politics as prophecy

to understand why political discourse today is so furious, look to medieval England

Last week, the House of Representatives passed a resolution formalizing the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. With this vote, the political situation would appear to inch closer to the result that liberals have been expectantly predicting since 2016.

There’s more than a little anxiety about defeat baked into liberals’ expectations of victory. From the prospect of Brexit to climate catastrophe, from Elizabeth Warren’s “I Have A Plan For That” to Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” predictions about the future are the bread and butter of political discourse. They are more than campaign promises, wishful thinking, or a scientific consensus, though they are these things, too. Like predictions of the apocalypse in various religious traditions, political predictions instill the sense of a common cause, galvanizing believers to agitate for the future they demand. Thinking of politics today as a form of prophecy clarifies why political dialogue can be so furious—and so impervious to fact-checking. It also means politics today is not as different as we might wish from politics in the European Middle Ages, when a more overt type of prophecy energized political action.

In pre-Enlightenment Britain, this political prophecy was associated with a particular strand of history writing, the one whose cast of characters included King Arthur and Merlin. Merlin was, among other things, a prophet. People took very seriously the obscure “prophecies of Merlin,” which represented political and ethnic conflict between the English and the Welsh in terms of dragons, lightning bolts, and rivers of blood. From the Wars of the Roses to the English Revolution, people experienced contemporary political developments through the prism of a vast and complicated future imaginary. You can read the binding real-world force of prophecy in any number of historical episodes: Richard II fleeing to Ireland in 1399, because he feared that certain lines in a popular prophecy referred to himself; the prophecy book that nearly convinced Anne Boleyn not to marry Henry VIII; the Benedictine nun Elizabeth Barton, hanged in 1534 for spreading “false” prophecy.

Political prophecy is supposed to be something that we cast off, like a sheath of skin, on the way to becoming modern. The German social historian Reinhart Koselleck, who has perhaps the best claim to being the theorist of prophecy, associated apocalyptic prophecy with the Middle Ages and a special kind of self-fulfilling secular prophecy with modernity. According to Koselleck, thinking primarily of northern Europe, only during and after the Enlightenment did it become possible to imagine a future and then work to make that future real. Koselleck’s ideas are powerful, but they are incomplete. The cultural dynamic he described as quintessentially modern was already in place in the fifteenth century, in the reign of Henry VI, when supporters of Henry’s rival, the once and future Edward IV, commissioned manuscripts of prophecy in order to stoke partisan rage and redirect English political history.

Prophecy is still with us, but we no longer call it by that name. Following the religious and political persecutions of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe—a new phase of cultural absolutism that we are still working through—prophecy came to be concealed inside the seemingly rational machinery of political platforms, advertisements, speeches, and negotiations. Prophecy went underground.

The subterranean history of political prophecy extends right through the 20th century. In that century, communism, fascism, and liberalism laid claim to three mutually exclusive visions of a utopian future, and the world went to war over them. Or think of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous line about “the arc of the moral universe.” What is this if not political prophecy? King’s phrase orients grassroots political action toward a future imagined but not yet realized. His commitment to prophecy (biblical as well as political) lay in the conviction, not that the present redeems the past, but that the future redeems the present.

The politics of climate change have a similar structure. I am not the first to notice the religious overtones of the debate, with charges of apocalypticism on one side met by charges of denialism on the other. A more apt comparison would be with medieval political prophecy. Human-caused global warming is scientifically indisputable at this point, but that fact can’t explain the intransigence of people and corporations with an interest in denying that there is a problem. What unites these groups is a belief in the future of capitalism, the infinite scalability of exploitation: a dangerous idea, challenged by the approach of an increasingly uninhabitable future.

Another example is the spectacular failure of pollsters’ predictions in the ramp-up to the 2016 US presidential election. For Trump’s opponents on the left as well as his backers on the right, in opposite ways, the inaccuracy of most pre-election polling lent his victory the stature of a singularity, an extension of American history into an unplanned-for future.

Trump seems particularly at ease in the prophetic mode. In his inaugural address, he alleged a dystopia of “American carnage” and promised redemption for “the forgotten men and women of our country.” During the campaign, Trump had named real problems in America—income inequality, the entrenchment of a political class, the centralization of cultural power, the hollowing out of the blue-collar professions, terrorism—but proposed to solve them with the fantasy of a nation that becomes an island unto itself. “But that is the past,” he said. “And now we are looking only to the future.” His critics’ tendency to focus on Trump’s lies and opportunism is understandable, but it misrecognizes the source of his political appeal. In 2008, Barack Obama was the chosen prophet for a leftish alliance (an alliance later riven by the discrepancy between prophecy and reality). Trump has consistently nominated himself as a counter-prophetic voice for those backward-looking, mostly white American voters who could experience not only 2008 Obama’s predicted future but even the political present of the Obama years as an apocalypse scenario.

Looking back to the European Middle Ages is a sobering reminder of the political power that imagined futures hold over the present. When it comes to politics, the choice has never been between facts and imagination. (This is what the term post-truth, the word of the year for 2016, gets wrong about our political and cultural moment.) Every political proposition implies a new future. We are still learning this essential lesson of the 20th century, and every century before that: choose a future, or a future will choose you.

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 eric.weiskott@bc.edu 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,” appears in “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.