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Be that as it may, Richard's reign would not last long, nor was it as positive as the boar-ish reigns once prophesized by Merlin. The Welsh poet Guto'r Glyn, in a poem priasing one of Henry's Welsh knights, referred ironically to Richard as a boar:. Perhaps it is Richard III's eventual loss and his strong association with the boar that has led to the fact that no other English royal would ever appeal to the royal boar prophecy again.

However, it is possible that the printed edition of Thomas Mallory's Le Morte Darthur also played a role. The text of this work survives in a printed edition by William Caxton, dated to , and the so-called 'Winchester Manuscript' London, British Library, Add. This Winchester Manuscript is dated to a decade after Thomas Mallory's death in and was probably used by Caxton in his print shop, along with another manuscript now lost. Comparing the Winchester Manuscript to Caxton's later printed edition allows a glimpse at how Caxton made subtle alterations in Mallory's text.

Crucially, for the purpose of this blog, Caxton changed the text of a prophetic dream that King Arthur has while he is on his way to conquer Rome in book V, chapter 4.

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According to the Winchester manuscript, Arthur dreams of how a dragon defeats a "gresly Beare"; after Arthur wakes up a philosopher explains that Arthur need not worry: he is the dragon that will defeat the bear, who symbolises a cruel and powerful tyrant that torments its people. In Caxton's version, printed in , the bear has been changed into a boar: "the bore"! This appears to be a conscious change, inspired by the political situation of the day, as P. Field has noted:. The change must have been deliberate, and it created a bold political allusion: the boar was the badge of King Richard III and the dragon that of Henry Tudor.

Elias Ashmole , astrologer and antiquarian, copied some of the later items in this collection of English political prophecy Clapinson and Rogers, , Moving beyond the logic of scribal attribution, the conjunction yet registers a discrepancy between political prophecy and modernity. V; , pt. With the clarity of an obiter dictum, the note in Ashmole expresses the historical stakes of English political prophecy.

Ironically, for a twenty-first-century reader, the invocation of a defunct literary genre, like the spellings beleived and phrophecies, marks the Ashmole note itself as the product of an earlier era. Political prophecy has disappeared from the literary landscape, even as a target of derision. Between the end of English political prophecy and the Ashmole note lay the eighteenth century, when the idea of modernity stabilized and the discipline of English studies came into its own.

In England, the arrow pointed toward the British Empire. If modernity was characterized by secularization and imperial order, then the Middle Ages were characterized by fanaticism and feudalism. If modernity was characterized by an open-ended future and a nuanced understanding of the past, then the Middle Ages were characterized by fatalism and a lack of historical perspective. Twenty-first-century scholars of English literature inherit these judgments. Faculty hiring, college curricula, academic publishing, and the very tools of critical analysis are shaped by the basic distinction between modernity and something historically prior to it but, in fact, conceptually codependent with it.

How can one study the Middle Ages or modernity without reifying the secularist and imperialist historiography of which these chronological categories are expressions? Whatever else it has come to represent, the question of modernity is a question of scholarly method. The written tradition of political prophecy straddles the centuries now designated as medieval and modern. Nor did English political prophecy engender any recognizably modern literary progeny.


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The tradition ended with a whimper around the turn of the eighteenth century, long after the political and religious upheavals that would herald modernity for later historians, but long before the emergence of the modern discipline of English studies and its ideological complement, the English literary canon.

English political prophecy is an unmodern literary tradition, that is, a literary corpus resistant to established retrospective procedures of periodic segmentation. By forging a third way between medieval romance and the modern novel, prophecy lays bare the artificiality of the periodization that still occludes it. This essay explores connections and tensions between political prophecy and modernity. Because the genre is now unfamiliar, it is necessary to set out some coordinates of form and history before turning to historiography.

The first section summarizes the generic, linguistic, codicological, political, and social dimensions of English political prophecy, with emphasis on literary genre. This survey of the field reveals political prophecy to be a large, problematic, and underappreciated historical archive, which shaped policy and everyday life in pre-Enlightenment England. The Prophetie may have been composed separately from the Historia and certainly circulated independently from at least the late twelfth century.

