The Soothsayers’ Guild

Lecturing on the history of the future this term has had me turning to other creative endeavours. This post’s title is from a piece of short fiction I’m drafting in my mind during my walks to and from campus. It’s a story about a still-vaguely-contoured medieval/early modern European past, maybe immediately prior to, or after, the Black Death—or in the midst of the Protestant Reformation.

When the future is uncertain, augury is in high demand, and the soothsayers’ guild exploits this niche in the market. I’m not sure about its origins, but these fortune tellers are well-organized across Europe. They convene to organize stories about the future to harmonize their message. Universal stories about the future shape trends across Europe and strengthen the soothsayers’ credibility and authority. With growing power and funds, the guild purchases/breeds some of the fastest horses in Europe and develops their own messenger system with stables all over the landscape, moving information—economic, political, cultural—faster than through traditional means. They realize that access to information is valuable, and so their prophecies blend elements of insider knowledge with their own fictional imaginings/preferences. These are shared in courts, taverns, and town squares (in audience-appropriate formats, of course) to whoever will pay to learn the mysteries of the future. Through stories, the guild indirectly moves armies and influences power throughout the continent, all while captivating the imagination of the masses at the same time.

It’s a clever scheme; and by scheme, I mean scam. And you can imagine the winks as soothsayers pass each other in the street, conducting the medieval equivalent of a subtle fist-bump from under their monkish tunics. Maybe the story follows the adventures of a young, soothsaying apprentice, or maybe it’s told by an older, now-disillusioned member of the guild. Perhaps it’s a swashbuckling adventure, but the plot could also proceed along a quieter, but more sinister, narrative of political intrigue. Maybe it’s hilarious.

Of course, I always ask my students what their paper is about, and then ask what it’s really about. In the background, the story examines the rise of knowledge economies and network societies, the politics of power, and how expertise—real and imagined—manifests itself. Maybe it also takes a satirical swipe at contemporary futurology, especially the pundits who make noisy predictions based on limited analysis or research. Or it could be more a thought-piece on the manner in which expertise can be abused and misconstrued. Or just the power of storytelling. Maybe it will never be written. Maybe it will be great.