Prof. Dr. Robert Lerner

Bild von Robert Lerner

Internationales Kolleg für Geisteswissenschaftliche Forschung "Schicksal, Freiheit und Prognose. Bewältigungsstrategien in Ostasien und Europa"
Department of History, Northwestern University, 1800 Sherman Ave., Suite 106
Evanston, Il 60201, USA

Curriculum Vitae

I was born (1940) and raised in New York City, which I continue to think of as my patria. Then I pursued my bachelor's degree at the University of Chicago (1956-1960). There I was exposed to the study of original sources. That was atypical for American college education at that time and mostly remains so, but I found it inspiring, and the close reading of historical sources solidified my dedication to live, so far as I could, by the life of the mind. Having decided to seek an advanced degree in medieval history, I was extraorindarily fortunate to have been accepted by Princeton University, where I sat in awe (1960-1962) before my supervisor Joseph R. Strayer. With the possible exception of Lynn White, Strayer was unquestionably the leading medievalist of his day, and for me he entirely lived up to his reputation: I found him simply brilliant. Strayer had a large benign bump on his forehead, and his students used to insist that all the historical knowledge of the world was located in that bump. Aside from making the governmental history of Western Europe (primarily France and England) entirely intelligible for me, Strayer's most lasting influence has been the orientation that history should be held distinct from antiquarianism and that one cannot be a responsible historian without continually keeping in mind the "big picture." Today the terms "grand narrative" or "master narrative" are used pejoratively; owing to Strayer's teaching and model, however, I unashamedly seek "grand narrative," albeit fully granting that it is subject to revision.

Indifferent to religious history, Strayer tolerantly let me choose a dissertation topic in that area while warning me that he could be of little help. Fortunately I had taken a summer course offered by the American Numismatics Society in New York, where a visiting German professor, Peter Berghaus, took me under his wing. So it was Berghaus who insisted that I perfect my German (a language that hardly any American medievalists then commanded) and that I start my work on my doctoral research concerning the late-medieval "heresy of the Free Spirit" in Münster, where Berghaus was located. There (winter semester, 1962) I obtained proficiency in German, and met my future wife. With sufficient fluency I was then able to move on in the spring of 1963 to Munich, where I gathered my courage and sought out the great scholar Herbert Grundmann, at the time the president of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica. It would not be right to call Grundmann "the Strayer of Germany," first because there were many other towering medievalists teaching in Germany in the early sixties, and second because his interests were entirely different from Strayer's. Nevertheless in the field of high- and late –medieval religious history he reigned supreme. Grundmann must have been startled to meet an earnest twenty-three-year-old American who could speak German and who was full of questions and observations about common research concerns. At any rate, he welcomed me with great kindness, set up regular discussion meetings, and introduced me to sources I did not know. More still, his own work provided models in subject matter (Joachim of Fiore) and methodology (the critical reading of evidence concerning heresy; interpreting religion from a religious point of view) that I adopted and that has made me a card-carrying member of the "Grundmann school." It is still hard for me to believe my good fortune in having been a student of both Strayer and Grundmann: perhaps there was a favorable conjunction of planets on the day I was born.


I returned from Germany in the summer of 1963 and spent the following academic year teaching and completing my dissertation in Princeton. The fact that I received my Ph.D. at the age of twenty-four was yet more good fortune since it allowed me to gain a full-time teaching position and consequently receive a "deferment" that kept me from military service. (The beginning of my full-time teaching coincided with the "Tonkin Bay" incident and soon afterwards the heating up of the evil Vietnam war: had I not had the deferment I might either have avoided the war by fleeing to Canada or served in the army with considerable threat to my life or psychic equanimity.) My first full-time job was in Cleveland (Western Reserve University), where I taught as assistant professor from 1964 to 1967 and designed my own range of courses that covered the span of medieval history. Then, after a year's leave in Germany, I arrived to teach at Northwestern University in Evanston Illinois (right near Chicago), where I remained until my retirement in 2008 and still hold an office. Actually to say "remained" is not strictly true because I was again extremely fortunate (those planets) in having a large number of research years: between 1967 and 2008 I had a total of eight research years, in good part owing to Northwestern's generosity, and lived variously in Munich, Berlin, Aix-en-Provence, Rome, Princeton, and Washington D.C.

