History in the Future Tense

Criticism / Eric Weiskott

:: History in the Future Tense ::

History in the future tense sounds like an oxymoron. Everyone knows that history lives in the past tense. The colloquial or journalistic use of the present tense to narrate past events is known as the historical present. To be recognizable as such, history writing must occupy one of these two grammatical modalities.

It was not always so. In the British Isles from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries, readers often consumed “history written in the future tense.” [i] In the wildly popular genre of political prophecy, recent and distant historical events became estranged from the past and appeared as imagined futures. Prophecy expressed historical experience as apprehension, refracted through political partisanship and historiographical tradition. The unmodern affective textures of British political prophecy account for its post-Enlightenment occlusion, in scholarship no less than literary culture. The genre is now rarely read and scarcely remembered. In the eighteenth century, history in the future tense devolved from a vital mode of processing and intervening in political events to a self-congratulatory punchline about the superstitions of an ignorant age. Prophecy was subsumed in a hermeneutics of suspicion, [ii] which diagnosed the (often transparent) ulterior motives of prophetic writing, but in doing so displaced the actual experiences of its earlier readers. Returning to the archive of political prophecy throws into relief this digression in intellectual history, revealing what “everyone knows” about history to be a symptom of the division of the past, since the Enlightenment, into medieval and modern segments. Confronting history in the future tense in 2017 means acknowledging the ideological work that futures still perform in political discourse. Political prophecy is alive and well today. Our politicians and public figures foretell a brighter future, but their comments are rarely recognized to be historical in nature.

Political prophecy, and the mode of historical consciousness it implies, can be traced back to a particular scene of cultural production. In the 1120s or 1130s, a Welsh cleric named Geoffrey published a Latin prose chronicle called History of the Kings of Britain. This text narrates major episodes in British political history, from the arrival of the legendary Brutus of Troy to the reign of the seventh-century Welsh king Cadwallader. At the center of the History is the Prophecies of Merlin, in which Merlin, at the request of King Vortigern, tells the future of the Saxon and British peoples. Though probably composed separately from the History, the Prophecies appears within it, as book 7 of 11. Prophecies bookend the History as well. Book 1 opens with predictions of Brutus’s birth. At the end of book 11, an angel commands Cadwallader to leave Britain to the Saxon invaders until the prophesied return of King Arthur and the vindication of British (i.e., Celtic) hegemony on the island.

Geoffrey’s insertion of prophecy into historical narrative bespeaks an attitude toward history from which post-Enlightenment secularist subjects have become estranged. In medieval and early modern British culture, prophecy expressed the same truth as history. The two genres of writing described the same object of inquiry from different vantage points. They stood in roughly the same relation as biblical prophecy and biblical history. Crucially, in the case of both biblical and political prophecy, the cycle of anticipation and fulfillment was just the process whereby the real world came into being. One should not mistake prophecy for metaphorical commentary on a world that precedes it. Rather, early authors and readers posited prophetic discourse as a ground for politics as such. (Premodern ontologies resonate with Michel Foucault and other postmodern philosophers who describe the world, and the political world above all, as the product of discourses.) [iii] Merlin’s prophecies begin not with an act of imagination but with two real dragons, whom Vortigern observes fighting. Merlin opens his discourse by identifying the dragons with the Saxons and the Britons, respectively:

As Vortigern, King of the Britons, sat on the bank of the drained pool, the two dragons emerged, one white, one red. As they neared each other, they fought a terrible battle, breathing fire. . . . As the dragons fought in this way, the king commanded Ambrosius Merlin to tell him the meaning of their battle. He burst into tears and was inspired to prophesy thus:

‘Alas for the red dragon, its end is near. Its caves will be taken by the white dragon, which symbolizes the Saxons whom you have summoned. The red represents the people of Britain, whom the white will oppress . . .’ [iv]

In book 6, Vortigern had invited Hengest and the Saxons to Britain, an overture that proved disastrous. Here, the symbolic world of political prophecy, in which nations are dragons and “lightning bolts . . . flash from Scorpio’s tail,” occupies the plane of reality. [v] Indeed, like the Old Testament without the New in medieval Christian typology, reality remains underspecified without prophecy.


