Sunday, March 13, 2011

Abstract: “The Last Last Emperor and the Birth of the Death of the Author: The Prophecies of Wilhelm de Friess”

This is the paper I'll be giving at Kalamazoo in May in the session on German literature sponsored by Fifteenth Century Studies. The article on Wilhelm Friess is nearly ready to submit, but I'll wait to see what kind of feedback I get on the conference paper.

Abstract: “The Last Last Emperor and the Birth of the Death of the Author: The Prophecies of Wilhelm de Friess”

With more than 30 attested editions between 1557 and 1587, the prophecy attributed to “Wilhelm de Friess of Maastricht,” allegedly found after his death, stands out as one of the most popular German prophetic tracts of the sixteenth century. Although several recent scholarly works have taken note of these pamphlets, secondary literature on Friess is virtually non-existent. A comprehensive survey reveals that the prophecy is in fact two entirely separate texts: the first summarizes long-established End Time tropes including false prophets, an Angelic Pope, and the Last Emperor, while the later version is anti-imperial and pessimistic, describing the invasion of German lands by a diabolical “Destroyer” and drawing motifs from the medieval “Gamaleon” prophecy. Despite an alleged Dutch origin, evidence of popular resonance in the Netherlands is scant. In contrast, printers of Nuremberg and Basel enjoyed great success with German audiences. Both versions of the prophecy appeared during times of religious transition and imperial succession, but the radical differences between the two versions result from their appearance on opposite sides of national and chronological borders. Where the earlier version attempts to reinforce traditional imperial and religious mythologies with the Netherlands at the center of Hapsburg Europe, the latter versions challenge those same mythologies with the Netherlands as part of the Reformed margin. The prophecies of “Wilhelm de Friess” illustrate how current concepts in textual criticism such as Roland Barthes’s “Death of the Author” arise from the historical context and material conditions of early printing.

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