This book traces the role of millenarian expectations in the "longue durÿeae" of European culture and the particular role of the "millennial generation" of 1000-1033 in imprinting these dreams on the collective psyche of the West. An opening section traces the origins of both apocalyptic beliefs and their introduction via Christianity in northern Europe, and a concluding one treats the major paths of a pragmatic and secularizing millenarianism in the West, bringing us to a second millennial year -- the year 2000.
We tend to think of millennialism as bizarre and sectarian. Those who believe in "Apocalypse Now" gather in small groups of likeminded souls, awaiting the moment revealed to them through some fantastic combination of chronological calculations and biblical "readings" of current events... the few, beleaguered righteous against the sinful many. They seem to burst on the scene with all the ephemeral and unpredictable fury of a squall. The dominant culture is at best condescending, more often derisive, or, if threatened, implacably hostile. In any case, such moments are obviously shortlived; they must all too soon confront their prophecy failed.
So it seems hard to conceive of an entire culture possessed of such a belief, of a period in which people openly talked about the imminent Apocalypse, interpreting and reinterpreting events in its terms, acting in the belief that they were themselves the center of the cosmic drama of final redemption. Moreover, if such an improbable situation ever has existed, it would seem unlikely that such a radically mistaken society would long endure. Like the Palestinian Zealots rebelling against Rome, the Xhosa burning their cattle, or the Boxers convinced that bullets could not kill them, apocalyptic groups tend towards self-destruction. One would hardly expect the anticipation of the end to dominate a society about to be born, a culture about to enter its most fruitful and creative period.
And yet Western Europe at the approach of the millennium of the Incarnation and the Passion of Christ -- 1000-1033 -- seems to have been just such a society, one in which widespread apocalyptic expectations wrought new beginnings. They were wrong, these men of the millennial generation: no end of time, no end to evil, no redemption, no heaven on earth. But from the depths of their terrors and disappointed hopes, Europeans found a range of responses that would mark their culture thenceforth with unprecedented dynamism and creativity. What the Exodus was for the Jews, the Year 1000 was for Western Europeans: it was the moment when a people defined itself and laid down a path for millennia to come. Indeed it left European Christians with the profound belief that they were God's "Chosen People." But whereas the ancient Hebrews made the Exodus the center of their historical and liturgical memory, the cultural elite of Europe -- profoundly disturbed by both the errors of apocalyptic discourse and the surge of popular activity it had inspired -- tried their best to forget their mistaken belief in an apocalyptic year 1000 and to destroy or reformulate all that their society had wrought in its fevered dream. Those who survived the disappointment did not, therefore, renounce the fruit of their efforts to prepare for the Lord's coming; rather they sought to deny the apocalyptic origin of all they tried to redeem from its crucible.
In the long run, this repression merely gave the unleashed forces -- the visionary accords, the thunderous emotions, the popular movements, the inordinate hopes -- a different kind of power: concealed now, marked more often by pragmatism and conflict. Neither the disappointment nor the repression did anything, however, to stay millennialism's hand, to dampen its protean ability to burst forth repeatedly, in countless and bewildering sizes and shapes and to forge in the ashes of its disappointments enduring, new, more pragmatic attitudes, approaches, projects. Over the course of the subsequent millennium of history (1000-2000), the cumulative effects of these reformulated and demillenarized movments, these unintended consequences of a mistaken belief, gave birth to the modern West, a society at once vastly powerful and wildly dynamic, a mosaic of "chosen people" who, at the approach of the year 2000, see themselves at the center of a cosmic drama that pits mankind's ability to destroy against its ability to build.
How could it happen? No one would have predicted such an outcome from a look at the society that emerged in the "mutation of the year 1000" -- that "static" feudal and ecclesiastical hierarchy so familiar to every student of the High Middle Ages. But that is because the most banal is the least obvious, and what the documents focus on is not necessarily what heralds new developments. In fact by 1040 the crucial event of modern culture had already occurred; the "commoner" had been introduced as a major, in time, the major actor on the historical stage. The genie had been let out of a bottle with an apocalyptic incantation and now, with prophecy failed, returned reluctantly, under protest, awaiting yet another moment to resurrect hope and final victory. In time, with each new moment of expectations and its inevitable disappointment, with each reformulation of the millenarian scenario, the role for God in bringing about His kingdom grew smaller while that for an energetic populace of true believers increased. The growing power of human agency gradually replaced God, assigning to mankind the primary task of radically transforming this world into one of justice, peace and plenty.
Most societies have to deal with the human urge towards knowledge and power; and most myths emphasize the vain hubris of such strivings -- Prometheus, Icarus, the Garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel. The West, however, turned these myths upside down, glorifying and rewarding any knowledge that permitted man to transform nature or society, praising change and novelty as progress, and progress as the highest good. How did such a rare (unique) reorientation of the collective will occur? From the compensatory measures of a humanity scorned by a God who tarried, from the inexhaustible hope that launched so many great projects of transformation, from the potent determination to endure in the face of inevitable disappointment. Eventually Westerners would begin to eliminate God entirely from the apocalyptic scenario, birth to the fully secularized millenarianism of such modern movements as scientific utopianism, revolutionary democracy, communism, Nazism, Zionism. Neither Europe nor the world would ever be the same again. As the year 2000 approaches, by a particularly cruel irony, the situation is inverted. Whereas a thousand years ago man waited with terrible hope but in vain for God to bring about the Apocalypse, now man need not wait for God: in a counterfeit of divine omnipotence he can destroy the world for want of ability to perfect it.