This full-page illustration from a fourteenth-century manuscript offers an instructive response to Geoffrey’s vision of prophetic history. The manuscript is shelfmark Cambridge, Corpus Christi College (CCCC), 476, one of many standalone copies of the Prophecies of Merlin. Carefully drawn and liberally gilded, the illustration is divided into four quadrants. Vortigern sits enthroned in the upper left quadrant, and Merlin as a boy stands in the upper right quadrant, while the white dragon and the red dragon occupy the squat lower quadrants. Merlin holds a long empty scroll, looks across at Vortigern, and points down toward the dragons. The four figures are labeled in Latin, respectively, “king Vortigern,” “the prophet Merlin,” “the Saxon people are symbolized [figuratur] here,” and “it signifies [significat] the British people.” On one hand, the illustration reduces Geoffrey’s prophetic history into allegory. The dragons are metaphors, separated from the real world by the schematism of the four quadrants and the interpretive verbs are symbolized and signifies, which correspond to the verbs symbolizes and represents in the opening of the Prophecies. On the other hand, the illustration captures the courtly drama of the scene. Merlin interprets the world for a national king. The empty scroll echoes the shape of the arched labels. It waits, like the British political future, to be inscribed with the history that lurks behind draconic facades.

The prologue to a later fourteenth-century English chronicle expresses comparable reciprocity between prophecy and history. Thomas Gray’s Scalacronica (1362), written in Anglo-Norman French, is a world history that merges into a chronicle of England and Scotland. In the prologue, Gray visualizes historiography as a ladder with five rungs, resting on the Bible and the history of the destruction of Troy. The greatest hits of medieval English chronicle writing, including “the Brut,” i.e., Geoffrey’s History, comprise the first four rungs, but the fifth (and unattainable) rung belongs to the prophets. Guiding the avatar of Gray through his visionary prologue is Sibyl, a famous ascribed author of medieval prophecies. “You cannot climb up the fifth rung,” she informs him, “for it signifies [signify] future events that are envisaged [ymagine] by certain people in ancient tales.” The French verb ymaginer “imagine, envisage, conceive” suggests a technical function of the imagination in medieval psychology, but one to which the narrator and reader of Scalacronica have no access. Sibyl then gives illustrative quotations from Latin and English political prophecies, named as “the life of St. Edward,” “the English Brut,” and “the tales of Merlin.” [vi] For Gray, as for Geoffrey and the CCCC 476 artist, political prophecy crowns and superintends all of history. The situation in the prologue, like the title “Scalacronica” itself, partakes in the punning symbolism of political prophecy, for the ladder (Latin scala) was the heraldic emblem of the Gray family (cp. Old French gré, grey “rung”).

The peculiar historical consciousness of political prophecy finds its literary complement in plotlessness. Take, for example, the Ireland Prophecy, a prophecy in English alliterative verse (the meter of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) composed in the early 1450s, on the eve of the Wars of the Roses between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians. [vii] The poem survives in eight manuscript copies, an unusually large number. It stages the Wars of the Roses as a showdown between Britons and Saxons, in which the Saxons, apparently to be identified with the Lancastrians, get the worst of it. The poet represents the Saxons as lions, after the lions in the English coat of arms. Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, a key player in the Wars who switched allegiances twice, appears as a bear and a ragged staff, two elements of his heraldic badge. The poem ends with an acrostic that looks to Ireland for the victorious British king. The reference to Ireland is likely an allusion to Richard, duke of York, Lieutenant of Ireland from 1449 and a Yorkist leader. Richard appears earlier in the poem as a falcon, after his badge.

Like other political prophecies, the Ireland Prophecy frustrates modern literary expectations by avoiding both narrative and lyricism. Things do not happen in the poem. Predictions of catastrophe for the lions/Saxons (ll. 1-14) give way to description of the emotional and political fallout of the final conflict (ll. 15-18), a hunt for a lone surviving lion (ll. 19-24), a doomed marriage to patch things up (ll. 25-30), a war of retribution led by a British hero (ll. 31-8), destruction for the Saxons (ll. 39-44), and so on. The connections between the poem’s vignettes depend not on the logic of narrative but on the requirements of poetic syntax, the conventions of prophecy, and the vagaries of political history. Modern readers are accustomed to vertical reading, whereby the reading experience leads from a psychological or social problem to its resolution. But the Ireland Prophecy demands horizontal reading, whereby the same political proposition takes multiple forms in disconnected passages. The catastrophe of lines 1-14 is the destruction of lines 39-44. The emotional fallout of lines 15-18 is the “roaring and calamity” of line 55. The bear is the earl of Warwick, and the ragged staff is the same earl of Warwick. A falcon flies north one time but in two passages (ll. 45, 61), and the falcon is Richard, and Richard is the hero of the battle at the end of the poem, which is the war of retribution described in lines 31-8. The closing sequence presents a heroic British king on the move, from Ireland (“Of I R and L | will that noble one arise / A N and D,” 83-4) to England (to defeat “the Saxon hound,” 70) to Rome (“Over all Christians | he will bear the crown,” 85). (In these quotations, “|” marks the caesura or internal boundary of the alliterative line.) The map of the military campaign of a redeemer-king is the map of a reimagined Christendom, palliative to the resentment of an English elite in the aftermath of territorial losses in the Hundred Years’ War with France. The poem begins in England, with the redeemer figure from Ireland already on the ground and in action, a state of affairs first predicted in the closing lines of the poem. All these descriptions, of course, are in the future tense. The experience of reading the poem mimics a future-oriented experience of history, in which various potentialities loom in no particular order.

