The beginning of the new year is something to toast to. But not so long ago people in Britain thought of the beginning of the next twelve months in a very different way – with books.
In the early 20th century, Edwardian Britain was gripped by a reading mania. On the playground at school, during a tea break in the mines or in the drawing room of a manor house, men, women and children of all classes and ages were seldom without a book.
The idea of giving away a book became popular in the Victorian era. Books were bought for others to celebrate birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and of course Christmas. By the end of the 19th century, books were so expected for Christmas that a Times reporter claimed, “Christmas would not be recognizable without them”.
Christmas books are not unique to British culture. Icelanders spent a long time giving each other books on Christmas Eve and stayed up reading them all night. The custom is so ingrained in Icelandic culture that it causes an annual event jólabókaflóðið (“Christmas Book Flood”), as countless copies of around 700 volumes are published in just over four months. But it is quite unusual how the Edwardian British used these books.
As mass consumerism and the formation of a commodity culture increased, Victorian practice gradually spread to the New Year. Until 1901, no Edwardian entered the new year without a book. The reason for this, however, was not due to the tradition of giving, but rather to superstition. The Edwardians believed Such bad luck would fall on any family with no book in hand when the clock struck midnight on December 31st.
Predict the future
Books are said to have predicted a family’s fortune for the year. On New Years Day, families gathered by the fireplace and practiced bibliomancy. This involved opening the new book on a random page and reading the passage to predict what would happen in the coming year.
Bibliomancy (from biblio means “books” and “mancy”, “fortune telling through”) has a long spiritual tradition. Its origins lie in the ancient Roman varieties, where the texts of Homer and Virgil were used to predict the future (The Use of Sacred Books in Antiquity, Leonard Victor Rutgers). Though the Bible expressly condemns fortune tellingit became widespread in the Middle Ages as “magical medicine” negative forces removed. In popular culture, bibliomancy appears frequently in fictional works by Jules Verne Michael Strogoff to Philip K. Dick The man in the high castle.
If the Edwardians were unlucky enough not to receive a new book on New Year’s Eve, the Bible was chosen. A family member (usually the father) asked a question, opened the Bible at random, closed his eyes, and circled the text with his finger. When the “ghost” told him to stop, he opened his eyes and read the “answer” wherever his finger landed.
Growing secularity meant that in the absence of a new book or the Bible, popular classics like Charles Kingsley’s novel Westward Ho !, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan could be used to predict the future.
In Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, bibliomancy is routinely practiced by the protagonist Gabriel Betteredge on the pages of Robinson Crusoe.
When my mood is bad – Robinson Crusoe. If I want advice – Robinson Crusoe. In the old days when my wife plagued me; in this day and age when I drank too much – Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six hefty Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my ministry.
Although Collins brought up this popular fad, bibliomancy was an important part of Victorian and Edwardian book culture. It was used by eminent people, including the poet Robert Browning, who devoted himself to bibliomancy, to learn about it the fate of its attraction to his fellow poet and his future wife Elizabeth Barrett. Although he had made the unusual choice of Cerutti’s Italian grammar for divination, he opened it at random The eye fell on the sentence: “If we love in the other world as we do in this one, I will love you forever.”
Unfortunately, bibliomancy didn’t always have a happy ending: some were convicted of crimes, others were even known to have killed themselves because of a reading. On April 2, 1866, the Belfast Morning News reported the story of a man who stole a set of spoons from a house because he believed the Bible told him to. As a result, he was fined and sentenced to forced labor.
Toady Bibliomancy is only practiced by a few, but if you’re at a loss on New Year’s Eve, take a book off the shelf. Whether it comes true or not, the text you find could give a positive outlook for the year ahead.