklets, really, often of 3 sheets of paper in octavo format and costing as little as 2 pence) that typically provided calendars, prognostications, and other miscellaneous information. The calendars weren’t simply lists of the days of the week and festivals, but charts that gave astrological information, weather predictions, and sometimes other helpful information like when to avoid having your blood let. Here, as illustration, is the opening showing the months of January and February from the Swallow 1633 almanac, the title page of which is the focus of our mystery:

Swallow's January and February calendars

Swallow’s January and February calendars

Some almanacs included blank spaces along with the calendar for users to fill with their own notes. Here, for example, is the month of February from Dove’s 1633 almanac:1

Dove's February calendar

Dove’s February calendar

What you might have already noticed is that the Dove and Swallow almanacs look a lot alike. And you’d be right, as is clear when we put their instances of February side by side:

Dove and Swallow February calendars side-by-side

Dove and Swallow February calendars side-by-side

How might this similarity explain what is happening on the title page? Both Dove and Swallow were printed by the University of Cambridge’s printers, both are the same format, both contain much of the same information, and both would have been printed around the same time. It seems likely that Dove’s almanac was printed first and then instead of the pages of type being redistributed, they were used to print Swallow (why distribute all that type only to reset it in the exact same arrangement?). But Dove’s title page was accidentally printed instead of a new title page being set for Swallow. Most of the key elements would be the same for both—they were both for the same year, for the same location, and printed by the same printers. So the easiest way to correct the error? To overprint the red “Dove” with a black “Swallow.” The only extant copy of the Dove 1633 almanac is missing its title page, so we cannot compare the two to prove the point. But the scenario certainly is a likely one.

There’s another part of this story, one that’s not about this book’s making but about its survival. There is, according to the STC and bibliographies of almanacs, only one extant copy of Dove 1633. That copy happens to be at the Folger, and it happens to be bound together into a volume with the Folger’s Swallow 1633. Also in that volume? 15 other 1633 almanacs: Booker, Clark, Dade, Kidman, Neve, Perkins, Pond, Rivers, Sofford, Turner, Vaux, White, Wilson, Winter, and Woodhouse, in addition to Dove and Swallow. The 17 almanacs comprise a single volume that has been bound together in a plain sheepskin binding, all with the upper corners trimmed on that distinctive diagonal cut. Of the 17 almanacs in the sammelband, 3 are unique items not known to exist in other copies; of the remaining 14 almanacs, 9 exist in one other location, 4 in two other locations, and one in five other locations.2 In fact, this single volume of 1633 almanacs holds copies of all of the extant 1633 almanacs except for one (an almanac by Richard Allestree).

The Folger’s book has a distinctive provenance: it was formerly owned by Colonel William Allen Potter, the former High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and president of the area antiquarian society, the Thoroton Society. Potter collected items pertaining to Nottinghamshire history and genealogy, including a large collection of deeds that he gave to Nottingham University and a collection of almanacs and prognostications, including a fair number of unique items, that remained in his family until they were sold at auction in 2003.3 Although almanacs were very popular in the period—a common figure given is that about one in every three households by the 1660s had an almanac—they did not survive in large numbers, and those that did survive often did so only as fragments. The run of extant Peregrine Rivers almanacs  from the first recorded edition in 1625 through the end of the STC period illustrates this point. Take a look (the year of the edition is followed in parenthesis by the number of surviving copies): 1625 (fragment only), 1627 (1 copy), 1629 (1 complete copy and 1 fragment), 1630 (3 copies), 1631 (fragment only), 1633 (3 copies), 1634 (1 copy), 1635 (title page only), 1637 (2 title pages and 1 fragment), 1638 (2 copies), 1640 (1 copy). It seems safe to say that one of the reasons these 1633 almanacs in this sammelband survived is that someone bound them together into a single volume—a hefty bound book is more durable than loosely stitched sheets of paper.

