In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Prophecy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Works
  • Prophecy in the Reformation

Renaissance and Reformation Prophecy
Jonathan Green
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0501


In the following, “prophecy” will be understood as the claim to deliver a divine message or give access to truth from a supernatural source. In the Renaissance, the potential for divinely sanctioned prophecy was well established in scriptural texts, although whether or not any particular prophecy enjoyed divine sanction was often controversial. Despite being the subject of frequent controversy, prophecy was a phenomenon of wide influence involving political, religious, and intellectual leaders, members of the unlearned and laboring classes, and all levels of society in between. Rather than a unified phenomenon, however, “prophecy” can refer to both the preaching of various visionaries and the circulation of prophetic texts, which were only tenuously connected or connected in unexpected ways. At somewhat further remove are the interpretation of prophetic and apocalyptic passages of scripture and learned and theological discourse about the proper role and hazards of visionaries, prophetic writings, and apocalyptic speculation. Renaissance prophecy differed from both prognostication and apocalypticism, although it often shared elements of each. Prophecy had deep ties to other discourses, but not necessarily to those generally viewed as esoteric or occultist. Renaissance prophecy was inextricable from astrology (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article Astrology, Alchemy, Magic), but had relatively weak ties to the esoteric arts of magic or alchemy (apart from the notable exceptions of Rupescissa and Paracelsus), as well as dream interpretation, lot-casting, or other forms of popular prognostication. As the texts and visionaries of prior generations continued to circulate or were rediscovered decades or centuries later, and because recycling of motifs was common and the time of original composition is often unknown, periodization remains problematic. It is rarely possible to separate Renaissance prophecy neatly from its medieval antecedents or from more recent counterparts, and there remains an urgent need for research on connections across periods. Much basic work remains to be done in identifying prophetic works, their attestations in manuscript or print, their textual history and cultural context, and relations between them. In short: what is highly salient for one scholar may be of little use to another, while potentially critical sources remain undiscovered.

General Overviews

There is no comprehensive overview of all aspects of prophecy during the European Renaissance. The fundamental introduction to the texts and issues remains Reeves 1969. Reeves 1999 is more narrowly focused on Joachimism but considers the Reformation and Renaissance at greater length. For an overview specifically of apocalypticism, see the essays in volume 2 of McGinn, et al. 1998 under Reference Works.

  • Reeves, Marjorie. The Influence of Prophecy in the Later Middle Ages: A Study in Joachimism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.

    Still a foundational introduction to the topic, Reeves’ work traces the reputation of Joachim of Fiore from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance and examines those who claimed his mantle, including Augustinian friars and Jesuits. Later chapters consider the motifs of the Antichrist, Last World Emperor, Angelic Pope, and renewal of the world, and their use in French-German disputes through the time of Charles V and in Reformation polemic.

  • Reeves, Marjorie. Joachim of Fiore and the Prophetic Future: A Medieval Study in Historical Thinking. Stroud, UK: Sutton, 1999.

    First published in 1976, this revised edition focuses specifically on Joachim of Fiore, describes Joachim’s model of history, and then traces the influence of this supremely important figure into the Renaissance, with chapters on Italy, Renaissance intellectuals and Savonarola; Jesuits and other Catholic visionaries; and the use of Joachimist ideas and writings in the Reformation.

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