Back to top

Poems of Political Prophecy: Introduction


1 Quotations are from Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Lewis Thorpe (New York: Penguin, 1966), pp. 185, 177, and 184 respectively.

2 Printed by Thomas Wright and J. O. Halliwell in Reliquiae Antiquae (London: Pickering, 1841), 1:166. Index § 4036.

3 Wynnere and Wastoure and The Parlement of the Thre Ages, ed. Warren Ginsberg, (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1992), lines 13-16, p. 13. Index § 3137.

4 Preachers, Poets, and the Early English Lyric (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), pp. 182, 194, 196, and 201. For a concurring view see V. J. Scattergood, Politics and Poetry in the Fifteenth Century (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971), pp. 301-02 (characterizing the Dublin Prophecy of Merlin).

5 Verses in Sermons: Fasciculus Morum and Its Middle English Poems (Cambridge: Mediaeval Academy of America, 1978), p. 178 (no. 40; Index § 3133). I have normalized the u/v spelling. See also Preachers, Poets, and the Early English Lyric, p. 195.

6 Manuscript executed "1447-56" (Robbins, "Poems," p. 1636). § 3986 has been deleted in favor of an expanded § 3943 in Supplement.

7 For other examples of "Type B" complaints juxtaposed with other lyrics, see When Rome Is Removed and lines 14-17 (beginning "Whenne lordis wol lose har olde lawys" [Supplement § 3943]) printed by E. C. and R. Fawtier in The Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 5 (1919), 389.
Middle English poems and documents of a political nature are closely linked with Latin and vernacular prophecies. Prophecies in this sense are predictions concerning kingdoms or peoples; and these predictions often have an eschatological or apocalyptic cast to them. At the same time they frequently resemble traditional laments or complaints against the times under the guise of visionary utterance.

The prophetic tradition in English derives largely from Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain (1136), book 7, the so-called "Prophecies of Merlin," which sets the stage for the books devoted to King Arthur. Merlin prophesied great political struggles leading to an apocalyptic decline in England and throughout the world: "In the twinkling of an eye the seas shall rise up and the arena of the winds shall be opened once again. The winds shall do battle together with a blast of ill-omen, making their din reverberate from one constellation to another." Merlin adduces impossibilia or lusus naturae as part of his prophecies: "In these days the oaks shall burn in the forest glades and acorns shall burgeon on the lime trees' boughs." Or: "Roots and branches shall change their places and the oddness of this will pass for a miracle." [1] Such impossibilities or mirabilia hark back to Nennius' Historia Brittonum and Celtic sources; and the combination of mystic symbolism and animal imagery for humans survives into later political verse such as When Rome Is Removed (printed below), Richard the Redeless, or Ther Is a Busch That Is Forgrowe, on the fall of Richard II (printed below). And both Wales and Scotland figure prominently in English prophecies - in references to Caernarvon, Welsh birthplace of Edward II, to Thomas of Erceldoune, Scots visionary, or to Roxburgh, Bannockburn, or Berwick. Shakespeare's Hotspur, referring to the Welshman Owen Glendower, speaks derisively of "the dreamer Merlin and his prophecies" as "a deal of skimble-skamble stuff" (III.i).

Prophetic statements based on the formula "When [some event] happens, then [something else] will result" became the staple of the later tradition. This is the form of the first prophecy printed in this section, The Prophecy of Merlin from Trinity College Dublin MS 516 (Index § 3986), which testifies that when certain dire phenomena occur - when lords rule wilfully, priests turn treacherous, robbery is condoned - "Then schal the lond of Albyon torne into confusioun!" Although this poem is cast in the future, it actually predicts events which contemporary moralists deplored, such as the rise of baronial power, the alleged perfidy of clerics, the openness of duplicity and hypocrisy, and the decline of sexual morality ("lechery callyd pryvé solace"). The emphasis on morality and the sense of apocalyptic doom inheres in the genre, as in the following fifteenth-century verse "scrap":

Wanne the hillus smoken,
Thanne Babilon schal have an ende;
But whan they brenne as tho fyyr,
Thanne eerthe schal henus weende;
Whenne tho watres rennen hem froo,
The pepul schal turne to eerthe ageyne;
And yf ye bleden aboute over,
Alle men schul be slayne. [2]
When; hills
burn; fire
go hence (end)
run away

