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Reforming Sibyls: Change in Religious Belief and the Sibylline Tradition between the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period

Citation: Schulze-feldmann, Finn (2018) Reforming Sibyls: Change in Religious Belief and the Sibylline Tradition between the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period. Doctoral thesis, University of London.

Schulze-Feldman, F - PhD Thesis - Warburg - 2018.pdf

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This thesis examines the Sibylline tradition and the transformation it underwent between the late fifteenth and the end of the sixteenth centuries in the areas most affected by the Reformation. The analysis of both the intellectual debate on the prophetic value of extra-scriptural revelations and the Sibyls’ role in beliefs held by broader audiences brings to light a disintegration of the thousand-year long reverence for the Sibyls as Christian prophetesses of pagan origin who were deemed to carry pristine, yet clandestine insight into the divine. Overall, this fragmentation led to a decline in the veneration of the Sibyls and, ultimately, to their disappearance from common knowledge. As this thesis argues, this process was caused by a change in late medieval devotion, partially resulting from the practice of textual criticism espoused by humanists, which had raised a number of issues concerning the prophecies’ authenticity, and partially instigated by the Reformation movement, which aimed at establishing Scripture as a source of unequivocal authority. A pivotal turning point in the reception of the Sibylline legacy was the rediscovery and publication of the actual text of the Sibylline oracles, which had been lost for more than a millenium. The muchhailed availability of this text led several humanists, reformers and other savants to engage with this prophetic lore anew, resulting in a whole array of newly substantiated condemnations and refutations of and apologies for the corpus. In all this fervour of interpretation and analysis, voices sceptical of the authenticity of the Sibylline oracles were never effectively silenced, a fact that gradually caused a decline in the popularity of the Sibyls from the mid sixteenth century on. By tracing the beliefs, assumptions and convictions held about the Sibyls and their pronouncements between the Middle Ages and the early modern period, this thesis provides a study of the Sibylline tradition and its reception at the time of religious unrest and dogmatic overhaul. It brings to the fore the paradigmatic fluidity and the hermeneutic narrowing of what was conceived to be Christian knowledge of the divine. Thus the thesis is concerned with the issue of how beliefs were transformed, constructed and codified at a particularly critical moment in history.

Creators: Schulze-feldmann, Finn and
Subjects: History
Divisions: Warburg Institute
Collections: Theses and Dissertations
  • 2018 (submitted)


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