Making Sense of Prophecies (2): How to Read a Prophecy

Earlier scholarship has often understood the function of prophetic texts as providing information about the future, while also noting that many late medieval and early modern prophecies include clearly identifiable events that had already occurred, so-called prophecies ex eventu. The numerous citations and borrowings from earlier sources found in these texts have been described, anachronistically and inappropriately, as plagiarism. And the effect of these prophecies has often been seen as causing panic among gullible readers.

But I think this traditional understanding of prophetic texts is incorrect. Prophecies are notoriously bad at providing information about the future: the world keeps not ending, predicted deluges do not occur, and the pivotal year foretold ends up being unremarkable. I would say that the function of prophetic texts isn’t to provide information about the future at all. Instead, these texts sketch out a prophetic future that makes sense of the present moment. To do this, prophecies tie the time frame of daily life to an eschatological framework through recognizable motifs, citations and allusions. The past events of a prophecy ex eventu and the quotations from other prophetic works are meant to be recognized. This enables readers—who actively assess prophecies—to construct meaning on the basis of familiar narratives and locate themselves in time. Prophetic texts assist readers with processing potentially panic-inducing upheavals as cultural change or external factors threaten the stability of existing narratives.

Take, for example, a list of predicted events for the years 1570 to 1580 that has been noted several times previously in isolation, but has gone unrecognized as a coherent and widespread prophetic text that can be found in Polish, German, Swiss, Italian, Dutch, French, Spanish, English and Scottish sources from the 16th century into the 20th century. It appears to have originated as a Latin text in Italy around 1572, when the first three events it lists would have already occurred: an earthquake in Ferrara in 1570, the loss of Cyprus in 1571 and the death of a pope in 1572. Those events are followed by familiar prophetic tropes: the wrath of God, Christian decline, great battles, the rise of a great man, and fear and famine. The final line: “there will be one flock and one shepherd” is repeated virtually unchanged from earlier prophecies and stands metonymically for the entire sequence of eschatological fulfillment.

The list form of this prophecy is not entirely unprecedented. See for example the prognostication of Theobertus von England of ca. 1470, one of the earliest printed prophecies.[1] There are a few others, but none of them became particularly popular. The list prophecy for 1570 to 1580, however, can be found copied onto the blank final page of a prophetic pamphlet from 1565, with the claim that it was found in an old book; printed again in 1626 with the list of events updated to the years 1620-1630 and the claim that it had been found written in Hebrew on a marble tablet inside a column; printed again with the years updated to 1671-1680 with the claim that it had been found written in Greek on a marble tablet in a specific church in Paris; or printed again with the years updated to 1697-1990 and the claim that it had been found in Naples, written on parchment and stored in a lead capsule in the grave of a Benedictine monk; and in numerous other personal records and published works (and even one late 20th century/early Internet era bulletin board discussion, apparently in complete earnest).

Why didn’t this prophecy disappear soon after 1580, when the unified flock under a single shepherd was long overdue? Why was it repeatedly updated and re-issued instead? The answer is that the purpose of this prophecy was not to provide information about the future. Instead, the prophecy anchors the reader in time between a recognizable past and the expected apocalyptic future. By this reading, the important dates are not the later ones attached to events of eschatological fulfillment, but the earlier ones that locate the reader in history, showing that the reader is still in the middle of the story. With the passage of time, any inadequacy can be fixed by simply updating key years: the past remains the past, the future remains the future, so the prophecy has been restored to validity.

Pseudo-Methodius. Revelationes divinae. Basel: Michael Furter, 1498. ISTC im00524000/GW M23059. b5r.

With this perspective, the composition and circulation of prophetic texts becomes easier to understand. The combination of astrology and prophecy in Lichtenberger’s Prognosticatio (and many other works) uses astrological predictions to connect mundane time to cosmological unfolding, helping to explain its enduring popularity. Later editors excerpt key prophetic events from the Prognosticatio and combine or associate them with later astrological works. Or consider the revelations of Pseudo-Methodius, which was printed 10 times between 1477 and 1516.[2] It was clearly not a prophecy ex eventu; at the time of printing, it was already 800 years old. Most printed editions of Pseudo-Methodius contain the commentary of Wolfgang Aytinger, explaining the work’s significance for contemporary audiences: by equating the Ottoman Turks with Gog and Magog as actors in the End Time drama, these editions of Pseudo-Methodius transformed the physical threat represented by the Ottoman Turks to the overarching narrative into the narrative’s literal fulfillment: the threat to Christian Europe may have been growing, but Christian Europe’s narrative was safer than ever, as readers could see it being literally fulfilled before their eyes.