A similar construction appears near the opening of Wynnere and Wastoure, an early alliterative poem which influenced Piers Plowman:

When wawes waxen schall wilde and walles bene doun,
And hares appon herthe-stones schall hurcle in hire fourme
And eke boyes of blode with boste and with pryde
Schall wedde ladyes in londe and lede hem at will,
Thene dredful Domesdaye it draweth neghe aftir. [3]

crouch; their nest

Siegfried Wenzel has identified the Dublin Prophecy of Merlin as what he terms a fourth version of Type B complaint lyrics ("The Prophecy"). Type B complaints, according to Wenzel, witness that "the old virtues have passed away, vices are now triumphant, what used to be prized highly is nowadays scorned, and the like." A fourth type of these complaint lyrics (exemplified by the Dublin prophecy) offers "a series of four evils" followed by "a prophetic final couplet." Most important, Wenzel considers these poems as not true prophecies - they do not so much predict future events as expose existing conditions - but rather complaint lyrics in the guise of prophecies. [4] He traces this version of prophecy to a lyric in Fasciculus Morum (Index § 3133), which he regards as older than the present lyric:

Sithyn law for wyll bygynnyt to slakyn,
And falsehed for sleythe is i-takyn,
Robbyng and revyng ys holden purchas,
And of unthewes is made solas -
Engelonde may synge "alas, alas!" [5]
Since; begins to decline
looting; bargain

Wenzel concludes: "It would . . . appear that genetically in all these cases the vaticinal form is a secondary development and formally less important than the 'when-then' formula" (p. 201). Wenzel's investigations, and his division of complaint lyrics into Type A and Type B (with four especially popular lyrics), are very valuable for unraveling the tangled relations among previously mislabeled poetic genres. But he perhaps too quickly denies political or ideological content to the poems by emphasizing genealogy (in Latin poems and in preaching manuals) and convention. The sources and analogues explain much but they do not explain everything. The Merlin prophecies belong in this volume if for no other reason than that they expose the complaint foundations of prophetic or political poems such as When Rome Is Removed, John Ball's Letters, or Addresses of the Commons. Prophetic and political poems are affiliated with complaint lyrics, and vice versa. The text of the present edition of the Dublin Prophecy of Merlin is based on F. J. Furnivall's careful transcription for the Chaucer Society and is checked against RHR's version: p. 121. I include the four-line lyric beginning "Longe berde herteles" to show the context of the prophecy (and see below, the Magdalene College Prophecy of Merlin).

Similar to the Dublin version of The Prophecy of Merlin is an eight-line poem in Bodleian Library MS 6943 fol. 78r (Index § 3986), [6]a prophecy sometimes attributed to Chaucer. Several lines in the Bodleian lyric appear to be variants of the Dublin poem, but the Oxford verses also contain a couplet alluding to messianic predictions that link Christ and Arthur: "And whan the moon is on David stall, / And the kynge passe Arthures hall." This poem exemplifies the English prophetic tradition in that it combines murky, quasi-scriptural prediction with quasi-political complaint. The text of the present edition is based on an electrostatic copy of the Bodley MS and is checked against Skeat's text in the Oxford Chaucer, vol. 7, pp. lxxxi-lxxxii.

Included here is a third Prophecy of Merlin from Magdalene College Cambridge MS 1236 fol. 91r, which begins "When feythe fayleth in prestys sawys" (Index § 3943). This consists of two poems in the same scribal hand (separated by a gap in the manuscript), the second beginning "When Goneway shall on Curtays call" (Supplement § 3951.5). I print them together because the first lyric witnesses the "timeless" prophecy that Wenzel and others claim are in fact complaints, while the second, which seems to be affiliated with the first, offers more specific referents. [7] The first poem features the "Albeon/confusion" couplet; the second, more enigmatic, highlights the role of Celtic lands in bringing about that confusion: "Wallys," "Albeon Skottlonde," and "the rede Irlonde fox." The present edition is based on an excellent electrostatic print of the manuscript and is checked against Skeat's edition in the Oxford Chaucer (Chaucerian and Other Pieces, vol. 7, p. 450, the first of three "Sayings [of Chaucer] Printed by Caxton"). I have also checked "When Goneway shall on Curtays call" against RHR's partial (and error-ridden) transcription on pp. 316-17.

