Materiality, Immateriality, and the Mediation of Millennium during the Revolution Controversy

This paper was presented at the Canadian Society for Eighteenth Century Studies Conference, Hamilton, Ontario, Oct. 28, 2011.

In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke begins his polemic by likening prominent Dissenter Richard Price’s sermon in favor of the French Revolution to the worst religious excesses of the English Civil War:

That sermon is in a strain which I believe has not been heard in this kingdom, in any of the pulpits which are tolerated or encouraged in it, since the year 1648, when a predecessor of Dr. Price, the Reverend Hugh Peters, made the vault of the king’s own chapel at St. James’s ring with the honour and privilege of the Saints, who, with the “high praises of God in their mouths, and a two edged sword in their hands, were to execute judgment on the heathen, and punishments upon the people; to bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron” (13)

In rhetorically linking the Civil War to the French Revolution Burke thus calls up the ghosts of that turbulent time – ghosts that still haunted the public at large.  More importantly, Burke suggests that part of the problem with the rhetoric of the Civil War was the blurring of the lines between preaching and prophecy – the overtaking of reasoned discourse and scholarly Biblical interpretation by ranting “enthusiasts,” who prophesied a world turned upside down.  It was this threat that Burke saw threatening England once again.

This threat was exacerbated (in Burke’s mind) by the proliferation of cheap printed prophecies that were distributed to the general population.  For Burke the mechanical printing press was dangerous in its ability to “make a kind of electrick communication everywhere”(380) thus facilitating, according to Jon Mee, “the ‘mechanic’ spasming of enthusiastic philosophers (91). Thus Burke’s harangue is also a testament to the long life of prophecy in print.  By drawing up the specter of the Civil War prophets Burke is also drawing attention to the complex connections between printed prophecy then and the perseverance of those prophecies throughout the eighteenth century – prophecies like those of Lady Eleanor Davies that would be later be echoed in the millenarian works of people like Richard Brothers.

Furthermore if, as Siskin and Warner have recently argued, Enlightenment is an event in the history of mediation (1) then I would argue that its supposed opposite number, enthusiastic millenarianism, is also an event in the history of mediation.  From the moment that Lady Eleanor Davies published her prophecies rather than spoke them publically, millenarianism was no longer the sole domain of the individual prophet in the wilderness – it had entered the complex and rapidly expanding network of print, publicity, and public sanction.  Millenarianism was now as much the domain of printers, booksellers, and hawkers as it was of the religious mystic – it was something that could be commoditized, commercialized, and easily transmitted.

Thus, what I want to do here is trace the legacy of millenarianism in print from the Civil War to the Revolution controversy and detail some of the ways in which the new technologies of mediation shaped prophecy and how prophecy in turn shaped mediation technologies.  In doing so I will focus on two exemplary prophets: Lady Eleanor Davies and Richard Brothers – both of whom used print in self-consciously new ways to promote their message and both of whom ultimately paid the penalty for it in court.  More than that, though, I want to work to expose some of the networks of print that were born in the era of Lady Eleanor and endured through to the 1790’s – networks that included both the professional printers and booksellers, and a more radical underground network among whom millenarian prophecy never lost currency during the eighteenth century (Makdisi 297).  Finally, I want to consider some of the ways in which millenarianism has found outlet in our modern mediation technologies and what this might mean for how we interact with them and they in turn with us.

Lady Eleanor Davies

Lady Eleanor Davies (1590-1652) was the fifth daughter of Baron Audeley, the first earl of Castlehaven.  She was married in 1609 to Sir John Davies, an attorney in the King’s service.  Until 1625 there was nothing particularly remarkable about her life.  However on July 28, 1625 she heard the voice of the prophet Daniel from heaven saying, “There is Ninteene years and a halfe to the day of Judgement and you as the meek Virgin.”  She interpreted this as a prophetic call and began publishing prophesies proclaiming the impending judgment that specifically criticized both the King (who acceded to the throne the same year Lady Eleanor heard the voice from heaven) and the governance of the Church of England under Archbishop William Laud.  She gained even more notoriety when she correctly predicted both the death of her husband in 1626 and the Duke of Buckingham in 1628. She quickly remarried Archibald Douglas, who claimed to be Charles II’s older brother and thus the rightful heir to the throne (Cope xi-xii).

