Analysing the Man of Signs

Writing an EModGraL-themed MA thesis | Text: Saara Kaltiomaa

Deciding on the topic

Back when I was a fourth-year student at the University of Turku I was planning on writing my master’s thesis about fluency measures and SLA (second language acquisition) related themes. But in the Spring of 2022 I took a course called Texts and Contexts 1 where I was first introduced to Early Modern Graphic Literacies. I was mesmerised by the illustrations we analysed in the classroom, and I knew I had to look further into the themes of woodcut illustrations in prints and the textual elements surrounding them, especially the Zodiac Man figure found in many Early Modern English (EModE) printed almanacks.

The lecturers, Matti Peikola and Mari-Liisa Varila (who both actually guided me through my writing process), were very supportive with my choices of themes and provided me with additional literature to help me approach the topic. We discussed that exploring the EModE printed almanacks would be a great place to start, as they can be found fairly easily in online databases. I myself used Early English Books Online (EEBO) which I found to be handy and easy to use.

Zodiac Man woodcut in the German almanack of Petrus Slovacius, Allmanach auff das 1581 jar. Breslau (Wrocław): Johan Scharffenberg, [1580]. Wellcome Collection, public domain.

Analysing almanacks

The sheer amount of the EModE printed almanacks I found was astonishing: back in the day the publication was found in basically every household. As the printing press was developed and paper slowly replaced parchment, mass producing texts became way faster. Most importantly, printed publications were more affordable to the common folk (vs. manuscripts). These printed almanacks were also written in English instead of Latin or French, which made the publications accessible to many. Not to mention the more practical size: compared to handwritten manuscripts, printed almanacks were often sort of smaller, portable versions of them.


In short: I looked into the language, contents, and visual elements surrounding the Zodiac Man woodcuts in these EModE almanacks in order to trace the development of said features throughout the sixteenth century. I was trying to look for patterns and diachronic development in the aforementioned categories. The results of my research pointed to a relationship between verbal and visual elements: the contents of the almanacks determined the visual themes presented in them. In terms of language choices (the use of English, French, or Latin) and linguistic features (e.g. astrological vocabulary) there were, however, few patterns or traces of development detectable during the time period.

To summarise a few interesting findings I made: many of the 48 almanacks that were analysed contained the same terminology in different languages (and often even inside the same specific almanack), highlighting some undecidedness in the choice of terms before the standardisation of the English language. It is also unclear whether certain printers used only specific woodcuts but there were certainly some styles of woodcuts more preferred than others. The themes and topics of the texts surrounding the illustrations also had an effect on what kind of a Zodiac Man image was used in the publication. For example, a certain type of image was preferred depending on whether the text was more informational or whether the image served more of an aesthetic purpose separate from the surrounding text.

Looking at the research process now I realise there is a lot more to look into when examining EModE printed almanacks: besides the Zodiac Man image there are many other interesting illustrations and features to be examined. Perhaps one could even write a doctoral dissertation in the field of Early Modern Graphic Literacies?

The author (MA) graduated in the Summer of 2023 and is currently doing smaller translation tasks as a freelancer along with her day job in customer service. She is currently considering postgraduate studies at the University.

Kaltiomaa, Saara. 2023. Analysing the Man of Signs: A Study on the Changes of the Linguistic Elements and the Contexts of the Zodiac Man Figure in Early Modern Almanacks (1537–1603). Master’s Thesis, Department of English, University of Turku. Available online:

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Multimodal, multilingual calendars

The first peer-reviewed publication associated with EModGraL is out!

In ‘Multimodal and Multilingual Practices in Late Medieval English Calendars’, Matti Peikola and Mari-Liisa Varila examine a selection of late medieval (ca. 1300–1550) manuscript calendars.

Calendar of saints (June). A medieval manuscript fragment, ca. 1340–1360, National library of Finland, F.m.VII.1. This Latin calendar, dating from the same period as the calendars studied by Peikola and Varila, has been used by the Dominican convent of Turku, Finland. Image via Doria (public domain).

Calendars were a specific type of table that was perhaps the most familiar to late medieval readers. They provided information about saints’ days and other liturgical feasts but also contained a variety of other kinds of information, often in a highly condensed form.

In their study, Peikola & Varila found differences between the contents and presentation of calendars in religious manuscripts vs those in e.g. astro-medical manuscripts. They suggest that these may be viewed as distinct subgenres, although they also found hybrids. Language choices reflected genre conventions and specialised functions, and calendars produced in the latter half of the period studied were more likely to be multilingual. Finally, the authors note that the potential influences of print technology on the generic properties of calendars should be examined in the future. This study is currently under preparation.

Peikola Matti & Mari-Liisa Varila. “Multimodal and Multilingual Practices in Late Medieval English Calendars”. In Multilingualism from Manuscript to 3D: Intersections of modalities from medieval to modern times, edited by Matylda Włodarczyk, Jukka Tyrkkö & Elżbieta Adamczyk, 93-118. New York: Routledge, 2023. DOI: 10.4324/9781003166634-6. (Open access)

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