This deals with the dream and its tenacity, with the skepticism of the historian past and present. It defines the key terms of the study: eschatology (God will bring an end to this world of injustice), apocalypticism (now), millennialism (and establish His kingdom here on earth). It then explores the experience of apocalyptic expectation: 1) What it means to feel on the brink of a cosmic transformation and how it affects individual and collective behavior. 2) What accounts for the perennial appeal of this sentiment despite its repeated (inevitable) disappointment. 3) How people caught up in such expectations react when prophecy fails. The emphasis here will be largely psychological: in addition to the avowed thirst for justice and yearning for freedom that inspires millennial enthusiasm, one can also discern the impotent desire of the weak for vengeance against the powerful, the need to belong to an all-consuming community, the megalomania and narcissism of standing at the center of the ultimate cosmic drama.
But for all its fascination, apocalyptic belief is notoriously difficult to study and historians have, by and large, left it out of their analyses. There is a dual problem in interpreting the historical record: contemporary observers tended as a result of both clerical training and temporal point of view (they all write ex post facto) to play down most cases of apocalyptic expectation, indeed to pass over this aspect of matters entirely; and modern historians have an equally strong urge to view the belief as an "error" (it has always been wrong) and side with those who opposed it. Here I argue that we must view things as they did, from a troubled present into an unknown and unknowable future: even though Augustine may have been correct that the fall of Rome in 410 did not herald the End of the World, his case is clearly more convincing to us that it would have been to his contemporaries. Rather than "the "hepherd of his generation" in this matter, he may well have been a voice in the wilderness.
The chapter traces apocalyptic expectations from its origins in Jewish messianism to its role in the origins of Christianity. It presents apocalyptic and especially millennial dreams as the most extreme expression of the Bible's social radicalism, in some cases turning the anti-aristocratic elements of Israelite ideology such as equality before the law, the dignity of manual labor, direct access to sacred scripture into an egalitarian, peaceful, workers paradise (e.g. Isaiah 65). Apocalypticism turns the tension between rebellion and submission that characterizes any subject people (whether by ethnicity or class) into a sacralization and sublimation of rebellion. ~~Under the right circumstances it releases people from any obligation to rulers who are by definition incarnations of evil; under all others it counsels patience and nurses dreams of a Day or wrath and redemption.
Jesus and his circle arise from these messianic hopes -- the kingdom of Heaven is at hand... the meek shall inherit the Land -- became reinterpreted outside of this eschatological framework, moving from the glorious hopes for Jesus the messiah (Christ), to the bitter disappointment of his crucifixion, to the renewed hope of a second Coming, to the timeless belief that "the Kingdom of Heaven is within you." From this dialectic of hope-frustration-reformulation the Church emerged as the institution that survived the failure (and rewrote the content) of the original apocalyptic promise. The relationship was a love-hate one: Christianity needed the fervor and broad appeal of the great expectation and the "gladdening promise," but a growing institution that needed stability could not tolerate the effects of full-fledged apocalyptic fever. The conflict is already evident in the first Christian documents, the letters of Paul.
Over time, the contradictions only got worse, more polarized: Christianity developed two wings -- on the one hand, a largely aristocratic hierarchical institution speaking theological terms about social order, and on the other, unorganized, charismatic, often egalitarian, popular movements speaking in terms of Paradise soon to be restored. The most important event in the relationship between these two wings occurred when the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, or, as Peter Brown has put it, Christianity converted to Roman imperialism. Of course all religions have some conflict between their institutional and enthusiastic elements, but none so polarized and implacably hostile to each other as imperial Roman Christianity and apocalyptic millenarian Christianity. While the historian-bishop Eusebius might view the emperor presiding over the great ecumenical Church council of Nicea as a sign of the long-awaited fulfillment of God's messianic promises, a Christian laborer, raised to view Rome as Revelation's Whore of Babylon and groaning under the weight of imperial taxation, might see Constantine as the Beast, entering the Temple surrounded by his apostate minions. Understandably, a now-powerful Church found this implacable hostility vexatious and insolent, and Eusebius accordingly returned animosity for animosity.
This radical split within Christianity, between a hierarchical, imperial religion and a communal, millenarian one raised one final irony. In a sense, the latter now had more in common with Judaism -- community-based structures, dignity of manual labor, messianic hopes for this world, iconoclasm, than it had with the "official" form of Christianity. It is not coincidental, then, that this period sees a virulent development of Christian anti-semitism. Ironically, just as the institutional church began to take on the role of the Roman empire which crucified Jesus, their polemic against the perfidious Jews, killers of Christ and enemies of mankind rose to new heights. And among the elements that marked and justified the Church's hostility to Jews was their common bond with Christians of millennial tendencies. Indeed the Church Fathers' called Christian millennialists "judaizers."
Given this troubled but central relationship -- the Church at once needed apocalyptic hopes and yet found them intolerable -- ecclesiastics developed a number of techniques for dealing with Christian expectation of the End of Time. Two in particular worked like stick and carrot, threat and consolation. The stick was the Antichrist, a supernatural enemy who would come before the Second Coming and make life literally unbearable for anyone who did not worship him. This embodiment of evil would tempt even the saints; far better that one should die and be resurrected after Antichrist's defeat at the Second Coming. Meanwhile, all good Christians should pray for the health and strength of the Roman Empire, whose continued existence, according to a Patristic exegesis of II Thessalonians 3:4, kept the Antichrist at bay
To the stick of the Antichrist the Church added the carrot of the Sabbatical Millennium. Based on the coupling of the week of Creation with Psalm 90's "a thousand years are as a day in the sight of the Lord," exegetes claimed that after six days of a thousand years, or 6000 years from the Creation, the final, sabbatical millennium would truly come. Initially introduced with calculations that placed the fatal year some three centuries in the future, the sabbatical millennium was a unique kind of Church teaching: unorthodox in its explicit calculation of the end and open embrace of millennialism, it tried to place apocalyptic expectation in a kind of comfort or temperate zone, far enough away not to trouble any present or coming generation, but close enough to hold out a distant hope (see chart). It became an enormously popular and widely accepted teaching from the third to the fifth centuries.
