How to Tell Your New Year Fortune The Edwardian Way
Lauren Alex O' Hagan, 1 Jan 18
       

Leisha Kemp-Walker/Shutterstock

Whether snuggled up at home or out partying with family and friends, the dawn of the new year is something to toast to. But not so long ago, the people of Britain were commemorating the start of the forthcoming 12 months in a very different way – with books.

In the early 20th century, Edwardian Britain was gripped by a reading craze. On the playground at school, on a tea break down the mines, or in the drawing room of a mansion, men, women and children of all classes and ages were rarely without a book.

The idea of giving a book as a gift became popularised in the Victorian era. Books were bought for others to celebrate birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and, of course, Christmas. In fact, by the end of the 19th century, books had come to be so expected at Christmas that one Times reporter claimed that “Christmas would not be recognised without them”.

Books at Christmas is not something unique to British culture.

Icelanders have long given books to each other on Christmas Eve and stayed up all night reading them. The custom is so deeply ingrained in Icelandic culture that it causes an annual jólabókaflóðið (“Christmas book flood”), as countless copies of around 700 volumes are published in just over four months. But it is the way that Edwardian Britons used these books that is quite unusual.

As mass consumerism and the formation of a commodity culture grew, the Victorian practice gradually spread to the new year.

By 1901, no Edwardian stepped into the new year without a book. But the reason of this was not down to a tradition of gift-giving, it was guided by superstition. The Edwardians believed that bad luck would fall upon any family who did not have a book in hand when the clock struck midnight on December 31.

Predicting the future

Books were said to foretell a family’s fortune for the year. So, on New Year’s Day, families would gather around the fireplace and practice 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 meaning “books” and mancy, “divination by means of”) has a long spiritual tradition. Its origins lie in the Ancient Roman sortes, which involved using the texts of Homer and Virgil to predict the future (The Use of Sacred Books in the Ancient World, Leonard Victor Rutgers).

Although the Bible explicitly condemns divination, it was widely adopted throughout the Middle Ages as a “magical medicine” that removed negative forces. In popular culture, bibliomancy occurs frequently throughout works of fiction, from Jules Verne’s Michael Strogoff to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.

Telling the future. Masson/Shutterstock

If Edwardians had been unfortunate enough not to receive a new book on New Year’s Eve, the Bible was chosen. A family member (typically the father) would ask a question, open the Bible at random, close his eyes and circle the text with his finger. When the “spirit” told him to stop, he would open his eyes and read the “answer” wherever his finger landed.

Increased secularity meant that in the absence of a new book or the Bible, much-loved classics like Charles Kingsley’s novel Westward Ho!, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, and Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan could all be used to “predict” the future.

In Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, bibliomancy is routinely practised by the protagonist Gabriel Betteredge using the pages of Robinson Crusoe.


When my spirits are bad – Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice – Robinson Crusoe. In past times when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too much – Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service.


Sign in to view full article

       
The Price of Connection: ‘Surveillance Capitalism’
Imagine, if you can, a period long before today’s internet-based connectivity. Imagine that, in that distant time, the populations of ...
Nick Couldry
Mon, 27 Feb 17
Exiled Chinese Billionaire Sheds Light on Regime’s Forced Organ Harvesting
Though associated with communist leaders, Guo Wengui declared his support for persecuted Falun Gong adherents
Leo Timm
Fri, 31 Mar 17
How Hot-Deskers are Made to Feel Like the Homeless People of the Office World
If you work in an open-plan, hot-desking environment, you have probably at some point found yourself trudging through the office, ...
Alison Hirst
Thu, 16 Feb 17
Charting A Course To Government By The Crowd, For The Crowd
It is a bitter irony that politicians lament the threat to democracy posed by the internet, instead of exploiting its ...
Nils Röper
Wed, 7 Jun 17
Too Many Tabs – Why Some People Can Multitask Online and Others Can’t
The internet may be the most comprehensive source of information ever created but it’s also the biggest distraction. Set out ...
Peggy Alexopoulou
Thu, 5 Jan 17
Advertise with Us
AcuSLIM - Acupuncture Weight Loss Programme
Get your January/February 2018 issue at Kinokuniya stores today!
BUCHERER
Sports Elements
Sports Elements