What’s Time to a Bat?

On the Meanings of Anno Domini 1000, Then and Now.

Richard Landes

Historians can be likened to bats in Plato's cave: we cannot see what happened or hear what people spoke in the past; we can only interpret the data that appears on the screens of our radar systems. We live in a world of shapes cast by those mysterious puppet makers who, standing behind us in time, fashion the texts that, passed in front of our philological light, throw flickering shadows on the walls of our historiography. And we give prizes to the best interpretations of those shadows.

Unlike Plato's nameless shadow makers, however, we know something about at least some of our puppet makers, our "sources" as we call them. Not uncommonly, we interpret their individual work as a function of who they were. We spend somewhat less time, however, thinking about what kinds of common traits our "composers of documents" might share, factors that should enter into our interpretive considerations whenever we approach our texts both individually and, even more so, when we assess a general documentation. Nor do we think overmuch about what the role posterity played in the preserving of our data, what did the "archivists" of succeeding generations discard, destroy, overlay with palimpsest. It is, for example, a truism that, in any period, those who can write have gone through a peculiar and particularly assiduous form of training, and that the act of writing is, more than many human deeds, including storytelling, a singularly voluntary, considered, and reflective enterprise. These concerns take on particular importance when we turn to a period of relatively small documentation from a small and relatively homogenous group of literate specialists, like the collection composed and preserved by the clerics of the fifth to the twelfth centuries in Europe.

Our sources rarely inform us about the kind of collective will that, over the course of so many centuries, governs the composition, preservation, and (editorial) copying of texts. Even in our own day — where literacy is force-fed even to the unwilling, where literary introspection regularly oversteps the bounds of seemliness, where most everything gets saved somewhere — we have only begun to think about why a medieval author choses to write… and perseveres, a detail anyone who has completed a PhD can appreciate. Most often, if people from a distant past tell their readers why they have written, they are probably throwing smoke in our face. In the period of concern to "medievalists", for example, our narrators of history, notoriously reticent in discussing personal matters, used a fairly limited set of topoi about why they decided to write their histories. None of these topoi begin to touch on the complex individual and social concerns that actually drove them to so difficult and politically charged a task.

We historians view the past through a medium which is, howevermuch chance might play a role in its preservation, a supremely voluntary record... metaphorically or concretely, a palimpsest written retrospectively over a rich and variegated experiential and oral canvas whose colors and sounds reach us only in the most tantalizing textual fragments. We know that a vast world of oral discourse surrounded our text, that multiple conversations about events contributed to its composition, and that the text subsequently influenced further conversations and events. We just can rarely be certain of even a tiny fragment of these connections. To switch metaphors, we deal with the tips of icebergs, sticking up out of a lived past into the only media we can consult — texts, paintings, material remains. What can we bats do in this cave? How do we handle our data, how do we "read" it with the inevitably limited tools at our disposal? How can we refine our radar apparatus to pick up material that may be valuable, but not especially apt to appear in the texts?

The answers to these questions are, of course, multiple. Here I would like to explore the topic before us — millennialism, apocalyptic millennialism to be precise — in this light because it provides one of the strongest set of common factors consciously and unconsciously shaping the writing of our sources. Let us begin with a couple of definitions.

Millennialism: One of the most popular answers to theodicy (question of God’s justice: why the good suffer and the evil flourish). Millennial beliefs hold that at some time in the future, the world will be transformed into one of justice, fellowship, peace, and abundance. It is a form of social mysticism. Religious forms tend towards messianism, secular, towards utopian experimentation. Within millennial beliefs there is a polarity between demotic variants — bottom up, egalitarian, anarchic, messianic age as the end of coercion — and hierarchical variants — top down, authoritarian, imperial, messiah as king. The most significant element of millennialism is its belief that theodicy is played out in this world, in history, in the "flesh." As such it anticipates the end of the current system of government and its replacement with a radically different one. It thus has an activist, even revolutionary component that invariably provokes hostility among those in power.

Apocalypticism: The belief that the advent of the millennial period is imminent, or close enough to change people’s behavior, to activate millennial hopes which normally lie dormant. Apocalyptic scenarios vary from cataclysmic — vast destruction ushers in the millennial era — to transformative — voluntarism and gradualism mark the millennial advent. Apocalyptic beliefs are, by their very nature, episodic and brief. They have all, to present, proven false; and we can safely assert that any group or individual "seized" by apocalyptic convictions in the past, has had to deal with immense disappointment.

Apocalyptic beliefs need not be millennial. If in the anticipated scenario the result is the end of the physical universe entirely, which theodicy worked out in heaven and hell), it is eschatological, not millennial. Similarly, millennial beliefs need not be apocalyptic; indeed most of the time, most millennialists expect the millennium to come later. Under these conditions millennialism remains dormant, only flaring up and becoming visible in the fierce flames of apocalyptic time. Of all the combinations, apocalyptic millennialism is the most dangerous, since believers not only believe fervently that the current power structure will be destroyed, but are willing to sacrifice their own lives and often the lives of others to help achieve this transformation.

There is a Doppler affect at work in apocalyptic phenomena: the intensity of the approach creates a crescendo, sometimes earsplitting. But once the moment of expectation passes, the sound of apocalyptic urgency drops steeply in volume. And if we were to incorporate our medieval historical documentation into this metaphor, we might say that the major narrative sources turned on their tape recorders after the dip. By then, it was all over but the memories.

Not exactly. Apocalyptic groups, especially of the millennial variety, have an unnerving ability to survive the failure of apocalyptic time. They go underground, reorient their discourse by dropping the apocalyptic rhetoric and reshaping the community of believers to survive -- even thrive -- in the post-apocalyptic period, in "normal time". As a result, they often become some of the most "advanced" communities within the society in which they appeared — creative in community formation, early adapters of new technology, high in literacy and the use of communications media. According to historians of religion, it is commonly understood that most New Religious Movements (NRMs) begin in the fierce fires of apocalyptic time, especially those that derive from the monotheistic matrix — Christianity and Islam, and their many sub-movements. One might sum this up in an axiom of millennial studies: Wrong does not mean inconsequential, to the contrary.

This complex of beliefs, apocalyptic and millennial, offers a particularly clear-cut illustration of how and why we historians should refine our radar. Of no other religious phenomenon can the historian confidently assert that, in the very terms of the proponents themselves, this belief has always been wrong -- and we can continue to do so as long as history is written. Which brings us to the central point. Where the apocalyptic episodes are concerned, the documentation is deeply skewed. Almost all the narrative depictions of millennial beliefs and movements — the explicit evidence that historians value so highly — are written after the apocalyptic wave has broken, after prophecy has failed. And even more significantly, all of the documentation is edited, saved, and archived by those who come even later.

As a result two factors conspire to assure that, as far as the written record is concerned, we have largely a record of anti-apocalyptic discourse. First, psychologically, everyone who might have been troubled by the apocalyptic prophecy wishes to forget it. The non-believers prefer not to remember their doubts, and the believers wish to purify their religious beliefs from mistakes (falsehoods). Such groups, especially the most successful ones, invariably do what the French so modestly call the "toilette" of their own discourse; and they are nowhere so successful as in their own writings. Expecting an apocalyptic community that has survived its disconfirmation to tell you in detail about how wrong their expectations, is a bit like expecting the emperor's courtiers to tell the tale of his naked procession. Thus retrospective narratives tend, almost by their very nature, bleach out the power of apocalyptic beliefs, the momentary but overwhelming influence of apocalyptic charismatics, and either present the culture heroes as non-apocalyptic (Charlemagne, Luther, Newton), or to present charismatic apocalyptic leaders as knaves, fools, and mad men and women.

