Weather Forecasting: An English Virtue

Meteorology: the seasons, autumn. Engraving by A. Collaert . Credit: Wellcome Collection.

One of the readings from our class’s seminar caught my attention as an exciting topic to observe from the perspective of an early modern household. The suggested reading was a chapter within the first book of The English Husbandman (1635) by the prolific writer on domestic advice, Gervase Markham. As you can probably guess from the title, the chapter was regarding, ‘… other vertues, as namely how he shall judge and foreknow all kinde of weather and other seasons of the yeare.’ The reason it was of interest was due to the lack of consideration I had placed on weather and seasonal predictions with its specific relevance to the household, before this source. The revelations described by Markham and my own personal curiosity have led me to comment on why this ‘skill’ was something husbandmen would aim to possess.

Defining the fore-telling of the seasons and weather as a ‘vertue’ and devoting a whole chapter to this skill shows the importance Markham placed upon a man’s ability to know the future climate. Initially, this seemed strange, referring to weather watching and season prediction as a virtue in early modern England. I presumed the accuracy and belief in weather prediction would have been minimal in a society which had yet to enter the period of scientific enlightenment. However, the specific instructions Markham presents to predict weather and seasons suggests that ordinary husbandmen had some investment in these beliefs which to the modern reader appear incredibly abstract. It required the husbandman to be in tune with the natural world around him, relying on cues in the environment.

The English Husbandman (1635) p. 19.

One method which was used before the emergence of the barometer in the late 17th Century was natural astrological theory, judging the weather by looking at the celestial bodies.[1] These movements and the weather produced from them were believed to be directly linked to human physiology.[2] The renaissance revival in the humoral theory connected the weather conditions and more specifically astrology to effects on bodily fluids.[3]This mirroring was a key aspect of Markham’s weather and season predictions. The latter part of the chapter concerns the reactions a husbandman should have to the prediction of a poor year in health, rather than solely foretelling weather as the title suggests, Markham integrates monthly medical intervention with general observations which impacted on agricultural wealth. (See example above)

The other technique which Markham gives the husbandman for long term weather forecasting was using the weather experienced during the first twelve days of Christmas as a guide to the weather over the whole year, each day corresponding to each month. This was a conventional technique used in Western Europe, although the first day of observations varied regionally, with some nations choosing the New Year to mark the monthly weather.[4] This would have been a simple way for a husbandman to predict monthly weather patterns. It would have been more accessible to the ordinary man compared to the astrological practices which could be sophisticated and require calculations.[5] Nonetheless, the visible celestial changes such as moon phases and eclipses were expected to be observed under Markham’s instruction. This popular astrology could indirectly influence mortality through the weather changes; it was advisable to take note.

The English Husbandman (1635) p. 16.

Agricultural society in this period was vulnerable to adverse weather conditions, extremes in seasons could result in reduced crop yields, and traditional farming methods did not have a way to protect against these or absorb the losses adequately. Knowledge of weather would have been useful for planning, to prevent or promote the available farming methods. A good understanding of weather would lay the foundation for successful agricultural practices and allow the husbandman to hone his skills on the later parts of the book, such as planting, grafting and harvesting.

The majority of the advice given seems extremely rational and practical for the English husbandman, such when to expect ‘good yeares’ by observing where frosts fell, and plants bloomed at certain times during the year.

A woodcut representing one month from the peotry work by Edmund Spenser, “The shepheards calender : conteining twelue æglogues proportionable to the twelue monthes : entituled, to the noble and vertuous gentleman, most worthie of all titles, both of learning and chiualry, Maister Philip Sidney” (London, 1591) p.55. Credit: Internet Archive Book Images

Ordinary early modern families were reliant upon favourable weather conditions to ensure they avoided spells of dearth and famine. Weather could, therefore, be something which determined life and death for many communities. Knowledge of weather and changes of the season’s patterns and adapting to future weather would have been extremely desirable in this period. Finding ways to harness the natural world would give the husbandman some feeling of control. In times when people were susceptible to serious illness having some forward knowledge on the health of your family to plan for sickness would have been beneficial, even if the source of such knowledge was questionable. In hindsight, the importance Markham places on weather knowledge is reasonable; we take accurate weather forecasting for granted in the modern world.

Luckily the stakes are not as high in today’s society. Nonetheless, it is interesting to see the importance of weather prediction in this period. Perhaps the fact that some of these weather beliefs still exist shows how ingrained the confidence in personal weather forecasting is in the English psyche.

[1] Jan Golinski, ‘Barometers of Change: Meteorological Instruments as Machines of Enlightenment’ in William Clark, Jan Golinski and Simon Schaffer (eds.), The Science of enlightened Europe (Chicago, 1999), p. 82.

[2]Patrick Curry, Prophecy and Power: Astrology in Early Modern England (Princeton, 1989), p. 23.

[3]Golinski, ‘Barometers of Change’, p. 70.

[4] Stephen Wilson, The Magical Universe: everyday ritual and magic in premodern Europe (London, 2000), p. 53.

[5]Curry, Prophecy and Power, p. 11.


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