Interpreting Prophecies from Infernal Journeys

When the traveler becomes a prophet, Gottschalk and Thurkill

Hell and its punishments, as we know them today, were designed from supposed visits in Hell performed by a chosen few. During these journeys the traveler was commissioned by God to disclose the secrets of the Otherworld that were transcribed by an authority whose screening would authenticate the vision. The first revelations were mostly symbolic and meant to justify the spread of Christendom; the fifth century adapted version of The Apocalypse of Paul clearly announced his eschatological purpose. The seventh century Visio Sancti Fursei, included all the ingredients the saint required to rationalize his mission to establish Christianity throughout the British Isles. Fursey also brought back stigmata from his passage among the souls, materializing what was meant to be a spiritual experience, and consequently establishing a new kind of active spokesmen for God. Traces of skepticism toward these testimonies could not be found until the second part of the twelfth century when the vulgarization of the genre had allowed clerics to extend beyond its original purpose in order to achieve their own priorities.

Fresque Romane XIIe, Eglise St Martin de Vic, Bourges, FranceLes trois prophètes
Fresque Romane XIIe, Eglise St Martin de Vic, Bourges, France
Les trois prophètes

Using the most controversial texts of the genre, The Vision of Gottschalk (1189) and The Vision of Thurkill (1206), I will focus on the rise of doubt based on a new management of the divine testimony, which promoted not only a more and more complex message but the living prophet himself.  This new role of the visionaries whose “contemporary” testimonies exclusively supported the values of their monastic community: poverty, chastity and obedience, implied the worshiping of a human being. Therefore, these new innovative and amazingly detailed statements needed to be translated like the parables of the Bible. Through the medium of public talks, the oral revelations of Gottschalk and Thurkill turned them into prophets, contact with them had the power to save souls, and this initiated a local competition between monasteries.  This phenomenon caused a fundamental shift in the genre that denied its essential authenticity and opened the door to eventual literary invention.