Making Sense of Prophecies (1): Preliminaries

[This is based on a presentation to a seminar and research colloquium at the University of Zurich. This is going to be a five-part post, beginning with background information of interest to a limited group of people. It will eventually get interesting and relevant, but there are two preliminary posts before it gets interesting. The text of this post will necessarily differ from my presentation in many ways, so I’m only identifying some of the most important additions in brackets, like this one.]

For several years, my academic research has focused on late medieval and early modern prophecies. As I explain in the preface to my first book, when I was searching for a new topic following my dissertation, I eventually combined the topic of my master’s thesis on Hildegard of Bingen, one of the most important prophetic voices of the Middle Ages, with the topic of my doctoral dissertation on early printing: a narrative of progression, with one topic leading neatly to the next.[1] When I first came up with the topic of prophecies in early print, I didn’t even know if there would be anything to study. Fortunately, there were thousands of relevant printed books.

I need to clarify at the outset what I mean by prophecy in this context. I don’t mean visionary experiences or mysticism, and I don’t mean visionary preaching (a topic addressed for Lutheran Europe by Jürgen Beyer). [I can’t stress this enough: what I’m writing about has to do with texts, not living visionaries, prophets or mystics, and not ancient or modern revelation. If you want to interject something like “but what about Joseph Smith” or “but what about D&C 89” at some point, it almost certainly means you haven’t been paying attention.] The prophecies that I’m referring to instead are a corpus of texts circulating in early modern Europe with clear connections to earlier medieval texts and to prophetic texts of the 17th and 18th centuries and later.[2] Perhaps surprisingly, there are very few connections or associations in either direction with the work of visionary preachers. Likewise, there is little or no interaction with dream interpretation, casting lots or most other forms of prognostication, alchemy, or magic however defined. The one exception is astrology, where the associations and interaction are durable, intense and multifaceted.

Johannes Lichtenberger. Prognosticatio. [Augsburg: Heinrich Steiner], 1526. VD16 L 1594. a4v.

These prophetic texts frequently present themselves as the product of visions or some other supernatural source, however. One of the most important of them, for example, the 1488 Prognosticatio of Johannes Lichtenberger (with dozens of editions in Latin, German, Italian and French into the 17th century), includes a woodcut of the author in direct conversation with God to illustrate the text’s plea for divine aid in foretelling future things.[3] But even this exact passage has been borrowed from an earlier work.

To us, prophetic texts may sound like a marginal phenomenon or a fringe genre, but in the 15th and 16th centuries, they were extremely widespread and influential. Martin Luther, for example, provided the preface to one edition of Lichtenberger’s Prognosticatio (he condemned it as the work of the devil, but conceded that it was sometimes accurate). Sebastian Brant provided the preface to an edition of the revelations of Pseudo-Methodius. Of course Paracelsus was involved, and several Reformers, including Andreas Osiander and Matthias Flaccius, found considerable material for their polemics in prophecies.

In terms of numbers of editions, there are dozens of printed editions each decade (excluding astrological works; if we included them, the figures would be several times higher), as well as a notable shift away from Latin towards the vernacular a century earlier than we see in other genres.

German/Latin editions of prophetic works, German language area, 1450-1620. Source: ISTC, VD16, VD17

While it seems like the genre of prophecy would give authors free reign to invent any text they wanted, this seems to have rarely been done. To the extent that prophecies have been thoroughly studied and their texts well understood, most do not seem to be recent inventions. Instead, prophecies are found texts. They may be updated, edited, excerpted, drawn from multiple sources, combined, or republished, but they are rarely invented from whole cloth. The classic formulation is that a prophecy was “found in an old book,” a formula found countless times in the 15th and 16th centuries and later.

Dise prophecey ist funden worden in Osterreich. Freiburg/Breisgau: [Johann Wörlin, 1521]. VD16 D 1458.

Here, for example, is an edition of a prophecy that claims to have been found in Austria, written by a Carmelite monk from Prague in the implausible year of 462.[4] The text was certainly found somewhere, as it is known in manuscript from at least 1460, with print editions appearing around 1503. Earlier editions attribute the prophecy to a cleric named Theoderic from the Croatian town of Senj, but in later editions, the name is quickly distorted almost beyond recognition, replaced, or dropped altogether. This edition omits the name, but does connect the prophecy to astrological imagery through the title woodcut.

