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Printing and Prophecy: Prognostication and Media Change 1450-1550

Printing and Prophecy: Prognostication and Media Change 1450-1550

by Jonathan Green

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Printing and Prophecy: Prognostication and Media Change 1450-1550 examines prognostic traditions and late medieval prophetic texts in the first century of printing and their effect on the new medium of print. The many prophetic and prognostic works that followed Europe's earliest known printed book—-not the Gutenberg Bible, but the Sibyl's


Printing and Prophecy: Prognostication and Media Change 1450-1550 examines prognostic traditions and late medieval prophetic texts in the first century of printing and their effect on the new medium of print. The many prophetic and prognostic works that followed Europe's earliest known printed book—-not the Gutenberg Bible, but the Sibyl's Prophecy, printed by Gutenberg two years earlier and known today only from a single page—-over the next century were perennial best sellers for many printers, and they provide the modern observer with a unique way to study the history and inner workings of the print medium. The very popularity of these works, often published as affordable booklets, raised fears of social unrest. Printers therefore had to meet customer demand while at the same time channeling readers' reactions along approved paths. Authors were packaged—-and packaged themselves—-in word and image to respond to the tension, while leading figures of early modern culture such as Paracelsus, Martin Luther, and Sebastian Brant used printed prophecies for their own purposes in a rapidly changing society.

Based on a wide reading of many sources, Printing and Prophecy contributes to the study of early modern literature, including how print changed the relationship among authors, readers, and texts. The prophetic and astrological texts the book examines document changes in early modern society that are particularly relevant to German studies and are key texts for understanding the development of science, religion, and popular culture in the early modern period. By combining the methods of cultural studies and book history, this volume brings a new perspective to the study of Gutenberg and later printers.

Editorial Reviews

TLS, Times Literary Supplement - Arnold Hunt
"Green suggests that prophecy tracts 'were also about imposing order on an uncertain world'—making it possible, in other words, for the everyday to reassert control over the miraculous....[Green's] major innovation is to set the prophecy tracts in the context of the book trade and the emerging market for print."
Times Literary Supplement

From the Publisher
"In this contribution to early print history, Jonathan Green surveys traditions and texts of prophecy and astrology during the first century of printing." - William Dyrness, Fuller Theological Seminary, Renaissance Quarterly
Renaissance Quarterly - William Dyrness
"In this contribution to early print history, Jonathan Green surveys traditions and texts of prophecy and astrology during the first century of printing."
—William Dyrness, Fuller Theological Seminary, Renaissance Quarterly

Renaissance Quarterly
"In this contribution to early print history, Jonathan Green surveys traditions and texts of prophecy and astrology during the first century of printing."
— William Dyrness

Product Details

University of Michigan Press
Publication date:
Cultures of Knowledge in the Early Modern World Series
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt


Prognostication and Media Change 1450–1550
By Jonathan Green

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2012 Jonathan Green
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-11783-3

Chapter One



To speak of Gutenberg's literary contributions seems, at first glance, perverse, for he left behind no lyrical or prose compositions, if any ever existed. Instead, his life is known, all too incompletely, from official documents and from the products of his press. The image of Gutenberg that has emerged from centuries of scrutinizing legal briefs and ink blots is a combination of technological innovator, calculating merchant, and legal ne'erdo-well. While studies of Gutenberg since Aloys Ruppel's have yielded some new insights, none of the competing Gutenberg biographies have gained unreserved acceptance. The outlines of Gutenberg's life are reasonably well established: his birth in Mainz near the turn of the fifteenth century; his first business ventures in Strasbourg in the 1430s and 1440s; and then his return to Mainz, where the enterprise of printing commenced in the early 1450s. What remains stubbornly unknown is how Gutenberg's earlier life affected his invention, how early the first experiments with movable type began, and what thoughts inspired them.

