Revisiting Early Modern Prophecies – reflections of a recent conference

[Olaf Simons, Gotha, Germany] From the 26th to the 28th of June Ariel Hessayon and Lionel Laborie welcomed about a hundred historians at London’s Goldsmith College to take a broader look at prophecies of the three centuries between 1500 and 1800. Science fiction fans might start feeling excited. We know so little about the technologies and societies, the star ships and surveillance states a Luther or a Newton would fancy when they projected their fantasies into the future. The problem is of course that they would not construct any such future.

Old and New War, Murder, Death, Woe and Misery-Calendar for the Year of the Lord 1685 (Nürnberg: Endter, 1684).
Source of the featured image above and typical collection of calendar prophecies: Old and New War, Murder, Death, Woe and Misery-Calendar for the Year of the Lord 1685 (Nürnberg: Endter, 1684). Wolfenbüttel Library

… and yet at the same time the early modern era abounded with prophecies. “Almanacks” were peddled each year on the market and contained – clearly prophetic, definitely non-scientific – tables of the year’s weather, upcoming wars and the astro-medical constellations which doctors and patients had to observe (Simon Dagenais gave a tour through such an Almanack in a study looking at their development over the longue durée). Young bedridden girls founded sects and inspired followers to become prophets and prophetesses themselves (Lucinda Martin presented spectacular cases). Craftsmen had prophetic visions and corresponded with learned authors who were ready to propagate their visions (Vladimír Urbánek looked at the division of work between Mikuláš Drabík and John Amos Comenius). Prophets from the French Cevennes (Lionel Laborie’s topic) toured through Europe, engaged in trance sessions and rallied political support.  Newton and Napier (Jennifer Egloff explored the computations) searched for the prophetic calculus that was hidden in the Bible. Comets sparkled the imagination of astronomers and the wider populace (Mike A. Zuber’s gave insight here)… and yet none of these prophesies were capable of envisaging the completely different future that emerged as politics , culture and technology were fundamentally restructured in the 1820s and 1830s.

The English and French Prophets mad or bewitch'd(London, 1707) [BL 9512.aaa.27]. A. The French Prophet stamping with his Foot. B. Benjamin Jackson, Writing what they all say. C. The other Writer. D. Sir Richard Buckley, to be made straight by the Power of the Prophets in 6 Months. E. Mister Dutton the Lawyer. F. Mr. Lacy shaking his Head. G.G. Converts not yet come to the full Spirit of Prophecy. H.H.H. Spectators. I. A little Boy being about 10 Years of Age being disturb’d, fell a Cursing the People, and threw himself on the Ground upon his Belly. K. A young female Prophet of Seven Years of Age. L. Mrs Betty Gray, sitting at a Table with a Dove, which flew upon her Shoulder; she is termed among the Prophets an Angel of Light.
The English and French Prophets mad or bewitch’d (London, 1707) [BL 9512.aaa.27].
A. The French Prophet stamping with his Foot. B. Benjamin Jackson, Writing what
they all say. C. The other Writer. D. Sir Richard Buckley, to be made straight by
the Power of the Prophets in 6 Months. E. Mister Dutton the Lawyer. F. Mr. Lacy
shaking his Head. G.G. Converts not yet come to the full Spirit of Prophecy.
H.H.H. Spectators. I. A little Boy being about 10 Years of Age being disturb’d, fell
a Cursing the People, and threw himself on the Ground upon his Belly. K. A young
female Prophet of Seven Years of Age. L. Mrs Betty Gray, sitting at a Table with a
Dove, which flew upon her Shoulder; she is termed among the Prophets an Angel of
Light.
Christian prophecies have their limitations

The historians who attended the conference did not give any regard to the dramatic failure of early modern prophets to foresee the future. The Biblical perspective restrained all these prophetic voices. The time frame of world history – God had created this world less than 6000 years ago – made it likely that world history would end in the near future. The divine intervention was described in the Bible’s last book and there was as little reason to doubt this last apocalyptic chapter as there was reason to doubt the Genesis. Technical innovation did not play a role in the Bible. Philosophers did not see any reason to contradict: Whatever one could invent could be invented any time. If it had not been invented before the 1730s why should it be invented in the one or two remaining centuries? Prophets of the 17th and 18th centuries imagined the future as extended present era. Shifting alliances and new wars would pave the way into the Apocalypse. The very tone and intention of the prophetic statement was fixed. Modern prophets had Biblical precursors such as Daniel or Elijah. They spoke their languages of strange signs and timely warnings.

