Happy New Year! If you’re wondering what is to come in 2017, early medieval monks had the answers. A number of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts include prognostics of various kinds – texts for predicting the future.
One such manuscript is London, British Library Cotton MS Tiberius A. iii. As mentioned in some earlier posts, I’ve worked with this manuscript before, and it’s hard to characterise it: a copy of two important monastic rules with a lot of prayers, homilies and other texts useful for a churchman – and also quite a lot of prognostics. Particularly relevant for today is a text known as the Revelatio Esdrae, a forecast for the upcoming year based on the day of the week that the kalends (first day of the month) of January falls on, so named because it was attributed to the prophet Ezra. It gives seven different predictions for the upcoming year; relevant to 2017 is the following:
K‹L› ianuarius gif he biþ on sunnandæg. þonne he bið god winter 7 windig lencten. 7 dryge sumor. 7 swyþe god gear biþ þy geare. 7 sceap weaxað. 7 micel hunig biþ. 7 genihtsumnes 7 sib byð on eorþan (fol. 42r).
If the Kalends of January is on a Sunday, then it will be a good winter and windy spring, and a dry summer, and in that year it will be a very good year, and sheep will grow and there will be much honey, and abundance and peace will be on the earth.
(Quotation and translation from Liuzza, ed., Anglo-Saxon Prognostics, pp. 206-7.)
The world is such an unpeaceful place at the moment; I do hope the prognosticator was right.
On other occasions, I have mentioned working with the manuscript known as Ælfwine’s Prayerbook (London, British Library Cotton MS Titus D. xxvii + xxvi), a prayerbook and liturgical handbook which also includes scientific texts and prognostics. This has a Revelatio Esdrae based on the weather. In these versions, Sunday is referred to as prima feria, the first day of the week:
KAL. IANVARII. Si fuerit in prima feria, hiems bona erit et ue[rn]us uentosus et aestas sicca et uindemia bona, et oues multiplicabuntur, et mel habundabit, et habundantia pacis (Titus D. xxvii, fol. 25r).
(Quoted from Günzel, ed., Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, p. 115.)
KALENDS OF JANUARY. If it is on the first day of the week, winter will be good, and spring windy, and summer dry, and harvest good, and sheep will multiply, and honey will abound, and there will be an abundance of peace.
A very similar text appears later on in the same manuscript (Titus D. xxvi, fol.10v), and also in Tiberius A. iii (fol. 36r).
Another way of predicting the future was by looking at the phases of the Moon. I don’t altogether understand these, but if the New Moon is the first day of the lunar cycle, then, according to this guide to moon phases, the first of January 2017 should be the fifth night of the moon (I’ve set my location to York, UK, if that alters anything). According to various lunaria in Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, today is a bad day for bloodletting, one on which a young person will be taken away (this from a lunarium of births), one on which a sick person will behave evasively and get better, and one upon which whatever you see in a dream will come true (Günzel, pp. 146-9). And according to similar texts in Tiberius A. iii, the fifth night of the lunar month is one on which you can expect to receive good advice, should spend time with a friend, can steal without being found out (!), and if you fall ill on that day, you can be cured (Liuzza, pp. 190-5).
These might seem like strange things to find in monastic prayerbooks, but in fact they are typical of the religious/scientific attitudes of the time. As well as including prayers, Ælfwine’s Prayerbook also includes a range of scientific knowledge (such as Ælfric of Eynsham’s De temporibus anni, an Old English work on the structure of the cosmos and how weather works), short texts on the lengths of the seasons, guides to bloodletting based on the phases of the moon, guides to interpreting dreams, and computistical texts – those used for calculating the date of Easter. Prognostics were related to religious knowledge on the one hand and scientific knowledge on the other – they were part of the same continuum, that of the observation of the natural world and the use of this information for the improvement of human life, both for secular purposes (keeping livestock, healing the body) and sacred (working out when to celebrate a religious festival). Medieval monks were deeply fascinated with knowledge, often that which had been inherited from the Greek and Roman world, and made little distinction between sacred and secular learning.
May you have a mild winter and a good harvest this year; may today’s illness end in good health, and tonight’s dreams come true; and may honey, and particularly peace, abound in 2017.
Beate Günzel, ed., Ælfwine’s Prayerbook (London, British Library, Cotton Titus D. xxvi + xxvii), Henry Bradshaw Society 108 (London: Boydell Press, 1993).
R. M. Liuzza, ed. and trans., Anglo-Saxon Prognostics: An Edition and Translation of Texts from London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius A. iii (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2011).