Second, politically, any association with apocalyptic expectations and millennial beliefs can be something of a death warrant (the followers of, even the sympathizers with, Fra Dolcino). This not only means that surviving believers systematically eliminate and deny any association with millennialism when they deal with authorities (Peter after the crucifixion of Jesus), but it also means that the anti-apocalyptic writers speak of their opponents with intense hostility. Of all the case studies in "persecution and the art of writing," apocalyptic beliefs hold a special place. Even the most conservative Church fathers acknowledged that "Babylon" meant Rome in Revelation, but that the author spoke in code to avoid the hostility of the authorities.

Perhaps the best and most relevant case of the way in which, after the Doppler, the documentary record minimizes the role of apocalyptic and millennial beliefs, is Christianity, which purged it millennial elements as systematically as possible in the process of converting to Roman imperialism. Read Eusebius, Jerome, or Augustine to understand how violently hostile to these beliefs the Church Fathers became, how explicitly committed to denial about any place such expectations might have had in "legitimate" Christian history. Whether these theologians succeeded widely with their contemporaries is an issue yet to be seriously addressed (most historians assume they did). They have, however, had unquestionable success with two intellectual communities of great significance to us contemporary historians: a) the Christian theologians who came later and could, unlike the men of the time, look back and say "the anti-apocalyptic theologians were right;" and b) the historians like us whose documentation is dominated by the voice of these later theologians.

Thus, for example, later theologians copied the letter of an apocalyptic bishop into Augustine’s correspondence as a foil for his brilliant anti-apocalyptic response, and copies of the response then circulated widely. Modern historians, looking at the material assume that Augustine dominated thinking in his own day as much as he did subsequent church teaching, presenting this "normative" church doctrine as the overwhelming attitude of Christians in later centuries (i.e., the Middle Ages). They do so, I think, not only because of the dominant position such discourse holds in the documentation (we are, after all, trained to "correct" for the documentary skew), but also because they share the same psychological orientation towards apocalyptic expectations. For most of us — especially for academic historians — past beliefs in the end of the world are examples of human folly. Here we find all those silly people who didn’t plant crops, who sold their homes or used them for firewood and sat on hilltops waiting for the chariots to swing low, who walked to the sea, expecting it to split before them so that they might go to the promised land, who marched into a rain of bullets convinced that their magic potions would render them invulnerable.

As a result, we contemporary historians tend to confirm, rather than correct for, the documentary skew. I suspect this comes not only because we want to protect our own hard-won skepticism (we don’t believe in the imminent end!), but also because we want to spare our subjects the indignity of such ludicrous chimeras. Yes, perhaps a couple of monks and a scattering of crazy peasants might have entertained apocalyptic beliefs, but surely not the church, not the elite, not the king or emperor, not an entire region or a whole generation. Indeed, one of the self-appointed tasks of much medieval historiography in this century has been to argue, contra the Renaissance and Early Modernist prejudices, that our folk were hardy, sensible, rational, and quite capable of extraordinary accomplishments.

This intuitively obvious sentiment lies, I suspect, behind most of the historians who assume there can not have been widespread apocalyptic expectations at the advent of 1000 AD. And when examined closely — something people seem reluctant to do — the arguments against the apocalyptic year 1000 are a compendium of affirmations rather than corrections of the documentary skew.

  1. There was no significance to the year 1000, since the only meaning of millennium was a period of 1000 years to come, not since Christ. (based entirely on formal theological texts)
  2. People didn’t know or care about the date. Some very specialized computists knew, but most did not. (based only on diplomatic usage)
  3. The vast majority of texts show no sign of interest in the year 1000, and almost none of those that do note the "round number" show any apocalyptic or millennial concerns. (based on percentages)

The obvious conclusion here: The year 1000 was a year like any other. As Ferdinand Lot put it: "Few traces in the documents, few manifestations in reality."

I have written extensively on the evidence for apocalyptic and millennial expectations in what I call the "millennial generation" between the millennium of the Incarnation and the Passion (most recently in Speculum). What I would like to address here in closing is the question for which we have the least evidence, the question that illustrates the difficulty of honing our radar and interpreting what it picks up. How many people knew? Just some scattered clerical experts? Or most everyone, from the king and emperor right down to the illiterate peasants? Was the matter discussed only in erudite letters (which survive)? Or in courts, in taverns, in crowds in the streets and open fields where the faithful assembled in vast numbers to do penance and pray to God for mercy and grace. For those who would like to find a comfortable middle ground in which both the apocalyptic reading and the skeptical one exaggerate, I regret to say, that is the least tenable position. Apocalyptic predictions are the most rapidly spreading of all rumors, as a text speaking of signs and wonders in 1033 put it: "the rumor, which flies faster than any other evil, struck the ears of many." It’s like going into a classroom of kids and telling them the new Harry Potter will be out two weeks early. How long do you think it will take for the whole school to hear?

As I have already mentioned, most of my colleagues think that knowledge of the date was limited even within literate (i.e., clerical) circles. The peasants were not only illiterate, but they lived in "cyclical time," governed by the rhythm of the seasons. This may seem obvious to the uninformed, but where millennial phenomena are concerned, none of these assumptions seem probable. Peasants and other illiterate and disenfranchised populations (in western Europe in the year 1000, this means some 90-98% of the population), show unusual interest in apocalyptic prophecies. Whether we are dealing with the slave populations of the South, kept illiterate and ignorant of the apocalyptic traditions of Christianity, or the tribal populations of Asia, Africa, and the south Pacific, whose exposure to Christianity had been most limited, we know from modern studies, how widespread and popular such notions are in the least "sophisticated" circles of a culture. Indeed, as Stephen O’Leary has shown in his groundbreaking Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric, such audiences love dates, especially those set in the near future.

A moment’s reflection can explain why this should be the case. Doomsday, "the Day of Judgment" is not a moment of fear and trembling for them, it is the long-awaited day of release from the sorrows of this world, a day when not only do the poor inherit the earth (or heaven in non-millennial variants), but the rich and powerful get their just come-uppance. "...then will end the tyranny of kings and the injustice and rapine of reeves and their cunning and unjust judgments and wiles. Then shall those who rejoiced and were glad in this life groan and lament. Then shall their mead, wine and beer be turned into thirst for them." (Byrthferth, ca. 1011). Such subversive expectations were not kept from laymen, from commoners. On the contrary, they were part of the basic message of Christianity — with or without millennial details — from the earliest times. They are perhaps the single most important element of Martin of Braga’s De correctione rusticorum (mid 6th century). As far as I know, no historian has presented evidence for why the commoners would not be extremely interested in when the return of Christ and Doomsday would happen. This is not to say that all, or even most commoners wanted the End to come and jumped upon any indications — eclipse, earthquake, plague, wars, preachers — to launch headlong into an apocalyptic frenzy. All I need to argue is that significant numbers looked forward to it, and on occasion a whole region could "go apocalyptic", as did the city of Constantinople in 398, or Mainz in 847-48, or the region of Gaul in 591-594+. And the only way to contradict such a claim is to argue that it never happened, a position that even a cleaned-up documentation cannot sustain.

We do have modern historians who somehow believe their task is to "dedramatize," and therefore show a hard-nosed skepticism where apocalyptic behavior is concerned. Thus we find an astonishing freedom that some historians take with their sources, a license to minimize:

Such "readings" of the texts may appeal to historians — they seem to win a consensus of readers — but, I submit, they do violence to the texts. They are not so much an analysis, or a deconstruction, as the thick overlay of a patina of the familiar that reassures historians that they have nothing serious to rethink, a reductio ad banalem.