As texts, prophecies present something of a puzzle. As I’ve worked with these texts, I’ve come to identify a handful of things I want to know before I can consider the puzzle in some sense solved. I want to know a prophecy’s textual sources; the context of its original formulation; how it later circulated, and how and why the text may have changed over time; and how it may have influenced or been combined or associated with other texts.

For example, we might say that the Extract of Various Prophecies, a pamphlet that first appeared in 1516, is 95% “solved.”[5] All of its sources are known, and we have a good understanding of how and where it circulated and what other works it was associated with. I still wish I knew more about the circumstances of its composition.

A “solved” prophetic text: Ain auszug etlicher Practica unnd Propheiceien. [Augsburg: Erhard Oeglin, 1516]. VD16 A 4441.

Wilhelm Friess: Pronosticatio. Etliche seltzame Prophezeiung. [S.l., 1558]. VD16 ZV 21923.

The prophecies that circulate under the name of “Wilhelm Friess” of Maastricht and claim to have been found with him after his death are fairly typical of early modern prophetic pamphlets. They are unusual only in the large number of editions (some 60 from the mid-16th century and later) and because they represent two completely different texts.[6] The first prophecy, known from 1558 and later, is 98% solved: the source text and derivation is known, and we have a good sense of where it circulated and why it was popular. But often we simply lack the sources that would tell us what we want to know. Why a second prophecy appeared around 1574 using the same title and authorial attribution is still largely a matter of speculation, and the sources are not nearly as clear, although the prophecy’s later influence is well understood. Call it 50% solved.

* * *

Coming up next: How to read a prophecy.



[1] Jonathan Green, Printing and Prophecy: Prognostication and Media Change 1450-1550 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011), vii.

[2] For basic introductions to this topic, see Marjorie Reeves, The Influence of Prophecy in the Later Middle Ages: A Study in Joachimism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969); Robert Lerner, The Powers of Prophecy: The Cedar of Lebanon Vision from the Mongol Onslaught to the Dawn of the Enlightenment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

[3] Johannes Lichtenberger, Prognosticatio (Heidelberg: Heinrich Knoblochtzer, 1488), fol. a4v. ISTC il00204000/GW M18217.

[4] Dietrich von Zengg, Dise prophecy ist funden worden in Osterreich uff einem Schloß das heißt Altenburg (Freiburg im Breisgau: Johann Wörlin, 1522).

[5] Jonathan Green, “The Extract of Various Prophecies: Apocalypticism and Mass Media in the Early Reformation,” Renaissance and Reformation 40, no. 4 (2017): 15–42.

[6] Jonathan Green, The Strange and Terrible Visions of Wilhelm Friess: The Paths of Prophecy in Reformation Europe (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014).

3 comments for “Making Sense of Prophecies (1): Preliminaries

  1. Thanks for sharing this interesting study of yours here, Jonathan; even without any clear thematic parallels to the history of or the perspective of those involved in the Restoration, a greater contextual awareness of “found texts” and the vagaries of authorship is bound to be good for anyone who studies the production of and circulation of revelations in the Smith-era church. And I can see it potentially adding to my understanding of textual transmission within Mormon culture generally, up to and including how “prophetic” statements and memes ricochet around the internet, going from the purely oral (“Elder So-and-So was at a regional conference and said…”) to lines and quotes which, because written and shareable in forms open to editorial intervention, take on an entirely different provenance than YouTube files. Anyway, I look forward to the series!

  2. This might be some of the most valuable LDS scholarship in decades. It opens a corridor for study in the same way Nibley opened corridors.

    -Is there a chance you include (1) Paracelsus’ Daniel text, (2) Christopher Columbus’ journal prophesies, (3) Abraham Abulafia’s prophesies?

    -How is “prophetic text” identified as being “prophetic?” Are texts titled “prophesy of…,” or is the context of the text the implied prophesy?

    I look foward to however you frame it.

    Sidenote: for any LDS uncomfortable with the word “astrology,” see Astrology of the Old Testament, by Karl Andersson (1892). It illustrates in the English language the astrological context of Old Testament prophesies that are otherwise redacted from Christian consciousness.

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