Friday, March 21, 2014

The Strange and Terrible Visions of Wilhelm Friess, Chapter One: A Strange Prognostication

As the alleged author of the most popular German prophetic pamphlet of the later sixteenth century, "Wilhelm Friess" sounds very much like pure fiction, as the pamphlet supposedly contains a prophecy found with Friess after his death in Maastricht. So I was surprised to discover that earlier works attributed to "Willem de Vriese" of Maastricht had actually been printed in Antwerp a few years before the first German pamphlets appeared. Examining the Dutch origins of "Wilhelm Friess" turned into the first chapter of The Strange and Terrible Visions.

To trace the story of "Wilhelm Friess," I had to start more than a decade before the first German pamphlets were printed with the Antwerp printer Jacob van Liesvelt, who was executed in 1545 for violating the imperial edicts on printing. His widow Maria Ancxt and his son Hans van Liesvelt continued in the printing business, including in their publication programs several annual astrological prognostications. Hans van Liesvelt published two practicas for 1555 and 1556 attributed to "Willem de Vriese" of Maastricht.

I have the name in quotation marks because there is no clear indication that "Willem de Vriese" ever existed. Supposedly an aged and well-known doctor, the city archives have no trace of him. At first glance, his practicas appear to be quite conventional, but a closer look reveals a clearly pro-Reformation message and some notable straying from scientific astrology, including a prediction that "many things that were prophesied long ago will be fulfilled this year." The practica for 1556 predicts the eventual downfall of "Esau Pharmona," supposedly a Slavic prince who oppressed the Christians under his rule. I argue that "Esau Pharmona" is a stand-in for Hapsburg rule over the Netherlands, and that the hidden transcript of de Vriese's practicas - to borrow a highly useful concept from James C. Scott's Domination and the Arts of Resistance - was pro-Reformation, anti-Hapsburg agitation at a place and time where it could have severe repercussions, as Hans van Liesvelt knew all too well.

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