On the contrary. The sabbatical millennium, to take the key motor of apocalyptic expectations in 1000, only makes sense in the context of popular preaching. The anti-apocalyptic clerics had been using it for over 800 years to argue against popular charismatic apocalyptic preachers — false prophets and false Christs. The first man to introduce the chronological timetable, Hippolytus of Rome, was quite open about it: even bishops were preaching the imminent Parousia and leading their flocks to catastrophe (one didn’t plant, the other ended wandering in the desert looking for Jesus to come on the clouds). "But," he insisted, "since we must wait until the year 6000 before the End and we are only in 5700 Annus Mundi, we still have 300 years to wait."

It seemed like a good idea at the time. But at the approach of a targeted millennial date — 500 AD (6000 AM I), 801 AD (6000 AM II), 1000 and 1033 AD — these same conservative, document writing and preserving elites, were hoist by their own petard. Most modern historians, basing themselves on a superficial look at the documentation, assume that by 6000 = 500 AD, no one was concerned with this. But that impression is due to the fact that the chronographers who dominate our sources, were those who provided a distant millennial date. By the advent of 6000, they had already adopted a new chronology (from Eusebius-Jerome) which postponed the day of reckoning yet another 300 years (to 801 AD). Thus, as the second year 6000 approached, we hear Bede, in England, complaining about rustics who wanted to know how many years were left in the millennium. How did they hear of this idea which began in the Mediterranean and, according to most historians, was dead for over three centuries? They heard of it, because it was the standard form of eschatological preaching to the commoners in Latin Christendom — "Wait till the end of the millennium! Then your time will come."

The belief that the Apocalypse would happen at the end of the current millennium was thus an elite idea, introduced by anti-apocalyptic clerics to combat popular preachers. And the difference between 1000 AD and AP on the one hand, and 6000 AM I (500 CE) and 6000 AM II (801 CE), is that in the earlier cases, the clerical elite had managed to change their dating system. At the advent of 1000, try though some like Abbo did, the anti-apocalyptic chronographers could not change the date. Latin Christendom had to face the advent of a millennial date. Why on earth would those peasants and other commoners, so eager to hear of signs of the imminent End, find this advent of 1000 uninteresting? The burden of proof seems to lie with the skeptics here. If the peasants and other commoners of 1000 — not to mention the elites — were uninterested in the possible apocalyptic meanings of the signs and chronologies of their own day, they would be one of the most anomalous such cultures in the recorded history of the globe, certainly in Christian history.

Once you grant that the peasants had reason to want to know when the Apocalypse would come, it is not hard to argue that they could find out. First, let us note how widespread the knowledge among the elite. Every Easter Table in formerly Carolingian Europe and England was based on Bede’s, in which the opening column, the entry column, was Anno Domini. This means that one could not know the date of Easter if one didn’t know what the year was AD, indeed it means that a knowledge of AD was expected independently of the Tables (although they obviously helped people keep track). Any church of signficance then would have such Tables — we know from the thousands of worn fragments of Bede’s De temporum ratione, the work that contained these tables as well as a vast chronography of the world, how widespread and well-used it was. And if clerics knew the date, how much the more did monks, some of whom actually produced these texts. No one of any significance within the elite did not know, or could not know the date AD at the approach of 1000. The fact that most of them did not use these dates in their diplomatic formulae cannot be adduced as contrary evidence. That is to assume that silence means ignorance, an assumption which, if examined, has no basis in the evidence. When various southern institutions refused to recognize the new dynasty in France, they had no problem switching to AD, and they all used Bede. Similarly, the "few" texts that specifically mention 1000, so airily dismissed by historians bent of denying apocalyptic interest, may not stand out against the vast number of texts that don’t, but taken together constitute a unique collection of texts. No other date, not even the famed 1260, received as much explicit interest and comment from contemporaries.

So the elites knew. Could the peasants find out? Let us note how often elites and commoners interacted in this period. The roads and the are filled with gyrovagues, runaway monks, pilgrims, messengers, people who stay at inns and in people’s houses, telling tales for their supper. Signs and wonders provoke public debates coram populo, huge penitential gatherings in open fields, public preaching to large crowds. The peace assemblies gather monks and layfolk together for days and nights in succession — extensive time for unauthorized and unstructured interaction. And new forms of Christian religiosity brought clerics and layfolk high and low together in egalitarian, apostolic communities, textual communities that taught commoners to hold their own in debates with clerics. Under such circumstances, any illiterate commoner wanting to know what year it was would not have found it difficult. Once we loosen our unfounded grip on assumptions of indifference and ignorance, attributing widespread knowledge of 1000 to contemporaries becomes a fairly safe conjecture.

