From Union Seminary Quarterly Review 49 (1996): 165-85.

On Owls, Roosters, and Apocalyptic Time: A Historical Method for Reading a Refractory Documentation

Richard Landes

Apocalyptic Time, Social Behavior, and Historical Transformations

Historians have generally had great difficulty absorbing the extensive literature on eschatology [the belief that the world will come to an abrupt, divinely ordained, End] and its various manifestations—visionary literature, apocalypticism, messianism, chiliasm, sects, antinomianism, etc. Although historians of these phenomena have identified a number of times and places where eschatological beliefs played a central role in a culture's imagination (e.g., first-century Palestine, fifth-century Mediterranean, thirteenth-century Europe, seventeenth-century England, eighteenth-century America, nineteenth-century China), it has been extremely difficult to move from such an observation to productive historical analysis. Rarely do such activities receive more than a passing mention in "mainstream" analyses, and even fuller discussions tend to "fence off" the phenomenon from the analysis of the truly consequential deeds of the age. Given that, in favorable circumstances, apocalyptic beliefs can launch mass movements capable of overthrowing (and forming) imperial dynasties and creating new religions, such an approach seems rather inadequate.

This essay proposes an exegetical approach which can help remedy the situation, bridging the gap between the encyclopedic and too-often self-contained study of eschatological phenomena and the larger, historical developments within a culture, by focusing on what we shall call "apocalyptic time." This can be quite functionally defined as that perception of time in which the End of the World (variously imagined) is so close that its anticipation changes the behavior of the believer. Such perceptions of time operate on several levels of cognition, of individual, group, and mass psychology, and have been closely studied by anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists for decades.1 The historian, however, has been largely removed from the subject because his documents almost always reflect the perspectives or the editorial blade of post-apocalyptic, normal time, with its retrospective knowledge that the end did not come. A purely document-based approach to apocalyptic phenomena, then, will find almost no direct evidence on the experience of apocalyptic time, only traces, like the residue of subatomic particles whose wake alone we can observe. We need a historiographical approach that can examine the role of apocalyptic time and the social phenomena it inspires—apocalyptic communities, movements, sects, and their post-apocalyptic generations—in the shaping of larger societies and civilizations.

(1) The various manifestations of apocalyptic time: Above all, historians need to become more familiar with the patterns of apocalyptic time as studied by sociologists and anthropologists working on current groups (i.e., ones whose expectations have not yet failed)— its impact on personality change, on group formation, on attitudes towards non-believers. This will help clarify, among other things, the enormous attraction of apocalyptic time, hence the power of apocalyptic rhetoric. In addition, by looking at the kinds of concerns and anxieties that believers look to resolve, we can establish correlations between the trajectories into apocalyptic time and behavior within it. Of particular interest for historians will be the dynamics of apocalyptic interaction with outsiders, i.e., those who are perceived through a dualistic grid as sons of darkness. From here one could establish a whole range of further correlations between group dynamics (visions of the future, type of leadership, forms of nomian and antinomian behavior), and the changes in relations between such groups and the outside world as their movement grows in intensity with the approach of the (perceived) End. It is equally important in studying this period of time to distinguish between apocalyptic communities (sectarian), movements (social and political), and moments (highly anomalous and brief periods when the perception of apocalyptic time dominates public discourse).

(2) Post-apocalyptic time and re-entry: For historical analysis, the key moment is the turning point at which normal time reasserts its dominance. This is a key moment for the historical record in two senses. First it is after this reentry that we first get most of our historical documents, in medias res. Second, it is at this point that the apocalyptic community makes its mark on the larger society, the point of mutation at which, in an act of great social creativity, it produces an association which can survive in normal time. It is at this stage that these groups become what we might call rational or functional (they always were, just not by our standards), that they mutate into more stable forms. Here a number of key correlations suggest themselves: the role of literacy, manual labor, and technology in crystallizing a (now economically productive) community that can survive in normal time; the retrospective effort to construct a non-apocalyptic ideology which both explains the dissonant past and, in many cases, relocates the apocalyptic moment in the future; the behavioral interaction with an outside world which, only recently, members had vividly imagined burning in a cosmic conflagration. The changing relationship between such mutational communities and the larger society can have far-reaching consequences.

(3) The dynamics of memory in cases of unintended consequences: As a result, all mutations are marked by a range of ad hoc concerns which stamp the movement with a particular character. Since successful mutations are (by definition) functional, there is a tendency both on the part of group members and outside observers to view the group's origins in functional terms. But this is to take the later stages of the movement as, for all analytic intents and purposes, the beginning. It produces the kinds of analyses that leave apocalyptic phenomena out of the grand narrative of history. By using contemporary studies from the social sciences to conjecture about the pre-history of the movements our documents inform us about, historians can hope to define those phenomena that have an apocalyptic origin, an apocalyptic genealogy which goes far to explain its dynamics and motivations.


The historical significance of such an approach is substantial: as suggested, it has the potential to shed light on everything from the dynamics of orthodoxy and dissent in the axial age, to the formation of the Christian church,2 to the "mutation of the year 1000" in northwestern Europe,3 to the formation of the American nation,4 to the relations between popular and elite culture. But there are different and equally important potential benefits to such an approach. First, it promises to generate important material on how social solutions to impossible situations are generated: it is a study in how radically incompatible worlds, when forced to share the same temporal space, come to accommodations. This takes on particular importance in our current situation where the global village of modernity has jostled together a host of such incompatible worlds in a mixture that is proving less congenial than was first imagined. The resurgence of religious fundamentalism, so utterly unanticipated by the sociology of the 1950s and 1960s, has turned the global village into a wide array of local battlegrounds.

Apocalyptic Time and Modernity: Reaction and Accommodation

Much has, in fact, been written about the phenomenon of fundamentalism; it is perhaps the single most important religious phenomenon of our age. And yet little of the research in this field has paid more than limited attention to the links between the two, to the impact of apocalyptic time on the tenor and development of fundamentalist attitudes.5 And yet the fundamentalist approach shares with apocalyptic fervor a common and paradoxical relationship to modernity: they characterize both poles of response. On the one hand, apocalyptic time offers an opportunity for communities of believers to protest the invasive effects of modernity in the most violent fashions.6 But once we turn from the lurid products of apocalyptic time to their more functional mutations, we find that many an apocalyptic movement has served to acculturate its members to the demands of modernity—prophets bring literacy (often dreaming the new alphabet), technology (viewing a particular tool or artifact of modern culture as part of the new earth in formation), and above all they provide an enormous elasticity to social bonding—both in breaking old and forming new bonds—thereby giving the apocalyptic community the tools with which to adjust to the radically different and constantly shifting conditions of modernity. The particular power of communications technology in the modern world can be traced back, at least in part, to the rapid adoption of such technology by apocalyptic groups: from the early Christian use of the codex, to the Protestant use of the printing press, to the contemporary use of the Internet by new religious movements.

This social creativity is perhaps the key element in the historical dynamics of apocalypticism: each social product it generates represents a kind of social experiment, and apocalyptic time is a laboratory of social mutations. In both short and long run, the process can have far-reaching consequences.7 Thus it seems like a particularly valuable exercise to explore how, and how often, successful cultural and social developments have had an apocalyptic genealogy. This is particularly true at the approach of the year 2000, which holds a fascination not only for Christians who hold their calendar sacred (ab incarnatione Domini), but also for purely secular users of the "common era." Thus many facets of global culture consider 2000—ironically or not—as a marker in time. Futurologists regularly use the date as their conceptual framework for discussion of future crises and future cultural mutations, and the most anti-apocalyptic, anti-chiliastic institution, the Catholic church, has been preparing a Jubilee year 2000 for ten years now, exhorting the faithful with unmistakably apocalyptic rhetoric.8

Apocalyptic Time and the Documentary Record: Owls and Roosters

Apocalyptic beliefs are the only religious beliefs that people in the past have held about which the historian can safely say: they are false. Indeed, by definition, they are almost always proven false in the lifetime of the believer. This curious point has great significance for the kind of record these beliefs leave behind in the documentation, hence in those sources by which a historian must reconstruct what happened in the past. Before analyzing these phenomena, let me introduce two animals in the eschatological breviary: the roosters and the owls.9 Roosters crow about the imminent dawn. Apocalyptic prophets, messianic pretenders, chronologists calculating an imminent doomsday—they all want to rouse the courtyard, stir the other animals into action, shatter the quiet complacency of a sleeping community. Owls are night-animals; they dislike both noise and light; they want to hush the roosters, insisting that it is still night, that the dawn is far away, that the roosters are not only incorrect, but dangerous—the foxes are still about and the master asleep. In some sense, the history of eschatology is the history of the conflict of these two birds; and the documentation naturally favors that one who has been and will be correct as long as history is written—the owls.

First, consider what one might call the apocalyptic curve: that is to say, some variation of a sine curve whereby one can trace the natural rhythm of an episode of apocalyptic time; this can be divided into three major stages. First, the period of apocalyptic ascent, in which apocalyptic beliefs are growing and spreading, a period in which communities and movements form and gather elan; second the period of growing dissonance, in which the momentum of the movement peaks without the anticipated payoff materializing, and believers are gradually led to doubt their expectations; and finally a period of return to normal time, in which the movement or community must either mutate to adjust to the failure of expectations, or will in some way disappear. Let us look at each stage in terms of the kinds of documents that it generates, and more specifically the relationship between the documents and the oral public discourse.

Stage one is a time when roosters dominate. Whatever combination of conditions—signs, wonders, catastrophes, growing evil—may make the time favorable to their rhetoric,10 they find a willing and responsive ear among the larger population and, in the words of Henri Desroches, they "take," the way a fire takes.11 Part of the (short-term) strength and (long-term) weakness of this stage is that as long as the signs and wonders of the day continue to mount, the roosters have the most compelling answers. In fact the enthusiastic response they get often becomes yet one more sign of the coming end. Thus, in this first stage, a variety of apocalyptic prophecies dominate public discourse. In the terms laid out so suggestively by James C. Scott, the millenarian is the most "full-throated of hidden transcripts" whereby those not in power express their resentment towards those in power.12 Under the cover of its success, then, a whole range of hidden transcripts, with all their subversive and even violent consequences, can become public in apocalyptic time.13 This is not to say that no voice is raised against apocalyptic discourse; on the contrary, the owls grow more and more agitated as time goes by, and their hooting becomes so shrill that it may even resemble crowing as they denounce the roosters and their followers as anything from unscrupulous seducers to evil incarnate.14 Stage one can last for only a limited time, itself a function of "the times," the dynamics of the movements that emerge, the serendipity of celestial and "natural" occurrences. Some apocalyptic social fires are contained; some burn themselves out; all must extinguish, disappearing, at least for a while, from the public domain.

During this stage of the process, we find both the formation of tight-knit communities drawn together in the expectation of the imminent end; in some cases these community fires can break out into mass movements (forest fires). Again, the dynamics depend largely on conditions; they are volatile, capable of fading quickly, but also of snowballing, of drawing in new adherents purely on the basis of their momentum. In these circumstances of mass enthusiasm, the voices of the owls are like straw in the wind, like German liberals at the time of the Nazi ascension to dictatorial power; their prudence appears as timidity, their warnings as envious petulance. Indeed, under the most extraordinary circumstances, the wave of signs and apocalyptic responses can so overwhelm a given culture that one gets a public apocalyptic moment, when even some of the owls find themselves drawn into the vortex of expectation. Such moments—like the imperial responses in fourth- and fifth-century Constantinople to the earthquakes15—can produce extraordinary acts of collective penitence and public confession, or humility and self-abasement even by the proudest and most powerful members of a society. Hidden transcripts find ready voice in such circumstances, subject to nothing other than public response; these are moments of intense public discourse, when masks are stripped away along with shoes and fine clothing. They are subversive and exciting in equal parts, moments of social bonding and reconfiguration.

Stage 2 marks the point at which the apocalyptic elan begins to loose its momentum, the moment when the gravitational pull of normal time begins to reassert itself. Here the signs fail to follow the one on the other; here the massing of believers has surpassed the capacity of the leadership to accommodate them; here the excitement and fever pitch towards which all apocalyptic moments must move, can no longer be sustained. Here God needs to step in and finish the job that his faithful have begun, and he never has, making the only dawn that of a growing realization that the prophecies and expectations have been wrong. It is difficult to analyze what goes on in this periods—how, and how rapidly, various groups first suspect, then consider, finally acknowledge this failure.16 Certainly the owls are first to defect (if they ever joined) and to raise their voices in condemnation. This is still a period of equilibrium, although the final results have inexorably favored the owls. The apocalyptic groups, depending on how they deal with this devastating setback, will begin to disintegrate here and, faced with extinction or mutation, must begin the process of readjusting to the return of normal time, by detaching themselves from the very apocalyptic beliefs that brought them together.

Stage 3 marks the period when the fever has broken and conditions return to normal; when it becomes obvious to the overwhelming majority that the end will not come now, that the fevered hopes were in vain. At this point, the roosters must retreat, and the owls once again dominate public discourse. Roosters, now discredited in the public eye, must (if their followings would survive) reshape their message to conform with the new but decisive social consensus that the End is not imminent. These are periods of radical reversal for such groups: they must develop a discourse that plays down precisely what the previous period had played up, that passes over in silence those very words which had, with all the force of a booster rocket, propelled the messiah and his following into orbit in the public sphere.

The Documentary Vestiges of Apocalyptic Time

The significance of this sine curve for our interpretations of past movements emerges when we consider the role that writing plays in the various levels of discourse. For the sake of clarity I will confine my discussion to the case of cultures of limited literacy (pre-Gutenberg), a situation that applies to the vast majority of cases in the past.

In the first stage, writing tends to be rare, and, when extant, highly ambiguous—the Apocalypses of the Second Temple period, for example, couch their prophecies in intentionally allusive, symbolic language. This is understandable: roosters tend not to write, although in rare cases (like Paul of Tarsus), they can write some. But because any text that becomes too explicitly apocalyptic is not likely to survive its inevitable disconfirmation, apocalyptic authors tend to hedge their prophecies, to pass specifics over in literary silence, leaving the details to face-to-face situations: "do you not remember that I told you these things," says Paul as he makes a maddeningly vague allusion to that "obstacle," to Antichrist, which, in a surely anachronistic reading, has shaped much of the political philosophy of the West from the fourth to the sixteenth century.17 This allusiveness alerts us to a final aspect of any surviving apocalyptic text: what is written is only a limited guide to what was said. Roosters, when seeking to mass the faithful in fervent community, engage in a kind of apocalyptic jazz, an improvisational discourse which consistently leads down a path of increasing excitement in which the increase becomes part of the elan.

The majority of documentation surviving the first period, however, opposes the roosters, warning, denouncing, bemoaning their mad excess. In 594, Bishop Gregory of Tours wrote of the spread of a millenarian movement following a "False Christ" from Bourges in 591.18 With thousands of followers and huge crowds going to meet him, he posed such a threat that the bishop of Clermont had him assassinated and his "Mary" seized and tortured into confession. To little avail: three years later, visionary women had proclaimed numerous such charismatic leaders as saints who "acquired great influence over the common people. I saw quite a few of them myself. I did my best to argue with them and to make them give up their inane pretensions." Given Gregory's tendency to boast about his victories in debates, and the notorious resistance of apocalyptic believers to the arguments of owls, we can safely bet that Gregory had no success. To the contrary, Gregory himself, now a very old man, seems drawn into the apocalyptic vortex. He introduces this tale with an apocalyptic invocation—"these were the beginnings of our sorrows. . ." and cites a locus classicus of apocalyptic thought, the little Apocalypse (Matt 24:7; Mark 13:22). Here we have a trained owl,19 becoming a rooster malgré lui, calling his enemies minions of Antichrist.

The second stage remains the greatest mystery: given the rapidity with which changes occur, and the level of unconscious and preconscious activity at which much of it occurs, very little reaches writing here. These are days and weeks of tremendous pressure, uncertainty, shifting perceptions; even the most literate rarely write during these times. It is difficult even to know whether any given document survives from so volatile and confused a period. Those one can assign with certainty to this transitional period (e.g., a letter from Münster written in later 1034), must number only a handful.

The literary activity from the third period dominates our documentation with an almost iron grip, and this for two reasons: almost all narratives of such moments are written down after they have reached a coherent pattern, after the "sense of an ending"—though obviously not the anticipated ending—has made it possible to tell a coherent tale.20 This invariably comes as a retrospective account in which the outcome has become clear: however our authors may view the future at this point—be they roosters or owls—they must review the past's view of the future. In these rewritings, from the pens of triumphant owls and chastened roosters alike, the most important single message of imminence becomes alternately the ridiculous or the denied. Our most eloquent sources, our storytellers, are, by nature, incapable of telling us directly about apocalyptic time: the roosters may tell us what it was like, but will try as best they can to avoid being tarred with the apocalyptic label; the owls may tell us that the roosters crowed, but only to ridicule and scorn.

If, perchance, owls themselves have fallen prey to apocalyptic fears and hopes, they will deny it completely: the very signs and wonders that had swept even them up in the social fevers must be reinterpreted. The series of prodigies which, in stage one, had read as a continuous revelation of the imminent End, becomes in stage three, the prediction of a past event—a civil war, the death of a king, a terrible plague. In stage one, these were among the most powerful apocalyptic signifiers; in stage three, in the hands of retrospective narrators, they become the signified, the ending whose sense has been revealed by the inexorable return of normal time. This kind of narrative I call capstone, in that it tries to place a cap on the tale, to exclude the apocalyptic element, to normalize the phenomenon.

It is the nature of a narrator to clean up the mess, to restrict the thread of the story from the blooming confusion of perceptions and deeds and responses that any event consists of into a coherent story line. Apocalyptic belief becomes one of the first victims of such a clean-up. Nor does the clean-up—itself at once instinctive and programmatic—stop at retrospective narratives. Societies of limited literacy are not only restricted in their range and number of authors, but also in archival sites; and archiving may be a more significant factor than composition in shaping our historical documentation. From a purely pragmatic view, space and parchment both being highly valuable, even the most anodine apocalyptic document is likely to yield to palimpsest. Apocalyptic documents are, by nature, ephemera; like the groups who produce them, the more explicit, the shorter-lived. Products of Stage 1 acquire, in Stage 3, a range of distinctly negative values: they may be ridiculous (when embraced by roosters who have been humiliated),21 embarrassing (when embraced by roosters who have found a place in the post-apocalyptic public discourse),22 dangerous (when embraced by roosters who have been executed, or have fled with their followers).23 In any case, before the documentary anarchy brought on by the diffusion of printing, we are likely to get little from their pens.

As Karl Morrison has remarked, trying to understand the writings of [twelfth century, Christian] apocalyptic writers is like coming to a ball game after the clean-up crews have already set to work.24 That is unfortunately our condition as historians of apocalyptic time and chroniclers of its deeds. If we do not compensate for the kind of capstone narratives we get, if we do not look at the possibility that an apocalyptic narrative lies sealed within, we end up losing our only chance to reconstruct the game that left this mess. Rather than becoming detectives, we join the clean-up crews.

Historians who take the latter path (what I call capstone his tori og raphy), conform, whether they realize it or not, to norms that, for theological reasons, Augustine of Hippo laid out in the early fifth century.25 Like Augustine, they take the surviving documentation as reasonably transparent on reality: if there are few apocalyptic texts, there were few beliefs; like him, they dismiss the roosters as insignificant, marginal, ignorandi; like him they relegate to the trash any evidence that roosters may have dominated public discourse. At the end of the Emperor's New Clothes, Hans Christian Anderson has the emperor walk with all the more feigned dignity until the end of the procession, his courtiers holding his invisible robes still higher with pomp. It may be understandable that, for reasons of public order, his courtiers need to insist that nothing untoward happened; and we historians may be condemned only to hearing their version. But it would be the worst journalism to base an account on a straight rendering of their narratives. In apocalyptic matters, a narrative cannot be taken at its word; we must look for the apocalyptic genealogy that lies behind the (often deliberately) vague or misleading text.

This does not, of course, mean that we have nothing to work with, or that we can make it up as we go. The clean-up job of the composers in stage 3 is always sloppy, and in societies in which some kind of apocalyptic hopes and fears are a fundamental element in the elite's ideology (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), the amount of material can be abundant. The New Testament itself is perhaps the most astounding collection of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic writings ever assembled; and societies that take this collection as canon are remarkably susceptible to apocalyptic moments and the trail of documents they leave. Here, for example, we find apocalyptic documents that are neither destroyed nor erased, but revised . . . changing or removing the name, the number, the date, giving the text a new life, resetting the apocalyptic clock to go off in the near to distant future. There is in fact a wealth of apocalyptic and anti-apocalyptic documents that is generated on every occasion that apocalyptic time invades public discourse. It is just for us to detect them, and give them their place in a narrative which restores Stage 1.

The Genealogical Approach and the "Terrors of the Year 1000"

Let me conclude with a specific illustration of what I mean by a genealogical approach to the documents. To capstone historians, the traces of apocalyptic behavior, narrowly defined to include only the most explicit texts, are so much meaningless flotsam and jetsam from a ship that time sank long ago. Thus they have argued (and continue to claim) that between the time that Augustine sank the ship of Christian millennialism in the fifth century and the time that Joachim of Fiore rebuilt it in the late twelfth century, belief in a millennial kingdom of heaven on earth found no significant exponent in Latin Christendom.26 They drive their ship of historical analysis through these waters with no fear of ignoring the occasional traces of apocalyptic and millennial beliefs that litter the waters. Thus, come to the year 1000, they insist that it was a year like any other, one with no scriptural basis for an eschatological meaning, the specific date of which most contemporaries seemed ignorant of, or indifferent to; one whose very few texts attesting to apocalyptic beliefs are either insignificant or the product of unstable and unreliable witnesses. Even if some traces of popular superstition can be found, little suggests that the leaders of Christian Europe gave such matters more than passing thought.27

The genealogical historian, however, one who wishes to find the traces of a once-powerful discourse and restore it to its place in the narrative, must examine this flotsam carefully, for it holds the clues to the earlier fight. Like some half-buried twisted mass of metal remaining from a spent booster-rocket, it can speak eloquently of a former time, when it was capable of launching some mighty movements and communities into the orbit of public discourse. In the case of the centuries between Augustine and Joachim, there is a wealth of evidence—both revised and anti-apocalyptic—that permits us to restore the voice of those roosters silenced so consistently by time's inexorable passage. And when we attend to these traces rather than sweep them up and toss them into the bin reserved for documents that do not pass the positivist's critical muster, we find out that apocalyptic and millennial beliefs played a key role in the history of the Latin West.

More specifically, it turns out that the Augustinian owls, whose retrospectively arranged documentary record so carefully reflects the theologically correct position delineated by the master, were also using, in debates with roosters, a rather unorthodox but popular argument—the sabbatical millennium.28 That is to say that owls, faced with apocalyptic moments, regularly invoked the necessity of waiting for the end of the current (sixth) millennium in order to witness the inauguration of the millennium of true peace. In Augustine's day that target date had been set, two comfortable centuries earlier, for the year AD 500. Augustine and Jerome, realizing with foreboding how dangerous such a chronology would be in the hands of roosters a century hence, succeeded in eliminating the older chronology from use and substituting one (proposed by Eusebius) that rejuvenated the world some 300 years later. Thus, in a pattern the above discussion can easily account for, the texts that survive the first Christian millennium (6000 AM I = AD 500) leave little trace of apocalyptic discourse.29 For the writers who found favor among later archivists (Cassiodorus, Gregory of Tours), it was the year 5700.

But this merely reset the clock, with a new target date of AD 801 for the year 6000 AM II. Chroniclers showed increasing levels of fascination with the approaching date in the 5800s (seventh century), counting the number of years remaining "until the completion of this millennium." By the end of the 5800s some of the more insistent owls, latter-day Augus tines and Jeromes, explicitly oppose the accepted chronology, increasingly favorable to the rooster, and they often, in the process, denounce the popular [crude] millenarianism that lies behind it. In the 5900s, once again, the voices of these owls come to dominate the written record, substituting Bede's AD for the now dangerous AM II, so that by the time the year 6000 rolls around, virtually all our written sources (and especially the most important and mainstream) do not make any allusion to the eschatological significance of the date. For them, and for those historians who accept their silence as indifference or ignorance, Charlemagne was crowned emperor on the first day of the year 801 AD, not in the year 6000.30

Did no one know? Did no one speak of these matters? Were there no apocalyptic (Charlemagne as "Last Emperor") or anti-apocalyptic (Charle magne as continuator of the "obstacle to Antichrist") elements in this imperial discourse? If we confidently affirm that no such questions were on the minds and in the mouths of the men who planned, attended, and heard about Charlemagne's coronation, then we relegate ourselves to interviewing the court historians and joining the clean-up crews the day after the procession. We also find ourselves forced to invent later geneses for the profound and enduring eschatological imagination that fixes on the figures of Charlemagne and his imperial descendants for centuries.

Of course, like Augustine and Jerome, Bede and his Carolingian disciples had again reset the clock, this time to the year 1000. Indeed 1000 was an eminently Augustinian date since, as Augustine had himself insisted in his effort to rid Christianity of millennialism, the millennium was not to come, but had already begun at the time of Jesus' first Parousia: if not the millennium of the Incarnation, then that of the Passion (1033). And if we take the approach of this date as a moment of both extravagant hope and fear (not just paralyzing fear as the "wet-blanket" school of historians would have it), then we find ourselves confronted with a society-wide period of intense apocalyptic expectations, of a vast double-headed apocalyptic sine curve which, peaking first in 1000, retargetted and peaked again, perhaps still more powerfully, in 1033. Looked at in this light, the documentation of these millennial generations (965–1035) is immensely rich in material for the genealogical historian.31

Where the millennial generation is concerned, at the very least, capstone historians have driven their ships of historical analysis through waters where those fragments of apocalyptic discourse were not so much flotsam and jetsam, but a vast iceberg, submerged not so much below the line of public discourse as below the line of written documentation. As with Charlemagne's coronation, there seems to be not only disjuncture, but even inversion between what was said and what was written. Did Otto III visit Charlemagne's tomb on Pentecost of 1000 because, he, not a descendant, wished to show his solidarity with the emperor of the year 6000, or because he happened to have had a vision telling him where to find Charlemagne and he followed it? The historian who sails through this period ignoring the apocalyptic flotsam has, without knowing it, already sunk on the edges of an iceberg he has not seen. No wonder that one historian, looking at the extraordinary changes that these same historians have attributed to this turn of the millennium—some even speak of a "mutation of the year 1000"—was struck by what he called the explanatory aporia of the historiography.32 These changes are, I think, incomprehensible without attention to the role of this highly volatile, highly powerful apocalyptic discourse which, with unusual vigor, dominated these generations' public life.

With the approach to apocalyptic time suggested above, I think we can begin to unlock the key to this millennial generation. We can find repeated descriptions of moments when roosters dominated and owls cowed, when whole towns and regions joined in mass assemblies of collective penitence, when people driven to the depths of fear (at the imminence of the Coming Judge), were moved to mighty feats of public confession and mutual forgiveness, to joyful celebrations of God's peace on earth. It is not, I think, a coincidence that in the decade preceding each millennial date there was, in France, an ecclesiastically sponsored mass movement known as the Pax Dei.33 Nor need we stop at the evidence for Stage 1. The documentation for the period follows the apocalyptic pattern: most of it comes from Stage 3, and deserves a careful rereading in this light. But, most exceptionally (a reflection of the exceptional nature of the times) we have a number of historians who, writing in the 1020s, offer us a particularly rich range of texts reflecting all three stages.

Indeed, the greatest of the historians, Rodulfus Glaber, whose autograph text survives in several layers, may even provide examples of writings from all three stages.34 He is, characteristically, derided as an unreliable gossip by capstone historians (perhaps a monk deserves criticism for being a gyrovague, but a chronicler of times?).35 He concludes his account of the prodigious events of 1033, in which, according to him, huge popular assemblies gathered to declare and to swear the Peace of God, believing that they had made a covenant with God, with a description of a massive pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Let us take this account as a good example of the difference between the standard capstone exegesis and the genealogical approach I am suggesting here. Glaber wrote the following passage around 1040:

When a number of people consulted some of the more anxious of the day, as to what so many folk, in numbers unheard-of in earlier ages, going to Jerusalem meant, some replied cautiously enough that it could portend nothing other than the advent of the accursed Antichrist who, according to divine testimony, is expected to appear at the end of the world. Then a way would be opened for all peoples to the east where he would appear, and all nations would hasten to meet him, thereby fulfilling that prophecy of the Lord, that even the elect will, if it is possible, fall into temptation. We will speak no further of this matter, but we do not deny that the pious labors of the faithful will be then rewarded and paid for by the Just Judge (4.6.21).

Capstone historians dismiss the apocalyptic material in this passage as minimal, in no way a disproof of their insistence that:

Note here the close reliance on the literal meaning of the text and the assumption that anything that is not explicitly apocalyptic contains no such meaning. Thus the only people who entertain such notions are these sollicitiores, and certainly not Glaber who disagrees with them. The evidence suggests, once again, that apocalyptic beliefs are so much free-floating jetsam with no connection to significant social or political activity.

Let me, instead, repeat Glaber's text with genealogical annotations. Since it is a product of Stage 3 (written almost a decade after the passage of 1033), the text has played down the apocalyptic element systematically. But Glaber, who has told us in almost explicit terms that with the passage of 1000, "there was no lack of perspicacious men to predict similar prodigies and wonders at the advent of the millennium of the Passion,"37 wants us to understand the apocalyptic meaning of the time despite the current consensus that it was a mistake. In order to read him as [I think] he meant [to be read], I restore his meaning by filling in the blanks in the narrative with my text in smaller type in brackets: my filler appears in normal type, and notions about the End that were current in his Christian culture and that Glaber assumed his readers would understand, in italics.


1. See the monumental bibliography presented by Ted Daniels, Millennialism: An International Bibliography (New York: Garland Press, 1992); the introduction to this work is one of the best brief treatments of the subject.

2. Despite the (to the historian) obvious origins of Christianity in apocalypticism, there is a vast debate within NT studies over this, with a vigorous case for an anti-apocalyptic Jesus being made by a number of scholars (e.g., Marcus Borg, "A Tempered Case for a Non-Eschatological Jesus," Society of Biblical Literature:Seminar Papers 25 [1986], 521-35; this position has gained a substantial following in NT studies). Partly as a result of this debate, partly for reasons that affect other fields as well, little serious work has been done on the role of apocalyptic in the subsequent centuries of Christian development in Late Antiquity. Thus, a brilliant survey of the first millennium of Christian history (Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity [Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996]) can essentially tell the story with no allusion to apocalyptic issues.

3. A similarly contentious debate of apocalyptic beliefs around the year 1000 has produced a generation of historians of France who discuss a fundamental mutation around the year 1000 without any reference to the possible role of apocalyptic expectation: see below, n. 32.

4. Ruth Bloch's work, Visionary Republic: Millennial Themes in American Thought, 1756-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), on the millenarian origins of the American Revolution is a fine example: well received by American historians, it has nonetheless found little place in their "grand narrative."

5. In the 800-page volume on Fundamentalisms Observed (1991), the index entries on apocalypticism, millennialism, eschatology and related topics are fairly limited, and the discussions to which they refer are of the encyclopedic variety referred to above. It is almost impossible to discuss the phenomenon of Fundamentalism without some reference to apocalyptic beliefs. Cf. Charles Strozier, Apocalypticism: on the Psychology of Fundamentalism in the United States (1994).

6. These protests are the most visible manifestations of apocalypticism, and from Norman Cohn's peasants in pursuit of the millennium, to the Cargo Cults and self-destructive revolts of the third world, they populate most of the literature.

7. In fact one might rephrase the dynamic laid out by Norman Cohn in The Pursuit of the Millennium (New York, 1961, 1970) thusly: apocalyptic movements are not only the reaction to modernizing economic and social conditions, in their mutational forms, they are further spurs to the modernizing process.

8. "All this is accomplished in the Holy Spirit, and belongs, by consequence, to the content of the future grand Jubilee. The Church cannot prepare herself for this Jubilee other than in the Holy Spirit. That which, in the 'fullness of times' [code for the approach of the End] has been accomplished by the Holy Spirit, and can only revive in the memory of the Church by that same spirit. It is by it that all this [the work of the Holy Spirit over time] can be rendered present in the new phase of the history of man on earth: the year 2000 since the birth of the Christ." (Papal encyclical of June, 1986, Dominum et vivificantem, 3.51). For a resolutely anti-millenarian church, that goes pretty far in the direction of an earthly redemption.

9. Inspiration for this pair comes from the passage in Sanhedrin 97a in which Rabbi Simlah contrasts roosters who eagerly anticipate the dawn with bats who flee at its approach. Since his opposition was inherently invidious (a contrast between himself as a rooster and his interpolator, a Min [probably a Christian] who was not smart enough to realize he should fear the dawn), and since I want to target not so much someone who fears the dawn as who fears a premature excitement about the dawn (which includes many rabbis and bishops) I prefer to speak of the owl, with the connotations of wisdom (prudence?) that it carries.

10. For an excellent discussion of the tropes that roosters use, see Stephen O'Leary, Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric.

11. Henri Desroches, Sociologie de l'espérance (Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1973), especially 18–39.

12. James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), passim, see especially pp. 5-6, 80, 198-99.

13. Scott emphasizes how dominant elites know well that hidden transcripts of resentment exist, and accept them partly from impotence to eliminate them (cf. the effort of totalitarian governments to root them out), partly from a sense that they permit subordinates to blow off steam. The advent of apocalyptic time becomes, then, a particularly dangerous time when the normal inhibitors to the expression of hidden transcripts "future retaliation" loose their weight.

14. See below, n. 18.

15. See Brian Croke, "Two Early Byzantine Earthquakes and the Liturgical Commemoration," Byzantion 51 (1981): 122f.

16. One imagines that an entire field of psychology, concerning the ways in which repressed awareness forces its way into consciousness, could be constructed from a study of this passage from apocalyptic to disappointed.

17. II Thess. 2; on the history of the identification (near unanimous among the patristic writers) as the Roman empire, see Paschoud, "La doctrine chrétienne et l'idéologie impériale romaine," in L'Apocalypse de Jean. Traditions exégétiques et iconographiques, IIIe–XIIIe siècles, ed. Y. Christe (Paris, 1979), pp. 31-73; and Daniel Verhelst, "La préhistoire des conceptions 'Adson concernant l'Antichrist," Recherches de théologie ancienne et médiévale 40 (1973), 52-103.

18. Gregory of Tours, Historiae 10.25; tr. L. Thorpe, History of the Franks, pp. 584-86.

19. See his opening invocation of chronology which, in his time, has over 200 more years before 6000, as a comfort to those who "despair at the coming End of the world" (see analysis in R. Landes, "Lest the Millennium be Fulfilled: Apocalyptic Expectations and the Pattern of Western Chronography, 100-800 CE," The Use and Abuse of Eschatology in the Middle Ages, ed. W. Verbeke, D. Verhelst, and A. Welkenhuysen (Leuven: Katholieke U., 1988), pp. 165-66, and below).

20. See Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966).

21. E.g., the "pseudo-prophetess Thiota" who gathered a large following of both commoners and clerics in Mainz by predicting the end of the world for the following year (Rudolf of Fulda, Annales fuldenses, ad an. 847, MGH SS 1.365; tr. Timothy Reuter, The Annals of Fulda [New York: Manchester University Press, 1992], pp.26-27).

22. Perhaps the most famous case is that of Sir Isaac Newton, whose extensive commentaries on the Book of Revelation historians of science have been loathe to acknowledge. See Frank E. Manuel, ed., The Religion of Isaac Newton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974).

23. The only surviving texts from the apocalyptic millenarian leader Fra Dolcino, tortured and executed in 1308, comes in a paraphrase from the inquisition: see Bernard Gui, Manuel de l'Inquisiteur ed. and tr. G. Mollat (Paris: Champion, 1927), vol. 2, pp.75-99.

24. Karl Morrison, "The Exercise of Thoughtful Minds: The Apocalypse in Some German Historical Writings," in Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, ed. R. K. Emmerson and B. McGinn (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992) pp. 352.

25. See Robert Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of Saint Augustine (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1970); and Paula Fredriksen, "Apocalypse and Redemption in Early Christianity: From John of Patmos to Augustine of Hippo," Vigiliae Christianae 45:2 (1991), 151-83.

26. The academic consensus dates back at least to the turn of this century: Gry, Léon, Le millénarisme dans ses origines et son développement (Paris, 1904); both the surveys (e.g., Michael St. Clair, Millenarian movements in historical context [New York: Garland Pub., 1992]), and the more specifically medieval works (The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, ed. R. Emmerson and B. McGinn [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992]) pass over this period with only a passing glance. See Robert Lerner, "The Medieval Return of the Thousand-Year Sabbath," in The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, pp. 51-52, especially n. 3.

27. For a bibliography on the subject, see the entry "Year 1000, Terrors of," in the Dictionary of the Middle Ages, ed. I. Strayer (New York: Scribner's Sons, 1989) vol. 12, p. 723.

28. On this issue and the following discussion, see R. Landes, "Lest," 137-211.

29. Cf. the twice repeated, if frustratingly laconic passage in the Chronicon campanensem ad an 493 and 496: "presumptuous ignoramuses" (493), and "other delirious people" (496) announced the coming of Antichrist (Consularia Italica, ed. Mommsen, MGH, Auctores Antiquissimi vol. 9, pp. 492–93); discussed in Landes, "Lest the Millennium," p. 162, n. 102.

30. See Landes, "Lest the Millennium," pp. 191–205.

31. See Johannes Fried, "Endzeiterwartung um die Jahrtausendwende," Deutsches Archiv für Erforschung des Mittelalters, 45:2 (1989), 385-473; Richard Landes, Relics, Apocalypse and the Deceits of History: Ademar of Chabannes, 989-1034 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), especially chaps. 14-15.

32. See Alain Guerreau, Le féodalisme: Un horizon théorique (Paris: Le Sycomore, 1980), pp. 29-40; the mutation de l'an mil has been the subject of a fairly extensive recent debate (Annales, 1992; Revue historique de droit français et étranger, 1994, 1995; Past and Present, 1994, 1996), without any discussion of an apocalyptic dimension to either the culture or its dynamics.

33. The Peace of God: Social Violence and Religious Response in France around the Year 1000, ed. Thomas Head and Richard Landes (Ithaca: Cornell U. Press, 1992).

34. Rodulfus Glaber Opera, ed. John France, Neithard Bulst, and Paul Reynolds (Oxford Medieval Texts; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989); on his text, see pp. lxxxii–lxvi.

35. See R. Landes, "Rodulfus Glaber and the Dawn of the New Millennium: Eschatology, Historiography, and the Year 1000," Revue Mabillon n.s. 7 [68] (1996) 1–21; on the criticisms leveled at him, see p.1 n. 3.

36. John France, Rudolfi Glabri opera omnia, p. lxiv.

37. In the introduction to Book IV, which is where he picks up his tale after the passage of 1033. See Landes, Relics, pp. 320-21.

38. France translates obviam illi cuncte nationes incunctanter sint processure, as "the nations will march against him without delay." This contradicts the context, rather it reads "march towards him," i.e., to join him.