The problem, of course, was that the Sabbatical millennium was explicitly forbidden by scripture -- "It is not given to you to know the times and the moment (Acts 1:7). And justifiably so, for unlike all other Christian doctrines, this one had a time limit and time does pass. Worse still, there was a balloon payment to be made when time ran out: with the approach of the year 6000, the sabbatical millennium would become an ecclesiastical nightmare, reviving all the worst elements of apocalyptic millennialism, this time fortified by the centuries-old teachings of the Church. Alarmed by this ever-growing threat, later fourth- and early fifth-century church leaders found it necessary to adopt a new set of calculations that put off Doomsday another few centuries, that took the age of the world out of the danger zone and back in the temperate zone where it might comfort those who longed for the day without driving them to action (see chart). This happened twice, each time when the prevailing chronology entered its 5900s, once in the fifth century to avoid a year 6000 in 500 CE, and again in the eighth century to avoid one in the year 801 CE.
Such maneuvers had the effect of putting chronology at the center of the historical culture, and the changes were never made easily. Each time proponents of the older, now apocalyptic calculations struggled with those of a newer, nonapocalyptic dating system. As far as the documents were concerned, however, the new dating system prevailed; most responsible leaders turned to the new system as the dangers of the old system increased in geometric progression in the final generation, and those that clung to apocalyptic hopes turned to the new calculations in the aftermath of their disappointment. Hence the texts that "count down" to the end of the millennium right up to the final decades (and there are a surprising number) strike the researcher as marginal, even insignificant. To the untutored eye, the "Year 6000" is gone.
The second time the year 6000 approached at the very end of the eighth century, a crisis loomed for Christendom. The Pope had been expelled from Rome (5997); the Byzantine emperor had been murdered by his wife, and that female usurper now sat on the imperial throne (5998). That "obstacle to Antichrist", the Roman Empire, seemed to have fallen according to schedule. It was to address this apocalyptic crisis that Charlemagne chose the first day of the year 6000 for his imperial coronation. And yet, because his court studiously avoided any reference to the displaced millenarian calculations, his chroniclers and we modern historians date this key event in the history of Europe by the new chronology: anno Domini 801.
In an eschatological version of the Emperor's new clothes, the Coronation was marked by a fundamental dichotomy that cries out for acknowledgment and analysis: the "official" discourse of the court (i.e. that which survives in the texts) stands in direct contrast to what every witness knew that day, that is, that the Coronation was occurring on an apocalyptic date that Church historians had been tracking since Augustine's day. What did people discuss in the streets of Rome that night? What did clerics tell their flocks when the news reached home? What did the courtiers say to each other in Pavia when the day after Easter that same year a massive earthquake shook the world? Was Charlemagne reasserting the continuity of the Roman empire in an anti-apocalyptic act? Was he the "Last Emperor" who would unite all Christendom in a final messianic peace? Was he the "New Constantine?" and did that mean this was the Kingdom of Antichrist or of the Saints? In the official silence all "readings" were possible, none reportable.
The intense eschatological ambiguity of Charlemagne's coronation explains much of its complex and confusing legacy: among the many meanings this event had for contemporaries we historians, with our utter dependence on written documents, only "hear" a limited range. It would take centuries until, as clerics began to record popular legends around the year 1000, we begin to hear of other Charlemagnes, the pilgrim to Jerusalem, the crusader, the once and future Emperor of an empire with a messianic destiny. But beyond the specific issues involved, the Coronation of the year 6000 marked a key moment in Western political and religious culture. A vast gulf had opened up between an oral apocalyptic voice and a literate discourse committed to prudent silence on such matters.
After Charlemagne, what? The empire began to come apart even in his own old age. With the disastrous reign of his son and the civil wars of his grandsons it dissolved. Events of the ninth and tenth centuries offered an endless stream of apocalyptic omens: imperial collapse, social and institutional chaos, heathen invasions from all sides. What could a responsible cleric in the year 847 argue to his flock when confronted with Thiota, a prophetess announcing the End of the World for the following year to vast crowds of enthused disciples? He could only explain the error of her calculations and wait till time proved her wrong. (In fact, the authorities did not arrest her until then).
But that wait could be long and painful, particularly when even clerics were won over to her prophecies. Like Lactantius in 300 (5700 AM I) or Gregory in 600 (5700 AM II), clerics needed something some more substantial ammunition, a comfortably distant but comfortingly close date for the End. At this point, AM and the year 6000 could no longer help: 6000 AM II had passed and, according to Bede's calculations, 6000 AM III was still 1200 years away. Accordingly, Bede's new AM elicited little interest among Carolingians: unlike the first chronological shift (in the 5900s AM I, AD 400s), which altered the annus mundi, this second shift (in the 5900s AM II, AD 700s), adopted a new dating system, anno Domini. Here we have the exception that proves the rule. It was not some abstract concern for accuracy about the age of the world that led computists to change their calculations. In fact, Carolingians were even less interested in beginnings than the Church Fathers; their real concern, from the start, was in endings. And so rather than a frigid chronology AM III -- our own children will reach it in 2048 although already some groups insist it will occur in the year 2000, they preferred a chronology in the comfort zone, Anno Domini. And the new date was AD 1000.
