As the last quarter of the seventeenth century began, the astrological calendar-printing scene in Germany saw the sudden appearance of not just one but four Egyptian interpreters of the stars. (Actually, one of them claimed to be Persian instead.) Though usually published in large print-runs of several thousands, these almanacs with forecasts on the weather, politics, economy, family matters, good days for blood-letting or hair-cuts for the whole year were literally read to shreds (or put to other uses, some of them related to excrement) and so precious few of them have survived. The trade surrounding them was hugely competitive, hence crafty publishers picked their astrologer carefully. And even with a qualified expert, all things being equal, a little exotic lustre or mysterious scent could make all the difference in attracting the attention of the buying public at a loss to assess the respective merits of various calendars. An extraordinary authorial persona might well do the trick: meet, for instance, ‘Abdiel Bavai, presently astrologer in Alexandria, Egypt,’ or ‘Necho of Cairo in Egypt’. Most intriguingly, there was also a lady astrologer by the foreknowledgeable name of Sibylla Ptolomaein ‘from Alexandria in Egypt.
If you were expecting to encounter a real woman behind a name that’s simply to good to be true considering our context, then I have to be quick to disappoint you: behind this pseudonym—readable as ‘sibyl’, of oracular fame, and ‘wife to Ptolemy’, the great systematizer of astrology (as well as astronomy and geography, by the way) based in Alexandria—hid none other than the noted astronomer Gottfried Kirch (1639–1710). Probably the most prolific of German calendar authors, at times he ran up to thirteen series: as he explained in one of them, a poor calendar maker had to sell his work to several publishers in order to make ends meet (Ziegeuner-Kalender 1676, f. B1v). He further vociferated against the host of fumblers against which upright astronomers were forced to compete. (Literally, he wrote ‘star-knowers’: early-modern German knew a number of terms that undermine the hard-and-fast distinction between astronomers and astrologers.) To improve the situation, he called for every calendar maker to be examined by a university mathematician, much as healthcare providers such as surgeons or pharmacists also had to earn the right to practise (Ziegeuner-Kalender 1676, f. B2r).
Unfortunately, we do not know who was behind the other three calendars but according to Sibylla/Gottfried, she/he was the first to have set the trend from 1673. Sibylla/Gottfried related that her/his gypsy calendar was copied by Abdiel Bavai as early as the second year, and one year later Necho and Abdalla Mirsai had also come out with their own (Ziegeuner-Kalender 1676, ‘Kurtze nothwendige Vor-Erinnerung’). As others jumped on the bandwaggon and created their own astrological gypsy personae, the title of her/his calendar changed massively over the course of three years: in 1674, we still get the simple ‘Old and New Calendar’ (old and new refer to the two competing dating styles, based on the Julian and Gregorian calendars, respectively); in 1675 this had changed to ‘The Real Gypsy Calendar’ and, if anyone still missed the point, the 1676 edition really hammered it home: ‘The Real Gypsy Calendar Invented First’.
All of these gypsy astrologers cropping up in the 1670s prompt an obvious question: why would it seem so promising to advertise almanacs as prepared by gypsies? These folks of no fixed residence suffered from bad press, and many German cities did not allow them to enter within their gates. As Necho of Cairo related, in March 1676 ‘an entire company’ of gypsies was taken to Vienna, where they were processed further in what is not the most humane fashion:
Among them, the men were led to Hungarian border posts in chain and iron and condemned to work for ten years, the boys for three years; the women, of whom there had been twenty-two, were accompanied to the margraviate Moravia. The children were taken from them, of whom diverse gentlemen of distinction have adopted several to educate them according to the will of God (Jahrs-Propheceyung 1677, p. ).
Yet gypsies were also known as skilled palm readers and thus seemed to have a good hold on the future. In this vein, ‘the Persian natural gypsy’ Abdalla Mirsai also mentioned chiromancy alongside astrology in the title of his calendar: Gypsy Feats, Nativities and Palm Interpretations Calendar. His engraved frontispiece eloquently testified to this double road to foreknowledge and stressed the analogies between astrology and palmistry. In his mid-year update, Necho of Cairo even offered his readers a chiromancy course in installments (Jahrs-Propheceyung 1677, e.g. f. C1r-2r).
Yet such chiromantic strategies were not a necessity. The supposed Egyptian origin of gypsies alone rendered them exceptionally apt to read the stars: while some early-modern scholars ascribed the invention of the mathematical arts, including astrology, to the Hebrew patriarch Abraham, everyone would have agreed that they were greatly developed further in Egypt (just remember Ptolemy of Alexandria), from whence mathematics passed on to the Greek. After insisting that he was actually no ‘real born gypsy, Egyptian or pagan’ but a good, university-educated Lutheran, Abdiel Bavai even explained this to his readers in the first issue:
That I should put on the name of a gypsy is because I—as a lover of astrology—chose, searched and by God’s grace found the place most suitable to this art in the entire world, which is Egypt (because of the constantly light and clear firmament). And I spent many years there, not without special advantage and important gain, so that I can now speak and write of the course of heaven as any born gypsy (Europaeischer Tugend- und Laster-Calender 1674, f. [A3r]).
