fake news and medieval prophecy

My essay on medieval British prophecy as a precursor to fake news appears in The Atlantic. I argue that medieval and early modern Britain experienced post-truth politics, that prophecy entangled the most and least powerful members of society, and that comparing the past and the present equips us to be more critical consumers of mass media.

Believe it or not, this essay began as a tweetstorm. Special thanks to David M. Perry for encouraging me to work it up into something more.

the dangers of echo chambers in newsrooms

Two days ago, Nicholas Kristof published “The Dangers of Echo Chambers on Campus.” As you might expect from a New York Times op-ed, it’s typical of public discourse surrounding its topic. Kristof argues that campuses are liberal bubbles in need of bursting. This is, in fact, what conservatives have been saying for decades; the difference is that Kristof pitches the argument as avuncular advice, liberal to liberal. “Too often, we embrace diversity of all kinds except for ideological,” he admonishes his readers in the first person plural.

Never mind that his sole example, Oberlin College, is wildly unrepresentative of actually existing American higher education. It’s more similar to Harvard, where Kristof was an undergraduate, or Oxford, where Kristof was a Rhodes Scholar, or Boston College, where I teach.

Never mind that focusing on disembodied ideology at Oberlin, where 80% of students are white and 89% do not qualify for Pell grants, allows Kristof to avoid addressing the underrepresentation of people of color and poverty- and working-class people (these categories of course intersect) on elite campuses and, correspondingly, the experiences and opportunities afforded to these people on less well-funded campuses.

Besides, in a rhetorical irony that is quintessentially 2016, the ostensible targets of the argument have already done the introspection being recommended. I attended Wesleyan University. During my time there, the relationship between campus discourse and public discourse was a constant topic of conversation. Ideological battles on campus consciously played out against the backdrop of a public sphere that derided places like Oberlin and Wesleyan as liberal bubbles. The ‘real world’ loomed large, not only as a rhetorical ploy in difficult conversations, but also as the reality everyone would face after graduation. Student activists are already doing the hard work that Kristof blithely recommends as if for the first time.

Kristof’s piece has generated significant pushback, probably more than it deserves. It isn’t even the first time he himself has made the argument. I want to suggest one reason for the disproportionate response: Kristof’s chiding, can’t-we-all-just-get-along tone epitomizes a news media bubble whose default mode is Everything Is OK. It’s the same bubble in which Donald Trump stood no chance of winning a presidential election.

Everything Is Not OK. A few weeks ago, police used water cannons on Dakota Access Pipeline protesters in Cannon Ball, ND, in subfreezing weather, injuring hundreds. Whether you find yourself on the side of the police or the protestors, the violent confrontation has to indicate that Everything Is Not OK.

Betsy DeVos, the appointee for education secretary, rose to political prominence by creating so many charter schools in Detroit that the quality of education at both charter schools and public schools deterioriated. Whether you support or oppose the charter school movement, the appointment of a billionaire lobbyist with a questionable track record and no experience as a teacher or school administrator has to indicate that Everything Is Not OK.

Scott Pruitt, the appointee to head up the Environmental Protection Agency, denies the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change for political reasons. There may be room for debate on the precise extent of climate change and the most effective political response to it, but Scott Pruitt is not in the room. He’s not even in the building. Regardless of your position on energy reform or the epistemological limits of modern science, the appointment of a dedicated opponent of scientifically informed policy to head the EPA has to indicate that Everything Is Not OK.

All of these developments deserve more media coverage than they’re getting. Meanwhile, Kristof argues that it’s liberals at Oberlin who are standing in the way of an ideologically robust public discourse. Only within the news media bubble could such a notion appear as a hard truth.

My interest in public discourse in 2016 grows out of my research on medieval English political prophecy. In fifteenth-, sixteenth-, and seventeenth-century Britain, prophetic discourse furnished common ground for the most and least powerful members of society. It took the form of social protest but was soon co-opted by elites as political propaganda. Prophetic writing crowned kings and got everyday people killed. The ideological underpinnings of prophecy, its forms of epistemic closure, can be obvious to us now, because prophecy comes from a political world we no longer inhabit. The ideological underpinnings of public discourse in 2016 can be more difficult to ascertain. An op-ed seeming to recommend the piercing of an echo chamber might turn out to be yet another reverberation in an echo chamber.

In my experience, echo chambers on campus mostly don’t exist, or if they do they are not dangerous in any widely accepted definition of the word. Echo chambers in our institutions of mass media, and our collective inability or unwillingness to recognize them, are as dangerous as ever.