Henceforth, Merlin the prophet and Arthur the British king would travel together. The Historia and its vernacular adaptations exported both figures, recontextualized through juxtaposition, to non-Welsh-speaking audiences in Britain and on the continent. In medieval and early modern culture, prophecy expressed the same truth as historiography. Merlin opens his discourse by identifying the dragons with the Saxons and the Britons, respectively.

The Historia has exerted a continuous influence on literary production in several languages from the twelfth century to the present. Britain knew other prophetic traditions, notably those associated with the Bible, Hildegard of Bingen, Joachim of Fiore, and Sibyl. Each of these connected the island to the European continent see Barnes, ; Jostmann, ; Kerby-Fulton, ; Lerner, ; Sahlin, However, none of these other traditions achieved the intellectual and codicological density of Galfridian political prophecy in Britain.

English political prophecy stands as a major understudied literary archive. Despite some valuable essays and book-length studies on the subject Coote, ; Flood, ; Jansen, ; Moranski, ; Taylor, ; Thornton, , most prophetic texts are still unindexed, unedited, and untitled. The following survey of the field lays special emphasis on the last phase of active production of political prophecies, after c. Most immediately, political prophecy is a literary genre. The Prophetie Merlini presents its salient features: ascription of a prophetic utterance to an authoritative figure from the past, animal symbolism, and political topicality.

Specifically, Geoffrey bequeathed to later writers a vocabulary for negotiating the relationship between ethnicity and empire. Yet the same poem looks to Ireland for the victorious king ll. Within the logic of political prophecy as historiography, there was no contradiction between anti-Saxon and pro-Yorkist propositions. By appropriating anti-imperialist prophetic British historiography, English writers could represent themselves as the exclusive possessors of political intentions. In manuscript books, prophecy frequently co-occurs with historiography as well as heraldry, genealogy, astrology, medicine, and wisdom literature.

The production of political prophecy was multilingual, a key feature that makes the tradition more difficult to apprehend as such within modern single-language disciplines. Political prophecy begins, historically, in Welsh poetry such as Armes Prydein tenth century and Latin prose historiography as in the Prophetie Merlini. Whereas Brut chronicles after the twelfth century passed from Latin through Anglo-Norman to English, Galfridian political prophecy proceeded more or less directly from Latin to English.

Pre English manuscripts containing political prophecy are overwhelmingly in Latin, especially those further up the scale of formality. Even as late a manuscript as Ashmole Rolls 26, a Yorkist genealogical roll, mostly contains Latin texts. Meanwhile, from Armes Prydein to the death of Elias Ashmole, the production of political prophecies in Welsh proceeded apace.

The prophecy tradition was manuscript-centric, another consideration that helps explain its marginality in scholarship on insular literature, particularly scholarship sited in the era of print. Written testimonia and court records imply the extensive circulation of political prophecies by word of mouth and in loose sheets Jansen, , , but manuscript books remain the richest form of evidence for the genre. The prophecy books range in date from the mid s or s to the eighteenth century, but they cluster in the late fifteenth century and the late sixteenth century. Apart from Ashmole Rolls 26 and a few other Yorkist books of the s, collections of political prophecy are relatively downmarket products, wrought in casual handwriting and filled with household accounts, letters, signatures, pentrials, and other ephemeralia on paper or modest vellum.

Selden B. The mise en page of individual pages in prophecy books often has the character of a nonce solution.


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Yet scribes could devote significant energy to constructing paratextual apparatus for reading prophecy. VII late fifteenth century , another Yorkist propaganda book, offers a neatly numbered contemporary list of incipits of 56 prophecies, with spaces for 8 more 81r. From the Prophetie Merlini forward, political prophecies constituted responses to contemporary political events.

The combination of literary conventionality and political topicality in prophetic writing frustrates standard scholarly reading practices, exacerbating the alienation of prophecy from modernity. The representation of events and figures in English political prophecy was cumulative not sequential. Thus the poet of the English alliterative Wynnere and Wastoure late fourteenth century imagines Edward III conquering Paris and marching into Cologne, a reenactment of the movements of the boar-king in the popular Prophecy of the Six Kings early fourteenth to mid fifteenth century across several revisions in multiple languages and forms see Flood, , ; Smallwood, Prophetic texts moved through political history just as political history moved through prophetic texts.

