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 hadnt. The temptation just to decide that the whole field is meaningless or insignificant is substantial.
It didnt 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 Rosenweins figures show transactions in decline after 993). However, when I then looked briefly at some of the essays in Michael Frassatos 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 isnt much evidence. I think its significant that there are two papers each in Frassettos collection on Archbishop Wulfstan and Ademar of Chabannes; there arent 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 doesnt like such things discussed and also people want to conceal the fact that they expected the end of the world and it didnt 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, its ridiculous. Because St Augustine said one shouldnt 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 theyre 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 cant 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 its 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. Its completely unrealistic, as Richard Landes does, to discuss Wulstans 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, its 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 didnt last long. And Wulfstans 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 Gods 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 dont mention it), but they dont have any lasting significance. Its 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 its 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. Id accept theres 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 Frassettos book) shows it in hagiography. But theres no obvious reason to connect it to millennial thought. If anything, Id 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.
Id put down substantial apocalyptic thought in the Peace of God movement as possible but unproved, though Id 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 cant 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).