While Gutenberg's name has become synonymous with epoch-making inventions, it is not always possible to clearly separate Johannes Gutenberg the fifteenth-century citizen of Mainz, Gutenberg the eponymous figurehead of early printing, and Gutenberg, Inc., the consortium of financial, textual, and technological expertise that made the first printed works possible but whose individual members might also take one another to court. Here, "Gutenberg" will have to serve as shorthand for "almost certainly Johannes Gutenberg, undoubtedly acting in concert with one or more of his associates and assistants in the joint undertaking that produced the earliest printed books in Europe."

After all the technical issues concerning early printing have been resolved or set aside, the question of Gutenberg's thought processes and motivations remains. To what extent did Gutenberg comprehend, participate in, or respond to particular cultural impulses? Gutenberg's invention, a printing press using movable metal type, had wide-reaching influence on intellectual history, but what intellectual currents influenced his own invention? If Illich is correct that innovation is the result of understanding the potential and symbolic significance of existing tools, then there are implications for Gutenberg and his movable type: rather than either the press making printed books possible or the increased demand for books requiring the invention of printing, one would say that Johannes Gutenberg recognized in the constellation of letters, books, and the press a new potential that justified years of experimentation and thousands of gulden in debt. What potential might he have perceived? The lack of documents that could answer the question directly leaves historians in a highly unsatisfactory state of uncertainty. Scholars of literature, accustomed to treating fiction and narrative as sites of reflection on cultural and intellectual issues, might attempt a literary analysis, if there were any literary works authored by Gutenberg.

This is the point in the story where an inconspicuous piece of paper falls out of a file folder and into the hands of scholars. Or, rather, at the time the piece of paper was first noticed in 1892, it was a file folder, having served for centuries as an outer wrapper for archival records. On front and back were the remains of several lines of printed text, but the leaf had been trimmed so that lines were missing from the top and bottom of the page. When donated to the Gutenberg Museum in 1903, print historians recognized it as a rare specimen of Gutenberg's earliest typeface, a font developed prior to the one used for the famous forty-two-line Bible of 1454–55. Upon close inspection, the type appeared to be from a very early stage of use, before the letters acquired signs of wear and damage and before a few letters were replaced by slightly different ones. It was, by all appearances, a leaf from the oldest known printed book. But what book was it, and how old was it? As it had clearly been printed before another product of Gutenberg's press known as the Astronomical Calendar for 1448, it was assigned to the years 1444–47, Gutenberg's earliest years in Mainz. The German text on one side of the leaf exhorted the reader to faith and good works, while the other side described the Last Judgment, and thus Edward Schröder christened the text the "Fragment vom Weltgericht" (fragment of the Last Judgment).

The name lasted for four years. In 1908, Karl Reuschel brought to Schröder's attention that the text was, in fact, a section of the Sibyl's Prophecy, a fourteenth-century poem of several hundred lines known in various versions from numerous fifteenth-century manuscripts. In most versions, the poem begins with the legend of the wood of the Cross: Adam, on his deathbed, asks his son to return to paradise and retrieve a branch of the Tree of Life, which, according to an angel, will restore Adam's health. The son complies, but upon his return, Adam is already dead, and the son thinks his journey has been in vain. He plants the branch on Adam's grave, where it grows into a majestic tree. There it remains until Solomon sends his workers to gather lumber for his building projects. The workers fell the tree and plane its trunk into a board, but they can find no use for it in the temple, and so it is used instead as a rough bridge across a brook to Solomon's palace. The Sibyl, having heard of Solomon's wisdom, comes to visit the king, and her explanation of the beam's true significance and narration of future events comprise the bulk of the poem. In some manuscripts, the Sibyl's Prophecy is divided into two sections and closes after around 750 lines with the text as found on the fragmentary leaf in Mainz, while other manuscripts add a third section.