Did it have an effect? Again, hard to say. With the exception of Radulfus Glaber, virtually none of our sources — all clerical — seem to want to spell out the connections. But the texts give ample evidence of widespread and unusual popular religious activity: pilgrimages near and far (Santiago, Jerusalem), mass penitential processions, flourishing of relic cults, liturgical dramas, peace assemblies in an atmosphere of religious revival, apostolic, iconoclastic movements that so unnerve the clerical elites that they execute people as heretics for the first time in the Latin church. Are these manifestations of popular and elite religiosity apocalyptic? Millennial? Apocalyptic? Certainly many a clerical response to these alarming "manifestations of Antichrist" were. So why not them?

But rather than say yes, let me just say maybe. The problem with medieval historians of this period so far — and I must at this point single out Dominique Barthélemy and Sylvain Gouguenheim for special mention — is that they are determined to de-dramatize, to deny any possible apocalyptic significance, anything unusual… reductio ad banalem. Not surprisingly, they have neither familiarized themselves with the nature and dynamics of the beliefs whose existence they deny (no trace of the anthropological work on millennialism in their bibliographies), nor ever really considered the possibility that these manifestations of popular activity might have apocalyptic or millennial dimensions (they are all just extensions of earlier phenomena — as if earlier phenomena could not have been millennial).

Among the heretics of the period Glaber tells of Leutard, a commoner who "towards the end of the year 1000" received the apostolic call (as had Paul), and had, with his iconoclastic preaching, gained a great following among the populace. If a cleric preaching from Notre Dame in Paris "before the people" in 970 could argue that the End would come in 1000, why on earth would Leutard not use 1000 as a "hook" to preach his message? Because he didn’t know? He is from the countryside around Chalons sur Marne, in the heartland of a triangle of computistic apocalyptic fever (Neustria/ Burgundy/ Lorraine). Because he was an Augustinian? Unlikely. How might he have used it? To announce the end? To announce the dawning of a new millennium of apostolic Christianity? To discredit the clergy which had promised the millennial kingdom at the end of the millennium for so long, and had not delivered? Are these options mutually exclusive?

All these are, of course, hypothetical possibilities, and I know many a historian far too busy pursuing other issues to bother delving into these conjectures further. Let me, therefore, conclude with a joke which, if it does not get you to go on in this line of inquiry, either for the millennial generation around 1000 AD, or for others before and after, it may at least get you to laugh, and prevent you from assenting unthinkingly to the kind of skeptical dismissal that is so common among those who have not bothered to think about these things carefully.

Ollie goes to see his friend Sven, who’s out in the orchards feeding his pigs. Ollie arrives to see Sven holding up a pig so he can nibble from the branch. "Sven," says Ollie, "why don’t you just shake the branch and the apples will fall to the ground." "Why would I want to do that?" replies his friend, somewhat insulted at the suggestion that he’s not doing it right. "Well for one thing," Ollie replies, somewhat flustered that there would even be an issue here, "it would save time." "Don’t be silly Ollie, what’s time to a pig?"

Asked if they think that the commoners knew what year it was in 1000, most historians, we bats in Plato’s cave, respond instinctively, "Don’t be silly, what’s time to a peasant?" But time, as we know, is not just objective, measured in equal units, noted down in writing. Time is an experiential phenomenon. As the old saying goes, the definition of two minutes depends on which side of the bathroom door you’re on. I submit that if we want to begin thinking about what time meant to peasants back in 1000, we might start by asking ourselves, "What’s time to a bat?"

Richard Landes


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