Another part of the difficulty for modern scholars in getting to grips with political prophecy, I submit, is the social fluidity of the genre. Some studies of political prophecy describe it as a vehicle of propaganda, others as a tool of social protest. It was both. If romance was the genre of the urban gentry see Johnston, , and English alliterative verse was the meter of the clerical class see Mueller, , then political prophecy was the genre that could draw kings, monks, merchants, and commoners into the same conceptual arena.

Geoffrey represents the Historia as anti-imperialist historiography: once and future British resistance to Saxon hegemony. Whatever the status of this claim for Geoffrey, a socially mobile cleric, the Historia was forcefully co-opted by elite imperialists almost immediately after its publication see Crick, Simultaneous movement up and down the social scale would characterize political prophecy throughout its history.

VII Coote, , ; the Wigstons, merchants of Leicester, who owned London, Society of Antiquaries, MS late fifteenth century , a miscellany containing recipes, religious verse, political prophecies, and other items, in Latin and English Coote, , ; Welsh physician Thomas Wiliems, who copied Peniarth 94 Evans, , 1. Predictably, the ownership of manuscripts containing English political prophecy skewed toward the rich and almost exclusively toward men.

Nonetheless, all sectors of literate society participated in the production and consumption of these books. Ironically, the best evidence of the use of political prophecy by ordinary people comes from accounts and records of legal proceedings in the wake of legislation criminalizing unauthorized prophetic activity, enacted first in and then periodically in the early and mid sixteenth century.

Nonetheless, all sectors of literate society participated in the production and consumption of these books. Ironically, the best evidence of the use of political prophecy by ordinary people comes from accounts and records of legal proceedings in the wake of legislation criminalizing unauthorized prophetic activity, enacted first in and then periodically in the early and mid sixteenth century.

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Many of these official documents quote the offending text in part or in full. For example, one can find part of the text of the cross-rhymed English alliterating Marvels of Merlin late fifteenth century in the mouth of a servingman named Richard Swann at his trial for spreading the prophecy Elton, , 59; Jansen, , While always mediated by the conventions of legal documentation and the social prejudices of the powerful, the texts embedded in these court cases attest to the incendiary power of vernacular political prophecy.

Through these cases one can glimpse the politicization of the fear of social disintegration. Above all, English political prophecy was a historiographical tradition. The literary style, languages, and political purposes of the genre all illustrate its fundamental orientation toward history writing. It also requires scholars to appreciate the contingency of modernity as the measure of historical consciousness and literary value. The next section takes up these issues of periodization in relation to political prophecy.


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The Age of Prophecy The period from c. Call it the Age of Prophecy. In the longer history of the genre from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Mother Shipton, the middle of the fifteenth century marks a turning point. For the Wynnere and Wastoure poet in the fourteenth century, political prophecy was only one stop on the tour of genres. In the s and s, the first English prophecy books appeared, a new alignment of literary genre and book construction.

In the s and s, the Jack Cade rebellion and the Wars of the Roses catalyzed the dissemination of old and new prophecies. Several of the most successful prophetic texts, including the Ireland Prophecy and the Marvels of Merlin, are datable to these decades. During this period, political prophecy occupied a position of honor in cultural discourse and the literary field.

It motivated political action, shaped public perception of national politics, and captured the imagination of writers and compilers. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the center of power in prophetic writing had shifted from manuscript to print.

Middle English Alliterative Poetry

Mid and late seventeenth-century political prophecy departs from the specifically Galfridian literary tradition summarized in the previous section. In the nineteenth century, political prophecy came to appear as an antique curiosity or a mental defect. Missing from this capsule description of the Age of Prophecy is language. To judge from such mid fifteenth-century hits as the alliterating, cross-rhymed First Scottish Prophecy, the promotion of English in prophetic writing roughly coincided with changes in political culture and manuscript form.

Yet the surviving manuscripts indicate a lag between the production and dissemination of English political prophecies. English prophecy books transmitted predominantly Latin texts until nearly the end of the fifteenth century.

