Even the Middle Ages had its 'professionals of the future'.

A research project investigates the concept of time and forecasting of the epoch.

Arturo Iannace | researcher in medieval history, Scuola IMT Alti Studi Lucca
Zodiac miniature, from the Breviari d'amour, courtesy British Library, Yates Thompson 31, f. 48v

We have all heard at least once the famous verse of Lorenzo de' Medici, who said that 'del doman non v'è certezza'. Lorenzo was writing in the 15th century, at a time when the great cultural ferments of Humanism and the Renaissance were rapidly changing people's ways of thinking and acting. A period of transition between what a great 20th century historian, Johann Huizinga, defined, referring to the 14th century, as the 'Autumn of the Middle Ages', and the first dawn of what we now call the 'Modern Age'.

But the uncertainty of tomorrow is certainly nothing new in the Renaissance. In the thousand or so years that we conventionally lump together under the term of the Middle Ages, time, and its relation to the lives of human beings, has been a subject of intense interest. The intellectuals of the Middle Ages - historiographers, jurists, theologians, philosophers - whether meditating on the shores of the Mediterranean or writing in the busy cities of Persia and Central Asia, wanted to (or, perhaps, had to) confront the idea of the future, its inherent unknowability, and the ways and means that promised, in some way, to unveil it, to foresee it, and in some sense to control it. And not only the 'educated': ordinary people too were of course, as in every age, forced to come to terms with the uncertainty of the future on a daily basis.

Prediction tools

It is precisely the mediaeval concept of time, and the tools used at the time to predict the future, that is the focus of the research project Social, Political, and Religious Prognostication and its Roots. Philosophical Strategies for Coping with Uncertainties and Planning the Future, funded by a PRIN call from the Ministry of University and Research. The relationship with time is certainly not a marginal theme. As the great historian of the Middle Ages Aron Gurevič writes, 'there are few other indices that so characterise the essence of a culture as the conception of time. In it is embodied, and linked to it, the era's perception of the world, the conduct of men, their consciousness." In addition, today as in the past, methods for anticipating the future condition the entire civil society, its interactions and its administration, conferring a special legitimacy on 'future prediction specialists'. The project, which involves researchers from five universities (Trento, Foggia, Florence, Pisa, and the IMT School), examines various fields of investigation related to the medieval perception of time, from the social importance of predictive techniques to the political impact of the so-called 'great astral conjunctions', and prophecy and science as strategies for political and social management in Islamic and Judaic traditions. One element characterises the entire project: the interest in different cultural and religious traditions - Christian, Islamic, or Jewish - against the background of classical Greco-Roman culture, which often influenced all three. Indeed, it would be impossible, when studying a culture, to reason in 'watertight compartments', all the more so when the culture studied overlooks that world of trade and exchange of ideas that was the medieval Mediterranean. In order to approach the subject of the future, and its prediction, there was a great variety of approaches, evidenced by the many fields of investigation envisaged by the project.

The prophet as a bridge

The Middle Ages, like all eras of human history, saw the emergence of a myriad of 'professional specialities' in the field': astrologers, prophets, geomancers, heretics, and even philosophers. And the list is not exhaustive. They all share one thing in common: the use of specific knowledge and tools with the aim of providing their users with an understanding, albeit partial, of the future, each with their own equally specific focus. In this regard, the figure of the prophet - which we would like to consider in more detail, also because it constitutes one of the parts of the project to which the IMT School is most committed - is highly illustrative. Not only because he is present in all three cultural and religious traditions under consideration, but also because he specialises in a specific 'type of future'. If astrologers and geomancers can be seen retrospectively as a sort of medieval version of 'today's economists and doctors', as project director Alessandro Palazzo put it, the prophet is a more difficult figure to pin down, but no less significant for that. A true 'bridge' (albeit unconsciously) between traditions far removed in time, the medieval prophet is situated within a 'genealogy' of prophets whose earliest traces can be found in the religious and cultural tradition of Bronze Age Syria and Mesopotamia (prophets are attested, with even official functions recognised by the sovereign and the priestly class, at Ebla and Mari, two of the region's most ancient cities). But bridge the medieval prophet is also consciously so. He is between the best known and most relevant prophetic tradition, that of the Old Testament, and the times contemporary with him. This statement remains valid for all three monotheistic traditions.

Versions of the Apocalypse

The connection between past and future is so strong within the prophetic element that one ends up supporting the other, one ends up prefiguring the other, or, more simply, attesting to their veracity. This connection manifests itself in the most powerful and significant way within a very peculiar literary genre, which experienced great fortune in the Middle Ages: that of the apocalyptic. When speaking of Apocalypse, one cannot but think of the canonical New Testament text of the same name, attributed to John. The Apocalypse of John exerted a very strong influence throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, but it was not the only apocalyptic text in circulation, nor is it the only or the first apocalyptic text within the Christian Bible. This place of honour belongs to the book of the prophet Daniel, and in particular to its second part, in which the prophet comes into contact with an angel who shows him the unfolding of future events.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that a veritable galaxy of texts, often, but not exclusively, of Greek and Syriac origin, known among scholars as 'pseudo-Danielic' texts, refer to the authority of the prophet Daniel. And it is still no coincidence that one of the most important among them, in a certain sense the progenitor of the family, the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius (so called because it is believed to be the work of Methodius, bishop of Patara, at the beginning of the 4th century; in reality it is a 7th-8th century text), deals with the theme of future history by drawing a picture of the entire history of the world, from creation to, precisely, the future.

The author of this extremely fascinating text writes at a time of great political upheaval: it is the time of the Arab invasions, of the definitive rupture of the ancient world through the loss of the eastern provinces of the Eastern Roman Empire and the annihilation of its great rival, the Sasanian Empire of Persia; it is the time when a new monotheistic religion, Islam, bursts onto the world stage for the first time, throwing down its gauntlet to a Christianity that, until then, and under the protection of the imperial government, was now thought to be triumphant. When Pseudo-Methodius starts writing his apocalypse, therefore, uncertainty is almost total, and the main reference points of the vision of ancient Mediterranean man are literally collapsing.

Yesterday as today: struggling against uncertainty

What is this author's solution to such terrible uncertainty? It is, as mentioned above, a prophetic vision, which starts from a 'known' (but, for us, today's readers, extremely fanciful) past to a future that ceases to be unknown and also becomes known precisely because it is framed within a specific history of the Universe, the one established from the beginning by God himself. This is a paradigmatic example of the role of prophecy with respect to the future, and of its specific field of action. The Arab-Islamic invasion is, at the same time, a political, military, and religious/cultural event. And the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius offers a prophecy that is, at the same time and in the same way, political, military (foreshadowing the victorious counter-offensive of the Romans of the East) and religious/cultural (announcing the end of the earthly world, and the final triumphal return of Christ).

The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius was written in Syriac, but was soon translated into Greek, a language in which it came to influence, as mentioned, an entire literary family, whose themes spread within the Latin-Western tradition, on the one hand, and the Islamic tradition, on the other. But prophecy and apocalypticism are only one of the many tools our medieval predecessors had at their disposal to deal with the uncertain mists of the future that lay before them. Useful tools when it came to dealing with major political and religious issues, prophecy and apocalyptics became perhaps a little 'cumbersome' when it came to operating on the life of the individual, on the small and big choices of everyday life. And here astrology, numerology, geomancy, and many other 'sciences' of the future, as well as the high peaks of philosophical speculation, come into play. So many galaxies in a rich universe connected by a fil rouge important, then as now: to give people a few more chances, no matter how slim, in the never-ending struggle against uncertainty.

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