Friday, December 10, 2010

Chapter One: The Sibyl’s Book

I wrote earlier that my upcoming MLA paper is based on the central argument of Chapter Two in Printing and Prophecy. What about Chapter One? My central concern there is the Sibyl's Prophecy, a fourteenth-century poem that combines the Legend of the True Cross and a narrative of the End Time, and the earliest vernacular work printed by Gutenberg. While his edition of the Sibyl’s Prophecy is preserved in just a single fragment, the text is known from several fifteenth-century manuscripts. (By far the best scholarship on the Sibyl's Prophecy is Frieder Schanze, “Wieder einmal das ‘Fragment vom Weltgericht’ – Bemerkungen und Materialien zur ‘Sibyllenweissagung,’” Gutenberg-Jahrbuch 75 [2000]: 42-63.) I argue that, in addition to popular interest in devotional aspects, the manuscript context of the Sibyl’s Prophecy suggests that the work could function as a narrative legitimation for chronicles and prognostications. The manuscript context is admittedly allusive, but the typographic context—comprised of the vernacular editions printed by Gutenberg in Mainz—is unambiguous: all these early editions are related to prophecy and prognostication. While this fact was noted by the print historian Carl Wehmer over 60 years ago, it has been overlooked in cultural and literary studies of early printed texts. Chapter One places Gutenberg's printing of the Sibyl’s Prophecy in the context of fifteenth-century debates about literacy, and suggests that Gutenberg was influenced not only by technological and mercantile concerns but also by the cultural and intellectual currents of his time.

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