Of course, Potter wouldn’t have been able to have collect this book if an earlier collector hadn’t bound them together, and that earlier collector wouldn’t have been able to bind them together if they hadn’t been saved back in 1633. And so we also owe a debt of gratitude to those earliest owners. While we don’t know who most of them are, we do know the name of an early owner of the Dove 1633, as evidenced by the inscription on its last page:

Six lines of handwritten text

inscription on C8v: “Edward Maxwell of Naward [i.e. Naworth] Castle in the county of Cumberland, yeoman of the one P[a]rty & James Hoodlese of Brumpton [i.e. Brampton] &”

So thank you, Edward Maxwell, for taking care of this almanac so that we may study it today.

My thanks to Deborah J. Leslie for telling me about this book and for her detailed cataloging of it. For a helpful introduction to almanacs, especially in the context of Potter’s collection, read Bernard Capp’s “The Potter Almanacs” (eBLJ 2004); Capp is also the author of the authoritative work on the subject, Astrology and the Popular Press: English Almanacs, 1500-1800 (Faber 1979). Lauren Kassell also provides a nice overview of almanacs as ephemeral printing in the first volume of the Oxford History of Popular Print Culture (Oxford 2011).4

UPDATE: Transcription in image caption originally read “Edward Mason [de?] of Naward [i.e. Naworth] Castle in the county of Cumberland, yeoman of [the] [one?] [?] & James Hoodlese of Brumpton [i.e. Brampton].”

  1. This almanac obviously hasn’t been written in, but other almanac owners did use theirs that way. Adam Smyth’s Autobiography in Early Modern England (Cambridge 2010) has a chapter on almanacs as an instance of life-writing. []
  2. If you follow the links to the ESTC records for the individual almanacs, you can finding holding information; note, however, that the identification of it being in a private collection refers to copies that are now in the Folger’s sammelband. []
  3. This brief account of Potter’s life has been drawn from H. R. Woudhuysen’s “Writing Tables and Table Books” Electronic British Library Journal 2004, article 3, http://www.bl.uk/eblj/2004articles/pdf/article3.pdf. []
  4. Bernard Capp, “The Potter Almanacs” Electronic British Library Journal 2004, article 4, http://www.bl.uk/eblj/2004articles/pdf/article4.pdf; Capp, Astrology and the popular press: English almanacs, 1500-1800 (London: Faber, 1979); Lauren Kassell,  ”Almanacs and Prognostications” in Joad Raymond (ed.), The Oxford History of Popular Print Culture, Volume One: Cheap Print in Britain and Ireland to 1660 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011) http://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/people/kassell/2011.pdf. The standard biographical survey of almanacs up to 1600 is Eustace F. Bousanquet’s English Printed Almanacks and Prognostications: A Bibliograpnical History to the Year 1600 (London: Bibiographical Society, 1917), a copy of which can be found on the Internet Archive. []

Author: Sarah Werner

SARAH WERNER is Digital Media Strategist at the Folger Shakespeare Library and Editor of The Collation. She blogs about books and reading, writes about modern performance and Renaissance drama, and is known in some corners of the web as @wynkenhimself.

5 Comments

  1. By the way, if you want to take a gander at a 1565 almanac (the calendar only, without the prognostication), we have one in our digital image collection: http://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/t1018c

  2. Noticed some bracketed question marks in the caption to the inscription: I think the guy’s name is actually Edward Masewell (he ran out of room). And the whole thing sounds like part of the beginning of some sort of agreement, so “of the one P[ar]ty” (the “e” in “one” is a two stroke e). There is an “&” after the last name, indicating that the writer was planning to include additional other “parties” to the agreement. It is not unusual to see these sorts of draft excerpts from common types of legal documents on endleaves.

  3. There has been a mistranscription of the name of the previous owner which reads Edward Maxwell not Edward Mason. The unknown/uncertain words would seem to me to probably be ‘enc[lose]d p[roper]ty’ but I would be less certain of this.
    Regards
    Cliff Webb

    • Yes, Maxwell seems more probable than Masewell (see my 13 December comment)! Thanks for your suggestion.

%d bloggers like this: