Beware of the northerners

Last month at the IHR Earlier Middle Ages seminar we briefly contemplated the end times, when James Palmer from St Andrews talked about “Apocalyptic Outsiders and their Uses in the Early Medieval West”. As James pointed out, there’s been a lot of recent study on medieval apocalyptic thought, which he divided into four main camps:

1) Maximalists such as Johannes Fried or Richard Landes, who have argued for the very great influence of apocalyptic thought.

2) Denialists, such as Dominic Barthelemy, who claim that there was very little of such thought, and that we have misinterpreted symbolic discussions. (Barthelemy is also sceptical about the “feudal mutation”, making me start to wonder if he thinks anything at all happened in the tenth and eleventh centuries).

3) Psychological apocalyptism, which James associated with Bernard McGinn, Paul Magdalino and Robert Markus: a view which focuses on the continuing tradition of the anxiety that the world might end at any time, rather than focusing on particular dates such as 800 or 1000 or 1033.

4) People who are largely denialists, but who have also done work on apocalyptic literature, such as Anke Holdenreid on the Sibylline prophecies, or Simon Maclean (who’s written on Adso of Montier-en-Der).

One of the most perceptive comments about these different strands I ever heard, incidentally, was the late Tim Reuter in 1999, saying that how commonplace you took apocalyptic thought to be looked very different if you were Jewish in the pre-Year 2000 USA (like Landes), than if you were an Englishman in late twentieth-century Britain (Reuter).

I suspect James himself would probably come under one of the two latter categories, though he stressed that his paper was coming at the question from a rather different angle, looking at one particular aspect of apocalyptic thought: how were external enemies (those outside the borders of Christianity) incorporated or not into apocalyptic thought? What was interesting was seeing how different the responses could be, especially when most authors were drawing on the same few verses of the Bible.

The key passages for those who did want to stress apocalyptic outsiders were Revelation 20: 7-8: “And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be loosed from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations which are at the four corners of the earth, that is Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle”, and Ezekiel 38-39 which talks about Gog as coming from the north.

How people interpreted these names varied greatly. Augustine, in City of God, for example, saw “Gog” (= Latin “tectum”) as meaning “roof” and “Magog” as “from the roof or uncovering” – implying that it means open hatred being revealed from its hiding. Jerome said that Gog and Magog were not the Scythians, and, in response to the sack of Rome in 410 AD, that the passages were not to be taken literally. On the other hand, Quodvultdeus a contemporary of theirs, driven out of North Africa by the Vandals, describes Gog and Magog as “Goths and Maurs, Getes and Massagetes”.

To be more accurate, this is how Quodvultdeus describes them in his Liber promissionum; as James pointed out, in his homilies, he focuses on heretics and pagans, not Gog and Magog, and encouraging these groups to conversion. Regarding barbarians as a sign of the end times was only one option. It was also possible, as Salvian of Marseilles and Gildas did, to regard barbarians as punishing Christians for their sins without demonizing them. Writers in a prophetic tradition could see such events as warnings: it was still possible to avoid the final disaster by reform. (In contrast, once the end times have started, that’s it – they just keep on coming).

It was even possible to interpret Gog and Magog positively, as Isidore of Seville does in his History of the Goths, Vandals and Suebi. In this, Isidore says that some people say the Goths originated from Magog. However, the meaning of that name is “tectum”, implying strength, and this was correct, because the Goths had exhausted the Roman empire in a way no other people had ever been able to do.

In the rest of the paper, James looked at other examples of how texts were worked and reworked for apocalyptic or non-apocalyptic ends. In the early seventh century, after the siege of Constantinople in 626, Fredegar claimed that the Emperor Heraclius had opened the Caspian Gates which Alexander had created to keep out armies from the north. At the end of the seventh century, Pseudo-Methodius in Syria produced a text in which the Arab conquest the region had suffered was a providential test, to be followed by an attack by northern nations when these gates were opened. These were appalling foes, cannibals and eaters of scorpions.

Yet an eighth century Latin text, Pseudo-Ephraem’s Scarpsum uses parts of Pseudo-Methodius, but has no mention of Alexander, the north or Arabs. Its main concern was instead to encourage penance. Some eighth-century Latin recensions of Pseudo-Methodius kept Gog and Magog, but Ambrose Autpertus, writing on Revelation 20:7, said that Gog and Magog couldn’t be historicised as the Getes and the Massagetes, because the text said that the gentes following Satan came from all four corners of the earth. Therefore Gog had to mean “tectum” etc, etc.

Finally, James moved onto the Vikings, who were relatively easy to borealize (in James’ terms of “associate with the North”). But again, the first reactions to them weren’t necessarily apocalyptic. Alcuin, for example, saw the attack on Lindisfarne in 793 as fulfilling a prophetic warning, and requiring repentance, but not necessarily as signifying the end times. Gradually, however, there was dehumanising and borealization of the Vikings, as the raids continued. Paschasius Radbertus, for example, saw the building of churches in Scandinavia as a sign that the end was near. Matthew 24:13, after all had called for the preaching of the gospels to all gentes, (not all homines), and this was now happening. Hincmar, however, was sceptical. Rimbert, James reckoned, switched between prophetic and apocalyptic modes, depending on whether he was trying to get support for his mission.

Meanwhile, there is little evidence for copies of Pseudo-Methodius in England before the twelfth century, and Gog and Magog didn’t play an important role in Anglo-Saxon thought, even among apocalyptic writers such as Wulfstan. It seemed to be necessary to have certain texts to hand for such demonisation of outsiders to happen.

What James’ talk showed very effectively, I thought, was a continued tension in the period 400-1000 between typological and historical interpretations of Gog and Magog. It also showed how careful we need to be in distinguishing apocalyptic from prophetic ideas. The apocalyptic message is essentially a passive one: these things are going to happen. The prophetic message, applied more and more to the idea of “the north”, is a call to action: reform and/or convert the heathen and all can still be well. The northerner is a providential instrument of God; he is not in himself a sign of necessary disaster.


4 thoughts on “Beware of the northerners

  1. If I recall correctly, from my upbringing in a fundamentalist American church more than half a century ago, Gog and Magog are in fact Leningrad and Moscow, suitably “North” – and barbaric – enough for anyone. I hope that answers your question. ;}


  2. This is going to save me blogging this paper if I ever get this far, Magistra, thankyou. I do think it’s worth mentioning the protracted debate in the questions on whether it was worse to have your babies eaten by alien Northern subhumans and then be killed or to have it happen and survive, which shouldn’t have been funny as I describe it there but was anyway. Not quite angels on the head of a pin, but close to it in abstraction, at least for us. Maybe it was just me that thought so…


  3. “One of the most perceptive comments about these different strands I ever heard, incidentally, was the late Tim Reuter in 1999, saying that how commonplace you took apocalyptic thought to be looked very different if you were Jewish in the pre-Year 2000 USA (like Landes), than if you were an Englishman in late twentieth-century Britain (Reuter).”

    what does that mean? (seriously, i have no idea.) and how does Johannes Fried fit into that remark?


    • I took Tim’s comment as making the point that when we have relatively little evidence about medieval people’s behaviour, we are inevitably thrown back on our own perceptions of what humans are ‘normally’ like. In other words, if you find evidence of *some* people being obsessed by end-times, you can either presume that you have uncovered the tip of an iceberg of a wide scale movement, or you can presume that they are untypical extremists, recorded in the sources mainly because of their novelty value. How you interpret this evidence depends on your pre-existing assumptions about what medieval people are like. I’d say that all historians of the period have such assumptions. I certainly do, and one of our duties as historians is to examine critically our presuppositions. How is the fact that I am a liberal feminist Protestant affecting how I read the sources? How is the fact that someone else comes from a different background affecting their views? It’s very hard to escape our own biases, but we need to be aware of their possible existence, at least.

      There is a far stronger tradition of millennial Christian thought in the US than in the UK, where religious indifference generally is far greater. I took Tim’s point to be that someone like you, based in the US, might legitimately see an obsession with end times/rapture as a common feature of Christianity throughout the ages (and not necessarily positive in its impact on Jewish minorities). In the UK (particularly back in the 1990s) it was a far more alien concept to grasp; I think a lot of British liberals were genuinely alarmed to realise that some prominent US politicians might not be worrying too much about the end of the world.

      Tim’s comparison was specifically between you and himself (and didn’t mention Fried); it’s obviously not the only reason why someone might be a maximalist, and I don’t know Fried’s work on apocalyptic though at all well. (It’s not a research interest of mine, and again I’d be quite prepared to admit that this is a matter of personal upbringing/temperament as much as about the scholarly importance of the question). The only work of Fried’s I know is on Carolingian political thought, where he was arguing that they were incapable of a sense of the public or the state; they could conceptualise a society only in terms of personal bonds. If you’re starting from a view of early medieval people as not intellectually capable of understanding certain concepts, I don’t think it’s entirely surprising if you also see them as ‘unlike us’ in other conceptual ways.


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