Friday, September 16, 2011
Chapter Six: Fear, Floods, and the Paradox of the Practica teütsch
Because I decided that I couldn't ignore astrological prognostications in Printing and Prophecy, I had to deal with the widespread concern over a predicted second deluge in the year 1524. At first I tried to cover practicas and 1524 in the same chapter, with the result that Chapter Five was twice as long as other chapters. The solution was to split off Chapter Six.
The events leading up to 1524 are often described as a "flood panic," but the reality seems to be quite a bit more complicated, with panic among some people and carnevalesque mockery among others. Mentgen's Ästrologie und Öffentlichkeit im Mittelalter is the best treatment so far, I think.
The clearest indication of widespread concern is still the 160+ booklets printed in the years leading up to 1524. Very few of these works actually predicted a second deluge, however, while even astrologers who scoffed at the idea were quick to point out omens of other disasters. The most complete account of the print response is Talkenberger's Sintflut.
I think the flood pamphlets of 1524 need a second look, however, particularly the idea that an astrological prediction led to a panic. Astrological predictions were always dire. Why panic in 1524? Between the Reformation, the election of a new emperor, Turkish invasions, and ongoing social change, there was enough uncertainty about the course of sixteenth-century society that people were liable to panic and therefore willing to buy books that addressed their panic.
Of course, if the panic was not specifically about planetary conjunctions, then we need to widen our focus to look at other kinds of pamphlets, and there are are several contemporary prophetic pamphlets that address the same fears.
The flood panic of 1524 is also usually treated as a failed prophecy, as no second deluge occurred in 1524. This is mistaken for several reasons, as the effects of planetary conjunctions were not expected to occur instantaneously but rather any time in the following years or decades. No serious astrologers were predicting a world-ending deluge, and in any case they all insisted that prayer and repentance could turn away God's wrath. Finally, the turbulence of the rest of the decade left the most consolatory astrologers looking a bit foolish and their print careers badly damaged, while alarmists like Johann Carion and Johannes Virdung went on to enjoy another 15 years of popularity.
The flood panic of 1524 was also part of a crisis of legitimacy that was afflicting the professional astrologers. By making available multiple theoretical bases for prognostication, and by lowering the barriers to predicting the future from specialized training to mere book ownership, print destabilized the cosmos decades before Copernican ideas found their way into print.