Friday, September 30, 2011


Prophecies, like textual allusions, are the kind of thing you don't immediately recognize as significant until you see them again, and then you realize it's not just a bit of speculation but rather a prophecy circulating through early modern society, and you remember that you saw it once before...somewhere.

The following prophecy, for example, records events predicted to occur in the years 1570-80. A quick search finds appearances in Poland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Scotland, with some French versions using a timeline as late as 1755-1999. The model of a list of years and events is older than 1570, but this particular series of events seems to have hung on for a long time and spread throughout Europe. The point of origin is unknown, but the source is variously attributed to Italian diplomats or German scholars.

In a Swiss source (link), the prophecy (where it is placed before July 1572) appears as:
Pronostication ab anno 70 usque ad annum 8o. Ex Italia.
70. Ferrarea tremet.
71. Ciprus deficitur.
72. Pastor non erit.
73. Ira Dei super nos erit.
74. à paucis cognoscitur Christus.
75. Proelium magnum erit in vniuersa terra.
76. Affrica ardebit.
77. Surget maximus vir.
78. Europa trepidabit.
79. Fames erit in vniuersa terra.
80. Erit unum ouile et unus pastor.
The events for 1570-72 appear to be prophecies ex eventu, assuming the events referred to are the 1570 earthquake in Ferrara, the Turkish conquest of Cyprus in 1571, and the death of Pope Pius V in May 1572, so we'll estimate the prophecy's date of origin as May-July 1572.

When I came across this prophecy recently, I recognized it as something I'd seen before...somewhere. I realize now that this prophecy spread all over Europe, but I don't know if it's been recognized as a single textual tradition rather than the individual musings of a particular copyist (as Willem Frijhoff treats it here), and I don't know if the prophecy has a designation in the scholarly literature, and I don't know of any secondary literature on this text (which is not at all to say that there is no secondary literature). If the origin is Italian and Catholic, the original intent is still unclear, and much of the transmission is Protestant and outside of Italy. It's possibly significant for "Wilhelm Friess," so I wish I could remember where I first came across the 1570-80 prophecy or discussions of it in the scholarly literature. Without a name attached to it, searching for it is like wandering in the dark until you bump into a wall.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Chapter Six: Fear, Floods, and the Paradox of the Practica teütsch

Because I decided that I couldn't ignore astrological prognostications in Printing and Prophecy, I had to deal with the widespread concern over a predicted second deluge in the year 1524. At first I tried to cover practicas and 1524 in the same chapter, with the result that Chapter Five was twice as long as other chapters. The solution was to split off Chapter Six.

The events leading up to 1524 are often described as a "flood panic," but the reality seems to be quite a bit more complicated, with panic among some people and carnevalesque mockery among others. Mentgen's Ästrologie und Öffentlichkeit im Mittelalter is the best treatment so far, I think.

The clearest indication of widespread concern is still the 160+ booklets printed in the years leading up to 1524. Very few of these works actually predicted a second deluge, however, while even astrologers who scoffed at the idea were quick to point out omens of other disasters. The most complete account of the print response is Talkenberger's Sintflut.

I think the flood pamphlets of 1524 need a second look, however, particularly the idea that an astrological prediction led to a panic. Astrological predictions were always dire. Why panic in 1524? Between the Reformation, the election of a new emperor, Turkish invasions, and ongoing social change, there was enough uncertainty about the course of sixteenth-century society that people were liable to panic and therefore willing to buy books that addressed their panic.

Of course, if the panic was not specifically about planetary conjunctions, then we need to widen our focus to look at other kinds of pamphlets, and there are are several contemporary prophetic pamphlets that address the same fears.

The flood panic of 1524 is also usually treated as a failed prophecy, as no second deluge occurred in 1524. This is mistaken for several reasons, as the effects of planetary conjunctions were not expected to occur instantaneously but rather any time in the following years or decades. No serious astrologers were predicting a world-ending deluge, and in any case they all insisted that prayer and repentance could turn away God's wrath. Finally, the turbulence of the rest of the decade left the most consolatory astrologers looking a bit foolish and their print careers badly damaged, while alarmists like Johann Carion and Johannes Virdung went on to enjoy another 15 years of popularity.