So much for the theory. I see three possibilities for obtaining empirical evidence that might support this theory and show how readers of earlier centuries really did make use of prophecies.

The first possibility is found in marginal annotations and other signs of use. Here we find a range of responses, including skepticism or rejection, such as the reader who termed the authorities cited by the Extract of Various Prophecies as “prophets of Baal.”[3] But there are also numerous examples of acceptance, affirmation and connection with readers’ personal experience. In a marginal note dated 1590, for example, a reader of the second “Wilhelm Friess” prophecy connects the text’s description of bloody invasion by massive armies from three sides with a rumor that the Turks have set out with an army numbering 6 million men, 19 times larger than the force that besieged Vienna.[4]

The second possibility for finding empirical evidence comes from written descriptions of how readers reacted to prophecies, including their own reactions and the reactions of others. To jump forward two centuries: in 1794, Christian August Behr published a collection of prophecies in a work dedicated to the unlearned, but not to popularize the reading of prophecies. Instead, Behr’s aim was to enlighten insufficiently educated readers so they would not be misled by supposed prophecies. In the introduction, Behr writes:

Whoever lays claim to the name of humanist…will be dismayed…when he hears people talking, in nearly all the social events he visits, of a tablet found in Paris that proclaims the approaching collapse of Christendom…. And how must he feel when discerning people…restlessly attempt to locate now this prophecy, now that one, and with ravenous hunger fall upon any piece of paper with printed or written text that is said to contain a prophecy.[5]

(What Behr is criticizing is plainly part of the “reading mania” of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with all the moralizing and class-based concerns of contemporary critics, only applied to prophecies rather than to cheap novels.) Here again, Behr’s skepticism toward prophecies contrasts with the enthusiastic acceptance of the readers he describes.

The third possibility for gathering evidence of how prophecies are read comes from a more recent and unusual opportunity to observe a prophecy as it took form and circulated much closer to us in time.

* * *

Next time: Reconsidering “Lutius Gratiano.”


[1] Theobertus von England, Praktik auf die Jahre 1470-1478 (Augsburg: Günther Zainer, 1470). ISTC it00142500/GW M45819.

[2] Pseudo-Methodius, Revelationes divinae (Basel: Michael Furter, 1498).

[3] Practica Teutsch auff das XXiiii. und Funfundzwanzigest Jar. Gezogen ausz der Lere und Propheceyen / Sibille / Brigitte / Cirilli Joachim des Abts / Methodii/  und Bruder Reinharts (Würzburg: Johann Lobmeyer, 1523), fol. a1v. VD16 P 4545.

[4] Wilhelm Friess, Newe Zeitung / und Erschröckliche Propheceyung, 1588, fol. a2r. Not in VD16.

[5] Christian August Behr, Auswahl vorgeblicher Weissagungen älterer und neuerer Zeiten, nebst einer Anleitung richtig darüber zu denken (Zeitz: Gottlob Heinrich Heinse, 1794), v–vii. All translations are my own.

4 comments for “Making Sense of Prophecies (2): How to Read a Prophecy

  1. The third possibility for gathering evidence of how prophecies are read comes from a more recent and unusual opportunity to observe a prophecy as it took form and circulated much closer to us in time.

    Why am I feeling confident that D&C 87 is about to make an appearance? (Another great, thought-provoking post, Jonathan; thank you.)

  2. Is there evidence that politically-oriented prophesies may have been reproduced as propaganda, misinformation, rumour, etc. (For political strategy)?

    “Finding” prophetic texts scattered would certainly serve political purposes.

  3. Russell, no D&C 87 here.

    Prophecies certainly get reproduced and employed as political (and religious) propaganda. What’s interesting is that while it would seem possible to simply invent whatever you wanted a prophecy to say, that’s not what we typically find. To the extent the texts have been carefully studied – which admittedly applies to a relatively small number of them – they usually have sources of some kind. The prophecies undergo considerable editing and updating, and there’s always a reason for them to be reproduced, but the prophecies with staying power are generally the ones with textual history behind them.

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