The dating of the Sibyl's Prophecy to the 1440s lasted four decades longer than the original name, until Carl Wehmer determined that the misnamed Astronomical Calendar for 1448, the terminus ante quem for dating Gutenberg's edition of the Sibyl's Prophecy, was actually a planetary table for lay astrologers and had been printed around 1458, a decade later than originally thought. Over the course of the twentieth century, Gutenberg's role in the invention of printing was questioned and reaffirmed, doubts about his association with the typeface used in the Sibyl's Prophecy (known as the DK type, for other works printed with it, or the B 36 type, for a later Bible edition) surfaced and were rebutted, and the sequence of early prints was rearranged. The status of the Sibyl's Prophecy as the oldest known work from Gutenberg's press has been both reiterated and denied, but there is no doubt that it is a very early product of Gutenberg and his associates, printed perhaps in 1452–53.

There is much that cannot be known with certainty about a book preserved in only a single fragmentary leaf: its complete length, whether it contained the entire text or only a portion of it, whether customers greeted it with enthusiasm or scorn, or what impulses motivated its setting in type. But it seems likely that the Sibyl's Prophecy was the site of reflection on cultural issues not only for its anonymous fourteenth-century author but also for its fifteenth-century printer and that Johannes Gutenberg was committing an essentially literary act by putting it into print. In Mainz of the early 1450s, printing a German text was a bold undertaking. The other works printed by Gutenberg and his associates in this earliest period of printing consist of three equally fragmentary editions of the elementary Latin grammar of Donatus. Although elementary grammars also reflect readers' textual needs and capabilities—Neddermeyer refers to them, with conscious exaggeration, as "user's manuals" for the new medium—the Sibyl's Prophecy could not be more different from a work with a clearly defined place in the world of Latin textuality and a well-understood set of customers in grammar school pupils. The Sibyl's Prophecy is German rather than Latin, literary rather than utilitarian, narrative rather than didactic. Whether any of the existing Latin grammars were printed before the Sibyl's Prophecy is uncertain, but the DK type had clearly been intended for printing Latin works, as the typeface lacked a majuscule W or Z, which occur rarely in Latin but very frequently in German. This is not surprising for a time in which literacy in most cases still implied the ability to read Latin, but it does indicate that Gutenberg had some experience with printing by the time he published the Sibyl's Prophecy and that its publication cut against the existing contours of literacy and the capabilities of his press. Publication in German also seems unusual considered against the other products of Gutenberg and his associates. Of sixty-three known editions printed with the types of the thirty-six-line and forty-two-line Bibles, only six are in German, and only one other of these vernacular works is dated earlier than 1456.

Whatever the particular circumstances of its origin may have been, we may assume that the choice to print the Sibyl's Prophecy was reached only after careful deliberation. Like an author who hopes to publish a novel, Gutenberg had to know his audience, including their desires and needs for written material as well as their economic capacities. It is an axiom of book history that the financial context of printing is fundamentally different from the market for manuscript literature, even allowing for early efforts to produce multiple copies of a book by hand in anticipation of customer demand, such as the pecia system of copying by signatures in use at fourteenth-century universities or Diebold Lauber's workshop for manuscript books. A single manuscript might please the taste only of the copyist or a patron; a half-dozen copies that find no buyers constitute a cause for concern and a signal to produce no more for the present; but hundreds of unsold copies of a printed book might be (and, in fact, often were) an existence-threatening catastrophe for an early printer. The investments in trained labor and specialized materials required to set a work in type were incomparably higher than the requirements for writing a single copy of the same text by hand, even before the first quire had been printed. For Gutenberg, testing the uncharted waters of textual mass production, there was no prior experience from which to seek guidance. The entrepreneurial economics of early printing necessitated careful thought in advance about the text and its eventual readers.

Printing the Sibyl's Prophecy also required reflection on the medium of print and its possibilities. The fragmentary leaf now in Mainz does not display the harmonious layout later achieved in the forty-two-line Bible or even that of the thirty-six-line Bible produced with the same DK typeface toward the end of the decade. Instead, the bases of each letter rise off the line or fall below it. The printing process had not yet achieved the capability that it would reach within a few years. When the Sibyl's Prophecy was printed, Gutenberg was still working on a solution for presenting texts by means of movable type. An awareness of the potential and current limitations of the medium stared back at him from every page.


