Apocalypse then?

In my continuing quest to get some kind of hold on the late tenth and early eleventh centuries (see previous two posts) I have now dived briefly into the murky waters of study of eleventh century apocalyptic thought and am somewhat wishing I hadn’t. The temptation just to decide that the whole field is meaningless or insignificant is substantial.

It didn’t help that I started off with Richard Landes on the historiography of the Year 1000 (http://www.bu.edu/mille/scholarship/1000/AHR9.html), who is both excessively polemical and on some basic points plain wrong (for example, he chides Barbara Rosenwein for not discussing millennial thought in her studies of Cluny, claiming that this is an important factor in why aristocrats donated so much land to it in the 980s to 1030s, ignoring the fact that Rosenwein’s figures show transactions in decline after 993). However, when I then looked briefly at some of the essays in Michael Frassato’s The Year 1000: Religious and Social Responses to the Turning of the First Millennium (Palgrave, 2002), the same basic problems seemed to be evident.

What the believers in the ‘weak terrors’ thesis (that apocalyptic thought was significant for the years around 1000-1033) have been able to show is that there is more evidence for such thought in the period than most twentieth century historians have believed. Their problem is that there still isn’t much evidence. I think it’s significant that there are two papers each in Frassetto’s collection on Archbishop Wulfstan and Ademar of Chabannes; there aren’t many other authors with that kind of sustained interest in the millennium.

Landes accounts for the lack of evidence as a conspiracy theory – the ‘church’ doesn’t like such things discussed and also people want to conceal the fact that they expected the end of the world and it didn’t happen. His view of the church as able successfully to hush up a matter might just apply to a disciplined modern Catholic church. For the pre-Gregorian reform church, it’s ridiculous. Because St Augustine said one shouldn’t discuss the date of the millennium, that does not make it an official Catholic doctrine, let alone one everyone adhered to. Also, one of the safer generalisations about clerical and monastic historians is that they’re never knowingly understated. If there was widespread millennial concern, it would have been discussed in overwrought tones by far more monastic sources. Landes also want to claim that a lot of clerics secretly shared these millennial hopes. Again, in an atmosphere when denouncing your clerical/monastic enemies was commonplace, why do rivals not point out such hypothetical erring believers? And even if you can’t trust accounts written after 1000 or 1033, what about all the charters? There are some with what you might interpret as millennial formulae, but not (as far as I can gather) many, and there are an awful lot of 10th century charters.

More generally, a lot of the discussions seem to focus on date-based apocalypse and not on event-based apocalypse, whereas the evidence is rather the reverse. By date-based apocalypse I mean that people believe the end is nigh because it’s almost the year 1000/1033 etc. By event-based apocalypse, I mean that people believe the end is nigh because of famines/floods/Vikings etc. It’s completely unrealistic, as Richard Landes does, to discuss Wulstan’s apocalyptic thought without mentioning that it was in the midst of devastating Viking attacks. Similarly, when Rodulfus Glaber mentions apocalyptic beliefs and pilgrimages around 1033, it’s in the context of devastating famines in 1030-1033. Was it really the date 1033 that was the key to all this concern or the famines?

In particular, the general lack of apocalyptic sources from Germany (or indeed Italy) strongly argues against date-based apocalyptic thought on its own as being crucial. (So does the finding of more evidence of both earlier and later apocalyptic thought). What you can see is date-based apocalypse used as providing an explanation for catastrophe: the Viking attacks in the tenth century are given a new added millennial significance as against those in the ninth century.

But that leads on to the final problem for the ‘weak terrors’ historians: what practical difference does it all make? People may believe that the end of the world is nigh, but how does this affect the course of history? Trying to see how millennial thought made a difference is very tricky: for example, who did it matter to (apart from himself) that Ademar of Chabannes had millennial beliefs?

The most politically significant people who seem to have held millennial beliefs are Otto III and Wulfstan. But Otto III was (as Susan Reynolds memorably described him): ‘a young man with a lot of fancy ideas, but he didn’t last long’. And Wulfstan’s response to the belief that the Vikings were a sign of the end of times was a call on the Anglo-Saxons to repent – which is the same message that the Franks were given during the Viking attacks of the ninth century, when it was simply a matter of appeasing God’s wrath. In other words, he behaved in much the same way that he would have done in a situation without millennial expectation.

So those who want to argue that the millennium made a substantial difference, essentially have to both a) say there was widespread popular belief and then b) show how this actually affected events. When you look at the suggestions, they mainly start looking a little thin. Landes has six: the Peace of God, popular heresies, anti-Jewish violence, mass popular movements, political and religious reform and transformation of the conception of Christ

Starting with heresy: the chronological fit is only approximate. As Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy puts it : ‘Heresy…reappears in the West after a gap of a hundred years [after Carolingian events], creates alarm in the 1020s, fades, then disappears as mysteriously as it had come.’ The heresies of the 1020s might have apocalyptic roots (though what we can see of their doctrines don’t mention it), but they don’t have any lasting significance. It’s only in the twelfth century that you get sustained heretical traditions.