It would have been embarrassing if all that research time had not resulted in productivity. I am the author of three monographs, a short text on the fourteenth century, an extended history of Western Civilization for college students (as co-author covering the period from Adam to Adam Smith), and numerous articles, introductions, and book reviews -- rather too many to count. These publications run the gamut from editions (with critical introductions) of newly-discovered texts, to papers on a wide-range of topics including not only eschatological prophecy and heresy, but biblical exegesis, mystical thought, aspects of the history of the Dominican and Franciscan orders, and even Dante and Petrarch. Moreover, an entirely different aspect of my research has been pursuing the life and thought of the great German-American medievalist, Ernst Kantorowicz. Currently (among other things) I am working on an edition of selected correspondence of Ernst Kantorowicz in his American period, evaluating two eschatological treatises written in fourteenth-century Catalonia, and re-examining the thought of a man tried for heresy together with Marguerite Porete (and in that way re-connecting with Herbert Grundmann).

So it has been a long and I trust fruitful scholarly life. I should not neglect to say that I have profited greatly from being able to collaborate in various ways with an outstanding group of international scholars who work in related fields. Nor should I by any means neglect to mention the numerous tremendously gifted graduate students I have supervised over the years at Northwestern. Some twelve of these produced superlative dissertations which in most cases were subsequently published as well-received books. (I like to think of them as "grand-books" in both sense of the term.) Teaching graduate students has always been an inspiration for me and an enrichment of my own work. In my research and writing I have resisted fads and aimed to produce work that would be as lasting as possible. Thus I am gratified that my three monographs are still in print and that the earliest (1972) is still usually termed the standard work on the subject; some of my articles from decades back are also still widely cited in the relevant current literature. There remains much that I want to do, and I look forward to doing some of it with stimulation coming from my new association with the research consortium "Fate, Freedom, and Prognostication" at the University of Erlangen.

Robert E. Lerner


Select bibliography of books and papers related to the research consortium

Probably the most efficient summary I have written is:

"Millennialism," The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism, vol. 2, ed. B. McGinn (New York, 1998), 326-60.



The Powers of Prophecy: The Cedar of Lebanon Vision from the Mongol Onslaught to the Dawn of the Enlightenment (University of California Press, l983; reprint: Cornell University Press, 2009)

Weissagungen über die Päpste, with Robert Moynihan (Stuttgart, 1985)

Johannes de Rupescissa, Liber secretorum eventuum: Edition critique, traduction et introduction historique, with C. Morerod-Fattebert (Fribourg, 1994)

Propaganda Miniata: Le origini delle profezie papali 'Ascende Calve', with Orit Schwartz (Milan, 1994)

Refrigerio dei santi (Rome, 1995) (Collected articles on prophecy and eschatology in Italian translation.)

The Feast of Saint Abraham: The Joachite Millennium and the Jews (University of Pennsylvania Press: 2001) (Italian translation: La festa di sant'Abramo [Rome, 2002]; Catalan translation of chapter seven in Llengua & Literatura, 17 [2006], 7-28)

Scrutare il futuro: L'eredità di Gioacchino da Fiore alla fine del Medioevo (Rome, 2008) (Collected articles on millennial eschatology in Italian translation.)


"Medieval Prophecy and Religious Dissent," Past & Present, 72 (August, l976), 3‑24.

"Refreshment of the Saints: The Time After Antichrist as a Station for Earthly Progress in Medieval Thought," Traditio, 32 (1976), 97‑144.

"An 'Angel of Philadelphia' in the Reign of Philip the Fair: The Case of Guiard of Cressonessart" in Order and Innovation in the Middle Ages (Princeton, 1976), 343‑364, 529‑540.

"The Black Death and Western European Eschatological Mentalities," American Historical Review, 86 (1981), 533‑52; the same with considerable revisions in: The Black Death: The Impact of the Fourteenth-Century Plague, ed. D. Williman (Binghamton, 1982), 77-105.

"Joachim of Fiore's Breakthrough to Chiliasm," Cristianesimo nella storia, 6 (1985), 489‑512.

"Antichrists and Antichrist in Joachim of Fiore," Speculum, 60 (1985), 553‑70.

"On the Origins of the Earliest Latin Pope Prophecies," Fälschungen im Mittelalter (Hannover, 1988), V, 611-35.

"Frederick II, Alive, Aloft, and Allayed in Franciscan-Joachite Eschatology," The Use and Abuse of Eschatology in the Middle Ages, ed. W. Verbeke (Louvain, 1988), 359-84.

