Michael Stifel (or Steifel or Styfel) was a German mathematician, priest and monk. He was also a big fan of Martin Luther, publishing a poem called On the Christian, righteous doctrine of Doctor Martin Luther (not really in the same neighborhood as Keats or Shelley). But what he came to be most famous for was a verse of a different color.
The German saying “to talk a Stiefel” or “to calculate a Stiefel” meaning to say or calculate nonsense can be traced right back to Michael Stifel – all because of one particular calculation our mathematician/monk made back in 1532. A few years earlier, Stifel had become minister in quiet Lochau, where the tranquil life allowed him to dabble in mathematical studies. His particular interest was in one that he called “Wortrechnung” (word calculation), studying the statistical properties of letters and words in the bible.
As a result of these studies he published a book (publishing seems to be the downfall of many a good person), A Book of Arithmetic about the AntiChrist. A Revelation in the Revelation. Well, this had best seller written all over it. It had the sort of great hook a book needs to grab audiences – the rapidly approaching Judgment Day. To be specific – which Michael was – the world would end on October 19, 1533, at 8 a.m., German Standard Time.
One would think that a would-be Nostradamus – especially one with a statistical bent – would calculate the risk/reward of predicting the end of the world. If you’re wrong, there’s a pretty large helping of egg on your face, and if you’re right, there’s no one around to congratulate you. As you might guess, Stifel fell into the first category.
The townsfolk who, believing his prediction, did not plant crops or store foods and even burned their homes and possessions on the appointed day, were not amused. Stifel had to be taken into protective custody with the villagers chanting death threats outside his cell. He made no further predictions.
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
― T.S. Eliot