26 June 2013


Jonathan Green. Printing and Prophecy: Prognostication and Media Change 1450-1550.  University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2012

Many people think that the first book ever printed (in moveable type) was the Gutenberg Bible (properly the 42-Line Bible), which appeared at Mainz in Germany in 1454. In fact, several small works had already been produced by the same press, including editions of the elementary Latin grammar of Donatus, these lacking the ‘harmonious layout’ of the later bibles, due to the technical problems with the new medium.
Amongst them was an item of which only part of one leaf has survived (that only because it was used as part of a document wrapper), but which can be identified from complete manuscript copies, and subsequent printings, as The Sibyl’s Prophecy, which must be the first ever work to be printed in the vernacular, probably in 1452.

The Sibyl, who was supposed to have lived at the time of Solomon, “derives her wisdom from reading the heavens” – though astrology had been condemned by some of the church fathers, by the later middle ages it had become acceptable, and the signs of the zodiac were often depicted in churches, because they were considered to be the handiwork of God. When she approaches Solomon’s palace, there is a bridge which, she recognizes, was a beam that once grew on Adam’s grave, so instead of crossing it she wades through. As a reward her goose foot is healed. She then prophecies “that a man born from a virgin will die on it”. The poem ends with an account of the Last Judgment. Possibly it was intended to show, as so many religious works have been, that ‘The End is Nigh’. It is interesting, though, to note the works with which the manuscript copies were bound, treatises on the calendar, how to calculate moon phases, the zodiac, the influence of the seven planets, lucky and unlucky days, the right and wrong times for bloodletting, and weather prediction rules.

There was a vast amount of this kind of material. The bibliography runs to nearly fifty pages, and is not, I think, complete. An author named Georg Tannstetter complained about the “unspeakable greed” of printers, who reprinted his works without his permission. In February 1524 there was a clustering of planets in Pisces, and since this was a ‘water’ sign, and this was known to have been going to occur well in advance – the movements of the planets were predictable, even if nothing else was – it was foretold that this would lead to a massive flood. Nothing happened.

Though some theologians condemned these works, Martin Luther wrote a preface to the 1527 edition of Lichtenberger’s Prognosticatio, implying at least a degree of approval, perhaps because the author had predicted bad times ahead for the pope. Different theologians took different views as to what was legitimate. My favourite (not mentioned by Green) was Anthony Beetz, who held that weather forecasting was an unlawful art, because, he said, it is always done with the assistance of demons. It would be interesting to know what the Met Office would say to that.

Despite the huge amount of research that has gone into it, the work is not wholly satisfactory. He makes numerous references to the prophecies of Birgitta of Sweden, a visionary nun, but does not give a singe extract from them. It is not easy to judge the impact and influence of a work if you do not know what it contains. -- Gareth J. Medway.

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