Why 1000? It was an ideal apocalyptic date for a number of reasons. First, 1000 was a perfect number, 10 x 10 x 10. Second, its symbolic value in apocalyptic calculations was, if anything, more potent than 6000. Did not the sixth and final age of mankind begin with the Incarnation and end with the Parousia, and had not Augustine identified this period as that of the millennium in Revelation? Finally, it was distant some 250 years. One could not have invented a better eschatological chronology for the Carolingians than this one. Unfortunately, as tends to be the case with anti-apocalyptic chronologies, the more valuable they are initially, the more troublesome they eventually become. The Carolingians bequeathed to their successors an eschatological target date that was extremely easy to calculate and disseminate, and from which there was no escape. Unlike the years 6000, the year 1000 could neither be disguised nor smothered in silence.
And, as if to drive home the point, the heavens and earth seem to have multiplied signs and wonders in the final generations before the year 1000: eclipses and comets, wars, famines and plagues, wandering prophets and preachers multiplied. Trying to reassure the queen of France in the mid-tenth century, a monk named Adso insisted anew that the Antichrist could not come until the collapse of the Empire, which still survived in Charlemagne's descendants. In the 960s a preacher in Paris openly spoke to the people of the coming End in the year 1000, while Otto I's army panicked and ran from a siege at the sight of an eclipse they thought was the End of the world. At the same time rumors originating in Lotharingia spread everywhere that the world would end in a year in which the Annunciation and the Passion coincided on March 25th, to occur in 970, 981, and 992.
In 987 the last Carolingian ruler died; in 988 civil war broke out in France; in 989 Halley's comet appeared; in 991 the last Carolingian pretender was betrayed by the bishop of Laon; in 992 the Passion fell on March 25th; in 994 prodigies and famines occurred in Saxony and Aquitaine; and in the final years of the decade, hallucinatory epidemics which contemporaries called the "holy fire" (virulent cases of ergot poisoning) broke out in numerous places. Under the circumstances, the leaders of Christendom obviously tried to temper or at least channel the passions that were aroused by these developments. With a few years remaining, some churchmen even tried -- with a notable lack of success -- to recalculate the date anno Domini: in 983 Abbo of Fleury claimed to have discovered an error that made the correct current year 1004 AD, a correction not even his own monks accepted. So with the approach of 1000, on the basis of every kind of apocalyptic measure -- chronology, political developments, signs and wonders -- many Christians, and in France especially, had every reason to expect the End. Never before or since (until perhaps, under very different circumstances, in our own day) has apocalyptic expectation had such widespread credibility. And for the Church, which had grown great, powerful, indeed imperial while that End had tarried, a crisis of unprecedented proportions loomed. It would be the mother of all apocalyptic moments.
By the year 1000 the former Carolingian empire had divided into two distinct political spheres, the Western Frankish kingdom (France) and the Saxon Empire (Germany). The contrast between the political chaos of the Western portion and the strong central leadership in the East shows up in the ways these two societies handled the approaching millennium. In the East, the Ottonian dynasty, although ethnically different, pursued the more conservative eschatological meaning of his imperial title -- by prolonging the Carolingian and Roman empires, they preserved the obstacle to Antichrist's coming. Because of the strength of the Ottonian court, Eastern Germany met the millennium in a relatively orderly way, with eschatological symbolism firmly in the hands of the elite. But as 1000 approached, even these temperate ideologies began to heat up: the young Saxon emperor, Otto III, pursued his religious dreams with astounding fervor. In his hands the renovatio imperii Romani became a bizarre ritual obsession played out on his new capitol on the Aventine hill. At the same time, as the final days demanded, he pressed vigorously for the conversion of the heathens, sponsoring missions to all the peoples of the East (the conversion of Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Serbian, Croatian, and Scandanavian peoples all date to the end of the tenth century). He reformed the papacy, appointing in 999 Gerbert, a scholar of base extraction, to be pope of the year 1000. His religious fervor was both legendary and unusual for a ruler: he ceaselessly visited holy hermits and soothsayers, made barefoot pilgrimages to martyrs' tombs. Most dramatically, vouchsafed a visionary dream, he found and opened Charlemagne's tomb on Pentecost of the year 1000. It would be difficult to imagine a more dramatic symbolic statement of the continuity between the Frankish empire founded by Charlemagne in 6000 and his Saxon one of the year 1000. The tale of Charlemagne, seated on a throne, with his beard and fingernails grown long, circulated throughout Christendom. Within two years, Otto lay dead outside Rome, at the age of 22, victim of his excessive ambitions and stringent asceticism.
In the western portions of Charlemagne's empire, centralized political authority had almost completely collapsed. A generation after Adso's letter on the Antichrist, the last branch of the Carolingian dynasty died out, replaced by Hugh Capet and his son Robert. With this new dynasty (which had only secured its throne through an act of treachery by the bishop of Laon) still lacking in legitimacy especially in the southern regions, central authority collapsed. All along the hierarchy lesser aristocrats either rebelled or ignored the authority of their superiors. A new class of local robber barons arose who, safe behind their castle walls and surrounded by their mounted cavalry, exercised the rights of kings (justice, forced labor, taxation). No authority, no court, no institution seemed capable of controlling their internecine wars and their systematic subjection of the peasantry. Worse -- at the approach of the year 1000, with the last remnants of the Carolingian political and judicial systems in ruin and the countryside bristling with new castles, the "king," Robert II, was excommunicated by the pope. Adso's apocalyptic scenario seemed complete.
As opposed to Germany, therefore, France met the year 1000 with no guidance from above and every reason to anticipate the worst. Remarkably, such anxiety did not produce the legendary paralysis that Romantic historians of the nineteenth century so loved to depict as the "Terrors of the year 1000." The response, however, came from below: waves of simple folk making pilgrimages to the sites of wonder-working relics, following the newly opened land route to Jerusalem itself, joining mass penitential processions to pray for God's mercy. Under the direst circumstances, these spontaneous responses coalesced into a movement of unprecedented vitality and scope: the "Peace of God." In 994, for example, the plague of "holy fire" wracked the Limousin. During 3 days of fasting and tears of agony, relics were brought from the whole region, drawing huge and enthusiastic crowds, and gathered outside the city walls. Finally, the body of St. Martial of Limoges were raised and paraded out to join the other relics. A miraculous cure swept through the crowds and the plague departed. Before the ecstatic crowds of men, women and children, the assembled warriors swore oaths of peace and justice on the wonderworking relics. It was literally the reign of the saints.
This early "peace council" was followed by others spreading through much of the south in one form or another. This form of collective response to danger proved to be a particularly volatile but effective form of social organization: in these large, but still face-to-face gatherings, with the Church taking the lead, men of war took oaths before the populace to respect the rights of churches and of unarmed peasants. In exchange, their usurped exercise of royal powers was legitimized. It was a social contract by public oath and acclamation: the workers would feed society, the prayers would assure its salvation, and the fighters would provide for its safety.
Of all the reactions to the year 1000 this was the most novel and the most fruitful. It followed the classic millenarian scenario: terrible suffering, collective penitence, salvation, and the instauration of a new and just society of God's Peace. But unlike earlier such movements, where rulers, lay and clerical, had opposed the millenarians, this one joined the ruler and commoner against an increasingly isolated group of those warriors who refused the oath of peace. It brought together unimaginable numbers of peasants together with lay and clerical aristocrats and encouraged all the most extravagant emotions -- joy, forgiveness, brotherly love, self-sacrifice, ecstatic celebration. And if gatherings of peasants were not dangerous enough (in Normandy they led to rebellion), Peace councils involved the commoners in the political process with an unprecedented immediacy, and legitimized principles of collective actions, oaths, organizations. It was as if "the whole Aquitanian people, having left the slavery of Egypt, were following Moses to the Promised Land." Beyond the terrors of an apocalyptic year 1000, Christians in France looked forward to "a new heaven and a new earth": the Peace of God.
But millenarian hopes and movements cannot long avoid or forestall disappointment. Sinful men, violent, deceitful, lusting for dominion, soon shook folk from their messianic reveries. The warriors broke their oaths; violence, rapine, and war continued. The year 1000 thus came without the world-ending Terrors and went without the long hoped-for Millennium. It did, however, galvanize a generation that viewed its passage as the dawn of a new stage in the redemptive process of history. Millenarian believers temporized with recalculations -- it would happen in 1003, 1012, 1028; the authorities, meanwhile, strove valiantly to channel the excitement into stable and constructive forms -- building churches to house relics they would rather keep inside rather than parade at Peace councils, forming peace leagues of cooperative warriors, organizing parishes and villages. "It was," wrote one spokesman for Cluny, the major reforming monastic house of the day, "as if the whole world were shaking itself free, shrugging off its old age, were covering itself everywhere in a white mantle of churches." A eleventh hour of a decrepit old world had been replaced by a new dawn, by a long and bright future.
Too soon. Ominous events continued to occur: a European-wide and savage famine, prodigies, eclipses, a new star in the heavens (a nova spotted around the world in 1006), and most disturbingly of all, the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem by the mad calif of Cairo, al-Hakim. The news of the Sepulchre's fall, reported by numerous fleeing pilgrims, provoked a powerful apocalyptic panic in the West that, among other things, led to efforts to convert the Jews en masse and resulted in the first widespread pogroms in European history.
Clearly something had gone awry. Sign upon prodigy, victory upon disaster, disaster upon victory, all seemingly unprecedented in scale, and still no End in sight. There was one explanation that resolved the mystery; typically for apocalyptic hopefuls disappointed by the passage of their target date, they redated. The date of the End was not the millennium of the Incarnation in AD 1000, but the millennium of the Passion and Resurrection in 1033. This new date gave Christians a second run at the Apocalypse and marked the generation living between 1000-1033 by the shadow of a millennium passed and one yet to come.
Among the many responses, perhaps the most striking one was the emergence of groups of people -- commoners, clerics, aristocrats, both sexes -- who formed apostolic communities, pursuing a life of manual labor and common property, refusing to enter churches, rejecting idols (crucifixes) and sacraments (mass, baptism). What had initially represented the radical wing of a united apocalyptic movement in the early Peace, was now splitting away as the more conservative leaders of the Peace reasserted the social order. Briefly united in the early Peace movement, the two poles of Christianity part ways again after the year 1000: the hierarchical institution with its dependence on an aristocratic political structure, and the apostolic Christian communities with their status-destroying egalitarian ethos. And in the apocalyptic circumstances, each saw the other as Antichrist. For churchmen biblical prophecies about the spread of heresies at the end of time were fulfilled; starting in 1022, for the first time in its history, the Latin church condemned "heretics" to the stake. Conversely, for the apostolics, Antichrist reigned triumphant and the church had become his agent. These were clearly exceptional times. Never before had so many great things occurred; never had so many signs and wonders multiplied. The world was filled with so many new phenomena -- movements, possibilities, connections. As Rodulphus Glaber put it, although we may not know when the end will come, we have God's promise that he will "continue to do new things until the very last moment." The future belonged to those who would seize it.