In 1633 Lady Eleanor was arrested and sent to prison by Archbishop Laud for the illicit publication of her prophecy, Given to the Elector, which he burnt in front of her.  She remained imprisoned in the Gatehouse for two and a half years and upon her release she promptly destroyed the altar-hanging at Litchfield Cathedral and was committed to Bedlam.  She was later transferred to the Tower of London and remained in prison until 1640 (Cope xv-xvii).  In 1645 she interpreted the trial and execution of Archbishop Laud as the fulfillment of her prophecy of judgment made in 1625.  She continued to prophesy the coming kingdom of God until her death in 1652 and the printed prophecies she left behind represent one of the largest collection of writing by a seventeenth century woman.

What is particularly interesting about Lady Eleanor’s prophecies, however, is that they were meant for print.  Unlike the other prophets of the Civil War Lady Eleanor did not prophesy on street corners, walk naked as a sign, or fall into prophetic trances.  In fact her only real public demonstration (the destruction of the altar hanging at Litchfield) was largely a wordless event.  Instead Lady Eleanor focused her attention on print and her books.  However, as Lisa Maruca has pointed out, “print is a site in which the book as a tangible object meets the meaningful text contained within its pages” (4).  In other words, the production of print extends beyond the post-Romantic notion of the solitary genius author to the print technologies that made the book possible (the type, the press, etc) and the print workers that transferred words to type.  In fact she argues that, prior to the mid-eighteenth century the author was equally important as the printer, bookseller, hawker, etc.  In the case of Lady Eleanor, she and the printers she worked with took on substantial risk as, before the Civil War, it was illegal to print anything outside the Stationer’s Guild monopoly.  For this reason Lady Eleanor travelled to Holland early on in her career to print her most controversial prophecy, Given to the Elector, an event she describes in Everlasting Gospel:

And so pursuing the Prophetical History in the next place, That it might be fulfilled out of the Low Countreys, &c. as the Virgin when undertook her voyage, she fleeing for the Babes preservation thither; also constrained for printing the same, to go into Holland, those plain swathing-bands for wrapping it in, pretending in her husbands behalf the Spaw obtained a License, since none for printing to be had here, inquisition and hold such, among them imprisoned about it formerly, till afterward all as free, Cum Privilegio out of date become (288).

This passage is particular interesting in that, not only is she describing the “birth” of her most controversial prophecy – the one that got her imprisoned and condemned by Archbishop Laud – she is doing so in gendered terms and in the language of print.  Her books are her “Babes” – a term that takes on special resonance considering her prophetic identification as a virgin.  She goes to Holland because she cannot obtain a license to print in England and works with printers there to produce a religio-political text that lives on in print, despite being burned by the archbishop.

This gendered imagery of giving birth to the printed word also ties in closely to the physical production of her texts.  As Lisa Maruca argues, seventeenth century printing manuals often described the printing process in embodied and gendered terms.  So, for example, Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises describes the casting of letters thus: “[t]he Female Block is such another Block as the Male Block, only, instead of a Tongue running through the length of it a Groove is made to receive the Tongue of the Male-Block” (qtd. in Maruca 40).  Thus the mechanistic work that these letters then perform, Maruca argues, “is an essential part of the creation of words…. So, apparently, from the sex of machinery, a unit of language is born” 40-41).  In the case of Lady Eleanor, her printed works really are her “babes,” created through the illicit intercourse of radical prophet and underground printer.  The printed text that results is dangerous and destabilizing to the ruling hierarchy precisely because the prophetic message has found voice in the printed word.