Prophecy and Public Affairs in Later Medieval England

Prophetic texts shared sources, literary styles, and political targets across languages. And, of course, many texts traveled across linguistic lines. VII, ff.

Overall, however, Latin ceded ground to English. By the mid sixteenth century, English prophecy occupied the former cultural position of Latin prophecy. In comparison with other English literary genres, political prophecy was a late bloomer. The mainstreaming of English literary activity occurred significantly earlier in romance, biblical translation, and historiography. These genres experienced the slow transition from manuscript to print in real time, in the fourteenth and very early fifteenth centuries.

By the mid sixteenth century, romance, scripture, and historiography could be found as abundantly in English printed books as in English manuscripts; prophecy could not.

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To conclude that political prophecy was a conservative literary genre is already to accede to the teleologies that lead from manuscript to print and medieval to modern. Fifteenth- and sixteenth- century writers and readers lacked foreknowledge of post-Enlightenment literary modernity. For them, prophecy was a way to inhabit the modern political world. These three genres, I would venture, inflected all other English literary production.

After the end of the Age of Prophecy, political prophecy contributed to literary modernity— as a path not chosen. On the other hand, Galfridian prophecy for Shakespeare clearly belonged to the past. It appears only in plays set in pre Britain. He set the Whole Prophesie in black letter, a typeface that held strong though not determinative associations with romance and antiquity after the ascendance of roman type in English-language printing in the early seventeenth century see Lesser, ; Mish, To the extent that it continued to circulate, it did so orally.

The social stigmatization of prophecy, perceptible from its first appearances in writing, was now complete. Laing, , v Here the emergence of a modern present from the medieval past is transacted by social class and literary genre. The opening sentence of the preface simultaneously celebrates a break with the past and positions Scottish literary culture as belated. This double gesture—we are modern, but by the skin of our teeth—was characteristic of the Bannatyne Club and, indeed, nineteenth-century medievalism in Britain. Recall that modernity began in the eighteenth century for the nineteenth-century notator of Ashmole Laing, like Watson, sets the Whole Prophesie in black letter, a quite self-conscious archaism by the early nineteenth century.

Like the Ashmole note, Collection of Ancient Scottish Prophecies wields the genre of political prophecy as an instrument in the periodizing procedure. So, too, does Keith Thomas in the expansive chapter on prophecy in his Religion and the Decline of Magic , Thomas numbers prophecy among the literary and religious behaviors that English subjects had to reject in order to become modern. Secular modernity, for Thomas, far from a discourse or a cultural paradigm, is simply the fact that makes historical inquiry into political prophecy possible.

Here, as in Collection of Ancient Scottish Prophecies, class appears as an index of modernization. Yet in its large- scale and teleological historical claims, Religion and the Decline of Magic illustrates how political prophecy, as an object of interest for the religious historian, is constituted by the ideological structure called modernity.

Periodization and its discontents have always shared religious and political history as common ground see for example Summit and Wallace, ; Cummings and Simpson, English political prophecy contributed to these historical series, but in a fashion that has not animated a commensurate body of scholarship. In studies of prophecy, religious and political history appear as immutable background rather than as objects of inquiry in their own right. Consequently, in studies of periodization, prophecy is invisible.

Historical contextualization can yet illuminate the ideological pathologies of prophecy, but thus far it has failed to account for the stupendous volume of creative effort poured into political prophecy by early writers, readers, and compilers. That English political prophecy should have escaped the rehabilitating gaze of stylisticians is, ironically, one consequence of the historicist failure that makes rehabilitation necessary in the first place. As long as prophecy was understood to possess no literary value, it could only function as the embarrassing target of critical gestures drawn from the study of some richer literary corpus.

Future work must break this critical deadlock by demonstrating the stylistic subtlety and literary urgency of political prophecy through its historical transformations. In its rhetorical habits and literary style, its methods of summoning futures, the tradition of political prophecy illuminates the historicity of modernity, an otherwise invisible idea.

Works Cited I. Primary sources [Laing, D. Edinburgh, UK: Ballantyne. Reeve, M. Wright, tr. Reference works Clapinson, M. Evans, J.