The Empire at the End of Time

Identity and Reform in Late Medieval German Prophecy

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Frances Courtney Kneupper
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Sixty years ago, Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium (London: Secker and Warburg, 1957) demanded that readers treat medieval Christians’ radical visions of the End Times and the Last Judgment as a serious subject of study. Cohn emphasized the irrational character of chiliastic thinking in the Christian tradition, from late antiquity to the early Reformation. Since then, studies have demanded that we understand medieval eschatological thinking, not through collective psychology, but rather within the specific contexts and worldviews of their authors. Frances Courtney Kneupper’s new book, The Empire at the End of Time, enriches this scholarly tradition by embedding German-language eschatological prophesies within both the immediate contexts that led to the production and circulation of manuscripts, and the broader political and religious transformations in the southern region of late medieval German-speaking Europe.

Kneupper focuses her attention on the first one hundred years of German-language prophesies—from roughly 1380 to 1480. The content of the twenty-one eschatological prophesies—found in many versions in rare book libraries across Central Europe—that Kneupper studies are dark and violent. Their authors imagined war and pestilence, the brutal punishments of sinners, and the complete overturn of political order. Kneupper suggests that these authors often saw horrifying revolution as a necessary precondition for a more creative and positive outcome for the righteous during the End Times.

The Empire at the End of Time begins and ends with chapters that build a general argument about the meaning of these prophetic works, while its four middle chapters focus on specific prophecies: Gameleon, the letter of Brother Sigwalt, Auffahrt Abend, and the Wirsberger letters. The advantage to this approach is that Kneupper is able to discuss the specific contexts and diverse content of these prophecies, while still making broad arguments about their overall meaning. Readers captivated by the specifics of prophetic medieval visions, or interested in the challenges of developing conclusions about these mysterious texts, will be rewarded in chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5.

The heart of the book’s argument can be found in chapters 6 and 7, which describe trends in the prophecies’ religious and political messages. Chapter 6 describes the radical anti-clerical and anti-Church messages: the worldliness, hypocrisy, and pride of the clergy–especially in higher clergy and the popes–would be punished in the (often-imminent) End Times. While sixteenth-century Protestants reprinted some of these works to support their claims that the late medieval Church was corrupt and in need of reform, Kneupper is more nuanced. Most of the people who wrote and shared these texts, after all, were probably clergy who did not reject the clerical state, or the Church categorically. The anticlericalism of these texts, in Kneupper’s reading, is far more ambiguous than Protestant propagandists once suggested.

Chapter 7 describes the prophecies’ political messages. Often, these works imagined a specific role for the Holy Roman Emperor in toppling the pope, or ushering in dramatic church reform. Some also saw a role for the German people in promoting righteousness against the degeneracy of the Latin—or Romance—world, or against Bohemian Hussite “heretics.” This chapter also contributes to debates about the origins of Germanness. A nineteenth-century Romantic tradition once read these medieval prophecies as “precocious expressions” of German nationalism (154). In the twentieth century, that argument was abandoned, and historians often argued that there was no medieval construct of Germanness in a political sense; imperial identities were universal rather than territorial or nationalistic. As a result, historians sometimes treated Germany as developmentally-stunted relative to its Western European neighbors. More recently, scholars have portrayed the empire in more positive terms–pointing out its long-term functionality and adaptability. Kneupper argues that these prophecies did indeed promote a substantive German political identity—not just a universal imperial one—in the late Middle Ages, and often defined themselves self-consciously against Romance-language speakers to the west and south. She recognizes that her sources only tell her about the southern region of Upper Germany that was the center of the emperor’s power, however. The fact that there were many “German” identities in the late Middle Ages, then, suggests that we probably want to be careful about connecting any of them to modern legacies.

As a historian of the German Reformation, I am particularly intrigued by what The Empire at the End of Time tells us about the prophetic role of imperial cities, those semi-autonomous communities that did not owe allegiance to the local prince, but to the emperor directly. Historians have long investigated the conditions that made imperial cities the first adopters of Protestantism. In the minds of some late medieval authors, it turns out, imperial cities would play a key role in ushering in the End Times. If many literate Christians in places like Nuremberg and Augsburg had already been imagining a special role for themselves in leading a dramatic age of church reform, then Reformationists may have underplayed an important context for the spread of religious reform in imperial cities.

The Empire at the End of Time should find an eager readership among historians of the late Middle Ages and the early Reformation, but also among readers curious to learn more about Christian apocalyptic traditions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jesse Spohnholz is director of the Roots of Contemporary Issues Program and associate professor of history at Washington State University.

Date of Review: 
May 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Frances Courtney Kneupper is Assistant Professor of Medieval History at the University of Mississippi.



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