Melisandre’s prophecy is, like, totally medieval

Real medieval prophecy in “Game of Thrones”

In last week’s episode of Game of Thrones (7.2), the priestess Melisandre reiterated a prophecy about “The Prince That Was Promised,” applying it to Daenerys Targaryen.

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The books and the TV series have mentioned this prophecy before, in relation to Stannis Baratheon and Jon Snow, but the scene early in 7.2 with Melisandre, Daenerys, Missandei, and Tyrion Lannister bears a particularly strong resemblance to the political use of prophecy in actual medieval Britain.

Political prophecy was a vast literary and cultural enterprise in early Britain, from the 12th century all the way to the 17th. Prophecy guided monarchs and landed people in jail. The Game of Thrones scene captures many of its distinctive features.

First of all, the prophecy in 7.2 exists as an authoritative (written?) text to be quoted. Melisandre is not announcing the prophecy in real time but repeating a disembodied historical claim charged with faith in the Lord of Light. This is precisely how medieval British prophecy worked. The texts of prophecies are littered with tags like “according to Merlin,” “as Thomas of Erceldoune tells,” etc. In one 15th-century alliterative verse prophecy, the Vision of William Banastre, the title character retrieves information about the future of British politics through an interview with God.

The scene also dramatizes the language politics of prophecy. Melisandre delivers the prophecy in High Valyrian, a learned language enjoying similar cultural prestige to Latin in early Europe. Significantly, the conversation between Melisandre and Daenerys is conducted bilingually, in English and Valyrian. Medieval British prophecy took off in the 12th century with the publication of a lengthy Latin prose work, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. Geoffrey’s book served as a textual authority for all subsequent prophecy down to the 17th century.

In addition to depicting multiple languages, the scene in 7.2 makes an issue of the translation of prophecy. Missandei points out that the High Valyrian word that Daenerys translates as “prince” has no gender and could refer to a prince or a princess. Actual British political prophecy was always in transition between languages. Geoffrey mentions that he translated his book from “a very old book in the British tongue.” Though probably just a rhetorical flourish, this claim shows the power of translation to generate prophetic discourse.

Before and after Geoffrey, prophecy existed in and between Welsh, Latin, Anglo-Norman/French, English, and Scots. For instance, an English prophecy called the First Scottish Prophecy was translated into Latin soon after it was composed in the middle of the 15th century. This was the opposite of the usual direction of translation. The same prophecy was also translated into Welsh. Multiple surviving books of English and Welsh medieval prophecy were produced in Wales, not England. Texts were constantly crossing linguistic and political lines.

Tyrion remarks that the gender-neutral translation “doesn’t really roll off the tongue,” to which Daenerys responds, “No, but I like it better.” This heavy-handed dialogue illustrates the political expediency of prophecy, its ability to refer to multiple claimants and flatter the powerful.

In the real Middle Ages, the potency of prophecy lay in its capacity to be reinterpreted over and over again as political conditions changed. Geoffrey’s History was published in the 1130s. Just 40 years later, a writer named Alanus (probably the French theologian Alain de Lille) complains that people are misinterpreting Geoffrey. Geoffrey’s prophecy of a savior king was eventually made to refer to every English king from Henry IV to Henry VIII.

Game of Thrones exists between history and fantasy. Critiques of the overwhelming whiteness of the cast, in light of the well-documented presence of people of color throughout the European Middle Ages, including Britain, demonstrate what is at stake in the show’s reimagination of the past. It does not aim for historical accuracy, but it does court historicity through detailed correspondences of geography and names between Westeros and Britain. (For Starks and Lannisters, think Yorkists and Lancastrians. For King’s Landing, think London.)

Melisandre’s prophecy is one way in which the show reflects the medieval cultures that inspired it. The manipulation of public opinion through medieval prophecy is obvious to us today in retrospect and in watching Game of Thrones, but it holds an urgent lesson: public discourse shapes, and is shaped by, the interests of the most powerful. As Melisandre says, “Prophecies are dangerous things.”

Kzoo 2018 cfp: Elections before Elections

A call for papers for a Special Session at the 53rd International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI (May 10-13, 2018). E-mail 250-word abstracts to by September 15, 2017.

Elections before Elections: Insular Political Prophecy

Inspired by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century Prophecies of Merlin, the tradition of political prophecy in Britain covered numerous centuries and languages, from the twelfth century to the seventeenth and from Welsh to English, French, Latin, and Scots. The genre of political prophecy combines conventionality and topicality in unfamiliar ways, presenting the recent political past as an imagined future and serving (sometimes simultaneously) as political propaganda and social protest. Relatively understudied, prophecies are often unedited and are to be found in large, incompletely catalogued manuscript collections. The publication of Victoria Flood’s Prophecy, Politics and Place in Medieval England (2016), a major study, marks renewed interest in this strange and urgent mode of writing. Political prophecy has obvious relevance to contemporary national politics, particularly regarding the relationship between political discourse and truth (notably, in the outrage over fake news in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election) and the rhetorical use of the future for political purposes.

This session will solicit papers addressing a general scholarly audience, concerning political prophecy in Latin or any of the vernaculars of Britain, the manuscript tradition of prophecy, and medieval insular politics. Possible topics include: regnal politics and propaganda; the history and politics of individual texts; regionalism; multilingualism; the relationship between writing and medieval insular (proto-)national politics; new texts discovered in the archives; prophecy and other genres of writing; texts and manuscripts as evidence for social history; and literary form.

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.