As Landes himself says, most of the anti-Jewish violence occurs after the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem by Caliph al-Hakim in 1009, which was blamed on the Jews in the West. This again looks very much like event-driven apocalypse.

In ‘mass popular movements’, Landes includes pilgrimages and also the proliferation of saints’ cults, liturgical drama and mass penitential pilgrimages. I would say it’s very hard to see how most of this fits specifically with millennial thought, rather than with a general religious revival; the same is true of ‘religious and political reform’. I’d accept there’s a new emphasis on the humanity of Christ from the late tenth century: it can already be seen in the Gero Cross in about 970 (http://www.westga.edu/~rtekippe/slides2201/gero.html) and Phyllis Jestice (in Frassetto’s book) shows it in hagiography. But there’s no obvious reason to connect it to millennial thought. If anything, I’d say that millennial thought would have the opposite effect, stressing the divinity and inhuman power of Christ at the Second Coming (as seen in the modern millennial Left Behind novels, slowly and painstakingly being dissected by Slacktivist).

Which leaves the Peace of God as the one main event that may have been substantially influenced by millennial thought. The problem with knowing about this is the nature of the sources. There is a clear disconnect between sources showing the results of the councils and those describing the atmosphere. The acta of the councils look fairly pragmatic and controlled; the hagiography that describes the settings often make them look far more popular and fervent. In particular, most of what we know from contemporaries about the early peace councils is from Ademar of Chabannes (Landes reckons he is the source of 80% of all the material on the Peace from the first hundred years). The more apocalyptic Ademar is shown to be, the more cautious we have to be about accepting his view of events as unbiased.

I’d put down substantial apocalyptic thought in the Peace of God movement as possible but unproved, though I’d be prepared to be convinced about it. As a wide-ranging explanation for historical change, therefore, apocalyptic thought fails pretty spectacularly. It might get a passing mention in my teaching, but I can’t at the moment see that it is worth any deeper scrutiny. (If anyone knows more convincing articles on tenth/eleventh century millenarianism, please let me know).


7 thoughts on “Apocalypse then?

  1. I don’t know but what you may already have found this, being as keen with Google as I am and so on, but Landes had a debate with Robert Moore in Journal of Religious History in 2000, of which his half is up on his favourite website. Full references:

    Robert I. Moore, “The Birth of Popular Heresy: A Millennial Phenomenon?” in Journal of Religious History Vol. 24 (Oxford: Blackwells 2000), pp. 8-25


    Richard E. Landes, “The Birth of Heresy: A Millennial Phenomenon”, ibid., pp. 26-43

    For what it may be worth…


  2. I second Jonathan’s references to the Landes/ Moore articles. Also, although I’m generally sympathetic to the Peters’ conception of the “weak thesis” on apocalypticism, I think you’re generally right with your criticisms. I would, however, suggest that it’s not only chronological or event-based apocalypticism at work but a combination of both. To take your Glaber example, it mattered that the famines occurred around 1033. Remove 1 of those 2 things and then it’s not such a big deal.

    I deal with some of these things in my dissertation and coming book. I love talking about them too…


  3. The big problem I have with date-based apocalypse is: what do you do if you’re a peasant and find out that it’s 992 AD, because (according to Landes) some priest has been ‘leaking’ the information? I would say there’s not a lot you can do. Yes, you would probably be more alert to other signs of impending apocalypse, but you can’t easily keep track of what the date is relying solely on memory, and I also think you’d be unlikely to abandon your land, spend all your money in riotous living etc, at that point. In other words, I think it’s only very imminent doom that focuses the mind (similarly there’s a big difference if you’re told you’ve got a year to live rather than 10 years). Otherwise, well even if you’re living in the end times, you still have to collect in this year’s harvest. (It’d be interesting to look at the first-century church and see if you can get any feel for changing proportions of those acting on the belief of an imminent end time and those not).

    I also think that you can get quite strong apocalyptic thought about an event even if it doesn’t fit the right date. The obvious example of this is the World Trade Centre attacks. 11th September 2001, doesn’t, as far as I know fit any obvious numerical date, but it’s been incorporated as a sign of impending apocalypse in a number of religious schemes. Landes suggests the calendar got manipulated to show it wasn’t apocalypse time: I suspect it would be equally possible if there was a disaster to manipulate it to show that it was. After all, if modern end-timers can believe the Bible talks about Russia, you can make texts ‘prove’ practically anything else.


    • After all, if modern end-timers can believe the Bible talks about Russia, you can make texts ‘prove’ practically anything else.

      If it’s not obvious to you that Gog and Magog refer to Leningrad and Moscow, then the forces of evil have clearly blinded your heart!



      • dr ngo – among the books I have inherited are one that tells me the likeliest candidate for Antichrist is Mussolini and another that reckons it’s most likely to be Anwar Sadat. I’m finding the theory of it being Tony Blair slightly more plausible at the moment.


  4. Leeds 2012 Report 4 and FinalThis last post on the International Medieval Congress of 2012 is a bit more ‘last post’ than usual, because it also involves saying goodbye to the place where all the previous instances of ‘Leeds’ had taken place, the Bodington&…


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