With the approach of the millennium of the Passion heavenly portents intensified -- a "rain of blood" fell on the Aquitanian shore, prompting an urgent inquiry from the duke to the king to the king's most learned churchmen. Meanwhile "heresy" increased along with pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The three years before the year 1033 brought devastating famines to France -- the poor were reduced to cannibalism and even the powerful (!) went hungry. The magnitude and persistence of the disaster brought on widespread apocalyptic fears which led some to repentance and others to a "fin-de siÿegcle" abandon and violence. While one contemporary blames the famines on terrible rains which flooded the fields, the climatic record does not support such an argument; indeed there is a possibility that peasants in some areas may not have plowed their fields at the approach of the millennium. Certainly an uprecedented number of commoners abandoned all their goods and began the arduous journey on foot to Jerusalem and many did so with no intention of returning. Conservative churchmen found such behavior so irresponsible that they denounced the mass pilgrimage, despite its obvious piety, as a deception of the Antichrist. Partly in order to appeal to the populace to remain and to grow crops, partly thanks to an improvement in the weather -- "The sky smiled benevolently upon man..." -- the year 1033, the millennium of the Passion and Resurrection, saw an unprecedented wave of Peace councils throughout France, from Catalonia to Flanders, from the coasts of Aquitaine to the eastern borders of Burgundy.
These councils reignited the popular and ecstatic element of the Peace movement, with vast crowds attending meetings at which countless relics had been brought together. The statutes promulgated seem to have favored the populace, and in their enthusiasm the participants expressed their accord by raising their palms skyward and shouting in unison "Peace! Peace! Peace!" They were, as one observer noted, acknowledging a ~Covenant between themselves and God: a new people of Israel had been born in the fire of suffering and in the exaltation of collective renunciation and redemption. The following years fulfilled the messianic hopes of the participants: harvests were plentiful, prices plummeted; "it was as if the ancient Jubilee of Israel had returned year upon year."
But while the meek may have inherited the earth, they could not keep it: As always with messianic expectations, ecstacy gave way to the chill of reality. "Like a dog returning to his vomit," the powerful reneged on their oaths and renewed the cycle of violence. The power of massed peasants at Peace councils waned when they separately returned to their plows; and the castellans, with their castles, their weapons and their mounted warriors, began to enforce their own understanding of the agreements made under the duress of apocalyptic fears and crowd pressures. When the populace banded together with collective oaths to form Peace militias, they were ruthlessly wiped out by the mounted warriors. It is in these middle years of the eleventh century that the lordly ban began to take hold of rural society, like lava hardening into a blanket of obligations that defined the status of serfs for centuries to come: corvÿeae labor, forced use of the lord's mills, annual and extraordinary payments, restricted movement and marriage options, etc..
At the same time the Peace movement began to shift towards a more hierarchical model: commoners were no longer invited and councils became a dialogue between the elites. Clerics and warriors looked more to practical means of enforcing legislation than to the miracles of the saints and the pressure of public opinion.
Some of these new efforts had long-lasting results. Chivalry emerges from a codification of the obligations towards the unarmed that warriors had taken on in their peace oaths, and the enthusiasm of Europe's knights for the Crusade (1096) is in part the response of warriors who can at last engage in divinely sanctioned violence. Similarly, the development of the "Truce of God" (first appeared in 1027), which greatly limited the times of week and year that "private" warfare might legitimately be pursued, strengthened the power of the highest lords -- counts, dukes, kings and emperors -- by giving them a monopoly of the use of violence during those days of Truce. The shift from spiritual to practical sanctions meant the growth of public authority.
And yet, beneath the rather bleak picture of peasant life -- oppressed by lords, reproved by clerics, and bound still more tightly to the land -- something new was afoot. In fact economic historians identify the eleventh century as the period when both agriculture and commerce underwent a veritable revolution, transforming land and markets and inaugurating Europe's first economic take-off. At the same time we find the emergence of the universities, the building of Romanesque churches, the formation of new religious orders and "heresies", the constant spread of literacy and numeracy. Where did all this creative energy come from? Whence these new urban dwellers, "dusty-feet" carrying their wares to fairs, students traveling from one school to the next in search of masters of reknown, sculptors and masons moving from one contruction site to the next, peasants willing to clear islands of farmland in the heart of the forests, ingenious people who everywhere started using metal, money and nature in new and more productive ways?
Most of the answers historians have given to these questions only beg the question: sustained demographic growth, peaceful conditions, new aggressive attitudes towards nature, religious transformations are all factors which themselves need explanation. ~These are, I argue, the "pieces of God," the manifestations of social creativity and experimentation which, initially released in the millenarian crucible of the Peace of God, found the banal resolutions of post-millennial society intolerable. Those who could not or did not believe they could escape from the seigneurial ban remained on the land, a silent majority. But, just as international migration tends to involve the most motivated and adaptable populations, so those whose hopes had been aroused, who now had a sense of the possibilities of human cooperation and divine inspiration, moved away... to cities, to other regions, to new communities, to the woods, anywhere but under the watchful eye of the local lord.