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.

new alliterative poetry

At the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, this past week, I presented a paper in a panel entitled “Middle English Political Poetry.” Thanks to Nancy Warren for including me. Especially since the session took place at 8:30am on the last day of the conference, I’ve decided to post my paper, “New Alliterative Poetry in Middle English Prophecy Books,” in full here:

Political prophecy is one genre within the larger field of medieval English political writing. The history of the genre begins with the Prophecies of Merlin embedded in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin History of the Kings of Britain (published c. 1138 CE). This text predicts the future of British national politics through coded symbolism in which nations are dragons, kings are boars, and rivers turn to blood. The Prophecies of Merlin and their later vernacular iterations were wildly popular in early Britain, to a greater extent than most medievalists recognize. Political prophecy was a major locus of literary activity well into the seventeenth century in Latin and the British vernaculars. Prophecies influenced the decisions of kings, shaped public perception of national politics, and landed people in prison (or worse). The conventions of political prophecy informed texts as different as the Middle English prose Brut, Piers Plowman, and Henry IV (Part One).

Political prophecy consistently gained prominence within the English literary field after 1400. In the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, English manuscript production turned increasingly to the genre. Large compilations like British Library MS Sloane 2578 and National Library of Wales MS Peniarth 26 offer an abundance of prophetic texts in verse and prose in English, Latin, and Welsh. Prophecy books, in which older and newer texts freely intermingle with few or no structures of textual layout to divide one from the next, are hard on bibliographers. Often it is not immediately obvious whether a given prophecy is a copy of an earlier text, a new composition, or some mixture of the two. As a result, texts in prophecy books are mostly unedited and often ignored.

After about 1450, political prophecy in English came to be associated with the alliterative meter. Fully six of the eight unrhymed alliterative poems datable to after 1450 are political prophecies. Four of them survive because of their inclusion in the printed Whole Prophesie of Scotland, &c. (1603), issued to celebrate the accession of a Scottish king to the English throne, a key prediction of medieval English political prophecies. The other two datably late alliterative prophecies, the Ireland Prophecy and the Vision of William Banastre, appear in large fifteenth- and sixteenth-century prophecy books. More on these poems shortly. Late copies of alliterative verse prophecies express a post-1450 prosodic typecasting that thrust alliterative poetry and political prophecy toward the same literary-cultural margins.

So far, I’ve introduced an understudied literary genre and indicated its special affiliation with the English alliterative tradition. In the course of writing a monograph on alliterative verse, I was enticed to hunt for new texts of alliterative poems in Middle English prophecy books. In what follows, I provide an overview of what I found. I list my discoveries not as a boast but to exhort you to join me in the trenches. There is so much to discover in these prophecy books!


My first exhibit, like some of the others, was discovered by chance. 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.” As you can already tell from the first line, this prophecy falls squarely within the symbological tradition inaugurated by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Sharon Jansen, who gave the poem its title, notes twelve texts of the Marvels in six manuscripts. The earliest of these, British Library MS Harley 2382, dates to the late fifteenth century. The composition of the poem likely predates the copying of Harley 2382 by a few decades at most. Jansen interprets certain symbols in the Marvels as allusions to political events of the early 1460s. For example, the first quatrain mentions a lion, a rose, and a ragged staff, elements in the coat of arms of Henry VI and the heraldic badges of Edward IV and the earl of Warwick. Although the symbology of late medieval English political prophecy is obscure and polysemous by design, Jansen’s identifications are consistent with established conventions of this literary genre, in which heraldic devices come to life as avatars of their real-world owners. As its relatively large manuscript circulation attests, the Marvels of Merlin was a popular poem. Jansen finds the poem in anthologies of prophecies, in the state papers of Henry VIII, and even in the mouth of a servingman named Richard Swann at his 1538 trial in Kent for spreading the prophecy.

While transcribing a text of the Ireland Prophecy in British Library MS Additional 24663, a late sixteenth-century prophecy book, I came across a new text of the Marvels. This text does not appear in the New Index of Middle English Verse. It is laid out in prose paragraphs, like many previous and subsequent English prose and verse texts in this manuscript. Only the penultimate quatrain is lineated as verse. Lines 20 and 21 of the text are interrupted by a long section of prosified verse laid out as prose, beginning “Then in the land shal be greatt warres. . .” and ending “. . .and be the cheeff makere of peace and vnytie.” This material comes from an originally distinct verse prophecy. The final quatrain of the Marvels, thoroughly reworded as prose, appears after “ffinis” but before the next item. In short, this text is a mess, though the ways in which it is a mess are typical of sixteenth-century prophecy books.


