The smallest book in the Pepys Library is a pocket tidal almanac from c.1546 by the Breton cartographer Guillaume Brouscon. As Secretary to the Admiralty under Charles II and James II, Pepys developed an extensive knowledge of maritime practice, which is reflected in his collection of books and manuscripts.
At ten centimetres tall, this exquisite little book was produced by Brouscon in le Conquet, near Brest, and would have provided Breton seafarers of the 16th century with day-to-day information needed for their work. It contains tide tables, the dates of Church festivals and fasts and a perpetual lunar calendar. The printed almanac is accompanied by a fold out, hand-drawn map depicting the coastline of France, Brittany, Flanders, England, and Ireland. Therefore, this almanac is an interesting marriage of printing and manuscript making methods.
Though printing books with Gutenberg’s moveable type had been around for some decades, this almanac was made with a different printing method: each page of this book has been printed from a woodblock carving. It is likely that this method was chosen to accommodate the many pictorial and symbolic elements of each page: the literacy rate of the almanac’s intended audience would have been very low.
This page is from the almanac’s table of annual immovable feasts, and shows the feasts for September and October (see ‘S’ and ‘O’ at the top of the page). Each month has an accompanying symbol: September’s is the flail for winnowing, and for October the mattock (see the symbols to the right of the ‘S’ and ‘O’. Looking down the right hand edge of the page, one sees the symbols and names for the immovable feasts in October: St. Francis (Francesci), St Denys (Dionesi), St Gonogan (Convgā), St Luke (Lucas), St Simon and St Jude (Simō Jut) and and St Yvo (Yuo). Most of the Saints are illustrated with an imagined portrait, however St Denys is represented by a fleur de lys, St Luke by an ox and St Yvo by the Breton flag.
Pepys did in fact have two copies of this particular almanac, though he decided to eject the duplicate from his library – a practice he was not shy about, because he thought that 3000 volumes was a suitable upper limit. The other almanac is now in the collection of the National Maritime Museum. The copy remaining in the Pepys Library has the inscription “F Drak” on the endpaper, and although the signature’s authenticity is very difficult to prove, Pepys certainly thought it was the signature of Francis Drake. This signature is the likely reason Pepys kept this copy of the almanac and ejected the other. As Pepys famously kept his books in order of size, the almanac’s shelfmark ‘1’ denotes its position as the smallest book in the library.
By Catherine Sutherland
Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections
Howse, Derek. Sir Francis Drake’s Nautical Almanack, 1546.. London: Nottingham Court in Association with Magdalene College, Cambridge, 1980.