Situating the Sibyl's Prophecy in its literary and cultural context requires us to come to grips with a fragmentary object. Incomplete texts and damaged manuscripts belong to medievalists' stock-in-trade. They are the founding documents of their disciplines, from the Lay of Hildebrand to Beowulf. More than just manuscript witnesses of a once-whole work, the interpretation of fragments can demand the expenditure of considerable effort and also require straying from the relative safety of an established text. Interpreting a text that has largely disappeared will never entirely escape the realm of the probabilistic. The thirty lines of text preserved in Mainz will not serve here as philological evidence for determining affiliations among manuscripts and early print editions, a project still awaiting completion. The fragment of Gutenberg's Sibyl's Prophecy instead forms the point of departure for discovering as much as can be said with some degree of certainty about the work's situation in the intellectual and cultural context of early printing.

How far can we extend the fragment of the Sibyl's Prophecy? On the most minimal graphic level, there are damaged letters, partial words, and incomplete lines of text for which the surviving portions provide clues about the missing segments, as does the comparison with other versions of the text. The third word of the first line, for example, has been trimmed away, leaving at the beginning only a row of five minims, the identical lower legs out of which are constructed letters such as m, u, i, or n. Based on familiarity with the typeface, the language, and the text, we can project the remaining letter bases upward and read the word as mußen (rather than, say, iiiiiße) with a very high degree of certainty. The bottom of the fragmentary leaf presents only a few hints of shafts, arches, and dashes, but it is enough to keep extending the text for one more line, as Frieder Schanze has done.

It would be foolish to reconstruct specific letters or precise wording beyond this, but there remains much more that can be said about the work. Almost certainly, the original edition contained some version of the poem in its entirety, rather than a small portion of the text on a single leaf. It is probable, however, that the fragment contains the original work's last two pages. The fragment contains lines 703–19 on one side and 732–46 on the other, so that after the last line, there would have been just enough room to complete a two-section version of the Sibyl's Prophecy. The preserved text also bears closer affinities to the two-section versions of 748 lines. To print something like all or nearly all the lines would have required twelve to fourteen leaves, a technical undertaking well within Gutenberg's capabilities, as the extent is identical to that of the Donatus editions printed at the same time. If we cannot quite fill our imagined pages with a precise sequence of words and letters, we can at least probabilistically fill them with the story as it is known in extant manuscripts of the two-section version of the Sibyl's Prophecy.

Any reading of the Sibyl's Prophecy must fit the context of Gutenberg's early editions and the material evidence of contemporary manuscripts. On these grounds, one strand of interpretation has failed, although it found some support among well-known scholars and can still be found in reference works. Gutenberg biographer Albert Kapr and media and communications theoretician Michael Giesecke both accept, in whole or in part, the proposal of Gottfried Zedler that connected the original poem to fourteenth-century heretical movements and that linked Gutenberg's edition to fifteenth-century German politics. According to Zedler, the author of the Sibyl's Prophecy was a follower or associate of Konrad Schmid, leader and prophet of the Thuringian flagellants who were violently suppressed in 1369. The original Sibyl's Prophecy had foreseen the glorious return of Frederick II (1220–50), and the legendary Emperor Frederick is, in this account, none other than the flagellant leader Schmid. Nadja Varbanec extended this line of reasoning further, arguing that Schmid himself was the author of the Sibyl's Prophecy, and Kapr and Giesecke follow her attribution. According to Zedler, Gutenberg's choice to print the Sibyl's Prophecy reflected his understanding of popular interests in heretical and anti-ecclesiastical ideas, while the long delay before a second edition appeared (in a longer, religiously unassailable version of the poem) was due to clerical resistance.


Excerpted from PRINTING AND PROPHECY by Jonathan Green Copyright © 2012 by Jonathan Green . Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Jonathan Green teaches German at Brigham Young University-Idaho.

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