The idea of technological progress (and its nightmares) is formed with greater clarity only in the second half of the 19th century. It already reflects the industrial revolution, Darwin’s idea of evolution and the immense time frame this evolution required. The recognition of the extended time frame of extremely slow biological and cultural developments produced a shock effect. Once the modern paradigm of evolutionary developments began to supplant the early modern paradigm of dramatic and quasi divine revolutions, one could start to induce these developments and to force their progress with an unprecedented speed.

The “prophetic grammar” or the attack of the united margins

caricature of Pope Alexander VI. "This picture should be shown as often as possible." (Theo Pronk)
“This picture should be shown as often as possible” (Theo Pronk) Caricature of Pope Alexander VI.

Nigel Smith spoke in his keynote lecture about the “grammar” of prophecy and recited several early modern prophets. A specific “rap” could be heard, a rhythm of signs and warnings. Numbers and patterns emerged and invited interpretations. Visual spaces (so Jonathan Downing) became re-occurring components of the ubiquitous prophetic language.

Should this language find a psychological analysis – the analysis of dreams? Or is it rather a cultural construct? Most of the conference participants kept their focus on the obvious functionalities: The common language of prophecy turned the prophetic into an ideal inter-confessional battleground. A tradition of prophecies could take root once the patterns were stable (Liam Temple explored the canon formation for the term “mysticism”). Using the common language prophets like Quirinus Kuhlmann could act as “geo-sectarian poets” (Andrew Weeks).

All in all we seemed to notice a tendency of the prophetic fringe to unite across the confessional trenches and to form new alliances against the respective orthodox mainstreams. Liam Temple quoted propagandists of the Philadelphian Society with the statement that mystics of all confessions were in harmony with each other whereas the orthodoxies of the different churches continued to produce the schisms of the confessional age.

The prophetic individual – atavism or spearhead of the enlightenment?

Still waiting to be used: the cradle that was made for Joanna Southcott's child in 1815 (the prophetess who claimed to be pregnant was then already in her 60s)
Still waiting to be used: the cradle that was made for Joanna Southcott‘s heavenly child in 1815 (the prophetess who claimed to be pregnant was then already in her 60s)

The individual prophecies were far less exciting than the prophets and the sects they could found (Lionel Laborie took a closer look at the different highly creative groups of French Huguenot dissent). Born in the most dismal circumstances, young maidens could become warning voices. A French ex-general formed a new theocratic and military order and convinced the Turkish ambassador in Amsterdam in 1715 to sign a six year contract granting this “Universal Theocracy” full financing and the military support needed for a coup against the Vatican (which would then unleash the Apocalypse). Prophets spoke and speak in sublime obliviousness to any sense of responsibility. What they see is not of their personal design. What they can offer is at best a tentative interpretation of the divine messages they received.

19th- and 20th-century historians tended to follow the leading propagandists of the Enlightenment: According to the sober allegedly scientific view, prophets were men and women sharing an uncanny past and often impostors who became enthralled to the religious phantasies of their own omnipotence. The historians present in London were far more ready to attack prevailing notions of such an Enlightenment. No one will follow authors like Johann Heinrich Feustking on their enlightened missions. The Lutheran orthodox compiler of his Gynaeceum Haeretico Fanaticum of 1704, a compendium of prophetesses, had pleaded for the strengthening of the patriarchal church, which alone could silence these presumptuous heretic female voices (Adelisa Malena’s topic). We are rather fascinated by the courage these women showed and by their readiness to shape their own lives in defiance of all interventions undertakend by the different orthodoxies.

If one wants to continue the debate of the Enlightenment and to receive the attention of its participants one will recalibrate, attack or subvert present views of this Enlightenment. Did the Enlightenment really bring more rationality into our world? We might see these prophets as propagandists of a suppressed culture, as proponents of a counter culture – an interpretation which saps the Enlightenment of much of its transformative power. Ariel Hessayon reminded the audience of those enlightened voices that went much further and that indulged in esoteric practices. The Swedenborgians were to be numbered among such phenomena. Enlightened authors could courageously support the individual on its most outrageous quests and legitimise this support in terms of the ultimate liberation of the enlightened mind. Other enlightened minds had more pragmatic reasons to defend the prophetic voice: The propagandists of the French Revolution showed sympathies with those who had predicted the overthrow of all spiritual and worldly power in France (so the papers of Rodney Dean and Jonathan Smyth).

In the final analysis it is not clear whether we observe a development towards an (anti-prophetic) collective scepticism in the course of the Enlightenment. Astrology is, indeed, subject to ever more vigorous attacks. We observe here, however, (so Steven van den Broecke) not so much a change of collective beliefs but rather a reform of the public sphere. A new box of “internal exoticism” is opened and begins to safely contain, to tolerate and perhaps even to silently protect what cannot be rooted out by the Enlightenment. Chris Rowland, who gave the second keynote lecture, quoted William Blake’s appreciation of a special aspect of this development. The poet-prophet called for a democratisation of the prophetic and promoted with this call its secularisation. Numbers 11:29 supported Blake’s call: “Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the LORD’S people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit upon them!”