All of these elements are on clear display in Given to the Elector, the only one of Lady Eleanor’s prophecies written in ballad form.  It was published in 1633 and then again in 1648 – on both occasions in sought to address specific socio-political circumstances.  The content of the prophecy conflates the events of Daniel 5, specifically Belshazzar’s feast, with what she sees (in 1633) as Charles I’s impending doom.  What is most interesting, however, is not so much the content of the text, but how it is printed.  On either side of the main body of text, Lady Eleanor has had glosses printed that sometimes help interpret the prophecy and at others simply obscure it further.  For example, the body of the text conflates the writing on the wall that disturbs Belshazzar’s feast with the failure of Charles I to amend his ways.  In two places the marginal notes repeat the three words written on the wall predicting Belshazzar’s doom, “Mene Tekel Upharsin” and in one Lady Eleanor transfers the words to an anagram reading, “Parlement House King: in number about 666,” thus further tying corrupt government to apocalyptic prediction.

This particular passage is significant in that it was precisely her Biblical interpretation applied to current events that got her in the most trouble.  In fact when Lady Eleanor was brought before the Archbishop he overlooked her slights on King Charles and identified her most grievous offenses as claiming to be able to interpret prophecy and then (worst of all) having it printed without a license.  This is the account Lady Eleanor gives of his accusations in her Blasphemous Charge:

That she had lately compiled and written, and caused to be printed and published, the three several Schedules annexed to the said Articles, some containing Expositions of divers parts of the Chapters of the Prophet Daniel, But forasmuch as she took upon her (which much unbeseemed her Sex) not only to interpret the Scriptures, and withal the most intricate and hard places of the Prophet Daniel, but also to be a Prophetess, falsly pretending to have received certain Revelations for God, and had compiled certain Books of such her fictions and false Prophesies or Revelations, which she had in person carried with her beyond the Seas, and had there procured them to be printed without License, and after brought them over here into England, and here without License, vented and dispersed them, or some of them, contrary to the Decree of Star-Chamber” (252-253).

That a woman would claim to be able to understand the prophecies of Daniel was bad enough, but that she would dare to publish such prophecies in print and that there was a printer willing to do it testifies to the dangerous destabilizing effect such works could have.  For once in the public space such work was uncontrollable – the Archbishop could burn all the books he could find, but copies still remained and Lady Eleanor herself survived long enough to have Given to the Elector printed again in 1648.  Her work, then, is a testament not only to the power of prophetic discourse in the seventeenth century, but to the power of print technologies and printers in the turbulent times leading up to the Civil War.

Richard Brothers

Richard Brothers, "Prince of the Hebrews"

Richard Brothers (1757-1824) was a penniless former naval officer who, after being discharged for refusing to take the oath of loyalty, began to prophesy against war with France in 1792 (Paley 261).  He quickly gained a following in London when several of his early prophecies seemingly came true and in 1794 he published the first book of his Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times followed by a longer second book in 1795.  Both books worked to reinterpret Biblical prophecy to relate to the present situation in Europe and his own prophetic calling.  They also predicted a new millennial kingdom to be established in Jerusalem with him as its king.  Both books were severely critical of the government and the war with France, even going so far as to call for King George III to step down and be replaced by Brothers himself.  On March 4, 1795 Brothers was arrested and examined by the Privy Council; unable to officially charge him with treason, they nevertheless declared him insane and sent him to an asylum, where he remained until 1806 (Paley 261).

Unlike Davies, however, Brothers participated in the electrically charged and fully developed public sphere of the 1790’s.  He was immediately revelation, with acolytes flocking to his home and followers and critics battling it out in the popular press.  It would be safe to say that everyone in London during 1794 and 1795 knew who Richard Brothers was and had an opinion on him.  Print had truly come of age and Brothers realized that it was the ideal medium for prophecy.  As Susan Juster argues, prophets like Brothers “were much more self-consciously immersed in the expanding world of print culture, which formed not only the medium but the message of their republican brand of prophecy” (160).  This self conscious awareness of the power of print is reflected in the Revealed Knowledge itself as, in several sections, Brothers reflects on the production, materiality, and transmissibility of his own text.  Thus the millennial message is truly made possible by the radical re-envisioning of the medium of print.

