Before 'Fake News' Came False Prophecy

From medieval Britain to the present, fantastic stories speaking to readers’ darkest fears have proven capable of altering reality.

Actors in period costume at Hampton Court, palace of Henry VIII (Toby Melville / Reuters)

The revelation that fake news deceived voters in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election generated real outrage in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s electoral victory. The top fake news stories garnered more clicks than the top real news stories on Facebook in the final three months of the campaign season. Fake news and other campaign fantasies led Oxford Dictionaries to select ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year for 2016.

But stories that gain popularity by presenting readers’ fantasies and nightmares as current events are hardly new. In medieval Britain, national and local political action was guided by prophecy. Prophecies were invoked by rebel leaders, appropriated by ruling elites, and, ultimately, censored by a government fearful of their disruptive potential. Prophecy’s effectiveness in shaping medieval politics offers a rejoinder to those who suggest that fake news and other political falsehoods can be ignored, or laughed off. Prophecy, like fake news, worked as persuasive writing because it told people what they wanted to believe or spoke to their darkest fears.

British politics provided ample opportunity to test the power of imagined worlds. When Owain Glyndŵr, Edmund Mortimer, and Henry Percy plotted against Henry IV at the turn of the 15th century, they used the popular “Prophecy of the Six Kings” to justify their actions. A later historical account has the three rebels committing to treason on the condition “that they are the people about whom the prophet speaks.” The fantasy that Glyndŵr, Mortimer, and Percy were prophesied saviors—a fantasy they themselves may have believed—had the very real effect of attracting popular support for their insurrection.

Prophecy also played a key role when the Wars of the Roses broke out between the Houses of York and Lancaster in the 1450s. The Yorkists used the prophecies of Merlin to support Edward IV’s claim to the throne. The Lancastrians interpreted the same prophecies to mean that their candidate, Henry VI, deserved the crown. One Yorkist manuscript, a sumptuous scroll now in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, features a circular array of insulting names for Henry VI. The names, in English and Latin, include “usurper,” “fool,” and “scoundrel,” as well as “white dragon,” a symbol for the Saxons—always the antagonists in British prophecy. The Yorkist scroll was not meant to win hearts and minds. It was meant to stoke partisan rage.

Prophecies were highly imaginative texts. Knights, heraldry, dragons, double crosses: The genre offered an intoxicating blend of fantasy and realism. One Yorkist prophecy in alliterative verse, found in two Bodleian manuscripts, takes the form of an imagined interview between an English member of Parliament and God. The MP asks what will happen to the realm, and God conveniently foretells the defeat of the Lancastrians, represented as treacherous Saxons. Some of the predictions in prophecies referred to the near future (like FiveThirtyEight’s election forecast), but most of the action amounted to history in the future tense. This was writing that wins consent for a hostile takeover; writing that justifies political violence; writing that kills.

Prophecy wasn’t just an early form of infotainment. It was an instrument of colonization. Some of the earliest recorded prophecies in Britain appeared in the 12th century, in a Latin historical narrative written by a Welsh cleric named Geoffrey. But prophetic style quickly spread from Latin and Welsh to English, and from the margins to the centers of British political power.

By identifying as Britons rather than Saxons, English elites used prophecy to legitimize their rule over the Irish and Welsh and their aggressions against the Scottish. The English projected themselves as spiritual victims of the imperialism of their own ancestors, the Anglo-Saxons. Another Yorkist scroll, held by the British Library, ends with an English passage in which an angel predicts that the Britons will not inherit the island until the Saxons become as sinful as the Britons had been before. The passage aims to galvanize the political will of English readers, not to elicit sympathy for real Celtic peoples. Prophecy rewrote history. The language of the vulnerable was weaponized against the vulnerable.

In the mouths of Welsh rebels and English peasants, prophecy was social protest. In the hands of the ruling classes, it became propaganda. In the 15th century, English kings and parliaments began passing laws against ‘false’ prophecy, in effect criminalizing prophecy without official authorization. The earliest laws claimed to be about other things: vagrancy, civil disorder. They claimed to restrict prophecy only incidentally, as it related to pressing social problems. But the laws were really acts of pre-emptive censorship.

In theory, the laws targeted prophecies made on false grounds. But prophecy, oriented toward the future and heavily coded, did not lend itself to objective distinctions between truth and falsehood. In practice, the anti-prophecy laws gave pretext to punish political dissidence. A 1542 act under Henry VIII, less covertly worded than earlier legislation, sought to protect “such persons as have and had such arms, badges, or cognizances” from “the great peril and destruction” of “false prophecies.” In other words, the state vowed to shield the nobility, those with hereditary coats of arms, from recrimination by their social inferiors. It did not matter whether the targets of these laws created new illicit prophecies or circulated old ones. Those caught prophesying about the imminent demise of a king or knight faced fines, jail, or execution.

Such was the fate of John Dobson, a Yorkshire vicar, put to death in 1538 for interpreting a popular prophecy to indicate Henry VIII’s downfall and the restoration of Catholicism in England. Dobson may well have disseminated heterodox prophecies, but his real mistake was probably making some powerful enemy. The defendants tried under the anti-prophecy laws were nearly always the most vulnerable members of society: servants, tradespeople, low-level clerics like Dobson, and women of all classes.

As a result of all this top-down political pressure, the textual record of prophecies is severely undemocratic. It is shaped by the political agendas of the most powerful.

No wonder many surviving prophecies express horror that the prevailing social hierarchy will dissolve. Yet this was also a key to their popular appeal. One prophecy tells of a dystopian future with “knights and knaves clad in the same clothing.” Another dreads the day “when lads wed ladies.” These predictions warn readers against the horror of a classless society. This horror did not correspond to any real world. Medieval England was in no danger of becoming a communist state. Rather, fear of social reformation was a tool to maintain the very hierarchy that was supposedly deteriorating. And here’s the chilling part—it worked. John Dobson’s problem wasn’t just an oppressive law but also whichever of his acquaintances decided to turn him in.

By the late Middle Ages, prophecy had become a mass medium. It managed to affect the real world by constructing an echo chamber and then enticing people to live in it. It is worth asking what present conditions pollsters, politicians, and journalists seek to render inevitable.

Ultimately, medieval prophecy demonstrates the enduring power of a fantasy to change reality itself. Prophecy didn’t describe the world as it was, but as it was to be—or as it might become. That fantasy was more powerful than any lived reality. People killed and died for fantasies. People didn’t act politically because of what they had lost but because of what, in their most potent fantasy, they feared losing.