My next two exhibits are alliterative poems that I have edited for the first time. The Ireland Prophecy and the Vision of William Banastre (as I call them) are late fifteenth-century political prophecies containing coded references to the Wars of the Roses. The Ireland Prophecy transmutes the Wars of the Roses into a Merlinic vision of a final showdown between the Britons and the Saxons. The poem ends with an acrostic spelling out ‘Ireland.’ In one manuscript the acrostic is ciphered in early Arabic numerals, where A=1, B=2, and so on. The allusion is likely to Richard, duke of York, who was appointed Lieutenant of Ireland by Henry VI and spent some time there just before he became involved in civil war in 1450. One allusion to contemporary politics may help date the poem. The poet refers to “[t]he rooke and þe ragged tre | þe rede baner vnder” (40). The “rooke” is probably John Trevelyan (1415-1475), whose badge featured a Cornish chough. The “ragged tre” is Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, whose badge featured a ragged staff. Finally, the “rede baner” evidently refers to the Red Rose of the House of Lancaster, whose claim to the throne Warwick initially defended in arms against the Yorkists in 1452. A tentative terminus post quem for the composition of the Ireland Prophecy can therefore be fixed at 1452, when the earl of Warwick became visible as a military supporter of the Lancastrian cause.

The Vision of William Banastre takes the form of an interview between a historical Member of Parliament and God. The poem begins in William Banastre’s voice: “Lord, sey me for þe mayden love | that thou þi modir calles/ What shall worthe of our kyng | lord, yf it be þi wyll?” God answers with specifics, mapping the Wars of the Roses back onto the Wars of Scottish Independence through allusions to key places and dates. The poem offers at least one first-rate literary effect, an extended simile comparing a hopeless siege to sailing upwind with no rudder. At one point, God foretells an important battle that will take place “by þe Mawdeleyn day” (July 22) (l. 58). This recalls the Battle of Falkirk, fought on July 22, 1298, in which the English under Edward I defeated the Scots under William Wallace. The prediction may refer more proximally to the Battle of Edgecote Moor, July 26, 1469, the first military expression of the rebellion of Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, against Edward IV. A tentative terminus post quem for the composition of the poem can therefore be fixed at summer 1469. Before this time, reference to “þe Mawdeleyn day” would have had no definite connection with contemporary dynastic conflicts.

The New Index of Middle English Verse lists three texts of the Ireland Prophecy and one of the Vision of William Banastre. I had initially produced article-length editions of the two poems based on these four texts. However, I subsequently learned of three other texts of the Ireland Prophecy and one other text of the Vision of William Banastre. These new texts, like the poems themselves, have received no substantive critical comment. The new texts of the Ireland Prophecy are all contained in manuscripts housed in Aberystwyth at the National Library of Wales: MSS 441C, Peniarth 26, and Peniarth 94. The Peniarth texts do appear in the New Index of Middle English Verse, but under a separate heading. The incipit in the Peniarth manuscripts differs just enough from that in the other manuscripts to allow for such multiplication of entities. William Marx brought the text in 441C to light in the course of preparing a fascicle of the Index of Middle English Prose, but because Marx mistook the fifth line of the poem for the incipit, he was unable to refer the text to either entry in the New Index of Middle English Verse. The new text of the Vision of William Banastre appears in Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson C.813, in a mid sixteenth-century prophecy book. This text was hiding in a cryptically brief entry in the Bodleian manuscript catalogue. I recognized the poem by its title, rendered in Latin in this manuscript rather than in English as in the other text of this poem.

These four new texts augment the documentary evidence on which my editions are based. I already knew that the Ireland Prophecy circulated in a short version and a long version. The two Peniarth manuscripts revealed a third version of middling length, presumably representing an intermediate stage of textual accretion. So the discovery of new manuscript sources clarified the textual history of the poem. All four new texts made modest but significant contributions to the recovery of original readings in my editions. Though six copies and two copies might sound like a small textual tradition, in the world of alliterative verse this counts as a cornucopia. By my count, only nine of the 45 extant (unrhymed) Middle English alliterative poems appear in more than two manuscripts or early printings. By adding three known manuscripts of the Ireland Prophecy to three misfiled copies, it becomes possible to recognize how popular this poem must have been. To judge from manuscript attestation, the Ireland Prophecy is the fifth most popular long Middle English alliterative poem, after Piers Plowman, the First and Second Scottish Prophecy, and the Siege of Jerusalem. The first of these, Piers Plowman, forms the subject of my final exhibit.


Piers Plowman is an expansive and brilliant poem attributed to one William Langland. The poem stages an allegorical/apocalyptic/philosophical inquiry into ethics and biblical history. Three or four times throughout the poem, a mysterious plowman named Piers emerges to galvanize the narrator Will, other people, and the reader in their metaphorical quest for truth. Piers Plowman culminates in a vision of the Passion of Jesus Christ, in which Jesus is simultaneously a persecuted god-man and a chivalric knight with a coat of arms and an entourage of biblical prophets and personifications of Christian virtues. It is a famously difficult poem, and it was immensely popular from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. It is known in over fifty substantial manuscript texts, more than three times as many as the next-best attested Middle English alliterative poem.

