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Durham University

Department of Theology and Religion


Publication details for Dr Susan Royal

Royal, Susan (2013). Historian or Prophet? John Bale's Perception of the Past? In The Church on its Past. Clarke, Peter D. & Methuen, Charlotte Leiden: Boydell Press. 49: 156-167.

Author(s) from Durham


The late medieval prophetic tradition played a significant role in how John Bale (1495–1563), England’s first Protestant church historian, formulated his ideas about the nature of revelation, which would become a contentious issue in the course of the Reformation. It is the goal of this essay to examine this first-generation evangelical’s views, which will bring us closer to understanding prophecy and its legitimacy in Reformation-era Europe. In an influential essay, Richard Southern illustrates the important role of the prophetical tradition in premodern historical writing: ‘Prophecy filled the world-picture, past, present, and future; and it was the chief inspiration of all historical thinking.’ But while its significance is easy to pinpoint, the varied nature of prophetic revelation does not make for easy delineations or definitions. Southern names four types of prophecy in the Middle Ages: biblical (Daniel, Revelation); pagan (sibylline); Christian (such as that of Hildegard of Bingen); and astrological (stars and celestial events). Of course, even these are not clearly distinct categories; Southern notes that Merlin is ‘half-Christian, half-pagan’. Lesley Coote points out that the ‘subject of political prophecy is king, people and nation’, separating this from theological, apocalyptic prophecy, though she also asserts that the two are closely related. Bernard McGinn remarks that in the later Middle Ages, prophecy is ‘seen as a divinatory or occasionally reformative activity – the prophet as the man who foretells the future, or the one who seeks to correct a present situation in the light of an ideal past or glorious future’.