Becoming Michael Fish: using Early Modern methods to predict the weather

The weather forecast plays an arbitrary role in most of our day to day lives as a segment on the news or something to quickly check on an app. It only really becomes important when planning a day out or looking out for severe weather warnings. Weather is not something most people are concerned about unless in extreme conditions or if the weather is predicted incorrectly, such as in 1987 when Michael Fish assured viewers in his lunchtime weather broadcast that there was not a hurricane on the way. However, in the early hours of the next day, the south coast of England faced gales that reached 115 miles per hour.[1]

‘Michael Fish revisits 1987’s Great Storm’, BBC News, 16 October 2017.

For people in the early modern period, especially those who relied on agrarian method for their own produce and business, the weather was pivotal in ensuring their survival. Gervase Markham includes a section in his book The English Husbandman (1635) about how to read signs from the sun, moon, clouds and air to help the reader predict the weather, with a focus on rain. The fact that it was included as part of a book that ‘contained the knowledge of Husbandly Duties’ shows how vital it was to have some understanding of the weather in early modern society.

Stephen Wilson highlights that weather prediction was not a new practice in the early modern period and that it took place in the Ancient world as well and could be linked to divine beings.[2] Weather in the early modern period was not perceived as just a natural occurrence but also influenced or controlled by other forces such as God, saints, demons or humans with specials powers such as witches which allowed for its unpredictability.

For five days, I have used Markham’s guide to reading signs about the weather to see if I could successfully forecast the weather or become the next unfortunate Michael Fish. On Thursday, around lunchtime, the day seemed grey with a thick blanket of cloud covering the sky.

‘If there you shall at any time perceive a Cloud rising from the lowest part of the Horizon, and that the maine body be blacke and thicke, and his beames (as it were) Curtaine-wise, extending upward, and driven before the Windes: it is a certaine and infallible signe of a present shower of Raine, yet but momentary and soone spent, or passed over : but if the Cloud shall arise against the Winde, and as it were spread it selfe against the violence of the same, then shall the Raine be of much longer continuance.’

Gervase Markham’s ‘signes from the cloud’

Checking Markham’s ‘Signes from the cloud’, the cloud did seem to start at the horizon and cover the sky but did not seem particularly black or thick. As a black and thick cover of cloud is a sign of a brief rainy shower, I forecast that there would be a light shower later in the day , more of a drizzle fitting to the pale clouds. I was wrong – at about 3pm, the sun was shining, and the sky was blue and clear. Going back over my notes, I realised I should have noticed the lack of waterfowl on the lake – if the ducks and geese would have been on the lake then it would have been almost certain to have rained.



‘If you shall perceive water-Fowle to bathe much’

After falling short reading cloud signs, I turned to Markham’s more definitive signs. Markham suggests that salt becoming moist when placed in a dry place is a sure sign that rain will follow. So, I placed salt on my bedroom windowsill, in an attempt to limit the effects of modern-day insulation and left it overnight. When checked the first two mornings, the salt had remained dry which was consistent with the fine, spring weather forecast, however on third morning the salt had become damp, forming clumps that suggested rain was on the way – although I could not spot the neighbour’s cat washing behind her ear to confirm with a sign from a beast, rain did follow.

‘If Salt turne moyst standing in dry places’

While my readings of Markham’s signs were not always accurate, the empirical reasoning behind the signs are identifiable. By observing the moisture levels in salt, dampness in the air can be visibly seen which suggests incoming wet weather. Empirical observation is also seen in the various descriptions of cloud colouring that suggests rain, an understanding which is common today with dark clouds in the day suggesting that rainfall is due. Markham, like Michael Fish, used the tools he had to best predicate the weather and educate others of the best way of doing so. Markham’s work shows how early modern people running households sought to bring order and predictability to their lives. Through reading signs in order to predict the weather, the good husbandman would have been able to prepare and plan in order to best provide for his household. While weather forecasts may not play such a pivotal role in all our daily lives, except for businesses where work takes places mainly outside, the impact when it is predicted wrong can be catastrophic, just ask Michael Fish!

[1] Joe Shute, ‘Weatherman Michael Fish on missing the Great Storm of 1987: ‘when I saw what happened I thought, ‘oh s***’’, The Telegraph (12 October 2017), https://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/weatherman-michael-fish-missing-great-storm-1987-saw-happened/ [accessed 1 April 2019]

[2] Stephen Wilson, The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe (London, 2000), pp. 57-58.

Gervase Markham, The English Husbandman (London, 1635), pp. 10-13, http://historicaltexts.jisc.ac.uk/ [accessed 25 March 2019].


5 thoughts on “Becoming Michael Fish: using Early Modern methods to predict the weather

  1. Such creativity! It is extremely easy to know what the weather will be at any given moment just by checking an app. Were there any other inventive ways in which the weather was predicted?

  2. I think this was a brilliant idea!
    In terms of the unpredictability of the weather being linked to the divine and supernatural beings, were there any weathers particularly associated to one being?
    It was also particularly interesting to know who would have been taught to read signs of the weather, was there any evidence for females being taught this as well as men?

    1. Thank you!

      Markham mainly looks at the signs of rain or bad weather which could be caused by witches, but it’s emphasised by Markham that the weather is down to God mostly which is why it’s changeable.

      I did not find any evidence of the actual audience, just the intended one from the details on the cover. Though, I imagine that is plausible if the book was part of a household collection then women would have also been able to access it perhaps.

  3. I think this is an ingenious way of bring early modern literature to life!
    It makes you realize how fortunate we are in the present day, not to have to rely on these sorts of methods to predict the weather.
    Did you investigate beyond Markham’s signs, to see if any other early modern methods of weather prediction differed or were similar to his?

    1. Thank you! I did not but I’m interested to know more about the sources that Mary used to compare ideas of weather prediction in North America and to see if much changed between Markham’s work in 1635 and Reid’s in 1721.

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