Nigel Smith’s conclusion that prophets were perhaps the only ones who dared to be themselves in the early modern era remained a provocation. Had not his talk just demonstrated that all these voices had spoken under far more drastic constraints? Is the prophet not rather constantly forced to act as someone else?

William Blake, America, A Prophecy (1793)
William Blake, America, A Prophecy (1793)

With the possible exception of the talks given by Philip Lockley and Sheldon Kent, the conference revolved around the fundamental question of the Enlightenment. Lockley’s and Kent’s talks shifted the attention towards the end of the era. The alternative question is here: what is the difference between an “early modern” and a “modern” prophecy? Joseph Smith’s Mormonism, an almost postmodern “bricolage religion” is a rather modern phenomenon. Is it modern thanks to the new means of transportation that allowed new prophecies to spread far faster on a global scale? The “modern individual” is in any case not the specifically modern phenomenon, nor can the arrival of Habermas’s “critical public sphere” mark the end of the early modern wold. Our prophets were outstanding individuals and they used modern media to address an overtly critical public. One would love to see a demarcation of the sort apparent in the field of modern creationism. A Ken Ham will claim to agree with Newton and yet his creationism (with its expanding universe, its masses of dinosaurs and its claims that the Bible is true no matter what the sciences say) has little in common with Newton’s universe. What would be the equivalent of this broken tradition in prophecies? The step from prophecies of divine interventionism towards our prophecies of developments? Are developments still a matter of prophecies (or does the paradigm already take the step into the world of estimates and forecasts)?

Not a prophecy, rather a dream: we need a special Wikipedia for historians

Jo Spaans said it on one of the panels on day one: “We do not do the uprising of the masses any longer, we do network analysis”. Yes. In a move towards far more concrete objects of research and with the help of the personal computer we have by and large turned away from previous rather metaphysical objects of research and rediscovered the individual – an individual that does not have to be an outstanding politician or artist any longer. We reconstruct lives and focus on personal networks. Our research has become in an unnoticed positivist turn rather specific and data driven.

Philippe de Gentil de Langallerie, the ex-general and prophet who planned to overthrow the pope
Philippe de Gentil de Langallerie, the ex-general and prophet who planned to overthrow the pope

Our problem is today that we still remain unable to turn our background research into an object of collective work. The case I presented is part of this malaise: The diaries of the French ex-general who planned to overthrow the Pope frightened me when I first saw them in 2010: They are filled with the names of about 1,000 men and women the notorious Marquis de Langallerie had contacted between 1713 and 1716 – all names of little individual importance but names of a massive strata of early 18th-century religious dissent which we eventually will reconstruct. Had I not personally run into Lionel Laborie, the French colleague who had been reconstructing parts of this network in recent years – my research would not have shown me that I am not alone involved in this reconstruction. (and although we have met, our work on this background of names is still located on separate computers.)

What we need is a Wikipedia of new scientific policies (allowing original research) to be filled with structured data. A semantic media wiki would be the ideal platform. Wikipedia is interested in articles about people of public interest. The historian is, on the contrary, interested in any kind of information that can change our picture of whatsoever – the enlightenment, the early modern era, National Socialism… There is not a person or a fact that might not become important. The sheer number of names to be connected can be of importance. The software which we should use, should be able to include texts and images and to process “structured data”. The fact that a person met another person at a certain place on a certain date according to documentary evidence is such structured information. Fill in the names of all the people a person has met and you can ask the database to produce his network. Once the database knows the dates and places it will just as easily reconstruct his journeys and much of his CV. If we began to gather our background information in a collective database one can feed with statements of facts we could take the next step: the step into the aggregation of isolated facts. The same individuals will appear in different documents in different contexts. We will step from coincidental personal contacts to networks as they developed over decades: the networks of institutions, of secret societies, of individual fields of learning (…a project to consider in a future posting).

Conference Picture, Goldsmith College, Lecture Hall
Conference Picture, Goldsmith College, Lecture Hall

The meeting in London was fascinating as it allowed us to understand who is presently working on pretty much the same materials. The collective database remains a thing of the future.

Links

Header Image
  • Alter und Neuer Kriegs- Mord- und Todt- Jammer- und Noht-Calender. Auf das Jahr nach der Geburt Jesu Christi/ M DC LXXXV. (Nürnberg: Endter, 1684) Digitisation
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