All the more noteworthy, then, that several of the situations depicted in the Ireland Prophecy correspond to documented political events of the late 1440s and early 1450s. Like other political prophecies, the poem offers readers the opportunity to encounter the political present through the medium of anticipation or, conversely, to relive the fulfillment of ancient prophecies through partisanship or political action. To understand the extent to which prophetic discourse structured everyday political praxis in medieval England, consider the behavior of magnates. The thirteenth-century historian Gerald of Wales risked alienating his patron, Henry II, by declining to write a commentary on the Prophecies of Merlin. [viii] Edward II evidently dispatched an envoy to the pope in order to procure the Holy Oil of St. Thomas of Canterbury, a relic which was, or would soon become, the subject of a popular political prophecy. [ix] A manuscript of prophecies caused Anne Boleyn to think twice about marrying Henry VIII. [x] The list goes on. Prophecy simulated the experience of politics, and politics, in turn, reflected the tradition of prophecy.

The projection of the political past into the political future was a mainstay of prophetic discourse. For later readers, it was a target of disdain. Within a hermeneutics of suspicion, history in the future tense can only be a partisan ruse. In its time, as we have seen, prophecy facilitated a certain attitude toward the political world. Whether early readers experienced prophetic texts as “truly” prophetic, while a valid historical/psychological question and a natural one for modern secularists, is to the side of the issue. Prophetic texts were not static, propagandistic edicts but moved through space and time. Early commentaries on the Prophecies of Merlin, for example, arrive by different means at different interpretations. The Ireland Prophecy occurs in one Yorkist manuscript collection of the 1450s, but it also occurs in six other manuscripts, some of them much later, whose political affiliations are opaque or mixed. 

After the end of their active production, political prophecies could provoke strong negative reactions. Already in 1588, the astrologer John Harvey had wondered aloud in his printed book A Discursive Problem concerning Prophecies:

Nay, is any device easier, or any practice readier, than to forge a blind prophecy, or to coin a counterfeit tale, or to foist in a new-found old-said saw, or to set countenance upon some stale poetical fragment, or other antique record, or to play upon the advantage of some old memorandum, without rhyme or reason; or to gloze, and juggle with knacks of the maker, where they may pass, and repass for current payment; or finally, to revive some forlorn Merlin, or Pierce Plowman, or Nostradame, or the like supposed prophet? Alas, is this wise world so simple, to believe so foolish toys, devised to mock apes, and delude children? [xi]

In a paradox typical of early print discourse, Harvey engages prophecies while arguing against doing so. He positions prophecy as a sociointellectual “problem” inherited from a simpleminded past—though some of his examples are in fact drawn from sixteenth-century compositions. By 1833, when the Bannatyne Club brought out Collection of Ancient Scottish Prophecies, in Alliterative Verse, a reprint of a 1603 print edition, history in the future tense no longer made sense. The social stigmatization of prophecy, perceptible from its first appearances in writing, was now complete. The untitled preface to Collection of Ancient Scottish Prophecies begins:

It seems difficult for anyone, at the present day, to be fully aware of that degree of fond credulity with which, at a period even within the last century, certain political prophecies were regarded and cherished by the partisans of opposite factions in this country [i.e., Scotland], which the least instructed peasants of a later age would probably treat with contempt and derision. [xii]

Difficult, indeed. Here the emergence of a modern present from the medieval past is transacted by class and literary genre. Modernity puts “the least instructed peasants” above even the noblest benighted “partisans” in the hierarchy of literary good sense.

