Samuel Jeake of Rye: An Astrological Diary of the Seventeenth Century

Samuel Jeake was a Puritan merchant who lived in the town of Rye in Sussex in the late seventeenth century. What makes Jeake interesting is that he kept a diary, which has been published relatively recently. The document contains a wealth of information which can be utilized in historical research. Jeake began keeping his diary in 1666, though it contains an account of his earlier years as well. The diary begins with Jeake's birth in 1652, and ends in 1694 when he is an established businessman.

Samuel Jeake was born in the town of Rye in Sussex. He had a strong Puritan background. His father, also called Samuel Jeake, was an evangelist, preacher, and local religious leader in addition to working as a lawyer. He acted as a town clerk in Rye, but was forced out of his post after the Restoration. Samuel Jeake senior was an intellectual in his own right, and authored a couple of books. Perhaps this explains the intellectual interests of the younger Samuel Jeake, which were unusual for one in his profession.

Jeake's mother and siblings (he had a brother and a sister) had died by the time he was four years old. Thus, he lived with his father until he was married. He went to school for only a couple of months, after which he was educated by his father. This education consisted for example of Greek, Latin, geometry, rhetoric and logic. Jeake also lists the books he had read. It might strike the modern reader as remarkable that by the age of fifteen, Jeake had read Machiavelli, Cervantes and the classical authors of Greece and Rome. A lot of the books were on religious subjects though, with a number of history books as well.

The diary contains very meticulous descriptions of Jeakes day-to-day life. He is quite precise from the very beginning. We learn, for instance, that Jeake got his first teeth on April 9 1653 and began to speak when he was a year and quarter old. He presents an account of his medical history, beginning in 1653 when he was 'Ill all day' on April 3. Some times he includes daily descriptions of the symptoms of various diseases he suffered from. For instance, on August 31 1670 he writes: "At first I was taken cold... but when I were in bed, hot; accompanied with aches of the bones, & giddiness of the head. This Ague lasted 8 months."

What makes Jeake's diary interesting to the historian? On a general level, the diary is probably quite useful to the historian because of its meticulousness and attention to detail. It does not focus exclusively on any one part of Jeake's life, though the latter part is largely devoted to describing his business activities. It could therefore be used in a variety of different lines of historical research - perhaps the description of the illnesses in the history of medicine, the frequent references to religion in religious history, and the description of the practices of a 17th merchant in economic or social history.

The diary clearly shows the religious commitment of the Puritans in this period. Jeake explains almost everything with reference to God, be it his own good fortune or the bad fortune of others. For instance, he tells us how someone who owed him money was taken ill and was thought to be dying, but actually lived long enough to pay back his debts to Jeake. Thereafter he died, and the widow didn't repay the other debts the man had had - thus Jeake was lucky, and he attributed this luck to God. He also describes a number of incidents in which his life was in danger, but he was saved by divine providence. He writes, for instance: "...(my horse) moved so much that my other foot slipp'd & I could not recover my self, but fell & slid down with both my legs under the horse's belly, still holding the Reins of the bridle in my hand. but it pleased God that the horse stood perfectly still when I lay under him; for if he had kept going as he did before ... he had trod either upon my belly, or my legs, & kill'd me or broke my limbs in that hollow track." It is thus understandable that the full title of the diary is "A Diary of the actions & Accidents of my Life: tending partly to observe & memorize the Providences therein manifested; & partly to investigate the Measure of Time in Astronomical Directions, and to determine the Astrall Causes &tc."

This brings us to perhaps the most interesting aspect of the diary, the references to astrology. Jeake's father had been interested in astrology, and it seems clear that this was where he picked it up. To his father, astrology was just one intellectual pursuit among many, but to Samuel Jeake junior, it amounted to almost an obsession. Jeake actually used astrology to decide when to do things. For instance, he writes on 14 June 1680: "Note the Cluster of Planets in Gemini as before hinted & the Moon in the midst here carrying the Influence of Jupiter & Mars to Venus & Mercury. Venus & Mars being Lords of the 1st & 7th. This seem'd to shew a succesfull time for such addresses." By which he was referring to proposing to his future wife on that day. He also referred to astrology when he was deciding on investing in the East India Company.

The interesting thing about this interest in astrology is that it coexists with his religious beliefs. Jeake does not see any contradiction between believing in God and believing that the position of the planets affects human affairs. The incident with the horse perhaps shows the relationship between his belief in God and reliance on astrology. After recounting the event, he describes the position of the Sun, Saturn and Mars which apparently "seem to intimate perill in a Journey." Thus, while the cause of the incident seemed to Jeake the position of the planets, he was saved from this by God, indicating that while the planets did affect what happened on Earth, God was an even higher force and could prevent disasters caused by the planets. Perhaps astrology and religion could be seen as parts of the same system in Jeake's world view, the latter simply operating on a higher level than the former. What I also found interesting about Jeake is the fact that though he is deeply religious, he sees no conflict with religion and the pursuit of profit in the business world. There seems to be no conflict within him about the spiritual and commercial aspects of his life.

One feature which struck me about the diary is that it seems quite impersonal. It is as though Jeake were describing someone else's life from the vantage point of an outsider. The diary seems quite objective in style. The introduction to the volume describes the passage where Jeake's father dies as 'moving', but to me it seems like a detailed list of the medical problems his father was having, and a matter-of-fact-like account of his actual death. The passage ends in Jeake considering what financial effect the death of his father would have on himself.

On the one hand, the diary is easy to read, since the language, though obviously different from today, is not very complex - the style is quite matter-of-fact, and often just lists the things that Jeake has done. On the other hand, for me at least it was hard to understand parts of the diary, since I am unfamiliar with astrology. Obviously it isn't hard to understand the importance of astrology to Jeake, but it is hard to understand what his various discussions of it mean.