Like Father, Like Son: Identifying Prognosticators

By Nina Lamal |

In 1568 the Erfurt printer Georg I Baumann published Practica auff das M.D.LXIX. Jhar by Reinhold Erasmus (USTC 6905901, pictured above). Erasmus (1511-1551) was a mathematics professor at the University of Wittenberg known for his Prutenic Tables, which was a compilation of astronomical tables based on Copernicus’ work. It was first published in Tubingen in 1551 (USTC 688047). This work became a frequently used source for writers of practica to interpret celestial signs and predict weather patterns, harvests, wars and diseases for the coming year. It was not uncommon for learned professors to write popular prognostications. However, this famous astronomer and mathematician did not write the practica from 1568. His son, also called Reinhold Erasmus, was the true author. Reinhold the younger was a city physician who had studied mathematics and medicine at the University of Wittenberg and the University of Jena. Alongside his activities as a city physician, he wrote prognostications that have been erroneously ascribed to his more famous father.


“However, this famous astronomer and mathematician did not write the practica from 1568. His son, also called Reinhold Erasmus, was the true author.”


Practica were a specific genre of astrological prognostications published annually. Written in the vernacular, they were an incredibly popular genre with vast numbers printed in the Holy Roman Empire, particularly by printers in Nuremberg, who dominated the market. Printers produced these small booklets easily and cheaply. They became part of the staple of German printers who catered for a growing number of city dwellers. This was a stable market, as people were meant to buy a new one each year. In 1610 the mathematician Johannes Kepler wrote: ‘no kind of book under the sun sells so many copies, every year, as the calendars and prognostications of a celebrated astrologer’. Due to their regular appearance, it is very likely that older editions were thrown away or re-used once readers bought a new edition. This is one of the reasons why many practica are now lost and if they survive, are known in only one or two extant copies.

Practica, 1573, 685973
A 1573 edition of Reinhold’s Practica. Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Res/4 Astr.p. 370 m-1. USTC 685973.

This pattern of survival holds true for Reinhold’s practica: few copies have survived and we don’t know when he started to write them. Until now the first recorded copy was an edition printed in Erfurt by Georg I Baumann in 1571 (USTC 685407). Subsequent editions of 1572 (USTC 686011), 1573 (USTC 685973) and 1575 (USTC 685954) survive. The only known copy of the 1568 edition is currently held in the British Library (1609/748.(7.); digital edition) in a volume together with other prognostications printed in the Holy Roman Empire. It has all the elements of a typical German prognostication, being very short, only 10 leaves in quarto. Following a prefatory letter to Georg Ernst, Earl of Hennenberg, Reinhold devoted most of his attention to the weather conditions for each season in the upcoming year. While Reinhold was not a celebrated astrologer and his practica were not reprinted in other German cities, this previously unrecorded edition allows us to predate the activities of Reinhold as a writer of practica by three years.


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Nina Lamal is a FWO Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Antwerp. From 2015 until 2017 she worked as a Postdoctoral Research Assistant on Preserving the World’s Rarest Books. She is currently compiling the first bibliography of seventeenth-century Italian newspapers. Her research focuses on the role of handwritten newsletters and printed newspapers in the seventeenth century. You can follow her on Twitter at @NinaLamal.

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