Modern liberal subjects inhabit the intellectual consensus for which David Laing, the (unnamed) editor of Collection of Ancient Scottish Prophecies, presumes to speak. One consequence of this situation is that political prophecy now appears remote. If the past is a foreign country, so too are the past’s futures. Another, more pressing consequence is that some forms of future-oriented historical thought are difficult to perceive now. A strict division between medieval and modern has become the price of entry to subjectivity and the unspoken precondition of a secularist-imperialist present. To realize this, one has only to note modernity’s geographical exclusions, how it is secured for the developed world precisely at the expense of the developing world. The medieval/modern periodization, in turn, depends on a conceptual distinction between past, present, and future, now identifiable with historical consciousness as such. Following the Enlightenment, medieval subjects could be named as those who squandered their (classical) past, endured their dreary present, and harbored delusions about their future. This is the schematic historicism guiding, for example, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, in which the dogmatic ignorance of medieval monks becomes prelude to the Renaissance rediscovery of liberal humanism. [xiii] In the context of this hard right turn in intellectual history, it can be “difficult for anyone” to imagine futures that escape the logic of containment underwriting the idea of the Middle Ages.

In closing, I point to two examples of postmedieval political prophecy, both from the United States. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s oft-quoted line about “the arc of the moral universe” posits a future of political vindication. In a sermon delivered at Temple Israel of Hollywood in 1965 and rediscovered in 2007, King pairs the “moral universe” line with biblical prophecy (Isaiah 40:4). [xiv] Like his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, King’s references to “the arc of the moral universe” have been captured by reactionary neoconservatism. These fragments of prophetic discourse entered the political mainstream as assurances that the present redeems the past, or, in other words, that the prophecy of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s has been fulfilled. For neoliberals, meanwhile, King’s words authorize policies that brandish multiculturalism and racial equity as shields for corporatization. Restored to the context of King’s liberation theology and democratic socialism, “the arc of the moral universe” performs a different ideological function: it orients grassroots political action toward a future imagined but not yet realized.

In “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” (1968), King reversed this procedure, following the arc of the moral universe back through salvation history and political history. [xv] He imagines “standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now.” The speech ends with the prediction that “we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” King’s commitment to prophecy lay in the conviction, not that the present redeems the past, but that the future redeems the present.

A more contemporary (and darker) example is President Trump’s inaugural address, in which he alleged a dystopia of “American carnage” and promised redemption for “the forgotten men and women of our country.” [xvi] Trump’s campaign platform had named real problems in America—income inequality, the entrenchment of a political class, the centralization of cultural power, terrorism—but proposed to solve them with the fantasy of a nation that becomes an island unto itself. His inaugural address took the form of a prophecy. “But that is the past,” he said. “And now we are looking only to the future.” Trumpism could very well be summarized by the phrase history in the future tense, insofar as it projects a fantasized version of 1950s white middle-class prosperity as the destination of a new hypernationalism. King’s and Trump’s political prophecies both evoke institutions: respectively, the church and the nation. Yet Trump’s prophecies may prove more resistant to ideological recapture due to their blatant racial and socioeconomic particularity.

The ideological work of these postmedieval political prophecies cannot be appreciated fully within the historicisms of secularist modernity since modernity is that which both King and Trump seek, in drastically different ways, to escape. Both situate their political futures in the mind’s eye, King in the famous anaphora of “I have a dream . . .” and Trump in his reference to “a new vision” and his promise that “we will bring back our dreams.” Visionary poetics refers in both cases, of course, to the American dream, the U.S. equivalent of the Prophecies of Merlin. As an intellectual consensus and a material reality, modernity overshadows the power of imagined futures. In 2017, we ignore that power at our peril.


[i] Rupert Taylor, The Political Prophecy in England (Columbia Univ. Press, 1911), p. 3.

[ii] The phrase hermeneutics of suspicion was coined by Paul Ricoeur, with reference to Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, and is reinvigorated for literary criticism by Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago, 2015).

[iii] This is no accident, for medieval literature and culture provide a little-acknowledged ground for (post)modern theory. See Bruce Holsinger, The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory (Chicago, 2005); The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages: On the Unwritten History of Theory, ed. Andrew Cole and D. Vance Smith (Duke Univ. Press, 2010); and Cole, “The Call of Things: A Critique of Object-Oriented Ontologies,” minnesota review 80 (2013): 106-18.