"The Pope and the Doctor," The Yale Review, 78 (1988-89), 62-79.

"On the Origins and the Import of the Columbinus Prophecy," with E.A.R. Brown, Traditio, 45 (1989/90), 219-56.

"Millénarisme littérale et vocation des Juifs chez Jean de Roquetaillade," Mélanges de l'Ecole francaise de Rome: Moyen Age, 102 (1990), 311-15.

"The Prophetic Manuscripts of the 'Renaissance Magus' Pierleone of Spoleto," Il profetismo gioachimita tra Quattrocento e Cinquecento, ed. G. L. Potestà (Genoa, 1991), 97-116.

"Ecstatic Dissent," Speculum, 67 (1992), 33-57.

"The Medieval Return to the Thousand-Year Sabbath," The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, ed. R. Emmerson and B. McGinn (Ithaca, 1992), 51-71.

"Recent Work on the Origins of the 'Genus nequam' Prophecies," Florensia, 7 (1993), 141-57.

"Writing and Resistance Among Beguins of Languedoc and Catalonia," Heresy and Literacy, 1000-1530, ed. P. Biller and Anne Hudson (Cambridge, 1994), 186-204.

"Himmelsvision oder Sinnendelirium? Franziskaner und Professoren als Traumdeuter im Paris des 13. Jahrhunderts," Historische Zeitschrift, 259 (1994), 337-67.

"Illuminated Propaganda: The Origins of the 'Ascende calve' Pope Prophecies," with O. Schwartz, Journal of Medieval History, 20 (1994), 157-91.

"'Popular Justice': Rupescissa in Hussite Bohemia,"

Eschatologie und Hussitismus (Prague, 1996), 39-52.

"Peter Olivi on the Conversion of the Jews," Pierre de Jean Olivi, ed. A. Boureau and S. Piron (Paris, 1999), 207-16.

"Medieval Prophecy and Politics," Annali dell'Istituto storico italo-germanico in Trento, 25 (1999), 417-32.

"Joachim and the Scholastics," Gioacchino da Fiore tra Bernardo di Clairvaux e Innocenzo III, ed. R. Rusconi (Rome, 2001), 251-64.

"Gentile of Foligno Interprets the Prophecy 'Woe to the World'", with M. Kaup, Traditio, 56 (2001), 149-211.

"Medieval Millenarianism and Violence," Pace e guerra nel basso medioevo: Atti del XL Convegno storico internazionale, Todi, 12-14 ottobre 2003 (Spoleto, 2004), 37-52.

"The Jerusalem Rumors: The Earliest Stage of the ‘Master of Rhodes' Letter on the Birth of Antichrist," with J. Roussanov, Rivista di storia del cristianesimo­, 2 (2005), 157-72.

"The Jerusalem Rumors: An Addendum," Rivista di storia del cristianesimo­, 3 (2006), 541-43.

"The Vision of ‘John, Hermit of the Asturias': Lucas of Tuy, Apostolic Religion and Eschatological Expectation," with C. Morerod, Traditio, 61 (2006), 195-225.

"Reception of Prophecy in Bologna: The Visio fratris Johannis in a Hearing of 1299," Rivista di storia della Chiesa in Italia, 61 (2007), 67-74.

"John the Astonishing," Oliviana (on-line journal), placed on line 31 March 2009/ URL:

"Selective Bibliography of Studies and Editions of High and Late Medieval Latin Eschatological Prophecies, Excluding Works by Joachim of Fiore: 1990-2008," with Katelyn Mesler, Oliviana (on-line journal), placed on line 31 March 2009/ URL:

"Prophetic Utopias: Olivi, Rupescissa and Eiximenis," Utopies i alternatives de vida a l'edat mitjana, ed. Flocel Sabaté (Lleida, 2009), 69-81.

(December, 2009)


Research Related to Consortium

My research related to the consortium "Fate, Freedom, and Prognostication" at the University of Erlangen has two different aspects. The first concerns prophecy of a variety not usually considered under the rubric of "prognostication." Whereas prognostication (as I understand it) means the interpretation of signs or symbols to foretell the fate of individuals or groups, the prophecy that I am studying intends to foretell universal events either by the interpretation of Scripture or divine inspiration. This variety of prophecy played a dominant role in the culture of Western Europe between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, the chronological period on which I concentrate. I think of it as "eschatological prophecy" because it is closely tied to attempts to foresee events that will transpire before the end of the world.

