- Printing and Prophecy: Prognostication and Media Change 1450–1550 by Jonathan Green
[Prophecies and predictions constantly appear everywhere, now by one author and then by another. Some are based on the intuition of the writer or prophet, while others are based on a theoretical foundation, but few such texts have seen the light of day. Therefore I suppose that the printers themselves invent practicas, cast them among the people as new works, extol the prophecies, and give them such a striking and provocative title that the reader cannot hold back; he must buy one as soon as he sees it.(56)
This is how the Lutheran chronicler and astrologer Johannes Carion canvasses the market for prognostic literature in the mid-1520s. Seeking to distinguish his own supposedly well-grounded publication from his competitors’ less savoury products, he criticizes printers for publishing unreliable predictions for their own gain and their readers’ peril. More than seventy years earlier, Johannes Gutenberg and his associates had inaugurated the genre in the medium: the Sybil’s Prophecy – a fourteenth-century anonymous poem in German – counts among the earliest prints in Gutenberg’s output; only a single fragment of it survives. By the mid-sixteenth century, an entrepreneurial Frankfurt printer, Christian Egenolff, responded to the continuing demand for printed prophecies by publishing compilations; these Prophecies of the Twelve Sibyls put buyers in a position to compare and assess various predictions.
In his well-conceived, beautifully written, and analytically rich study, Jonathan Green charts the popularity of printed prophecies among early modern [End Page 503] readers during the first one hundred years of the medium’s history. The appendix lists a great many texts, several hundred editions from print shops in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation alone (155–203). The aforementioned Sybil’s Prophecy, for instance, was reprinted no less than twenty-one times before 1550. While some prognostic texts appeared in Latin as well as in the vernacular, the majority were published exclusively in German. Many of the prints listed are, in fact, so-called practicas, or predictions for particular years. The rise in fortune of prophetic and prognostic genres with audiences was not a foregone conclusion, however. Green reports a slump in the market for printed prognostica during the first decade of the sixteenth century – a finding that confirms what other historians have found to be the case regarding the overall output of printed matter. By contrast, the Reformation – the series of events that according to Johannes Burckhardt secured the medium’s continued efflorescence1 – did not mean a turning point in this literature’s appeal to a wide spectrum of buyers. Rather, the break-up of Western Christianity after 1517 opened up new possibilities for the prophetic-prognostic genre when the supposed failures of the papacy, the conquests of the Ottoman Empire on the European continent, and the rise of the Antichrist came to figure prominently in confessional disputes.
No matter what the historical context or means of dissemination, Green proposes that prophecies can productively be understood as media events. In the Christian tradition, prophets are messengers whose divinely inspired utterances renew God’s bond with humans. What happens when prophecies, predictions, and prognostications appear in the form of print – a medium marked by levels of mediation – is what this fascinating book brings to the fore through a series of well-focused chapters. That the printing press as a technology eschewed the known channels of textual production endowed the Sybil’s warnings about the impending end times with new meanings, Green claims, once they were disseminated by movable type: “the words of God may be discerned without human interference” (31–32). In combining eschatological with astrological discourses, the widely published and republished works of Johannes Lichtenberger (d. 1503) set a novel standard in the late fifteenth century; his authority as a prophet in print was the result of efforts on the part of publishers to appeal to readers through...