Also in the "When-Then" tradition falls Thomas of Erceldoune's Prophecy, a unique text from the well-known MS Harley 2253 (about 1330; Index § 3989). This poem claims to predict the end of the Scottish wars in answer to a question from the countess of Dunbar, wife of the Earl of March. Thomas of Erceldoune, sometimes identified as the son of Thomas the Rhymer, was a thirteenth-century Scots poet and seer; and his name became attached to several later prophecies (see those printed by Murray in EETS o.s. 61). The Harley Prophecy is in southern or south-midland dialect and betrays English not Scottish sympathies. And the poem is, like some other late products of the alliterative revival, semi-alliterative, sometimes lapsing into prose. The combination of internal rhyme through alliteration and anaphora on the word when gives the verse an incantatory impressiveness. The present text of Thomas of Erceldoune's Prophecy is based on a photostat of the British Library manuscript, checked against the editions of J. A. H. Murray for the EETS, of RHR, and of Turville-Petre. I have consulted and profited from Murray's translation of Thomas of Erceldoune's Prophecy (see p. lxxxvi).

The Magdalene College Prophecy of Merlin and Thomas of Erceldoune's Prophecy exhibit an interest in Scotland and Scottish-English political relations. Thomas of Erceldoune was regarded as a great oracle who not only could see into the future but could discern the inner structure, the political-spiritual content, of that future. This combination of politics and spirituality is true also of Ercyldoun's Prophecy (Index § 3762), a unique text in British Library MS Arundel 57, which contains other prophecies and the autograph text of Ayenbite of Inwit. Ercyldoun's Prophecy features a conversation between Thomas ("the minstrel") and King Alexander III of Scotland concerning the birth of Edward II of Caernarvon. In another "When/Then" construction Alexander learns that his reign will not succeed him (because he will leave no male heirs). The minstrel (Thomas) tells him that his pretensions to dynastic kingship will vanish "When Bannockburn is strewn with men's bones." Bannockburn was the decisive battle of 1314, when Robert Bruce and the Scots, though heavily outnumbered, defeated Humphrey de Bohun of Hereford, Aymer de Valence of Pembroke, Gilbert de Clare of Gloucester, and the forces of Edward II. Many English and Scottish prophetic poems refer to this debacle. Robbins dates this poem to either "about 1340" or "ca 1350" ("Poems," pp. 1526 and 1720 respectively). The text of Ercyldoun's Prophecy is based on a photostatic copy of the manuscript, which is checked against the editions of Wright and Halliwell and of Richard Morris for the Early English Text Society.

The final poem included in this section begins "Qwhen Rome is removyde into Inglande" (Index § 4008). This piece, also known as The Second Scottish Prophecy, offers a mélange of lyrics, including four lines on the Abuses of the Age (see Index § 4006) and a verse characterized elsewhere as The Prophecie of Beid. The poem exists in three states or versions, designated as A, B, and C, and is witnessed in twenty-one manuscripts. The present edition prints the best-known version (A) from Cambridge University Library MS Kk.1.5 (IV). The prophecy seems originally to have been Scottish, but the author of the Cambridge version altered the sympathies from Scottish to English. It features an allegory (based on symbols developed in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Prophecies of Merlin) of the Leopard (England) versus the Lion (Scotland), with the former triumphing over both the Lion and his "stepsons," the Scottish lords, who were particularly unruly in the late fourteenth century. The political allegory apparently refers to events of the 1380s, which culminated in the battle of Otterburn (1388). The text of When Rome Is Removed is based on an electrostatic print of the Cambridge MS and is checked against the editions of J. Rawson Lumby for the Early English Text Society, of Haferkorn, and of RHR. The present text is one line shorter than that of RHR, who inserts a line from other manuscripts after line 8.

Go To Poems of Political Prophecy
Select Bibliography


Trinity College Dublin MS 516 fol. 115r (1450-75)

Oxford University, Bodleian Library MS 6943 fol. 78r (1447-56)

Cambridge University, Magdalene College MS 1236 fol. 91r (c. 1460)

British Library MS Harley 2253 fol. 127r (c. 1340)

British Library MS Arundel 57 fol. 8v (c. 1350)

Cambridge University MS Kk.1.5 [IV] fols. 33r-34r (1480-1500)

Previous Editions

Furnivall, F. J., ed. Animadversions uppon the Annotacions and Corrections of Some imperfections of impressiones of Chaucers workes (sett downe before tyme, and nowe) reprinted in the yere of oure lorde 1598 sett downe by Francis Thynne. Chaucer Society. 2nd Series 13. London: Trübner, 1876. [Version of the Dublin MS of The Prophecy of Merlin on p. xlvi.]

