Almanacs have existed for as long as people have attempted to interpret the seas and the skies. The Babylonians compiled star catalogues, and the early Greeks and Egyptians knew the importance of correctly predicting the weather. Medieval almanacs introduced elements of divination to their texts. And, as early medicine associated human physiology with astrology, almanacs soon carried health advice too, with an edict of the University of Paris decreeing, in 1437, that all physicians must own a copy of the latest almanac. To read a bit more about the history of early English almanacs and their role in the practice of medicine, check out this fascinating blogpost from the Wellcome library.
Diagram showing the associations between the body and the stars, from ‘Pond: An Almanack for the Year of Our Lord God 1695’, Stationers’ Company Library
With such a wide application, it’s hardly surprising that almanacs were hugely popular books. In fact Gutenberg published the first printed almanac some years before printing a Bible. The advent of printing turned almanacs into best-sellers, and until the 1770s the Stationers’ Company made substantial profits from its monopoly on publishing them. Over time, different almanacs emerged to cater for different readerships, and their contents developed into compendia of useful political and geographical facts, household tips, and adverts. We have a wonderful collection of almanacs in our library, ranging in date from 1620 to the early twentieth history. Taken together, they provide a unique insight into the social history of Britain.
For this exhibition, we decided to focus on one aspect of our almanacs: the ‘enigma’ sections, which were as popular with their readers as newspaper puzzle pages are today. Verbal puzzles enjoyed a revival of interest across Renaissance Europe; the many riddles that occur in Shakespeare’s plays (e.g. Maria’s trap for Malvolio in ‘Twelfth Night’, or the gravediggers’ exchange in ‘Hamlet’) suggest the extent to which word games permeated English popular culture in the sixteenth-century. A few hundred years later, riddles were still amusing – and embarrassing – characters in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’. Presenting some of those puzzles to today’s exhibition visitors seemed like an excellent way of encouraging them to engage with the past.
That, at least, was the theory. It proved more of a challenge than expected to find enigmas that seem as entertaining and witty today as they no doubt did first time round. For a start, word puzzles were just more wordy back then: people had more time, or at least less to fill it with, and their attention spans could hold more than 140 characters a go. I had no chance of persuading anyone to wade through a page and a half of rhyming couplets published in very fine print. Particularly when the answers are so obscure to a modern audience that the pay-off seems a little disappointing. Inkwells or woolsacks are simply not answers that would pop into our heads when trying to solve a riddle. Moreover, having a year to work out the solutions, many readers replied to the puzzles with long-winded verses of their own. There are several enigmas to which I’m still not entirely sure of the answer. Early eighteenth-century riddles had the additional complication of being surprisingly bawdy: this exhibition is, after all, a family-oriented entertainment.
Eventually I settled on a page from ‘The Lady’s and Gentleman’s Diary’ or 1854, featuring both a rebus and a charade. Being now well-versed in the distinction between the two, I feel obliged to conclude this piece by sharing it with you. In a charade, typically each syllable of a word is described by a separate enigmatic or punning reference. A bit like how you act them out in a party game of charades, except you use written puns instead of mime. A rebus is a literary puzzle that plays off writing and printing conventions, as well as phonetic and pictorial representations. They’re more common today as those puzzles you probably had as a child, with the word ‘I’ being replaced by a picture of an eye, etc. If you like those, do go to the exhibition and see the very lovely example Claire has provided, illustrated with beautifully drawn pictograms.
Enigma from ‘The Woman’s Almanac’, 1744, Stationers’ Company Library. The answer is: A horse-shoe