Friday, March 28, 2014

O Fortuna (in digital facsimile)

This week, the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek released a digital facsimile of Clm 4660, best known as the Carmina Burana. The manuscript is described in several recent BSB catalogs, including catalogs from 1994, 1998, and 2000. The manuscript opens with a great illustration of the Wheel of Fortune, a concept that I've needed to introduce to students when teaching medieval and early modern literature but also when teaching nineteenth-century literature. It's relevant to Gottfried Keller's Kleider machen Leute, for example.

Having an online facsimile of the Carmina Burana is nice, as it now gives me an almost plausible excuse to play Orff in class. It also raises the question: What other medieval and early modern depictions of the Wheel of Fortune are available in online facsimile - that is, embedded in their original context and with supporting scholarly apparatus? Google image search will give you lots of examples, but what if you want to know about an image's source?

First, here's Clm 4660.

Another of my favorites is from Wenzel Faber von Budweis's practica for 1490 (GW 9595/ISTC if00005440), which ties changing human fortunes to astronomical cycles.

The Wheel of Fortune shows up in some odd ways in title page illustrations for several of Johannes Virdung's practicas, but the only one with an online facsimile is his practica for 1523 (VD16 V 1280). In this illustration, either Aries is accidentally placed, or the zodiacal ram is the one turning the wheel.

Matthias Brotbeihel's practica for 1544 (VD16 B 8424) includes on its title page what looks like a Wheel of Fortune held by a divine arm and with four eclipses mounted on it.

The text to the side reads:
Ich bin der alle ding regiert
Mich im Regiment niemands irrt /
Das glückrad hab ich in meinr händ
Nach meinem willen ich das wänd.

("I am the one who rules all things. No can move my governing from its course. I hold the wheel of fortune in my hand and turn it according to my will.")
The humanist Jakob Henrichmann's 1509 parody prognostication (VD16 H 2041) features a woodcut that looks to me like a parody of the Wheel of Fortune.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Strange and Terrible Visions of Wilhelm Friess, Chapter One: A Strange Prognostication

As the alleged author of the most popular German prophetic pamphlet of the later sixteenth century, "Wilhelm Friess" sounds very much like pure fiction, as the pamphlet supposedly contains a prophecy found with Friess after his death in Maastricht. So I was surprised to discover that earlier works attributed to "Willem de Vriese" of Maastricht had actually been printed in Antwerp a few years before the first German pamphlets appeared. Examining the Dutch origins of "Wilhelm Friess" turned into the first chapter of The Strange and Terrible Visions.

To trace the story of "Wilhelm Friess," I had to start more than a decade before the first German pamphlets were printed with the Antwerp printer Jacob van Liesvelt, who was executed in 1545 for violating the imperial edicts on printing. His widow Maria Ancxt and his son Hans van Liesvelt continued in the printing business, including in their publication programs several annual astrological prognostications. Hans van Liesvelt published two practicas for 1555 and 1556 attributed to "Willem de Vriese" of Maastricht.

I have the name in quotation marks because there is no clear indication that "Willem de Vriese" ever existed. Supposedly an aged and well-known doctor, the city archives have no trace of him. At first glance, his practicas appear to be quite conventional, but a closer look reveals a clearly pro-Reformation message and some notable straying from scientific astrology, including a prediction that "many things that were prophesied long ago will be fulfilled this year." The practica for 1556 predicts the eventual downfall of "Esau Pharmona," supposedly a Slavic prince who oppressed the Christians under his rule. I argue that "Esau Pharmona" is a stand-in for Hapsburg rule over the Netherlands, and that the hidden transcript of de Vriese's practicas - to borrow a highly useful concept from James C. Scott's Domination and the Arts of Resistance - was pro-Reformation, anti-Hapsburg agitation at a place and time where it could have severe repercussions, as Hans van Liesvelt knew all too well.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Wilhelm Friess: all finished (updated)

The final manuscript of "Wilhelm Friess" has now left my desk and made its way to the publisher. The timeline for this project might be summarized like this:

March 2010: While waiting for the contract for Printing and Prophecy, I realize I need a new project. I discover that one project I was contemplating has recently been published by Christian Kiening. There seems to be a surprisingly large number of "Wilhelm Friess" editions, but since this prophecy was published after 1550, I hadn't said much about it in Printing and Prophecy. There doesn't seem to be much secondary literature on it, so I resolve to write an article - a short, quick article - while I search for the next big project.

