Researcher profile: Justin Rivest

We recently had the pleasure of welcoming PhD candidate Justin Rivest as an Osler Library Travel Grant recipient. Justin grew up on a farm in southwestern Ontario and did his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Carleton University. His MA is in History (Early Modern Europe) and he is currently a PhD candidate at the Institute for the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins. Here’s what he had to say about his recent trip to the Osler Library.

Title-page of Albumasar’s De magnis conjunctionibus . Bibliotheca Osleriana 1760.

Title-page of Albumasar’s De magnis conjunctionibus. Bibliotheca Osleriana 1760.

My work at the library grew out of my MA thesis, which was a study of French almanacs and prognostications from the 1490s-1550s and led me to an interest in the links between astrology and medicine. While my dissertation has come to focus on a different topic (proprietary remedies in seventeenth century France), Renaissance astrology has remained a persistent research interest. I’d been looking for an opportunity to spend some time with a good collection of Renaissance astrological texts, with the goal of better understanding how almanacs and prognostications were produced. I was pleased to find good collection of early printed astrological treatises at the library, including a copy of the Ephemerides Magistri Johannis de Monte Regio, a series of celestial ephemerides for the period 1492-1506 produced by the 15th century German mathematician Regiomontanus, which was probably the most interesting and useful thing I was looking at during my visit. Ephemerides were one of the most important tools available to Renaissance astrologers, furnishing the raw data and tables of planetary movement needed to create astrological charts, birth horoscopes, or annual prognostications of the general conditions in the coming year, such as are found in almanacs.

Modern day readers might typically associate almanacs with farmers and weather, but early modern almanacs were often produced by learned physicians and contained important medical information. The positions of celestial bodies and the moon were understood to affect the human body. While a birth horoscope could tell a physician about an individual patient’s humoral complexion, medical almanacs gave doctors and barber-surgeons general information for tabulating propitious days for therapeutic interventions such as bloodletting. For example, a common piece of advice was never to let blood from a part of the body if the moon was in its associated sign, e.g. Aries for the head or Pisces for the feet. This medical information would be placed alongside other things such as the dates of new and full moons, feast days, etc. that we would normally associate with a calendar. Almanacs of this type were initially circulated in manuscript form, but the advent of print vastly expanded the audience for almanacs and provided increasing numbers of astrologers with the astronomical resources (like Regiomontanus’ ephemerides) needed to produce them.

Depiction of Saturn from Albumasar’s Flores astrologiae. B.O. 7410.

Depiction of Saturn from Albumasar’s Flores astrologiae. B.O. 7410.

By the end of the fifteenth century, almanacs were drawing on data about the planets and signs of the zodiac to predict everything from warfare to drought and plague, based on sets of associations drawn from natural philosophy. The five known planets and the twelve signs, for instance, were associated with the four qualities of hot, cold, wet, and dry, the four elements, the four humours, the four seasons, and even the classes of society. Saturn, for example, was associated with the rich, religious men, farmers, and the old, so the state of Saturn in the heavens could affect their conditions on earth.

As for what led me to this topic: in general I’m fascinated by the medieval and Renaissance view of an integrated cosmos, designed by a provident creator to be full of associations and sympathies. The associational framework of astrology, with its harmonies between the heavens, the elements, and the human body, strikes me as one of the most beautiful manifestations of this view of the cosmos.

Read more about Justin’s work in the latest issue of the Osler Library Newsletter and stay tuned for another upcoming entry on Renaissance astrological tables.



Osler Library Guide: Almanacs

This is part of a series of posts designed to expose readers to the range of materials we have here at the Osler Library and provide tips on how to find and use specific resources. These various installments will form the basis of a comprehensive Osler Library user guide. Your questions and feedback are welcome!



The Osler Library has a large collection of medical almanacs, for which we are still actively acquiring. The almanacs date from 1840 to 1977, with the largest number of holdings falling between 1900 and 1925. The almanac is an old genre of ephemeral—temporary or non-durable publications—that traces its history to the medieval period. These popular Cleopatreitems originally consisted of calendars with events, religious holidays, moon phases, and astronomical tables that provided an outlook on the upcoming year. Medical almanacs in particular were an important facet of premodern medicine as doctors took astrological information into consideration in the diagnosis and treatment of their patients. By the mid-18th century in the US and towards the end of the 18th century in Canada, almanacs were popular household books that provided health and home tips along with calendrical features. As such, they are an important source of information on lay medical culture.

The majority of our almanacs are published in Canada, the oldest of which is Le livre de songes de Cléopâtre (Cleopatra’s book of dreams), published in French in Brocktown, Ontario, and Morristown, New York, sometime between the years 1857 and 1881. The oldest almanacs are American, such as The phrenological almanac for 1841, published in 1840. British almanacs make up a much smaller subset, with a few almanacs published

The phrenological almanac of 1842

The phrenological almanac of 1842

simultaneously in Canada and the U.K. and a couple homeopathic tractates from the 1970s. The majority of the almanacs in the collection are what is known as patent medicine almanacs, used by drug manufacturers as an advertising medium. Nearly 200 of the almanacs were originally purchased from a Montreal collector and acquisitions are ongoing.


Finding information

Our medical almanacs can be located through the McGill online library catalogue. The almanacs have historically been kept in a separate database, accessible through this website. The database is now no longer updated and new accruals are being catalogued in the McGill Library catalogue. Most of the almanacs that were previously only findable through the Almanacs database have now been added to the McGill catalogue as well.

An easy way to find almanacs in the library catalogue is by using the Classic Catalogue (also linked to on the library homepage) and the name of Almanac Collection, Osler Library. Once in the Classic Catalogue, you can select an Advanced Search, which will give you the option of selecting either “Advanced,” “Expert,” or “Browse.” Select the “Browse” tab and enter in the name of the collection (inside quotation marks to indicate it is a phrase): “Almanac collection, Osler Library.” Click on the link to the collection that should appear on the top of the list. Once you are inside this list of almanacs, it is possible to modify your search by using the “Limit Results” function (accessed through the pink button above the results listing).  From here, you can pare down the list of almanacs by entering a keyword, date range, year of publication, or language.


General information

The almanacs may be used by in-house visitors only. Researchers are welcome during our opening hours. It’s recommended to make an appointment, but not necessary. You will be asked to leave coats and bags in our coatroom, fill out a form with your information, and leave a student card or other piece of identity with us during the time that you’re consulting materials. Only pencils can be taken into our reading rooms and staff will instruct you on proper handling of fragile materials.

Happy researching!


 Further reading

Thomas A. Horrocks, Popular print and popular medicine: almanacs and health advice in early America. Amherst, MA: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 2008.

Time, tide, and tonics: the patent medicine almanac in America. National Library of Medicine online exhibition.

John B. Blake, “From Buchan to Fishbein: the literature of domestic medicine.” In Guenter B. Risse, Ronald L. Numbers, and Judith Walzer Leavitt, eds., Medicine without doctors: home health care in American history, 11-30. New York: Science History Publications, 1977.

Elizabeth Hulse, “Almanacs.” The Canadian Encyclopedia