Beware of False Prophets

12 10 johannes stoefflerToday is the birthday of Johannes Stöffler, who was born in 1452 in Justingan, in what is now southern Germany. Stöffler was a scholar who, in time, became parish priest of his home town. But in his spare time he made astronomical instruments, celestial globes, clocks and orreries. One of his globes still survives in a museum at the Old Castle in Stuttgart, it’s a beautiful thing. He also wrote a proposal for changing the calendar on which the Gregorian Calendar would eventually be based. But these things are not why I want to talk about him today. As well as being excellent in the fields of mathematics and astronomy, he was also interested in astrology. Although astronomy and astrology are now two very different things, until the late sixteenth century, they were basically the same, so we can’t hold that against him. But he did do something pretty stupid.

In the year 1499, he predicted that, on February 20th 1524, a universal flood would cover the whole earth. He based his prediction on the fact that, on that day, most of the known planets (there were only six) and also the sun would be in conjunction in the constellation of Pisces. As Pisces is the sign of the fish, he felt this was an indication that the whole world would be drowned. There were, at that time, plenty of people who enjoyed predicting the end of the world, just as there are now but Stöffler was pretty prominent. By 1507, he occupied the first ever chair of astronomy and mathematics at the University of Tubingen and, in 1522, he was made rector.

As the date of his prophecy drew ever closer, more and more people heard about it. Panic set in. Over a hundred pamphlets were published on the subject. The value of waterside properties plummeted and people began to build boats.

Not wanting to be outdone, English astronomers announced that there would indeed be a flood, but it would begin on February 1st, in London. A fortress was built at the Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great and equipped with two months worth of supplies. When the day came, 20,000 Londoners headed for the hills and waited. Nothing happened. Everyone went home. The astrologers had to admit they were wrong. They said that they had been out by a hundred years and, in fact, the flood would come on February 1st 1654, thus absolving themselves of any personal responsibility.

Their failure did nothing to dampen fears among the landowners and nobles of continental Europe. Economically, it was an excellent time for boat builders and merchants were doing a roaring trade selling emergency supplies. Rivers were full of new boats packed to the gunwales with food and water. One of the biggest was an ambitious three-storey ark, built on the Rhine, for a German count called Von Iggleheim for his friends and family. Early on the morning of the 20th, he boarded his ark and had his servants drag all the supplies aboard. The spectacle drew quite a lot of interest. Some were just curious, others were there to jeer. Then… it began to rain. It didn’t rain a lot, but it was enough to panic the crowd. They rushed to board Iggleheim’s ark and any other boat nearby. Hundreds were killed in the ensuing chaos. When the count refused to let anyone aboard, they dragged him off his boat and stoned him to death.

The year 1524 would eventually prove to be one of the driest on record. Stöffler was also forced to revise his prediction. He said it would actually happen in 1528. It was a bit reckless of him to predict a date within his own lifetime, because it didn’t happen then either and people sort of stopped believing he could predict the future. But according to one story I read, he once predicted that, on a certain day, his life would be put in danger by a falling body. Wisely, he chose to spend the day inside. Whilst indoors, having a discussion with friends, he reached up for a book. The whole shelf came loose and hit him on the head, he was quite badly injured. This is a great story and I wish I could corroborate it with a more contemporary account, but I can’t, so I hope it’s true.

In 1530 his whole university was forced to relocate to the countryside due to a plague epidemic. He removed himself to Blaubeuren. Where he died in 1531. Of the plague. It’s a pity he couldn’t have predicted that instead.

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