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.