Forthcoming: “The Fifteen Signs before Judgment in Anglo-Saxon England: A Reassessment”

My article on “The Fifteen Signs before Judgment in Anglo-Saxon England: A Reassessment” is set to appear in JEGP later this year, after several years of working on the piece on and off. As I’ve mentioned before, the Fifteen Signs legend fascinates me, and I’ve revisited it at different times since I first came across it in graduate school. This article includes my work on the apocryphon so far, presenting new approaches that shift our understanding of the early transmission of the text.

Below I provide my introduction to the article (without accompanying notes) and an outline of the following sections.

The Fifteen Signs before Judgment (XV signa ante diem iudicii) presents a list of omens that are expected to occur on each of the fifteen days preceding the Last Judgment. Several versions of the text are known, each distinguished by the specific signs included and the order in which they appear. Early examples tend to be relatively short, while later examples (particularly those composed in vernacular languages) are sometimes adapted with lengthy expansions. Although the Fifteen Signs has been studied since the nineteenth century, William W. Heist’s 1952 monograph was the first to explore the full range of evidence known at the time, and subsequent scholarship largely rests on this work. According to Heist, the tradition of the Fifteen Signs legend ultimately derives from the sequence of seven signs on seven days before Judgment in the Apocalypse of Thomas, which was composed sometime between the fourth and fifth centuries. The earliest Latin forms of the Fifteen Signs proper consist of:

1) a version included in a florilegium known as the Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae, which Heist dated to the twelfth century;

2) a version that Peter Damian (d.1072/3) included in his Epistola 92 (to a hermit named Adam, also known as De Novissimis et Antichristo and Epistola de die iudicii) and Epistola 93 (to one of his sisters, an abbreviated version of the preceding letter), both composed around 1062; and

3) a version included in the Historia scholastica by Peter Comester (d.1178).

For Heist, the tenth-century Irish Saltair na Rann stands as the mediating text between the Apocalypse of Thomas and the Fifteen Signs in these early Latin recensions as well as the many vernacular translations that derive from them.

Heist believed that new archival evidence would not alter his propositions, but recent findings have called his reconstruction of the history of the Fifteen Signs into question at both the general and specific levels. As a contribution to the subject, this article reassesses evidence for the existence and influence of the Fifteen Signs tradition in Anglo-Saxon England. The evidence presented suggests both an earlier date for the origin of the Fifteen Signs and a history of more widespread knowledge of the legend in Anglo-Saxon England than previously accepted, including a hitherto unidentified association in the Old English poem Judgment Day I.

The article then includes the following sections:

I. Reassessing Evidence for the Fifteen Signs
II. Early Transmission of the Fifteen Signs
III. Water and Fire in Judgment Day I

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