The problem of modernity

My essay, “English Political Prophecy and the Problem of Modernity,” has been accepted, pending peer review, for “Prophetic Futures,” edited by Katherine Walker and Joseph Bowling: a special issue of postmedieval. I thank them for including it. The essay is a version of the first chapter of my current book project. Here is the opening:

A nineteenth-century note in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 1835 (late sixteenth/early seventeenth c.), f. vr, offers a hypothesis and a censure:

It is probable that a great part of the subjects of this volume are in the hand writing of Ashmole himself copied from printed tracts – – at least, for the greater part – He was exceedingly superstitious, and beleived in phrophecies, visions, and various absurdities. Yet this man was the founder of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford –

The hypothesis is correct. Elias Ashmole (1617-1692), astrologer and antiquarian, copied some of the later items in this collection of English political prophecy (Clapinson and Rogers, 1991, 32). Ashmole’s belief in ‘absurdities’ appears here as supplementary paleographical evidence: this was the sort of material he would copy. Moving beyond the logic of scribal attribution, the conjunction Yet registers a discrepancy between political prophecy and modernity. The two cohabited in the mind of Ashmole, a collector of medieval arcana and the founder of the University of Oxford’s premier scientific institution. Many of Ashmole’s surviving manuscripts contain political prophecies. Four are organized around the genre: Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole Rolls 26 (olim Ashmole 27) (late fifteenth c.) and MSS Ashmole 337, pt. V (late sixteenth/early seventeenth c.); 1386, pt. III (late sixteenth/early seventeenth c.); and 1835.

With the clarity of an obiter dictum, the note in Ashmole 1835 expresses the historical stakes of English political prophecy. The author of the note distances nineteenth-century modernity from an alchemical seventeenth century, just as Ashmole’s antiquarian activities ostensibly distance his modern present from the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. Yet, in consigning political prophecy to the past, the note joins a long line of anxious literary activity surrounding the genre, extending back beyond Ashmole’s life to the centuries that the nineteenth-century notator would recognize as ‘medieval.’ From 1150 to 1650, political prophecy was always dangerous, and it always belonged to the past. 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 was invented and the discipline of English studies came into its own. In building a time and place called ‘modernity,’ post-Enlightenment writers reconstituted centuries of conflict and complexity as an arrow pointing toward secularized Europe. In England, the arrow pointed toward the British Empire. Paradoxically, Henry VIII’s new religious regime and the humanists’ self-conscious rearticulation of a classical past secured England a place in secular modernity. Across Europe (thereby able to name itself as such), the arrow pointed away from a time and place henceforth known as ‘the Middle Ages.’ The Middle Ages, a surprisingly young idea, is the negative image of the ideological territory claimed for modernity. 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? But how can one reject secularist and imperialist historiography without squandering two hundred years of research directed at objects of inquiry called ‘the Middle Ages’ and ‘modernity’? The problem of modernity is thus never only a historical problem but always also a methodological one.

To the question ‘Was English political prophecy medieval or modern?’ no answer can be given. The written tradition of political prophecy straddles the centuries now designated as medieval and modern. Public and governmental interest in prophecy peaked in the first half of the sixteenth century, the period of English literary history served most poorly by the medieval/modern periodization. Nor did English political prophecy engender any recognizably modern literary progeny. 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, metrical, codicological, political, social, and textual dimensions of English political prophecy. This survey of the field reveals political prophecy to be a large, problematic, and underappreciated historical archive. The second section identifies points of contact between the field of English political prophecy and the problem of modernity, arguing that prophecy describes a centuries-long period neither ‘medieval’ nor ‘modern’ in the literary-historical senses that these labels acquired in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


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