The flood panic of 1524 was also part of a crisis of legitimacy that was afflicting the professional astrologers. By making available multiple theoretical bases for prognostication, and by lowering the barriers to predicting the future from specialized training to mere book ownership, print destabilized the cosmos decades before Copernican ideas found their way into print.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Chapter Five: Practica teütsch

When I started working on Printing and Prophecy, I planned to exclude astrology as a fundamentally different kind of thing. That plan didn't last long. There proved to be too many authors who wrote in both modes, or who drew on both astrology and prophecy, that I had to admit that both astrology and prophecy are two different ways of writing about the future in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

So if I was examining prophetic pamphlets, that meant I had to look at astrological booklets as well. And there were hundreds of practicas - astrological prognostications for a single year - published between 1470 and 1550. I managed to look at a few hundred of them.

The practicas belonged to a highly stereotyped genre, but not everything that calls itself a practica actually is one. Up through 1550 (and in many cases for decades beyond that), the prototypical practica is a small quarto booklet of 4-8 leaves, written in the vernacular, divided into something like 8 chapters covering a set of standard topics, identified with an author's name, and illustrated on the title page with a woodcut of anthropomorphic planets. This, at least, is the typical German form. There were Italian and Dutch and French practicas as well, but the German version has a distinctive form that was worked out during the 1480s and early 1490s, initially in the practicas of Wenzel Faber of Budweis, but taking its final form in the practicas of Johannes Virdung from the Nuremberg press of Friedrich Creussner. Virdung published more practicas than any other astrologer over a career that lasted into the late 1530s, but he didn't entirely escape the collapse of the practica market in the decade between 1500 and 1510, when every other practitioner exited the field and the number of editions and authors printed dropped dramatically and recovered only in the 1520s.

Practicas at first glance look like tedious astronomical observations interspersed with astrological mumbo-jumbo, but a second look will reveal that they're actually fascinating microcosms of early modern society. Like prophecies, they distill society's hopes and fears, but the practicas also spend a good deal of time contemplating society's current structure. Most writing about the future, it turns out, is primarily concerned with the present.

At first, there were various competing systems for describing people: nobility, clergy, and commoners, for example; or Christians, Muslims, and Jews. But the structure of society that eventually predominates divided people by occupation according to planets. So soldiers were naturally considered to be children of Mars (but so were iron workers). Merchants and scholars were children of Mercury, while astrologers went back and forth over attributing book printers to Mercury or to Venus (along with women, musicians, and people driven by lust). Categorizing people according to planetary occupations turns out to be an extraordinarily flexible and expandable way to describe a society in the midst of flexing and expanding. Rather than promoting reform or revolution, practicas promoted the stability of the existing order by raising fears of disaster while offering obedience and unity as ways to mitigate or avoid calamity. With a few exceptions, practicas illustrate the printing press as an agent of the status quo.

Friday, September 2, 2011

When paratexts go bad: Vom Michel Juden Tode

While working on Printing and Prophecy, I was interested in everything written by Johannes Lichtenberger, whose 1488 Prognosticatio was the most influential compilation for much of the period I was dealing with. So one particularly interesting edition was VD16 V 2722: Vom Michel Juden Tode (Magdeburg: Michael Lotter, 1549). The VD16 entry lists Lichtenberger as a contributor. Was this a combination of an anti-Semitic tract with some part of the Prognosticatio?

I ordered a facsimile from the Herzog August Bibliothek, and the title page indeed looks like the book will give us something from Lichtenberger.
But after eight leaves, the text just stopped. No Lichtenberger. The facsimile didn't include the verso of the last leaf. Was I missing something important?

Alas, no. A few days ago, the Universität Halle released a digital facsimile of a different copy (shown above), and the last leaf verso is blank.

So now the situation is clear. Despite the printer's use of the same type face for "Vom Michel Juden Tode" and "Johannes Liechtenbergers prophecey," only the first is a title. The second identifies the quotation being used to decorate the title page - which doesn't seem to appear in the Prognosticatio anyway, at least at first glance. Lichtenberger includes prognostications about Meissen and some anti-Semitic material, but the lines "Meissen wirt heydentzen / so wirt die Marck Judentzen / vnd Golt fur Gott anbeten" look like something attributed to Lichtenberger rather than borrowed from him. There are many other texts ranging from a few lines to several pages attributed to Lichtenberger in the sixteenth century and later, and the same thing happens with just about every other prophetic authority, so this isn't surprising.

As Lichtenberger's name is the only one that appears on the title page, authorship of Vom Michel Juden Tode is attributed to Lichtenberger in some older catalogs, however, which has carried forward into WorldCat and Google Books.

The "Michel" referred to in the title, by the way, is Michel von Derenburg; for more about him, see Rotraud Ries, "Individualisierung im Spannungsfeld differenter Kulturen," in Selbstzeugnisse in der Frühen Neuzeit, ed. by Kaspar von Greyerz (2007), 95-96.