Unlike in Germany, where bad weather was a constant issue for any aspiring stargazer, Egypt provided the perfect meteorological conditions for the study of astrology in antiquity just as in the seventeenth century.
Choosing gypsies as authorial personae in the calendar business thus lent an exotic flavour to almanacs that would otherwise have drowned in a mass of rival publications. It helped astrologers consolidate their insights into the future through chiromancy, and it appealed to the reputation of ancient Egypt as a place and time where mathematics and astrology were crucially developed. These mysterious figures were incarnations of ancient wisdom from the east, broken down for consumption within popular print culture. Furthermore, the gypsy astrologers tie in nicely with my earlier post, An ABC of Shady Figures on the Medical Marketplace, in which I placed alchemists in the context of their various competitors. And it seems that health was not the only area in which some practitioners tried to gain an edge over their rivals by donning esoteric garbs—the same goes for the prognostic marketplace, where star-gazing astrologers, palm-reading gypsies and one or the other divinely inspired prophet vied for attention.
As a final, anticlimactic little tidbit, and for those of you wondering what all this astrology and palmistry is doing on a blog ostensibly dedicated to chymistry, one calendar also used alchemy as a selling point: Johann Michael Silberbott (silver tub—certainly a pseudonym) and his calendar entitled The Presently Much Maligned Golden Art. Beside the usual calendar ingredients, readers were also educated on the history and basic concepts of alchemy.
This post would have been entirely unthinkable without the great online resources provided by German libraries and archives and it is indeed a pleasure to acknowledge that! I first discovered Necho of Cairo by sheer fluke while browsing through the VD17—an almost complete online bibliography of everything printed within Germany, or in the German language elsewhere (Amsterdam looms large), during the seventeenth century: a veritable treasure trove, need I say more? Then I went on the lookout for Necho’s colleagues and found them all gathered together in the Stadtarchiv Altburg: the impressive calendar collection preserved there is being made available as high-quality scans on journals@UrMEL (click on ‘Kalenderblätter’ to browse). Specifically, I would like to thank Ursula Schreiber (Stadtarchiv Altburg) for permission to include the stunning visual material in this post.
Alkair, Necho von. Kalender/ So nach Alter und Neuer Zeit Auff das Jahr … Nach Anleitung des Himmels- und Sternen-Lauffs. Altenburg: Bey G. C. Rügern, 1675 ff.
Bavai, Abdiel. Nach Alter und Neuer Zeit Wohl eingerichteter/ und gantz neu erfundener Europaeischer Tugend- und Laster-Calender. Nürnberg: Gedruckt bey Johann-Philipp Miltenberger, 1674 ff.
Mirsai, Abdalla. Alter und Neuer Unbetrüglicher Zigeunerischer Kunst-Stücke/ Planeten-Erforschungen/ und Hände-deutungen Calender. Nürnberg: Gedruckt bey Christoff Gerhard/ und zufinden bey Johann Hoffman daselbst, 1675 ff.
Ptolomaein, Sibylla (pseud. Gottfried Kirch). Der Rechte zu erst erfundene Ziegeuner-Kalender. Annaberg: Gedruckt und verlegt durch David Nicolai, 1673 ff.
Silberbott, Johann Michael. Die Heut zu Tag so übel beschreyte Gold-Kunst/ Oder Alt- und Neuer Schreib- Feyer- und Namens-Calender. Nürnberg: Bey Christoph Endtern/ Buchhändlern, 1677 ff.
* As mentioned in the text and unlike present-day journals, these calendars could easily change their titles in successive years, which makes pinning them down bibliographically something of a pain. In other words, don’t be surprised to encounter slightly different renderings on the frontispieces, or on the title pages, and in the online database.
Herbst, Klaus-Dieter. ‘Die Kalender von Gottfried Kirch.’ Beiträge zur Astronomiegeschichte 7 (2004): 115-159.
Kassell, Lauren. ‘Almanacs and Prognostications.’ In The Oxford History of Popular Print Culture, ed. Joad Raymond, vol. 1: Cheap Print in Britain and Ireland to 1660. Oxford, etc.: Oxford University Press, 2011. 431-442.
Popper, Nicholas. ‘ “Abraham, Planter of Mathematics”: Histories of Mathematics and Astrology in Early Modern Europe.’ Journal of the History of Ideas 67: 1 (2006): 87-106.