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.

More Prophetic Piers Plowman

My note, “More Prophetic Piers Plowman,” appears in ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews. In a previous essay, I announced the discovery of two previously unrecognized prophetic excerpts from Piers Plowman in a sixteenth-century manuscript. This note identifies five more excerpts from Piers Plowman in five other late manuscripts. Here is the opening paragraph:

A key conclusion of recent bibliographical scholarship is that William Langland’s Piers Plowman (c. 1370–90) circulated as political prophecy in manuscript and print in the sixteenth century. Evidence for prophetic Piers Plowman includes an early sixteenth-century manuscript presenting the poem as “The Prophecies of Piers Plowman,” complete with glosses and table of contents; excerpts of two prophetic Piers Plowman passages (B.6.321–31 and 10.322–35) in sixteenth-century manuscripts; sixteenth-century annotations of these and other prophetic passages in earlier Piers Plowman manuscripts; sixteenth-century verse prophecies alluding to the same two Piers Plowman passages; and Robert Crowley’s anxiety about a prophetic interpretation of Piers Plowman in the preface to his 1550 printed edition of the poem. This essay registers five new entries in the sixteenth-century archive of Langlandiana, representing two textually distinct excerpts. I present transcriptions of the five texts and discuss their textual relationship to one another and to other texts of Piers Plowman.

Saint Kenelm, illustrated

My note, “Saint Kenelm in an Imaginative Illustration,” appears in Notes & Queries. The note concerns a twelfth-century illustration of Kenelm, also featured on the cover of my first book. Here’s the opening:

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 368 (mid or late twelfth c.) contains one of eight complete surviving copies of the Vita et miracula Sancti Kenelmi (1066–1075). The Vita is the earliest substantial account of the career of Kenelm, whose story would go on to feature in the South English Legendary and later English and Anglo-Latin texts. The narrative recounts Kenelm’s premonitory vision, decapitation, surreptitious burial, and posthumous rediscovery. In the climactic scene, the location of the saint’s murdered body is divulged to the pope in Rome by a dove carrying in its beak ‘a snow-white parchment inscribed with golden letters in English’ (‘niueam menbranam aureis litteris anglice inscriptam’, §10). In Douce 368 and other early manuscripts of the Vita, the English inscription is reported as a rhyming Latin couplet. However, three thirteenth- and fourteenth-century manuscripts gloss the passage with an English alliterative couplet: ‘In Klent Koubeche | Kenelm kunebearn/ liy under yorne | heaved bereved’ (‘In Clent Cow-valley, Kenelm the royal scion lies under a thorn-bush, decapitated’). The English alliterative couplet survives elsewhere in a free-standing late twelfth-century copy. An early eleventh-century application of the epithet cynebearn to Kenelm suggests that the alliterative poem predates the Vita. Like Cædmon’s Hymn, another miraculous English poetic utterance, the alliterative snippet on Kenelm seems to have moved from memory (in the earliest manuscripts) to the margins (in later manuscripts) and finally to the main text (in later redactions of the legend).

The Douce 368 text of the Vita opens on folio 80r with a historiated initial D depicting a resplendent Kenelm crowned and enthroned, a globus cruciger in one hand and a lily in the other. A dove with wings spread and beak open occupies the upper right corner of the illustration, over Kenelm’s shoulder. To the extent that they take notice of such details, scholars offer contradictory interpretations of the function of the dove. A note in a modern hand in the manuscript describes ‘the dove bringing the narrative of his murder’, evidently mistaking Kenelm for the Pope. F. W. Potto Hicks remarks only that ‘the dove refers to the legend of the letter announcing his death being carried to Rome’. Miriam Gill offers, ‘a bird to the right of his head must refer either to his premonitionary dream or to the dove which brought the news of his death to the Pope’. Rosalind Love, in a thorough description of the manuscript, has Kenelm ‘attended by a bird bearing something in its beak—perhaps the letter delivered to the pope in Rome’. Judith Collard sees the dove ‘touching his crown’.

Each of these interpretations captures a partial truth, but I see a possibility to improve on them by more closely connecting the illustration to the narrative of the Vita and by allowing the illustrator more artistic license. […]


The opening of the Vita et miracula Sancti Kenelmi in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 368 (mid or late twelfth c.). St. Kenelm, enthroned, holds orb and lily; a dove places a crown on his head.

The Marvels of Merlin

My article, “A New Text of the Marvels of Merlin,” appears in the Journal of the Early Book Society. This article introduces a previously unrecognized text of a fifteenth-century alliterating stanzaic political prophecy and sets the text in codicological and textual-historical context. Here’s the opening:

The Marvels of Merlin is a cross-rhymed, alliterating Middle English political prophecy in twelve quatrains, beginning “Of al þe merveilis of Merlyn how he makes his mone.” Sharon Jansen made the poem the subject of an extended study in 1985, identifying seven long texts and three excerpts in five fifteenth- and sixteenth-century manuscripts. In a 1991 monograph dedicated to English political prophecy in the sixteenth century, Jansen noted an eighth long text of the Marvels and a fourth excerpt in a sixth late manuscript. The purpose of this essay is to bring to light a ninth long text of the Marvels in a manuscript of the late sixteenth century: London, British Library, MS Additional 24663.

The Marvels of Merlin has never appeared in a critical edition, and the extent of its manuscript circulation is not fully recoverable from available bibliographical reference works. Presentation of a new text of the poem therefore involves some negotiation of textual as well as bibliographical history. This essay seeks to augment the handlist of Marvels texts compiled by Jansen and to confirm that these various texts witness a single Middle English poem. Before turning to the new text of the Marvels in MS Additional 24663, I provide an overview of the textual history of the poem and of the itemization of its extant manuscript witnesses by modern bibliographers.