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A Gift for Life – Astronomy and Magic in a Sixteenth-Century Locket

Sophie Cope

 

The early modern life-cycle was marked by many poignant stages, of which birth, marriage and death were perhaps the most significant. These life-cycle events were major transitions. Birth and baptism initiated a person into the world and their community, whilst death marked the passage of a soul from one world to another. Meanwhile marriage, although not necessarily a stage every person would experience, arguably represented the most important personal, social and economic transformation. It is not surprising, therefore, that material culture would be used to act as a physical reminder of such important passages.

Locket, inscribed ‘John Monson born.the.tenth of September at.12. of the clok. at night 1597’. Gold, with black enamel. England, ca. 1597. Museum no. M.28-1921. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Locket, inscribed ‘John Monson born.the.tenth of September at.12. of the clok. at night 1597’. Gold, with black enamel. England, ca. 1597. Museum no. M.28-1921. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A sixteenth-century locket in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection provides an intriguing example of how a birth could be commemorated through an object. More than this, however, it shows us the multiple layers of meaning and power one object could have. The locket is made in gold, and engraved with the words ‘John Monson born.the.tenth of September at.12. of the clok at night 1597’. Why might someone have wanted to record the exact date and time of their birth? One way of interpreting the inscription on this object is to think about contemporary ideas of astrology. A connection between dates with a higher celestial significance and the personal events that fell upon them is evident if we examine almanacs from this period. Almanacs show the desire to record the exact place and time of events. In her study on early modern almanacs, Alison Chapman has argued that,‘The proliferation of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century almanacs seemingly allowed men and women to observe time with new ardour.’[1]

Indeed, blank spaces were included in printed almanacs so that personal additions could be made. Almanacs thus became a kind of diary, recording the activities and events in a person’s year, according to the chronological structure of the almanac. Chapman also argued that the astrological information that was crammed into these almanacs was used by men and women to interpret the events of their own lives. She argued that with the secularisation of place and time under early modern Protestantism, people used astrological almanacs in order to have time and place ‘mean something’.[2] Chapman concluded that by disseminating astrology, almanacs ‘fostered a sense that even ordinary occasions had a larger importance, an importance discernible only if these moments were accurately pinpointed in space and time.’[3]

We can find further evidence that knowing the precise date of one’s birth was desirable by looking at written sources. The Sussex merchant Samuel Jeake, for example, described the measures taken by his father to ascertain the exact time of his birth. In his autobiography he wrote, ‘I was born at Rye in Sussex July 4th 1652 on the Lord’s Day, 1/4 of an hour past 6 a Clock in the morning, according to the aestimate time taken by my Father from an Horizontal Dial, the Sun then shining.’[4] Similarly, Hieronymus Wold opened his autobiography, published 1654, by considering the position of the stars at his birth. When his horoscope did not appear to fit the course of his life, he questioned whether the clocks had been wrong.[5] Taken with the information supplied in almanacs, these sources suggest that knowing the timing of one’s birth was more than just sentiment – specific dates were seen to have the power to actively alter the course of one’s life.

Image 2: Excerpt from the frontispiece of An Astronomical Diary, or, an Almanack for the Year of our Lord Christ 1760, Nathaniel Ames. Printed Boston, New England, 1760. Image c Wikimedia Commons, 2014.

Excerpt from the frontispiece of An Astronomical Diary, or, an Almanack for the Year of our Lord Christ 1760, Nathaniel Ames. Printed Boston, New England, 1760. Image © Wikimedia Commons, 2014.

Meanwhile the small size of the object, just 5 cm high and 1.5 cm deep, along with a small suspension ring, suggests the locket was intended to have been worn suspended around the neck. It is thought that the locket once contained a piece of the caul that John was born with. To be born with the caul (the membrane that contains the foetus) covering one’s head was thought to be lucky, and in particular there were many superstitious beliefs that wearing the dried caul around one’s neck could bring beneficial magical powers.[6] The caul Monson was born with was therefore likely set into this locket as a kind of good luck charm. Combined with the astrological power of the date inscribed onto this locket, this object, given at birth, became an important keepsake, perhaps actively influencing the course of Monson’s life.

This life-cycle object was thus more than just a gift to commemorate a birth. The giver was careful to record the information needed to interpret the course of John Monson’s life, and to preserve the natural substance with the magical properties needed to keep him safe. This locket was therefore a powerful object, whose influence would extend well past the brief moment of Monson’s birth, continuing throughout his life.

 

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[1] Alison Chapman, ‘Marking Time: Astrology, Almanacs and English Protestantism’ Renaissance Quarterly, 60 (2007), 1257-90, p. 1279.
[2] Chapman, ‘Marking Time’, p. 1257.
[3] Chapman, ‘Marking Time’, p. 1286.
[4] Samuel Jeake, An Astrological Diary of the Seventeenth Century: Samuel Jeake of Rye, 1652–1699, ed. by Michael Hunter and Annabel Gregory (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988), p. 85.
[5] Discussed in William R. Newman and Anthony Grafton, ‘Introduction: The Problematic Status of Astrology and Alchemy in Premodern Europe’ in Secrets of Nature: Astrology and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe, William R. Newman and Anthony Grafton eds. (London: MIT Press, 2001), pp. 1-38, 9-10.
[6] Carlo Ginzburg, The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries (London: Routledge, 1983), pp. 15-16.

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Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A.  If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us: objectoftheweek@gmail.com

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Sophie Cope – 

Sophie did her BA in History at the University of Cambridge where she specialized in early modern material culture. She is particularly interested in how the passing of time is expressed in materials. Her MA dissertation at the V&A/RCA uses dated objects to explore ideas of time, memory, and materiality in early modern England.

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© Sophie Cope 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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