Perpetual Prognostications: Medieval ‘Recipes for Living’

By Melissa Reynolds

The year is 1459, and you are a relatively prosperous landowner in Oxfordshire. Now that spring is in the air, you must go and visit your merchant friend in London, but you find yourself uneasy about the journey. With the poor condition of recently thawed roads, the trip could take as much as two days. Of course, if you had access to GPS or GoogleMaps, you would simply chart your course beforehand and find stopping points along the way. But you don’t have either digital tool. What you have, instead, is a prognostication.

Maybe you own a manuscript similar to Wellcome Library MS 411, a book of medical treatises by well-respected medieval authorities like Arnold of Villanova and Constantine the African, which also happens to contain a series of prognostications on its opening pages. One of these prognostications instructs the reader on how to know the “good dayes” of the year from the “evyl dayes.” It promises to specify which days are good to begin “viagis [voyages] both by water & by lond [land].” You scan the entries and discover that the “second day is profitable” to “travayle by shippe, to do viage [voyage] & to purchase hous & land & to clothe man & woman in new clothes.” You console yourself that all will be well if you leave on the second of April.

Prognostication of "lucky and unlucky days" in Middle English
The opening of the treatise on “lucky and unlucky days” in London, Wellcome Library MS 411, f. 4r.

The prognostications found in Wellcome MS 411 were widely popular in later medieval England, and they are most often found in manuscripts otherwise filled with medical content like recipes and instructional treatises. Some, like this one, established which days were good for which activities—activities like bloodletting, traveling, getting married, and buying or selling property. Others extrapolated predictions from the cycle of the calendar year or the weather. One popular series predicted the weather and harvest yields for the coming year according to whether one heard thunder in a given month. Another series predicted the weather, crop yields, wars, and diseases for the coming year according to the day of the week on which Christmas Day or New Year’s Day fell.

Most often, these prognostications circulated in Middle English or Latin prose or verse, but intriguingly, at least a dozen different medieval English manuscripts contain versions of these prognostications rendered in pictures and icons. The version of the prognostication from New Year’s Day pictured below appears on the front flyleaf of a fifteenth-century manuscript in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Similar pictorial versions of the prognostication on “lucky and unlucky days,” the prognostication from thunder, and the same prognostication from New Year’s Day, can all be found in a late fourteenth-century manuscript at the Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson D. 939.

Pictorial prognostication according to the dominical letter from Houghton Library MS Richardson 35
Annual pictorial prognostication according to New Year’s Day (dominical letter) from Harvard, Houghton Library MS Richardson 35, f. 1v.

What should we make of a manuscript like Wellcome MS 411 or Rawlinson D.939 with multiple versions of prognostications copied one right after another? Surely a reader would find inconsistencies or outright contradictions across these multiple sets of predictions? How might a reader determine which prediction to turn to and which set of advice to follow?

To understand how prognostications functioned for medieval readers, I like to think of them as “recipes for living.” Like traditional recipes, they encouraged their readers to move through a set of instructions, drawing from their own observations and experiences to then proceed with a set of actions. Now, it is true that prognostications don’t follow exactly the same format as a traditional recipe, which typically instructs the reader to take some set of ingredients and then do some set of processes that will transform the ingredients into a wholly new substance that is greater than its individual parts. Nor, of course, do prognostications produce a physical product like an ointment or a curative drink.

The comparison makes a lot more sense, however, if we think about prognostications sitting right alongside recipes in medieval manuscripts. Just as compilers chose to record version after version of competing—and sometimes contradictory—prognostications in their manuscripts, so too did they often choose to copy version after version of different recipes to cure the same ailment. All this repetition suggests that medieval people wanted a range of options for managing their health and well-being. They made interpretive decisions about which versions of recipes or prognostications to follow based on prior experience or observation. Prognostications, like recipes, promised a set of predictable results.

Perhaps because of the uncertainty and chaos in the world at the moment, I find myself returning to the perpetual prognostications of the medieval era with a new appreciation. Whereas before I wondered at how obviously intelligent and capable medical practitioners took comfort in a set of verses that offered an impossibly repetitive set of predictions—could medieval readers really have believed the second day of the month to be propitious every month?—I now recognize medieval readers’ desire to impose order on the world through simple “recipes for living.” Though none of us can tell the future, maybe now we understand a little more intuitively how it feels to want to try.