An example of this self-consciousness occurs in the second book of the Revealed Knowledge in which Brothers recounts his prophetic call in terms of God’s command to print his message: “The night before I had finished this book for the press,” he writes, “the Lord God shewed it to me in a vision, ready printed, holding it up at the same time by one leaf, and shaking all the others open, while he pronounced, in strong clear words, and commanded me to write them down exactly as he spoke, for universal information” (101-102).  Here prophecy has been transformed from the “voice of one calling in the wilderness,” into a material object – the printed book as the medium of prophecy.  Thus the printed word has been transformed from transmitter of millennium into the creator of millennium – it is through the medium of print that the millennial vision can be spoken into being in the first place.

Likewise in the preface to the second book, Brothers posits his prophetic call in terms of the command to write, and revise, “revealed knowledge”:

The following are the words which the Lord God spoke to me in a vision, soon after I was commanded to write and make known his judgments, for the good of London and general benefits of all nations: There is no other man under the whole heaven that I discover the errors of the Bible to, and reveal a knowledge how to correct them, so that they may be restored as they were in the beginning, but yourself.

Here Brothers both reiterates his call to write, and by extension print his prophecies, but he frames this call in terms of “correcting” or reinterpreting the “errors” in the Bible.  By doing this Brothers performs a self-reflexive turn in which he reflects on the formal characteristics of his printed text.  Much of the Revealed Knowledge is structured like Scripture – indeed much of it is direct quotations from prophetic passages like the ever popular Daniel 7 – however Brothers alters or “corrects” these already printed texts in order to shape the to his prophetic goal.  In other words there is a kind of double act of mediation going on as Brothers both mediates God’s message in print and remediates passages of Scripture.  In this, as with Lady Eleanor’s prophecies, the establishment objection to prophecy had as much to do with this unauthorized remediation as it did with the actual content of the prophecies.

In was within this context that Brothers, like Davies, faced the most serious threat of legal sanction for, though the licensing acts that bound Davies had long lapsed, the charged atmosphere of the revolution controversy brought new types of sanctions on radical print.  In this context it was not only the individual prophet that faced prosecution, but publishers and booksellers as well.  It was as much the circulation of print that the government feared as it was its radical content.  Thus Godwin’s expensive edition of Political Justice was allowed to be distributed while Paine was run out of the country for The Rights of Man.

This was also a fact of which Brothers was self-consciously aware.  In the second book of the Revealed Knowledge he comments that, “After the first division of this copy was sent to be printed, and even some of it done, the printer was advised not to do it according to my form; for, if he did, prosecution, imprisonment, and perhaps hanging, would be the consequence to him” (99).  Indeed the threats of prosecution, imprisonment, or worse during the 1790’s were very real, as is evidenced by the trial and imprisonment of noted radical bookseller Joseph Johnson in 1798.  And, even though Brothers’ works were not radical in the way Thelwall’s or Paine’s were the government had significant reason to worry radical printers disseminating both types of works.

It was this type of promiscuous reading that Edmund Burke most feared in inveighing against the “electrick communication” of print.  As Juster argues, “this was “a moment when the acts of reading and writing became politicized to an unprecedented degree and the nation itself constructed along textual lines.  Print was the primary medium of prophecy in the late eighteenth century, a fact of which prophets themselves were keenly aware as they sought to claim the privileges of authorship for themselves and instill the responsibilities of readership their audience” (143-144).  In this Brothers participates in a discourse that is both backwards looking, towards the ecstatic prophecy of the Civil War, and forwards looking, towards the rise of the Romantic author and the de-spiritualization of prophecy itself.

