Inspiration and Authority in the Middle Ages

Prophets and their Critics from Scholasticism to Humanism

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Brian FitzGerald
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Brian Fitzgerald’s Inspiration and Authority in the Middle Ages: Prophets and Their Critics from Scholasticism to Humanism emerged from his doctoral dissertation. Fitzgerald treats the full range of meanings of prophecy for medieval scholars, going beyond the modern notion of prediction. The 13th-century Englishman William Brito thought prophecy included “prediction, historiography, reporting what is happening somewhere else, reciting other prophecies, singing praises to God, teaching, being a spokesperson, and prefiguring events by one’s actions” (1-2). Fitzgerald achieves effective coverage of such a vast area in a relatively short book by focusing on a limited number of thinkers: Hugh of St Victor (d. 1141), Gilbert of Poitiers (c. 1076-1154), Peter Lombard (c. 1095-1160), Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), and, in particular, Peter John Olivi (1248-1298), Nicholas Trevet (c. 1258-c. 1334), and Albertino Mussato (1261-1329). The intellectual trajectory Fitzgerald traces reduces the influence of the towering figure of Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135-1202), regarded as the key apocalyptic thinker of the medieval era, and a mystic, biblical exegete, philosopher, and, after a period as a Cistercian, the founder of a new order, San Giovanni in Fiore.

The introduction considers early medieval contributions to the theoretical understanding of prophecy, and chapter 1 focuses on Hugh of St. Victor, who makes few explicit references to prophecy, focusing instead on history as it unfolds using a “tripartite scheme” of “nature, law, [and] grace” (36). He emphasized the ways in which prophetic insight, conceived modestly as a greater understanding of sacred history, can result from contemplative practices and moral cultivation. The next chapter, “The Scholarly Exegesis of Prophecy,” examines commentaries on the Psalms by Gilbert of Poitiers and Peter Lombard concentrating on the prophetic status of David, the ancient Israelite king believed to be the author of the Psalms. Chapter 3 shifts focus to the conceptualization of prophecy among Dominicans, opening with a discussion of the discernment of true and false prophets via the work of Peter the Venerable (1092-1156), and his work on Muhammad and the Qur’an. Peter acknowledged “that prophecy does not require prediction, but rather the revelation of what is hidden at any time” (91), but Muhammad was deemed to have fallen short of prophecy, as there were no miracles or signs that testified to his prophetic ability. The contributions of the Dominicans Hugh of St. Cher (c. 1096-1141) and Albert the Great (c. 1200-1280) conclude the chapter.

The next chapter discusses Aquinas in detail, and concludes that he dismissed “both philosophers and extraordinary mystics as prophets … because prophecy is a charism (gratia gratis data) given for a specific purpose, the governance or guidance of people in the world (dispositio hominum in mundo)” (126). This view is contrasted with that of the Franciscan Peter John Olivi, whose works were posthumously condemned and burned in 1299 in Lyons. He “describes the experience of prophetic revelation in such detail because he believes it is still a live option” (143). Furthermore, Peter downgraded the status of ancient prophets in order to upgrade the status of contemporary illumination, a move that invited censure. Chapter 5, “Nicholas Trevet and the Consolation of Prophecy,” re-evaluates the neglected English Dominican famed for his commentaries on Boethius, Seneca, and other classical authors. Trevet, according to Fitzgerald, proposed a view of prophecy in which “intellectual endeavours took on an air of contemplation and inspiration, while prophecy became tamer, more studious, more concerned with ethical and prudential behavior” (191). The final chapter, on Albertino Mussato, traces the fate of prophecy in the emerging humanism of the late 13th and early 14th centuries. The lay humanist Mussato advanced the claim that poetry is the highest art. In 1316, the Dominican Giovannino of Mantua published a tract repudiating the idea that poetry was ars divina, and restating the claims of theology. Mussato drew upon Aristotle and other ancient authors to argue that they had foreknowledge of Christian truth, and “could both delight readers with figurae and also hand on divine truth of Nature, while keeping them hidden from all but the most diligent enquirers” (206).

The conclusion restates the argument effectively: in the 13th century, the Dominican writers on prophecy gradually de-established ecstatic prophecy and redirected attention to a more learned model of prophetic inspiration. This move opened a secular space in which humanist poets like Petrarch (1304-1374) would assert the supreme value of poetry and advocate the critical examination of scholastic methods and conclusions. Inspiration and Authority in the Middle Ages is very valuable because it traces a genealogy of late medieval prophecy that undercuts the Joachite understanding that has dominated the research area for decades. Fitzgerald demonstrates that the interests of the late Middle Ages and those of the Renaissance are closer than many would think. This book is warmly recommended.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Carole Cusack is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Sydney.

Date of Review: 
July 3, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian FitzGerald is lecturer in the program on history and literature at Harvard University. After receiving his doctorate in History from Oxford University, he taught in the Humanities Program at Northeast Catholic College for three years before coming to Harvard in 2016. His research focuses on the intellectual and religious culture of twelfth- to fourteenth-century Europe.



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