Explain Yourself: Visual Communication in Early Modern Printed Calendars

Bottom rows of the calendar showing the symbols and the user's handwriting.

There is a curious subgenre of printed calendars in early modern Europe called Bauernkalender. Bauer in German refers to a farmer or peasant, so we might literally translate the name of this genre as “farmers’ calendars” or “peasant calendars.” That is not to say they are in any way simple. You know one when you see it because they are all highly iconographic, largely replacing text with image. In fact, the submission of text to image is so severe as to render an individual edition nearly incomprehensible to any reader without a specific kind of tacit cultural knowledge. Therefore, Bauernkalender demonstrate the potentially unsteady relationship between a material text and its ostensibly intended audience. Bauernkalender are not unique in this manner—among almanac calendars, or among any printed editions for that matter—but they are unusual.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of almanacs were issued across Europe during the sixteenth century, and many of their calendars share a similar structure. They are often printed to be read from the top of the page to the bottom, with each row reserved for a single day of each month. This holds true for calendars that stretch across one side of a single sheet as well as those printed on both sides of the sheet for future binding into codices. Within each month, a barebones calendar will have separate columns for the day number, dominical letter,1 and religious feast(s) taking place on that day. Beyond these core categories of information, it is not uncommon to find columns in early modern printed calendars dedicated to the ancient Roman calendrical system of kalends, nones, and ides; Zodiac signs; the golden number; and additional symbols concerning the weather, markets, and auspicious times for activities such as planting seeds and cutting hair.

While some of the information described above can be communicated symbolically in a mainstream almanac calendar, most of it is spelled out in text. This is the most obvious difference between such editions and the Bauernkalender. The latter routinely include little to no text, both within and around the calendar. A second major difference is reading direction. In Bauernkalender, time flows from left to right on the page as months form into rows and days into columns.

Let us look at two examples to illustrate the contrast. First, we have Valentin Butzlin’s 1556 single-sheet almanac printed in Zürich by the brothers Andreas and Jacob Gessner. Extended prose passages at the top, bottom, and left edge of the sheet discuss the history of the city, the positions of planets throughout the year, and why certain days have been highlighted as better suited to bloodletting than others. Second, we have a Bauernkalender printed four years earlier in the same city by Eustachius Froschauer. The calendrical content in the center of the sheet is presented in an entirely different manner from the previous example. Triangles have replaced day numbers; portraits and other images have replaced feast names; and each month has rotated 90º counterclockwise. The only real clue that the reading direction has shifted is the placement of all month names and seasonal illustrations to the left. I consider each of these editions to be fairly typical representatives of mainstream almanac calendars and Bauernkalender, respectively.

Stephanie Leitch has demonstrated the power of outliers, of the “Other,” to reveal the heart of a culture’s “visual epistemology.” Accordingly, for the rest of this post, I will turn to two particular examples of Bauernkalender that lie on the edges of this already marginal subgenre. They are a Puren Kalender of 1553 and a late-fifteenth/early-sixteenth-century untitled Bauernkalender. The printer and place of publication are clearly listed in the colophon of the former, and it is bound into a codex. The extra steps required of assembling a codex—folding sheets in the correct order and binding them together—necessarily increase the cost of such an edition. Codices were also more likely to survive given the relative cohesion of their physical structure. The latter, in contrast, is an effectively anonymous single-sheet edition; the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek does not include any specific publication information about this item in its catalogue, and the approximate date of publication is given as a range of more than seven decades (ca. 1475–1550).

What is true of both the Puren Kalender and undated Bauernkalender is that neither can be understood without additional cultural knowledge from unspecified sources. That is, there is a lot of information not included in either edition that is nevertheless necessary for comprehending and making use of their contents. At the most basic level, the difference between Sunday and the other days of the week is not defined. In fact, there is no entry in the legends of the Puren Kalender‘s prefatory pages for either the solid black (weekday) or red (Sunday) triangle. I do not mean to belittle the intended audience of such a book: it is very likely that they only needed to realize that each seventh triangle was red in order to correctly deduce their meaning. However, the fact that this fundamental calendrical feature is not actually spelled out suggests the printers’ high expectations of their readers’ base of knowledge. In contrast to Jennifer Rampling’s characterization of alchemical manuscripts, it does not make sense for sixteenth-century printers to aim for esoteric obscurity in the case of calendars.