Millennial Mediations

It is here we come to some of the points of conversion between Davies and Brothers for, in addition to using print as the primary medium of prophecy, they both reference a very specific millennial genre.  In offering interpretations of obscure scripture passages and envisioning a new millennial kingdom Brothers accesses a tradition that gained currency during the Civil War which over 100 years had never completely erased.  Indeed scripture commentaries, especially the books of Daniel and Revelation remained popular throughout the eighteenth century, with even Sir Isaac Newton entering the fray towards the end of his life.  Furthermore the, in Jon Mee’s term “dangerous enthusiasm,” of millenarian print never really went away over the course of the century, it just went underground in the form of Jacobitism, Muggletonianism, other radical movements that relied on millenarian visions.   Playing on the public’s unease over the Revolution, the wars on the continent, and the political unrest at home, then, prophets like Brothers resurrected this underground discourse of millennium to reflect the concerns of the populace in print.  In fact, I would argue that without print, this fusion of millennial speculation and political radicalism would not have been possible in the first place.

But I want to go further and suggest that, for Davies and Brothers, mediation was not merely the means of transmitting millennial visions, but the actual space of millennium itself.  Through the use of print, both writers attempted to create a critical distance from culture that allowed for the advent of the kingdom of God, if not in an actual political space, then in the minds and hearts of the populace at large. In tracing this millennial space prophets like Brothers used mediation technologies that existed largely outside the control of the state to access a subversive underground of prophetic rhetoric that had the power to apocalyptically shape reality. Thus the mediation of millennium that I have tracked from Davies to Brothers opens up a space that works to reveal the true nature of reality (apocalypse) and break down mental boundaries between the individual self and community.

Postscript: Millennial Mediation in the Age of WikiLeaks

Though the religious millenarianism of the eighteenth century has largely disappeared from modern culture, it still has currency in some corners of society.  Radical interpretations of premillenial dispensationalist theology by people like Harold Camping who started the May 21st  doomsday movement still exist and their propagators shrewdly use the internet to spread their message.  Likewise radical Islamic jihadism has effectively moved online – leading to the U.S. targeted killing of radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.  That these movements gain any traction at all is an indication of the types of social unrest that characterize both our era and the 1790’s.  People naturally look for an ideological release valve and, for some, these millenarians provide it.

However in my mind true millenarianism has become largely de-secularized and is now located within the cyber-community of online hacktivists like Julian Assange of Wikileaks, Anonymous, and LulzSec.  These groups have all articulated a millennial ideology of the free exchange of information and technology on the internet and have showed little compunction about breaking laws to make that happen.  Indeed organizations like Anonymous have illustrated that they can launch targeted Denial-of-service (DoS) attacks against major corporations like VISA, Paypal, or Bank of America at will; while more recently LulzSec has demonstrated that it is possible to hack into the secure servers of almost any major corporation or government in the world.

On a more sinister level, the creators of the Conficker worm have demonstrated that it is possible to take down the internet altogether – thus creating a true apocalyptic scenario.  All this is to say that mediation continues to be the outlet for millennium – a millenarianism that challenges the core institutions of the liberal democratic state and the capitalist class that supports it.  The battle for control of the internet is still being fought, much as the battle for control of print was waged throughout the eighteenth century, and organizations like Wikileaks are articulating a vision of this technology that is not bounded by national borders or capital concerns.  In this they echo the ethos of their millenarian predecessors in the eighteenth century and they too understand that it is on the battlefield of mediation technologies that their cause will be won or lost.

Works Cited

Brothers, Richard. A Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times: Book the First. London, 1794.

–. A Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times: Book the Second. London, 1795.

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. London: Dodsley, 1790.

–. The Writings and Speeches of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, Vol. V. Boston: Little, Brown, 1901.

Davies, Lady Eleanor. The Prophetic Writings of Lady Eleanor Davies. Ed. Esther S. Cope. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

Juster, Susan. Doomsayers : Anglo-American prophecy in the age of Revolution. Philadelphia, U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.

Makdisi, Saree. William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790’s. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003.

Mee, Jon. Romanticism, Enthusiasm, and Regulation: Poetics and the Policing of Culture in the Romantic Period. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.

Paley, Morton D. “William Blake, The Prince of the Hebrews, and The Woman Clothed with the Sun.” William Blake: Essays in Honour of Sir Geoffrey Keynes. Ed. Morton D. Paley & Michael Phillips. Oxford: Clarendon, 1973. 260-293.

Siskin, Clifford, and William Warner. This is Enlightenment. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010.

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