Well over a century before the Reformation, manuscripts circulating in southern Germany, especially in Franconia and Styria, prophesied a radical transformation of Christendom. God would soon pour out his wrath upon the Roman church, slaughter its simoniacal prelates, and transfer its wealth and authority to a new ecclesiastical order based in the German empire rather than Italy. Depending on the particular manuscript in question, the human agents for this reformation might be the emperor, the godly German-speaking peoples, or the citizens of particular imperial cities, especially Nuremberg or Augsburg. Even within the context of other anticlerical writings, these prophecies stand out for the savagery with which their authors imagine the pending sufferings of corrupt priests. Although not well known beyond a small circle of specialists on the late medieval empire, they deserve their own chapter in the larger history of European apocalypticism. Frances Courtney Kneupper’s The Empire at the End of Time: Identity and Reform in Late Medieval German Prophecy is the first monograph devoted entirely to these prophecies. Kneupper’s contribution is primarily bibliographic. While a few of these prophecies, especially the one that appeared as a letter written by “Gamaleon, of the green field of the north,” are known by scholars working on the medieval empire, others are not. Most exist in unedited manuscripts. Kneupper opens the book with individual chapters on four of the most important prophecies, the Gamaleon prophecy, the Letter of Brother Sigwalt, the Auffahrt Abend prophecy, and the eschatological sections of two letters penned by Livin and Johannes Wirsberger, two brothers from Egerland who preached a radical interpretation of the Gospel and condemned contemporary clerics as false prophets. Each chapter provides a richly detailed account of the given prophecy, a consideration of its composition date and the circumstances of its circulation, and an interpretation of its content in light of contemporary social and political history. Kneupper is especially attentive to manuscript transmission, which offers us important insights into late medieval prophetic culture. Her volume includes three invaluable appendixes surveying the available manuscript sources for eschatological prophecies that originated in late medieval Upper German–speaking Europe, or at least circulated there even though they were composed in previous centuries or other regions. After the chapters on individual prophecies, Kneupper devotes two final chapters to a detailed analysis of eschatology as an expression of late medieval social and ecclesio-political conflict. As she notes throughout the book, these prophecies appeared and circulated in a precise geographical area, the southern parts of the empire, whose inhabitants spoke versions of Upper German. According to Kneupper, several factors made this region ripe for an explosion of apocalyptic denunciations of the clergy. The late Middle Ages had witnessed the development of major urban centers, such as Nuremberg, whose thriving economies supported an expansion of literacy. The cities also enjoyed a unique degree of political independence, since the south lacked powerful territorial overlords. Several of them were imperial cities answerable directly to the emperor. Kneupper sees the growth of personal piety and a concomitant demand for ecclesiastical reform as key manifestations of the cities’ independence. Although the prophecies she examines differ in their details, they all join a wider literature of complaint focused on alleged clerical shortcomings, including pride, hypocrisy, and the purchase and sale of ecclesiastical offices. A few foreign prophecies that circulated in Germany, such as Johannes de Rupescissa’s Vade mecum in tribulatione and Telesphorus’s Libellus, predicted that a just and holy pope, even one selected by an angel, would restore the church to its original integrity. But as Kneupper points out, not a single prophecy that originated in the German-speaking lands acknowledged the possibility of an angelic pope. Most condemned the papacy as the corrupt fount of debased ecclesiastical order. Kneupper’s final chapter may be her most controversial, since scholars continue to debate the moment when a distinctly German national consciousness arose. Many scholars, for example, treat nationalism as a factor in German politics only from the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, Kneupper argues that these prophecies speak in pointedly ethnic terms about a Germanic destiny to reform the church, often through the leadership of a godly emperor. Many of the prophecies opposed this emerging German church to the existing church, which they associated explicitly with France, or more broadly with Romance Europe. Their authors and redactors generally wrote in German rather than Latin, and often argued that the promotion to the leadership of the reformed church would be based on Germanic electoral principles rather than papal appointments. Kneupper treats her subject with admirable care and precision. Readers expecting a more comprehensive, comparatist, or theoretically engaged approach to late medieval apocalypticism will be disappointed. Even Germanists might welcome a more extensive discussion of the relationship between these prophecies and the apocalypticism that flourished in the sixteenth century, in the wake of the Lutheran reformation. Precisely because The Empire at the End of Time is focused on a small body of prophetic material produced in a single region, its arguments grow repetitive. After treating the reformist and quasi-nationalist character of several individual prophecies in the first part of the book, for example, Kneupper offers little that is truly new in her discussion of reformist and nationalist themes in the second part. The book’s first half preempts its second. Only toward the very end does Kneupper add a few paragraphs about the ways these prophecies differ from ones that circulated around the same time in Romance Europe. But there is no false advertising here. This book is exactly what it claims to be, a detailed examination of prophecies that appeared or circulated in Upper German–speaking Europe from 1380 to 1480. Perhaps we should be grateful that in an era of more wide-ranging, comparatist, historical investigations, Oxford University Press is still willing to publish a monograph on a single European region at such a precise moment in its past. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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