While hunting down the second text of the Vision of William Banastre in Rawlinson C.813, I noticed two previously unrecognized excerpts, each combining the same two passages from Piers Plowman. Here’s the beginning of the first passage, just as a taste:  “Ac I warne yow werkmen, | wynneþ whil ye mowe/ For hunger hiderward | hasteþ hym faste./ He shal awake [þoruʒ] water | wastours to chaste;/ Er fyue [yer] be fulfilled | swich famyn shal aryse./ Thoruʒ flo[od] and foule wedres | fruytes shul faille,/ And so sei[þ] Saturne | and sente yow to warne.” In Piers Plowman, these lines are not attributed to any character or personification: they stand at the end of a passus in the poem’s habitual disembodied thinking voice.

The Rawlinson excerpts join a variety of other textual evidence suggesting the extent to which the expectations of political prophecy shaped the reception of Piers Plowman in the sixteenth century. Early in the century, for example, Piers Plowman appeared in Cambridge University Library MS Gg.4.31 as “The Prophecies of Piers Plowman,” complete with glosses and table of contents. Bryan Davis (“The Prophecies of Piers Plowman in Cambridge University Library MS Gg.4.31″) has highlighted the synergy between literary genre and textual ordinatio in this manuscript. Sloane 2578 contains a combined freestanding excerpt of both of the same two passages as Rawlinson C.813; this excerpt was first brought to light by Jansen (“Politics, Protest, and a New Piers Plowman Fragment”). British Library MS Additional 60577 contains a freestanding excerpt of one of these same passages in an early sixteenth-century hand, followed by the tag “Quod piers plowman.” This excerpt was brought to light by Lawrence Warner (“An Overlooked Piers Plowman Excerpt and the Oral Circulation of Non-Reformist Prophecy, c. 1520-55″). These are three examples of sixteenth-century readers identifying Piers Plowman as prophecy: there are dozens of others. These manuscripts illustrate how genre expectations could detach prophetic set-pieces from larger literary contexts and reinscribe them in other contexts. In the sixteenth century, Piers the Plowman entered the pantheon of prophets, and Piers Plowman became the repository or vehicle of his prophetic visions.


In conclusion, I’d like to identify some broader ramifications of these minor bibliographical discoveries. Most immediately, these new texts of alliterative poems illuminate the last phase in the history of a metrical tradition. Questions about the development of the alliterative tradition gave the initial impetus to my searches in late prophecy books. New texts of the Marvels of Merlin, the Ireland Prophecy, the Vision of William Banastre, and Piers Plowman indicate that alliterative verse became typecast as prophetic after 1450. Such typecasting was both a cause and an effect of the marginalization of alliterative verse in metrical culture following the promotion of new English meters, first in the thirteenth century and increasingly through the fourteenth.

The propheticization of alliterative verse also adumbrates the sources and tastes of compilers of late prophecy books. Prophecy was all the rage in late fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Britain, and readers and writers poured massive energy into preserving, producing, and consuming it. In this period, historiography, political discourse, and ethical dialogue could all take the form of prophecy.

Literary activities of the early sixteenth century escape our notice for a quite specific professional reason. Such activities do not fall directly under the purview either of medievalists or of early modernists. Consequently, sixteenth-century texts of Middle English poems currently live in bibliographical limbo. There is, I am quite sure, a forest of new texts out there, waiting to be surveyed. In this way, the tradition of British political prophecy poses a particularly acute challenge to the modern disciplinary distinction between medieval and modern. It also poses a challenge to our habitual distinction between literature and history. Prophecy doesn’t respect these boundaries— and neither should we.

before prosody

My article, “Before Prosody: Early English Poetics in Practice and Theory,” appears in Modern Language Quarterly. This article draws on the methods and arguments of my first book to reconsider the historical study of poetics in general. Specifically, the essay makes a medievalist contribution to the emerging subfield known as ‘historical poetics.’ I workshopped an earlier version of this essay while visiting Stanford University. Here’s the abstract:

Since the sixteenth century, the history of English poetics has had two sides: a history of theory and a history of practice. Contemporary literary scholars are mapping new connections between the history of theory and the history of practice, under the rubric of “historical poetics.” Thus far historical poetics has been most strongly associated with the study of nineteenth-century poetry. This essay takes a longer view onto the histories of English poetry from the perspective of early English verse. Medieval English poets practiced literary form at a time when vernacular poetics had not yet become an academic subject or a sustained cultural discourse. This essay offers medieval English poetry as a case in point for historical poetics, thereby bringing a different literary archive to bear on methodological debates about the historical study of poetics. Three case studies, centered on alliterative verse, explore what is distinctive about the cultural work of early English poetics.