Gardening » Rural

A Short, Factual History of the Almanac

Veteran Harrowsmith contributor Dan Needles examines the medieval origins of the Almanac.

The word “almanac” has its roots somewhere in the Arabic language but a handbook telling you what to plant and when, is actually a western invention. It grew out of the work of a committee of scholars in Toledo, Spain in the eleventh century who worked through the calculations of Ptolemy, the ancient Roman mathematician and astronomer, to give us a rough idea of how many months, days and hours there were in a year.

Like most committees, the Toledo group kept meeting for no reason at all, for a couple of centuries. Finally, one of the members emerged from a long meeting at a seaside resort to report what they knew so far to the Learned King Alphonso X. He handed the king an “interim report,” but he called it an “Almanach” because if you used an Arabic word in those days, you sounded like you knew what you were talking about. The king, who was a very patient man, wrote out yet another cheque, waded through the report and exclaimed quietly, “If the Lord Almighty had consulted me before embarking on this Creation, I should have recommended something simpler!”

“The Bible was certainly one of my better ideas, but I gotta tell you, it was the those Almanacs that made people give up their scrolls.”

One of the king’s clerks heard this remark and thought about it and went home to work in his basement on a little handbook of practical advice for the home and garden, something the average non-Latin speaking guy with a pass arts degree could understand. He always referred to it dryly as “The Almanach,” but his kids never got the joke. Copies of this book were handed around the family for about a century in hand-written form, the pages well thumbed from constant use. A copy eventually found its way to Oxford University in England and Roger Bacon copied it out and claimed it as his own. Then, in 1457, Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press and the modern book, ground out an almanac that he said he’d written. Gutenberg is remembered for the first printing of the Bible. But he found the real money in publishing came from almanacs. On his deathbed years later, Gutenberg is said to have declared, “The Bible was certainly one of my better ideas, but I gotta tell you, it was the those Almanacs that made people give up their scrolls.”

In the meantime, King Alphonso’s money didn’t completely go to waste. His astronomical tables eventually fell into the hands of a smart Italian kid named Christopher Columbus, who figured out in about three minutes that the world wasn’t flat. That’s the reason we are all here today in North America.

I hope this helps to clarify why we have gone to so much trouble to present this up-to-date guide for living in the 21st century. If you’re still fuzzy about it, don’t worry. The Harrowsmith team will probably have another go at it next year, maybe sooner.

Dan Needles is a hero to anyone who has ever dared to dream about life in the country. He made the move from urban to rural more than 30 years ago and has been writing about his adventures ever since with just the right amount of pragmatism and poignancy. From his small acreage near Georgian Bay in southern Ontario, Dan offers words of wisdom in his regular columns in Country Guide and Small Farm magazines, among others, and of course, he was the back-page columnist in Harrowsmith Country Life from 1997. Even so, Dan is probably best known as the playwright behind the wildly successful Wingfield Farm stage plays, which continue to play to sold-out houses across the country. Currently there are seven of them—the most recent is “Wingfield Lost and Found,”—each an amusing chronicle in the life of Walt Wingfield, a city boy, who like Dan himself, tries his hand at country living. We are thrilled that a good friend like Dan took us up on our invitation to introduce 2013’s Almanac.