In this sense, the three great revolutionary movements of the later eleventh century represent a second stage in the popular dynamic of the Peace of God movement in which each of the "orders" -- workers, prayers and fighters -- could reformulate in more practical if still messianic terms, the goals of the original movement. Thus the Communes, both urban and rural, were the fruit of commoners banding together, just like the peace militias, to establish their own laws and courts; drawing their own conclusions from the Peace movement's successes and failures, these communards seceded from the prevailing aristocratic social order, establishing a new turf, their own "peace". The "Gregorian Reform" (really the Papal Revolution) drew into the church much of the religious passion of the age, promising purification in exchange for freedom from lay aristocratic control. Their most dramatic weapons came directly from the Peace movement, spiritual sanctions given "bite" from an aroused public opinion. Finally the Crusades gave rowdy warriors -- and still more remarkably, unarmed commoners -- a holy mission of the highest order. Proclaimed as part of a universal Peace and Truce of God, the Crusade crystalized a century of social and religious ferment in France: it was indeed the Deeds of God through the Franks, God's new Chosen People.
The second Christian millennium in the West has witnessed an unbroken period of transformation and expansion, culminating in the modern, industrial world of the twentieth century. Efforts to explain this phenomenal development are legion, and focus on everything from material factors (demography, economics, technology) to socio-cultural ones (literacy, abstract reasoning, law, property rights) to new mentalities (Promethean or Faustian urges, search for a new theodicy). Overlooked in many of these discussions is a mutation in the very nature of apocalyptic expectations in the West. No longer content to wait, each generation now reformulated the eschatological scenario with collective projects to prepare the world for His coming, to hasten His coming, to do His will on Earth as it is done in heaven.
These were, in a sense, pre-millenarian projects, harnessing people's religious fervor in collective endeavors here on earth to prepare the Coming of the Lord -- purifying God's Church (Papal Reform), liberating the earthly Jerusalem so that the heavenly one might descend (Crusade), forming true apostolic communities on the model of the apostles (monastic and "heretical" movements). The more ambitious ones, even when the promised apocalyptic climax did not occur, left society irreversibly transformed. And with each reformulation, with each disappointment, with each movement that, outliving its millenarian beginnings, robed itself in tamer ideologies, the role for God in European eschatological scenarios grew smaller while the role for man -- divinely inspired, of course -- grew greater.
The emphasis also shifted gradually from collective to individual, to those whom the Holy Spirit had enlightened. As Joachim of Fiore described, ca.1200, there was the Father's age of the Law (stone) the Son's age of Grace (water), and Holy Spirit's age of Salvation (fire). This fire of divine inspiration would, during the Third Age now dawning, descend upon individuals, transforming them from within, inexorably transforming society into the millenarian kingdom. The Year of the Great Allelulia of 1233 brought another wave of Peace gatherings all over Northern Italy. Like its ancestor in 1033, this movement swept vast numbers of people up in its brief but intense messianic embrace, leading them to forgive their enemies and join together in a great revival; but it passed away just as rapidly, leaving its enthusiasts ravished, bewildered, disappointed.
The society in which such religious passions played themselves out is was marked by tension and contention, one in which a polarized Christianity threw up wave upon wave of initially unifying, eventually mutually exclusive and aggressive movements, which, in their apocalyptic framework, saw opponents as agents of Antichrist. As a result, alongside some of the more creative aspects of millennial hope and disappointment, we find equally destructive ones: rampaging zealots slaughtering priests, Jews, the rich, the nobles; or fanatical enforcers of Catholic orthodoxy intimidating, torturing, burning those whom they branded "heretics"; even internal Crusades against Christian populations which combined the uncontrolled ferocity of the former with the hierarchical oppression of the latter. In the same year as the Great Allelulia, the Crusading preacher and Inquisitor Conrad of Marburg travelled throughout Germany with two assistants, inducing mass hysteria in the communities he visited and burning "heretics" in droves.
For followers of Joachim, especially those who viewed the two new preaching orders of Franciscans and Dominicans as fulfillments of Joachim's prophecies, and who were not discouraged by the passing of the Great Allelulia, "1260" was a year of great apocalyptic expectation. In its aftermath we find three responses that prefigure modern developments: the Spiritual Franciscans whose ever-increasing social activism led them to class warfare; the institutional Church which~, viewing these "illuminated ones" as messengers of Antichrist, set in motion the sinister but necessary machinery of the Inquisition to stop the Evil One's progress; and a new wave of pragmatic naturalism whose adepts, like recovering acoholics, swore off the intoxicating destructiveness of apocalyptic hopes and placed their faith in what they themselves could see, learn and do.
For the intellectuals of the Renaissance, their day marked a self-conscious break with the immediate past -- they were giving birth again to classical culture and rejecting the dark, oppressive theocratic world of the immediate past. Their very name for the preceding millennium of history, the "Middle Ages," denied the self-image of their predecessors who never doubted that they lived in the "Last Age." This self-conscious redefinition of time hardly put an end to apocalyptic millennialism, however. On the contrary recent historians consider the sixteenth century perhaps the most apocalyptic in Western history. Nevertheless it did set up a dynamic alternation between purely religious apocalyptic hopes and a new, secularized version which, whatever its rhetoric of renewal or innovation, appealed to a messianic hope that mankind stood on the edge of a spectacular transformation: from Pico della Mirandola to Savanorola and back again to Giordanno Bruno. And, of course, technology makes a difference: every new development now became amplified and transformed by the printing press. Luther's Bible has an impact a thousandfold greater than Waldo's or Wycliffe's or Huss'.
