The Almanac Archive

1. Vox Stellarum and Foretelling the Future

Vox Stellarum, also known as Old Moore’s, was the bestselling British almanac throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. It was produced by the Worshipful Company of Stationers and ostensibly authored by Francis Moore (even to the present day; its twentyfirst-century editions still bear his name), although the original Francis Moore died in the early eighteenth century. According to Richard Bowden, the profits of Vox Stellarum almost single-handedly kept the Stationers' Company's very lucrative publishing venture afloat throughout the nineteenth century; during its year of peak sales in 1837, over 630 000 copies of Old Moore’s were sold (79, 85).

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Figure 1: The title page for the 1813 edition of Vox Stellarum. Copy owned by Julia Grandison.

Like most Stationers’ Company almanacs, Old Moore’s included a calendar for each month, a tide table for numerous locations throughout Britain, a chronology of “Remarkable Occurrences” in history, and notes about law terms and holidays. In addition to these fairly standard almanac offerings, Old Moore’s specialized in the provision of predictions about the coming year. Throughout each edition, data such as the amount of rain fallen during the previous year, or the dates and times for each of the phases moon, were presented alongside a variety of astrological prognostications. Although this combination of data and prophecy struck some contemporaries as educationally backward, Vox Stellarum appeared to mediate between different ways of thinking about time, and to promote empirical methods for predicting the future that might have seemed new and strange to many readers.

For example, consider the kinds of data provided in the entry for May, 1813 (pictured in Figure 2, below.) The columns on the verso include (1) the day of the month; (2) the week day, with Sundays represented by the red letter “C;” (3) a column called “Fasts and Festivals,” in which are included term dates and Christian feast days, historical dates of note (“K. Cha. II. Rest[ored]” on May 29, for example), as well as times at which planets rise throughout the month; (4) the number of days during which the sun has been in a given sign of the zodiac; in this case, Taurus, followed by Gemini; (5) a list of body parts supposedly vulnerable on the day in question, when the moon is passing through a particular sign of the zodiac; (6) the age of the moon; (7) the hour of moonrise or moonset; and (8) “Mutual Asp. & Weather” notes the angles between different planets and provides some weather forecasts.

On the recto, the first three columns provide the day of month, the daily hours of the sunrise, and of the sunset, respectively. The fourth column provides the time of the moon’s southing, or the hour at which it crosses the meridian of the observer (and therefore appears due north or south). Finally, the fifth column entitled “Monthly Observations” includes a record of the notable weather events during the month of May two years previously (in 1811) and the times of new, full, and quarter moons, while the remainder of the text in this column is devoted to speculation about weather, health, and politics. For example, the compiler predicts that the “Configurations of the Planets” foretell “Mortality among Men and Cattle” during this month, though he politely hopes that this prediction proves untrue.

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  verso
Figure 2: The two-page entry for the month of May in the 1813 edition of Vox Stellarum. Copy owned by Julia Grandison.

On these pages alone, Old Moore’s represents several different ways of measuring and perceiving time. One is historical, based on recorded human or weather events. Another is civil or religious: the dates of Easter term, for example, or of various feasts and fasts. In addition, Old Moore’s combines two different kinds of predictions about the future: someare mathematical, based on calculations that were likely taught in schools for determining the time of the sunrise, moonrise, or the southing of the Moon (see Hamilton’s astronomy textbook, for example), and some are astrological. When the almanac’s author writes, “news from Portugal and Spain, and also Turkey, now arrives in or near this Month,” for example, his political insights are supposed to be derived from his understanding of judicial astrology, a discipline that claims that the positions of the planets affect the events befalling individuals and nations. At first glance, each of these kinds of information seems to be presented with equal authority, as if each were equally useful or credible to readers, although the hour of sunrise, the body parts vulnerable each day of the month, and the political prognostications for a given period are kinds of knowledge that a modern reader would likely categorize and evaluate quite differently.

Although the format of Old Moore's seems to represent very different kinds of knowledge in similar ways, it is difficult to reconstruct the epistemological paradigms of the contemporary readers of Vox Stellarum and to say whether they read each part of this text as credulously as some commentators supposed. According to Maureen Perkins, judicial astrology was a dying science in the nineteenth century, relinquished by most almanacs in favour of natural astrology, which still held that the positions of planets and stars affect the weather, medicine, and farming (4-6). Even natural astrology was under attack by various critics during the nineteenth century, the most vocal of whom was Charles Knight of the Society of the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and founder of the strictly “useful” British Almanac (Perkins 23-5; Maidment 95-6). Some readers, then, clearly perceived natural astrology and empircally-derived information as incompatible kinds of knowledge, but their objections were often justified with reference to readers who could not tell the difference between them. Certainly, nineteenth-century fiction and periodicals often gently mock the credulity of the hypothetical readers of such predictions, as well as the farfetched inventions of their producers; a foolish astrologer’s prediction, confirmed by “Moore’s almanac,” is the butt of the joke in Charles Dickens’s comic short story, “The Lamplighter,” for example. These critics of Vox Stellarum assumed that naïve readers were unable to distinguish the “useful matter” from the “ignorance and imposture” that the British Almanac identified in almanacs “most in demand” (2).