[iv] Geoffrey of Monmouth: “The History of the Kings of Britain”: An Edition and Translation of “De gestis Britonum,” ed. Michael D. Reeve and tr. Neil Wright (Boydell & Brewer, 2007), §§111-12. I quote from Wright’s facing English translation, with the British spelling symbolises Americanized.

[v] Geoffrey of Monmouth, ed. Reeve, §117.

[vi] All quotations in this paragraph refer to Scalacronica, ed. Joseph Stevenson (Maitland Club, 1836), p. 3. Translation mine.

[vii] See Eric Weiskott, “The Ireland Prophecy: Text and Metrical Context,” Studies in Philology 114 (2017): 245-77. I cite the text from this edition. Translation mine.

[viii] Julia Crick, “Geoffrey and the Prophetic Tradition,” The Arthur of Medieval Latin Literature: The Development and Dissemination of the Arthurian Legend in Medieval Latin, ed. Siân Echard (Univ. of Wales Press, 2011), pp. 67-82, at p. 73.

[ix] J. R. S. Phillips, “Edward II and the Prophets,” England in the Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1985 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. W. M. Ormrod (Boydell & Brewer, 1986), pp. 189-201, at pp. 196-201.

[x] Tim Thornton, Prophecy, Politics, and the People in Early Modern England (Boydell & Brewer, 2006), pp. 20-21.

[xi] John Harvey, A Discursive Problem concerning Prophecies (Short Title Catalogue no. 12908), p. 2. I have modernized the spelling and word division of the text and title.

[xii] Collection of Ancient Scottish Prophecies, in Alliterative Verse: Reprinted from Waldegrave’s Edition, M.DC.III., ed. David Laing (Ballantyne, 1883), p. v. I have modernized the phrase any one.

[xiii] Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (W. W. Norton, 2011). See further Laura Saetveit Miles, “Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve Racked Up Prizes – and Completely Misled You about the Middle Ages,” Vox 20 July 2016. http://www.vox.com/2016/7/20/12216712/harvard-professor-the-swerve-greenblatt-middle-ages-false.

[xiv] See “A New Addition to Martin Luther King’s Legacy,” NPR 15 January 2007. http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=6843464.

[xv] See “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” The King Center. http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/ive-been-mountaintop-0#.

[xvi] “The Inaugural Address,” whitehouse.gov 20 January 2017. https://www.whitehouse.gov/inaugural-address.



Crick, Julia. “Geoffrey and the Prophetic Tradition.” The Arthur of Medieval Latin Literature: The Development and Dissemination of the Arthurian Legend in Medieval Latin, ed. Siân Echard, Univ. of Wales Press, 2011, pp. 67-82.

Phillips, J. R. S. “Edward II and the Prophets.” England in the Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1985 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. W. M. Ormrod, Boydell & Brewer, 1986, pp. 189-201.

Reeve, Michael D., ed., and Neil Wright, tr. Geoffrey of Monmouth: “The History of the Kings of Britain”: An Edition and Translation of “De gestis Britonum.” Boydell & Brewer, 2007.

Stevenson, Joseph, ed. Scalacronica. Maitland Club, 1836.

Taylor, Rupert. The Political Prophecy in England. Columbia Univ. Press, 1911.

Thornton, Tim. Prophecy, Politics, and the People in Early Modern England. Boydell & Brewer, 2006.

Weiskott, Eric. “The Ireland Prophecy: Text and Metrical Context.” Studies in Philology 114 (2017): 245-77.


Eric Weiskott is Assistant Professor of English at Boston College. He is the author of English Alliterative Verse: Poetic Tradition and Literary History (Cambridge University Press, 2016), on medieval English alliterative poetry. His writing appears in The Atlantic, the Times Literary Supplement, and Inside Higher Ed, as well as many academic journals. He is at work on a second book, about English political prophecy, meter, and the division of history into medieval and modern periods.


Peter Buchanan, Guest Criticism Editor, received his PhD in medieval studies from the University of Toronto and is currently an Assistant Professor of English at New Mexico Highlands University. His book-in-progress, Detours Through the Sensible: Metaphor and Meaning in Anglo-Saxon Literature, argues that metaphors of embodiment shape the reception and adaptation of poetic work. He and his wife collect hedgehog bric-a-brac, though they do not currently own actual hedgehogs.