Research Project


Prophecy, Myth and Political Culture in High Medieval Europe

Dr. Thomas Foerster

The project studied the political and symbolic uses of political prophecies in the various, often performative, situations of political culture in twelfth-century Europe. In this period, the nature of prophecy changed significantly. Earlier traditions ascribed prophecy through divine inspiration particularly to saints as a personal favour granted upon them by God. In the twelfth century, this changed fundamentally, as prophecies were no longer seen in the contemporary world, but were mostly ascribed to a mythical past. This not only included the biblical prophecies, but also such that derived from ancient Roman traditions, like the Sibylline texts. Moreover, the period also produced entirely new prophetic traditions that were linked to the mythical worlds of the ‘Matter of Britain’. All these texts also claim to originate in prophecies that originally derived from some form of supernatural inspiration, but now they were pushed back from the contemporary world into the obscurity of the mythical past. The project studied this transition on a much broader source basis than ever before, including texts from all of Latin Europe in the twelfth century. A particular focus, in addition to the Plantagenet kings of England, was placed on the Capetian kings of France and the Hohenstaufen emperors. In the period, these rulers were in competition for these major mythical traditions available in Europe: that of king Arthur, that of Charlemagne and that of ancient Rome, as all of them granted political legitimacy, not least through their prophetical components. As a result, the vast majority of references to prophecy in historiographical texts from all Latin Europe in this period show no particular interest in actual predictions for the future. What was much more important to them was that some events or rulers seemed to fulfill ancient prophecies derived from these mythical traditions. In this regard, the twelfth-century understanding of prophecy created powerful links of the present to the past much rather than to the future.