The popularity of Old Moore’s suggests that its readers did appreciate the combination of mathematical and astrological information here, both natural and judicial, but it does not follow that they read all of this almanac's content with equal credulity, or that the result of readers’ faith in its predictions had regressive political or educational effects. In fact, Old Moore’s compiler often partially undermines the least scientific of his prognostications, as if trying to modulate his readers’ faith in their utilitarian value. Under “Monthly Observations” for January and February 1814, for example, he mentions that the weather predictions provided are “deduced from Astrological and Philosophical Principles, and are given for the Observation of the Curious, and all others, and to be classed and used with good Barometers or Weather Glasses. I wish Farmers and Graziers would attend to those Instruments more than they often do; they then would not find themselves disappointed when they needed their aid and assistance most, that is, in Hay Time and Harvest” (Vox Stellarum 1814 3-5) Vox Stellarum's phrasing here — “given for the observation of the curious” — carefully implies that his weather forecasts are for observing and testing curiosity, not for his readers to rely upon. Similarly, by recommending the use of weather glasses and barometers and noting their reliability, he advances relatively modern meteorology more than he promotes his own astrological speculations.

Vox Stellarum also equivocates about its political predictions. Both in the columns of “Monthly Observations” and in the long section entitled “OBSERVATIONS, upon the Four Quarters of the Year” at the end of the almanac, the compiler provides a number of comments about the catastrophes that he predicts will unfold in global politics. He offers statements such as, “some great Changes in several Kingdoms and Countries of the European World are drawing on; the Providence of the Almighty doth so order Celestial Influences, by His immutable Decree, that excessive Tyranny must at least yield to Justice and Moderation,” or, that “Some Countries may obtain Peace, and England may gain some Advantages; but I fear no general Peace is yet like to take place, at least in the Spirit of Peace” (Vox Stellarum 1814 46-7, 48). The verb tenses are notable here: the imperative mood — “Tyranny must yield to Justice” — is a statement of faith, rather than prophecy; similarly, the conditional tense, “may obtain peace, and…Advantages,” equivocates just enough to foster his readers’ wishful thinking without foretelling any real outcome. Perkins makes the excellent point that most of Vox Stellarum’s predictions, like those cited above, were designed to comfort readers in times of political turmoil. They tended to counsel patience, reform, and moderation, and to predict catastrophe abroad, rather than in Britain (108-112). Perkins found that Old Moore’s advised its readers to support the Reform Act of 1832, for example, and to maintain their faith in the arrival of better times. The sense one gets from the almanac’s rhetoric is that its compilers understood their readers’ desires for foreknowledge, meteorological or political, but tried to gently steer them toward other kinds of knowledge, even by instilling a certain amount of skepticism about their almanac's own predictions.

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Figure 3: The hieroglyphic for the 1814 edition of Vox Stellarum (43). Copy owned by Julia Grandison.

At the end of each copy of Vox Stellarum, its compilers included another feature that contributed to this almanac's popularity. This was its “hieroglyphic” — a cryptic drawing that was ostensibly symbolic of the events of the coming year. Most editions presented the image without commentary as if its meaning were self-evident, although the ambiguity of Moore’s hieroglyphics must have inspired much inconclusive speculation among his readers. With the hieroglyphic from 1814 (pictured in Figure 3; 43), for example, the author renounces any explanatory responsibility and writes, “I shall omit the deciphering of the Characters, as they relate to a view of Mundane Affairs, but shall leave them to Time and the Curious to construe.” Here, the writer evokes “the curious” as his target audience. The different contemporary senses of the word connote different meanings. On the one hand, the word evokes the now somewhat archaic sense of studiousness and careful inquiry, and the even more archaic sense of interest in occult (or astrological) art; on the other, it also carries the more modern meaning of vigorous interest in something novel. The former meaning prefigures his readers as careful scholars and devoted astrologers, but the latter simply depicts interested people with a desire for any knowledge he has to offer. It was likely that Vox Sellarum’s audience consisted of both kinds of “curious” readers; the former were those targeted by reformers of the almanac, while the latter might have read the almanac the way many readers read their horoscopes in the paper today. Old Moore’s carefully toes the line between them here, neither absolutely alienating the former, nor appealing to them outright.

In spite of its bold prophetic claims, then, Vox Stellarum likely habituated its readers to scientific and empirical methods, indoctrinated them with healthy skepticism about prophetic speculation, while it still catered to its readers' desires to know the future. Although this almanac's popularity persisted well into this nineteenth century, it is possible that readers appreciated Old Moore’s as much for its gentle introduction of new paradigms as for its perpetuation of older ones.