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.