The undated and wordless Bauernkalender takes tacit communication to a new extreme. Gone are the additional symbols that might provide weather forecasts or astrological advice. Absolutely nothing is textually defined within the calendar proper, including the names of holidays and saints on their feast days. Crosses, swords, keys, and scales are mixed in with portrait busts—some, but not all, of which include the saints’ canonical visual attributes. At least other examples of the genre include small captions with saints’ names to prevent misinterpretation. Evidently, the minimalist solution of the undated Bauernkalender did not suit all readers. I draw your attention to the left-hand margin where a user has manually inscribed the Latin and vernacular names of the months as well as the number of days contained in each. Interestingly, this annotator placed their captions at the level of the day triangles whereas most print editions position the month name in line with the symbols above the row of triangles. We might then say that this annotator did not copy from other editions but adapted their contents to this strange print product. The reader had to do extra legwork to make the calendar legible.

Bottom rows of the calendar showing the symbols and the user's handwriting.
Detail from Bauernkalendar, ca. 1475–1550, with user’s handwriting in margins. Source: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Xylogr. 42 a.

Not all early modern authors and printers produced books that required so much interpretive effort on the part of the user. In fact, editions on many subjects, especially those related to practical mathematics, went out of their way to explicitly instruct their readers how to use the text. One such book was the surveying guide Tectonicon by Leonard Digges. Tectonicon was first printed in London in 1556, and it appeared in at least fifteen further editions through the end of the seventeenth century. It was a popular book because it was useful; it was useful because Digges wrote directly to his readers and explained everything, sometimes to a pedantic degree. For example, the seventh chapter concerns the measurement of “Timber or Stone fouresquare,” and Digges encourages his reader to incorporate an upcoming table into this calculation “if you runne downe by the left Margine, untill your Inches square appeare.”2

Moreover, multiple levels of skill and numeracy are anticipated simultaneously. Boris Jardine has identified this kind of accommodation as a particular feature of the second half of the sixteenth century when the overlapping markets for instrument books and instruments themselves grew precipitously in London. When it comes time to “finde the content superficiall of Steeples, Columnes, Globes, and their parts,” Digges reassures mathematical novices that they are also welcome to use his book: “Let them that be voide of Arithmetike enter my Table of account following, with such numbers as I now willed the Arithmetician to multiplie, not forgetting what I haue before written. So I serue their turne.”3 The whole body is put into action when it comes to operating the profitable staff near the end of the text: “YE must stand right up with your Bodie and necke, your Feet iust together, your hands not much mouing, the one eye closed, and euer marke your standing right with the midst of your feete.”4

Digges’ Tectonicon aims to make a potentially complex topic, like taking measurements from a distance, into a practice that is within reach for a wide spectrum of users. The Bauernkalender, like other printed calendars of the period, also distills myriad astronomical, astrological, and religious data inputs to create a streamlined tool for organizing time. However, the dependence on images and avoidance of text should not be understood as a way of dumbing down the material to suit an illiterate audience. Rather, I argue that the Bauernkalender‘s embrace of symbolic and figural imagery rests on a foundational assumption of shared cultural knowledge, not unlike late night talk shows and Trivial Pursuit. Neither of these modern forms of entertainment fulfill their purpose if the audience is unaware of recent and current events in politics, sports, etc. It would be similarly difficult for anyone to use a Bauernkalender without already knowing the number of days in a week or how to decode the feast of Epiphany from the icon of a single star. The Bauernkalender is an aide-memoire, not an introductory textbook. It presupposes more than it explains.

Ashley Gonik is a PhD candidate in history at Harvard University who studies the material dimensions of intellectual and cultural practices in early modern Europe.

  1. The dominical letter system was developed centuries earlier as part of the calculations necessary to determine the date of Easter; the first day of the year is assigned the letter A, and the dominical letter for the year corresponds to the letter between A and G for the first Sunday in January. Dominical letters therefore also serve as a shorthand for days of the week. ↩︎
  2. Leonard Digges, A booke named Tectonicon, Briefly shewing the exact measuring, and speedie reckening all maner of Land, Squares, Timber, Stone, Steeples, Pillers, Globes, &c. Further, declaring the perfect making and large vse of the Carpenters Ruler, conteining a Quadrant Geometricall: comprehending also the rare vse of the Squire. And in the end a little Treatise adioyning, opening the composition and appliancie of an instrument, called the profitable Staffe. With other things pleasant and necessarie, most conducible for Surueyers, Landmeaters, Ioyners, Carpenters, and Masons (London: Felix Kingston, 1599), f. 11r. Harvard University, Houghton Library, STC 6851.2. ↩︎
  3. Digges, Tectonicon, sig. B2v. ↩︎
  4. Digges, Tectonicon, f. 23v–24r. ↩︎