July 2010: After turning in the final manuscript of Printing and Prophecy, I start tracking down facsimiles. Some of the texts I find don't look familiar. It turns out that there are two different prophecies, including one that exists in four very different versions, and one attribution of something by Nikolaus Caesareus to Friess.

September 2010: I write the article. I'm not quite satisfied with it. I re-write it. I work up a cover sheet, but I can't shake the feeling that I'm missing something, so I hold off on submitting it anywhere. I submit an abstract to Kalamazoo instead. Then I find what I was missing: the Dutch back story to "Wilhelm Friess" in Frans Fraet's fateful publication of a prognostication by "Willem de Vriese." Another rewrite ensues.

April 2011: I discover several late-seventeenth century Friess editions circulating under different titles and authorial names. The Kalamazoo paper gets a hasty revision. I start wondering if the next big project is actually the thing I've been working on for the last year.

May 2011: I discover that several passages in both Friess prophecies are quoted from other sources, including Lichtenberger, Grünpeck, and Dietrich von Zengg, making the textual history of "Wilhelm Friess much more interesting than I had thought.

June 2011: I reorganize the article as a book, and start writing. By September I have a complete draft that comes to 56,000 words. Definitely too long for an article, but a bit short for a book.

October 2011. I revise the manuscript and ask if my editor would like to see what I'm working on. She's interested, and the manuscript goes out to readers. I plan on revising the book again, but otherwise I'm done. Still, I have that nagging feeling that I'm missing something important. I keep checking sources.

January 2012. I discover the source of the first prophecy: The Vademecum of Johannes de Rupescissa. This shakes up most of the chapters and the textual history of the first Friess prophecy. Coupled with the discovery a few months later of the French abridgment on which "Wilhelm Friess" is based, the the book manuscript needs a complete revision.

April-September 2012. I finish the revision. I revise the revision. The next afternoon, reader reports show up that need to be addressed. I do so. Two weeks later, a contract is offered. Not long after Thanksgiving, the whole manuscript - at 87,000 words - gets shipped off to the press. This time I don't have any nagging sensations that I've missed something.

July 2013. The copy-edited manuscript is sent back for me to check. I'm in the middle of moving at that point, so checking the manuscript lasts until early September.

January-February 2014. I receive the page proofs, check the page proofs, and prepare the index.

March 2014. I receive the proposed cover art. It's beautiful.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Comments on a CFP: Christian Prophecies and Competing Concepts of Order, 1500-1800

This CFP came across H-Soz-u-Kult this week (in German, English, and Spanish):
Christian Prophecies as a Reflex to Competing Concepts of Order (ca. 1500-1800)
Numerous cases of early modern prophecies are strongly bound in certain research traditions, e. g. national and religious contexts, or the interpretation as religious or social deviation. For the planned conference, main discussion topics are concrete case studies of early modern prophecies from a broad range of cultural, political, social, and religious backgrounds. There are no geographical limits for the provenance of the case studies; they can have their origin in Europe, the New World, or anywhere else. Thus, we will be able to compare a wider and more diverse range of these case studies and specific aspects of the prophecies. Prophecy is in this context defined as a discussed “divine” revelation to an individual which is linked with concrete instructions and which is addressed to a certain parish, the church as a whole, Christendom, or mankind

Prophecies are more than textual phenomena or rhetorical camouflage. They can rather be seen as a possibility to understand concepts of social order: Whereas one group of individuals could accept the present social order as a divinely ordained system, another group could perceive the divine will to change this very order and propose an alternative, new social order. The competition of diverging concepts of order made it necessary for each group to justify their own analysis of the status quo as the “correct” perception of the current order on earth and of the normative and divine conception of order. In these situations, implicit assumptions and unreflected practices were expressed, reflected, and actualized on a performative level.

Potential prophecies were, however, examined by specific institutions or individuals. In formal proceedings it was discussed whether a case was based on a divine revelation or not. Thus, in a way, ‘real’ prophecies were generated by a process of examination.

In the analysis and contextualization of each prophecy case study, the following main aspects should be discussed:
  1. To which concepts of order does the prophecy refer?
    Here, apocalyptic concepts as an offered interpretation of social order are especially of importance, expressed in the diagnosis of the status quo and in an alternative order. Which time concepts are expressed in this context?
  2. Which institutions or authorities examined the prophets and prophetesses?
    In this way, the social relevance of the prophecies could be explained. By considering which other types of offences also fell under the cognizance of the institutions concerned, one can reconstruct the social category and context of the phenomenon of prophecy and of the prophetic texts. Whether these authorities at the same time interpreted prophecies for their own needs could be checked.
  3. Which arguments are raised in debates on a concrete prophecy case?
    The prophet’s threat can claim evidence through authentication strategies. The so-called “discernment of spirits” (discretion spirituum), for instance, could be based on empirical methods as well as emotions, and could moreover refer to specific bodies of knowledge. A Prophet was not judged immediately, but only after a discussion between different interest groups.
Please send a proposal (max. 2 pages), along with a short CV to Dr. des. Fabian Fechner ( by July 1, 2014.