The fact that the passions of the Reformation led to brutal and endemic religious wars may have turned many (especially intellectuals) away from the fanaticism of "enthusiasm"; but in so doing it strengthened the appeal of millenarian scenarios in which God played a narrower role and enthusiasm was harnessed to cooler, more patient hopes. Utopias, often based on some kind of mystical science, began to exercise people's imaginations. There was an eloquent appeal here to free ourselves from dependence on God's unfathomable intentions and those fanatics who pretended to interpret them. In fact, society might even (hopefully) avoid the devastating destruction that was supposed to precede God's arrival: society could go straight to the millennium, without passing by Antichrist and suffering unimaginable torments.
This secular form of millenarian hope gave a different meaning and value to the word "new." In medieval Latin, the novissima tempora were the last (newest, most recent) times; they were also the pessima tempora, the worst of times, and all things new were generally viewed by intellectuals as dangerous and suspicious. In the post-Gutenberg world, the word "new" becomes synonymous with good, forward-looking, promising: the new science, the new Instauration, the New Atlantis, the new world. Unlike the star seen in 1006 which unleashed apocalyptic reactions in Christendom and Islam, the "new star" or nova of 1572 was noted by scientists and taken as a sign of hope, a call to reconceive the nature of the heavens and the earth.
More than any single development, the discovery and exploration of the "New World" across the Atlantic, illustrates the texture of millenarian projects in Western culture: inspired by apocalyptic prophecies Columbus set out westward; amazed at his discovery of a vast land of pagans, Christian missionaries rushed to convert them. Millenarian dreamers had paved the way for less pious but equally ambitious kinds of adventurers. Even still, the real transformation of the New World was not brought about by the crass exploiters, the simply greedy; it came from the unintended consequences of millenarians -- from communities of Puritans, Quakers, Anaptists.
The modern world emerged -- self-made and secular -- with millenarianism intact. The revolutionary upheavals that shaped the political landscape of Europe from the seventeenth to the twentieth century began with openly millenarian movements (English Civil War), shifting with each successive wave towards a more secular idiom (American and French Revolutions). Each partial success, each necessary accommodation to an intractable reality, strengthened the hand of those who could promise results whether God cooperated or not. Technology, markets and constitutional governments transformed the physical and social world in which new ideologies, new millenarian hopes took shape. At its climax, this process produced Marx, who ironically built his purely "scientific" communism on a conceptual and emotional foundation of millenarianism: he may have substituted the inevitable "dialectic of history" for God and the utopia of communism for the kingdom of the saints; but his moral indignation is prophetic, his goal, apostolic, and his sense of the imminent triumph of justice and peace in this world, pure apocalyptic millenarianism. Characteristically his self-proclaimed disciples have the same reaction of denial and reformulation when faced with the palpable failure of their hopes; and the unintended results would have confounded and appalled the founding prophet.
Just as millennialism played so vital a role in generating the modern world, so it also marks reactions to modernization both within European society and around the world. For some, such beliefs promise a short-cut to modernization (Cargo cults), for others an uneasy acculturation (revitalization movements), and, for still others, a rejection (Islamic and other "fundamentalist" religions) in which any group perceived as initiating or benefiting from the changes becomes a target of deep ressentiment. This last variant has strong medieval roots. In the immediate aftermath of millenarian disappointment, bitter believers often react with rage. The most obvious target, traditionally, was the Jews, who were to blame for resisting conversion, and to be feared for their adjustment to new developments. The kinds of groups studied by Norman Cohn correspond precisely to this "reactionary" millennialism: arising in areas most affected by the social and economic transformations at work from the eleventh century onwards, dreaming of a just and simple world in which the rich -- new and old -- are brought low, violently egalitarian and anti-semitic.
The climax of this kind of reaction occurs on the eve of the twentieth century with the Russian forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which distills the essence of this apocalyptic and anti-modern rage: the Jews undermine the natural order of things (aristocratic rule) by supporting constitutional democracy, secularism, religious toleration, capitalism, socialism, individual rights and freedoms. In fact they are engaged in a secret plan to enslave humanity, and they are dangerously close to their goal. Only the most vigorous response on the part of the gentiles will save humankind from a fate worse than death and thereby restore the severe but just domination of the ruling elite. Predictably the text finds favor precisely among groups engaged in a kind of millennial "reactionary modernism" marked by paranoid hatred of markets and the press at the same time as it systematically exploits modern technology -- Nazis, Communists, Arab Nationalists and Muslim Fundamentalism.
For all the power and promise of secular millenarianism -- technological science, democracy and capitalism, they have not brought about the kingdom of Heaven, nor have they put an end to more emotional, religious passions striving for a new millennium. In fact modernity has only multiplied the range and power of fanatic groups, and vastly increased their ability to change the face of the earth in the process. With the approach of the year 2000, therefore, we find new combinations, new ironies, new paradoxes. In the year 1000 people expected the Apocalypse, but God tarried; in the year 2000, after a millennium of substituting man for God in the millennial formula, we no longer need depend on God to bring about the End of the World. Mankind has the power to build the millennial kingdom here on earth or destroy that earth, and still Humanity tarries. Thus we come upon a last (although hopefully not final) irony: despite being part of an "elite" culture which rejects God and mocks apocalyptic beliefs, we now have good scientific reasons to fear the End -- toxic waste, atomic war, ozone depletion, overpopulation... the list is endless. Once again technology and millenarian passions become strange partners in a process of quickening that, as it did around the year 1000 and again in 1500, can produce a cultural mutation. The possible configurations of the third millennium are infinite, and prognostications are now a major intellectual industry; but whatever they may be, millennial hopes, fears and disappointments will have a strong hand in their formation.