Almanacs were the favourite reading material of monoglot Welsh speakers right from the 17th century!
Affordable literatures, such as the almanac, were particularly popular with the lower classes, which made up most of Wales’s population. Between c. 1545 and 1801, the population of Wales saw a staggering increase – in fact, it more than doubled. Most of these people were monoglot Welsh speakers.
But what exactly is an almanac, and what made it such a favourite?
The defining feature of an almanac is its annual calendar, and in this sense, its history predates the printing press by several millennia. The near East produced texts considered to be almanacs as long ago as 500 B.C. However, it was only after the development of printing that almanacs truly began to gain popularity.
The first printed almanac was produced in Europe in 1457. Yearly almanacs were printed in England from the late 16th century and these became bestsellers during the succeeding century. The first Welsh-language almanac was soon to follow.
It is with Thomas Jones (1648-1713), a tailor’s son from Tre’r Ddôl near Corwen, that the story of the Welsh almanac begins.
In 1679, when he was eighteen, Jones was granted a royal patent for writing and publishing an annual Welsh-language almanac. These were published in London, under the title ‘Newyddion Oddiwrth y Sêr’ (‘News From the Stars’).
Jones’ almanacs were between 20 and 24 leaves in length. They contained, along with the typical yearly calendar, material that was directed at their intended readership.
The first Welsh almanacs featured:
- Weather forecasts and moon phases
- Lists of markets and fairs
- Astronomical guides and readings
- Christian holidays
- Tide tables
- Welsh-language reading guides
- Samples of Welsh literature and poetry
- A chronology of historical events
- Various advertisements
Jones’ almanacs were useful resources for the poor Welsh, particularly farmers; consider, for example, their environmental and weather related content. Astrological features also fulfilled the folk’s superstitious beliefs. Jones was a known supporter of amateur Welsh writers and he gave them a printed platform through his almanac.
Thomas Jones’ almanac remained one of a kind until 1695, when the Printing Act (which had restricted book-publishing to London, Oxford and Cambridge) came to an end. From then on, the printing industry spread throughout England and Wales, resulting in an increase in the number of Welsh almanac titles. Their contents, however, strayed little from Jones’ original format.
The Welsh almanac stands apart from its European cousins. Their contents varied from the medical lore of England’s medieval almanacs to the administrative organisation of France; as featured in the French ‘Royal Almanac’, founded in 1683. That the Italian ‘Barbanera’ (first published in 1762) is today included in UNESCO’s ‘Memory of the World’ Register gives a clear indication of an almanac’s value.
The Welsh almanac is certainly no exception. It is a valuable resource, not only in terms of literary, vernacular, and social history, but also as a work of great heritage significance.
Steffani W. Davies,
National Library of Wales
The blog post is a part of the Rise of Literacy project, where we take you on an exploration of literacy in Europe thanks to the digital preservation of precious textual works from collections across the continent.