Gray, Douglas, ed. The Oxford Book of Late Medieval Verse and Prose. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. [Bodley version of The Prophecy of Merlin on p. 22.]

Haferkorn, Reinhard, ed. "When Rome is Removed into England: Eine politische Prophezeiung des 14. Jahrhunderts." Beiträge zur englischen Philologie 19 (1932), 92-98. [A critical text, with variants from other versions and a translation into German on facing pages.]

Lumby, J. Rawson, ed., Bernardus de cura rei familiaris with Some Early Scottish Prophecies. EETS 42. London: N. Trübner, 1870. [Edition of "When Rome Is Removed" ("Ancient Scottish Prophecy, No. 2") on pp. 32-34.]

Morris, Richard, ed. Dan Michel's Ayenbite of Inwyt, or, Remorse of Conscience. EETS o.s. 23. London: N. Trübner, 1866. [Ercyldoun's Prophecy.]

Murray, J. A. H., ed. The Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune. EETS 61. London: N. Trübner, 1875. [Edition of Thomas of Erceldoune's Prophecy on pp. xviii-xix; valuable translation of "The Old Harleian Prophecy" on p. lxxxvi.]

Skeat, W. W., ed. The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, vol. 7: Chaucerian and Other Pieces. The Oxford Chaucer. Oxford: Clarendon, 1897. [Bodley version of The Prophecy of Merlin on pp. lxxxi-lxxxii.]

Turville-Petre, Thorlac, ed. Alliterative Poetry of the Later Middle Ages: An Anthology. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1989. [Edition of Thomas of Erceldoune's Prophecy on pp. 36-37, with valuable notes.]

Wright, Thomas and J. O. Halliwell. Reliquiae Antiquae. 2 vols. London: Pickering, 1841, 1843. 1:30. [Version of Ercyldoun's Prophecy in volume 1, p. 30.]

General Studies

Bestul, Thomas H. Satire and Allegory in Wynnere and Wastoure. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974. [Discussion of political prophecies on pp. 59-65.]

Fawtier, E. C. and Fawtier, R. "From Merlin to Shakespeare: Adventures of an English Prophecy." Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 5 (1919), 388-92. [Prints John Rylands Library, Manchester Latin MS 210 (R. 39882), a longer version of a Merlin prophecy, and discusses its relations with others of the type.]

Pearsall, Derek. Old English and Middle English Poetry. London: Routledge, 1977. [Prophecies discussed on pp. 124-25.]

Scattergood, V. J. Politics and Poetry in the Fifteenth Century. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971. [Brief discussion of Merlin prophecies as complaint lyrics on pp. 301-02; predictions by the dice on pp. 359-60. See also Scattergood's discussions of individual poems with prophetic qualities, including a poem on the battle of Shrewsbury: pp. 117-19.]

Taylor, Rupert. The Political Prophecy in England. New York: Columbia University Press, 1911. Rpt. New York: AMS Reprint, 1967. [Still valuable study, with summaries of material. No index but an extensive chapter outline of the dissertation on pp. xi-xx.]

Wenzel, Siegfried. Preachers, Poets, and the Early English Lyric. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986. [Analyzes prophecies as examples of Type B complaint lyrics. See pp. 193-203.]

---. Verses in Sermons: Fasciculus Morum and Its Middle English Poems. Cambridge, Mass.: The Mediaeval Academy of America, 1978. [Argues for the special contexts of Middle English lyrics within sermons based on the Fasciculus Morum, a handbook for preachers.]


Robbins, Rossell Hope. "XIII. Poems Dealing with Contemporary Conditions." A Manual of the Writings in Middle English 1050-1500. Vol. 5. Ed. Albert E. Hartung. New Haven: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1975. Pp. 1385-1536; 1631-1725 (bibliography). [Discusses Prophecies of Merlin (§§ 277, 278) on pp. 1520-21, bibliography p. 1716; Thomas of Erceldoune's Prophecy (§ 288) on p. 1525, bibliography p. 1720; Ercyldoun's Prophecy (§ 289) on p. 1526, bibliography p. 1720; When Rome Is Removed (§ 285) on p. 1524, bibliography pp. 1718-19.]