A large number of sources (mostly written in Latin) exist to support the work that I undertake: short anonymous prophecies, treatises, biblical exegesis. Because scholarship has first seriously engaged itself with this field in roughly the last half-century, some of these sources have been edited and published only recently, while a good number remain unpublished. Consequently some of my own work has been editorial: publishing editions of hitherto unknown or neglected texts with extended commentary. But most of my research in the area of eschatological prophecy pursues specific themes: under what circumstances did such prophecy flourish? to what extent did such prophecy influence decision making? to what extent was such prophecy associated with violence? Above all I am interested in the degree to which one strain of eschatological prophecy can be seen as a direct forerunner of the Western European idea of progress.

The strain to which I refer is the body of thought associated with the writing of Joachim of Fiore (c.1135-1202). Joachim was the first thinker in the West (and, so far as I know, in the world) who posited a theory of steady progress for humanity from past to present to future. Relying on the Bible as his source of authority, he was confident that events in the Old Testament foreshadowed events not only in the New Testament but in the history of the Christian Church extending into the future. This predictive methodology gave him assurance that the reign of Antichrist would be imminent but that it would be followed by a wondrous earthly sabbath before the end of time. This sabbath was to be the age of the Holy Spirit, as opposed to the earlier ages of the Father and the Son (roughly speaking Old and New Testaments). The sabbath would see the conversion of the entire world to the "true faith," a consequent reign of peace, and a spread of "spiritual intelligence" as if an earthly gateway to paradise. Formulated in terms of three successive "statuses" (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), the first status was winter, the second spring, and the third high summer; the first status was starlight, the second dawn, the third full light of day; the first status was water, the second wine, the third oil.

Although I have written some papers on Joachim and am a member of an editorial commission overseeing critical editions of his opera omnia (several of his most important works had not been published since the early sixteenth century and some others never at all), my current research concentrates primarily on Joachim's intellectual heirs. If one seeks the development of an idea of progress leading to that of the Enlightenment, it was Joachim who made the great breakthrough, but his version of the idea was limited in three respects: his final age was to be of very short duration; his ideal society was monastic-ascetic; and he foresaw the final time as brought in miraculously by divine will rather than by human effort. Some of his most original followers, however, began to alter these specifications. The one who concerns me most is John of Rupescissa (c.1310-c.1356). I flatter myself in thinking that I have been largely responsible for a "Rupescissa renaissance." Before my first publications on him in the 1970s, the only substantial work of his available in print was one published in 1690; now almost all his works have either been published or about to be published. And this is by no means merely an editorial accomplishment. For example, Rupescissa broke dramatically with Joachim on the issue of the length of the sabbath: for him it would last exactly one thousand years. Moreover, Rupescissa was more willing than Joachim to foresee specific utopian developments transpiring during the sabbath. I develop this observation in one of my most recent papers: "Prophetic Utopias: Olivi, Rupescissa, and Eiximenis."

So much, briefly, for my main line of research. But as I stated in my first sentence, my consortium-related research has two different aspects. Indeed the second concerns "prognostication" more properly so-called. I have long harbored the idea of writing a book about new intellectual currents at the University of Paris in the thirteenth century as related to the thought of Joachim of Fiore and Aristotle. In the latter case I refer to revival, but nevertheless controversial and probing revival. Most modern discussions of Aristotelianism at the University of Paris in the thirteenth century concern debates about the eternity of the world and the immortality of the soul, but there were numerous other issues, not the least of which was whether, or to what degree, dreams could be understood to be prophetic. The basis for this was the fact that Aristotle wrote a short trilogy "On Sleeping and Waking," of which the third book was "On Divination in Dreams." Although the entire trilogy became required reading for undergraduates at the University beginning around the middle of the century, the third book was particularly controversial because it implicitly contradicted Scriptural accounts of divination through dreams. Accordingly a committed Parisian Aristotelian wrote a treatise substantially in its defense whereas the Bishop of Paris placed the thesis that "ecstasies and visions do not occur except through natural causes" on his error list of 1277. I have treated this subject in a lecture I gave for the Historisches Kolleg in Munich – "Himmelsvisionen oder Sinnendelirium? Franziskaner und Professoren als Traumdeuter im Paris des 13. Jahrhunderts" – and continue to pursue it.