This should be a good conference, and I'll be very interested to see the papers that come out of it, but I don't know if I would have anything to contribute to it. I've published some things about early modern prophecies, but the organizers seem to be primarily thinking of a specific kind of prophecy that I haven't often encountered.

Although the geographic scope is broad, the definition of prophecy is quite narrow: "eine zeitgenössisch diskutierte Offenbarung Gottes gegenüber einer Person, die mit einem Handlungsauftrag verbunden war und die sich über das Individuum hinaus an eine einzelne Gemeinde, 'die' Kirche, 'die' Christenheit oder die gesamte Menschheit richtete." Many of the early modern prophecies I've worked with do represent themselves as revelations to a specific person, but others are simple statements of events to come that don't attempt to represent the moment of revelation or an authorial persona. Texts can also move between these two categories by creating a fictive author and revelatory context for a previously anonymous prophecy. It's quite possible that the conference organizers are primarily interested in the preaching of living prophets, which is of course a much different kind of thing, but not all of the early modern prophets I'm aware of were instructed to act or to transmit their revelations to an external audience.

Some early modern prophets certainly were directed to act and to deliver their message to other people - I'm giving a paper about such a case at GSA this year - but the organizers of the Tübingen conference are specifically interested in prophecies that promote "konkurrierende Vorstellungen sozialer Ordnung." While the early modern prophetic texts I work with have a good amount to say about the existing social order, few of them want to upend it; some want to improve it (with rulers who are more just and clergy who live more humbly), and others want to preserve it. So I may not have anything to contribute to that aspect of the conference.

The other question that the conference organizers are interested in concerns the "[k]onkrete Institutionen, Instanzen und Akteure[, die] mit der Überprüfung von potentiellen Prophetien betraut [wurden] oder von sich aus aktiv [wurden]." Here again, I'm not sure that what I work on is relevant. Printers who published prophecies seem to have undertaken their activity on their own, but without a great deal of interest in demonstrating the authenticity of the prophecies; the usual attitude is "discard the false and keep whatever is good (while I make a quick buck off your purchase)." As for the institutions that examined prophecies, the ones that I've come across appear to have always suppressed and never authenticated a prophecy, but that may be due to the nature of the specific material I work with.

So I don't know about this one. It looks like a very interesting conference, but I'm not sure I can address the specific questions that the organizers are interested in. addressing.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Visualizing the seventeenth century

How did the Thirty Years' War affect the German publishing industry? One way to obtain a quick overview is to look at the number of different editions printed per year during the seventeenth, and the most obvious place to turn for that is VD17. While it's farther from completion than VD16, it also contains far more records, well over 265,000. Here's the count of VD17 records per year:

I've done a couple things here. First, I've knocked out the totals for years that are multiples of ten, as editions that have been dated "ca. 1670" and the like would give them undue weight. I've added a 2-year moving average trend line to compensate.

The results seem quite clear. After a burst of printing activity just before 1620, the number of titles declines precipitously. There is an interesting spike in 1630-31 that deserves more scrutiny, and then the number of titles printed annually declines even farther. The recovery beginning in 1640 does not reach pre-war levels until 1660.

Beyond looking at titles, we can also get an impression of how much paper was being consumed by the publishing industry by estimating the number of sheets each book required. Instead of counting titles, we divide the total number of leaves in a book by its format, then add the result for all books published in a given year. We have to ignore differing paper sizes and print runs, so the results have to be treated with caution, however. With that in mind, the result looks like this:

I've knocked out the round decades again. Because the data is noisier, I've added a 5-year moving average. In this view, the decline in German publishing due to the Thirty Years' War is deeper - a decline of nearly 70% compared to a decline of titles by 50% - and longer lasting. The publishing industry's consumption of paper doesn't appear to entirely regain its prewar level even by the end of the century. We have to keep in mind that there might be other explanations. Perhaps publishers were choosing larger paper sizes and thus needing fewer total sheets, or perhaps they were printing larger print runs than earlier.