Friday, May 23, 2014

The Strange and Terrible Visions of Wilhelm Friess, Chapter Four: From Protest to Propaganda

One of the things I try to show in The Strange and Terrible Visions is that old-fashioned recension criticism has important uses in the twenty-first century. In chapter 4, as in the previous chapter, I try to intersperse textual and cultural history to show how textual changes were responding to cultural concerns in particular places and times.

One of the mysteries about the "Wilhelm Friess" pamphlets is how they could go within a few months from a subversive pamphlet whose publication led to a beheading in Antwerp, to a popular and frequently reprinted booklet whose sale had no apparent repercussions for the printers who openly identified themselves on the title pages of their wares. Chapter 4 examines how the sharper polemical edges were rounded off in subsequent editions, making "Wilhelm Friess" less controversial and more palatable for a wider audience, and argues that geography made a difference, too. In Antwerp, the diabolical tyrant from the west with allies in the east could be all too easily be identified with Habsburg rulers. In Nuremberg, on the other hand, the geography more easily fit the traditional identification of the Habsburg emperor and his French and Turkish rivals with the prophesied Last World Emperor opposed by enemies to the east and west. What started out as a covert anti-Habsburg tract in Antwerp mutated into an overt reaffirmation of imperial narratives in Nuremberg that stabilized traditional end-time ideas at a time following the Schmalkaldic War, Peace of Augsburg, and abdication of Charles V, when the traditional narratives were in considerable doubt.

At least that seems to be the story of the most popular version of the text. Its textual history has some complicated origins, with crossing back and forth with other branches, but the textual history stabilizes in Nuremberg and starts behaving in a more classically Lachmannian fashion. At one point I compare this later and orderly textual history with the profile of a step pyramid, where one recension differs from the next by a handful of differences that are then passed on to the next generation. In case that image isn't entirely clear, this is what I had in mind, with common changes grouped together and editions arranged more or less in order from earliest to latest.

Fig. 1: Well-behaved textual variants, grouped by recension and sorted from earliest to latest recension

The last section of chapter 4 starts laying the groundwork for answering the other mystery of Wilhelm Friess: How did there come to be two completely different prophecies attributed to Wilhelm Friess of Maastricht, and what is the relationship between them?

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