Conference Favourites from ‘Revisiting Early Modern Prophecies’

This year’s conference season was brief but intense for me, with conferences back to back in London and Görlitz. Instead of writing about my own talks, I’ve decided to highlight a few papers by other scholars that I particularly enjoyed. This post will give you a glimpse of some of the debates on prophecy and astrology and, particularly, more or less sane prophets I learnt about while participating in the ‘Revisiting Early Modern Prophecies’ conference at Goldsmiths, University of London, convened by Ariel Hessayon and Lionel Laborie. My selection is, of course, highly subjective, and my hazy memory and notes might sometimes blur the line between the actual talks and the thought processes they sparked off. But that should rather be seen as a compliment to the speaker, shouldn’t it?

The conference began on Thursday morning, 26 June. After an earlier, intiguing session of perceptions of Islam in Western Europe, Olaf Simons (Gotha/Erfurt) introduced his audience to the fascinating schemes and escapades of the Marquis de Langallerie during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14). Having deserted the French army and converted to Protestantism, former general Langallerie was at the centre of meticulously documented plans to establish a ‘Universal Theocracy’. Their budgeting even included prostitutes, which was supposed to force jealous wives into coming along with other outlandish schemes. Usurprisingly, this strategy backfired and caused a scandal. Back to the grander agenda: having secured the assistance of the Ottoman Empire, he and his fellow conspirators were planning to attack the papacy in Rome when their plans leaked. Langallerie ended his life imprisoned in Vienna in 1717. It is striking how closely serious projects (including Ottoman support!) and seeming madness appear to be in this well-documented case and I’m very curious to learn more about Langallerie.

In the afternoon, Jetze Touber (Utrecht) poignantly delivered a paper exploring faultlines between theology and antiquarianism regarding the mysterious biblical figure of Melchizedek, the royal priest of Salem (i.e. peace) described in Genesis 14:18-20. Traditionally interpreted as foreshadowing Christ, this approach was radically questioned by Lodewijk Meyer and Baruch Spinoza who favoured an antiquarian interpretation: Melchizedek was simply a Canaanite king who lived during the time of Abraham. However, this did not mean that the typological interpretation disappeared: rather, it seems that the perspectives of theologians and antiquarians came to rely on different kinds of truth claims, signalling the emancipation of antiquarianism from its formerly subordinate status with respect to theology. Touber traced this faultline through exchanges of epistles and publications, such as Johannes d’Outrein’s Dissertatio philologico-theologica de Melchizedeco (1713).

On Friday morning, it was my duty to chair a session on central Europe. The first speaker I welcomed was Vladimir Urbanek (Prague). He has studied the manuscript prophecies of Mikulas Drabik (1588-1671), some of which had been included in Jan Amos Comenius’ famous collection of prophecies, Lux in tenebris (1657; extended ed. Lux e tenebris, 1665). After introducing the audience to Drabik, who attended school together with Comenius, Urbanek detailed the transformation that his Czech prophecies had to undergo before being presented to the Latinate world of learning. Among the many prophecies (almost half, in fact) that did not make Comenius’ selection, there were some dealing with frictions in their relationship and others dealing with Drabik’s penchant for alcohol. The former included divine reproaches addressed to Comenius, which would have undermined the editor’s credibility, and the latter had to be excluded to shield Drabik from the obvious accusation that the origin of his prophetic gift lay in distilled spirits rather than the Holy Ghost. In the process, a marginal figure became a prophet addressing the learned throughout Europe.

Before a late lunch break, I particularly enjoyed the paper by Alexander van der Haven (Haifa) on the Lutheran convert to Judaism, Benedictus Sebastian Sperling. Apart from what he wrote to his mother in Hamburg in two letters from 1682, little is known about this fascinating character. Writing from Amsterdam, where such cases were apparently far from singular, Sperling told his mother about his conversion and expressed his desire to maintain familial relations across the religious divide. But that is not all: Sperling also sketched a vision of the end of days in which, strikingly, all the different religions (the Christian confessions, Judaism, Islam) had a positive role to play. This provides a striking contrast to the usual scenario, in which the Papal Antichrist or the Great Turk figure as the great antagonists that will ultimately be vanquished.

In the afternoon, my turn to jump the plank arrived but I won’t bore you with that. Instead, last but by no means least in a packed session on astrology, Steven vanden Broecke (Ghent) sounded a number of cautionary notes regarding facile assumptions on whatever happened to astrology during the age of Enlightenment. In particular, Vanden Broecke contended that we should not jump from a plummeting number of astrological publications to the conclusion that people did not believe in astrology anymore. What people did, in fact, believe is very difficult and perhaps impossible to establish based on historical research. Additionally, there is the problem of what is meant by astrology. While many branches of astrology (e.g. those dealing with cosmological, meteorological and medical phenomena) actually continued to be widely respected, judicial astrology (the art of judging an individual’s fate based on their horoscope) was often marked out for criticism. This was, however, far from a novel development and ties in with theological concerns that preceded the Enlightenment by centuries. How the decline of astrology looked in practice, and what caused it, remains a subject for further inquiry.

On the last day of the conference, Saturday, the late afternoon block featured only a single panel with papers by Andrew Weeks (Illinois State) and Lucinda Martin (Gotha/Erfurt), giving them keynote-like status in practice, if not in theory. Weeks spoke on Quirinus Kuhlmann (1651-89), relating his early poetry to his later works characterized by a sense of messianic mission. Having been newly enthused by Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), Kuhlmann, or Cool Man, saw himself as the divinely sent Refrigerator who would cool down the world and its hot tempers. However, he sufficiently incensed the czar of Russia to be burnt at the stake as a heretic in Moscow. Wittingly or not, this provided the final flourish in a life that can be conceived as a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), as someone in the audience suggested during the time for comments and questions.

Drawing on her research on the prophetesses of German Pietism, Martin argued that their prophetic experiences harkened back to the older paradigm of possession. This calls into question a distinction between demonic possession and divine inspiration that is much too readily taken for granted. Put another way, encounters with the divine were also construed as a form of possession. In the eighteenth century, physicians and lawyers increasingly pronounced on what had formerly been the domain of theologians. While lawyers might hint at fraud as another way of viewing claims to prophetic mission, the appearance of physicians on the scene also gives rise to the pathological interpretation of prophecy.

All in all, the conference featured a great number of fascinating case studies that have got me thinking about what on earth we mean by early-modern prophecy. If you’d like to learn more about the programme and the papers discussed here, you’ll find all the abstracts over at the conference website. And if you found yourself why anyone would consider the study of bonkers prophets relevant, you might want to read Lionel Laborie’s piece on why they matter even today.

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