Apocalyptic Expectations around the Year 1000
Richard Landes

For over a century the approach of medieval historians to the question of les terreurs de l'an mil has been dominated by the position that the image of a whole generation filled with apocalyptic expectation at the approach of the year 1000 was the creation of the Romantic historians of the mid-nineteenth century and had nothing to do with the reality of late tenth early eleventh century European society. As a result, none of the last century's ample discussion of the dramatic changes that mark this period -- recently referred to as la mutation de l'an mil -- have even considered the possibility of a role for apocalyptic thought in the social and cultural dynamics of the period. And yet, this argument dismissing the presence of any signficant apocalyptic agitation around the year 1000 is flawed both factually and conceptually. On the contrary, looked at with an understanding of both the dynamics of apocalyptic beliefs and the dynamics of cultural memory, the period around 1000 may well mark one of the high-water marks of such beliefs in European -- or any -- civilization.

The "anti-Terrors" school's argument rests on five main points:

1) People did not even know the date -- peasants had no notion of chronological time, elites used a variety of systems and even those using AD disagreed.

2) There are no theological reasons for 1000 to have eschatological significance.

3) There is almost no surviving evidence of any apocalyptic terrors from the period.

4) The little that survives is not directly related to 1000, but to dates such as 968, 1010 and 1033.

5) Therefore we should not be surprised to find 1000 was a "year like any other" in which the normal train of medieval life -- wars, councils, ploughing, and praying -- went on in uninterrupted flow.

The utter absence of documentation attesting to apocalyptic beliefs and movements is, in this view, decisive proof. How can one possibly argue that a whole generation is obsessed with something about which they do not talk?

Let us take the points one by one:

1) The use of AD was widespread throughout Carolingian Europe; not a monastery or church of any signficance did not have Bedan Easter Tables in which the point of entry (i.e., the already known information) is the year Anno Domini. As for peasants knowing the date, that depends on whether they wanted to know it or not; to posit ignorance is to posit indifference among commoners to the date of the End, a position for which there is little support at any point in Christian history.

2) There is a Christian tradition, especially strong in the Latin Church that dates back to the second century C.E. at the latest, that anticipates the End (however conceived) to the end of the current millennium (variously dated Annus Mundi); this tradition has a distinctly popular dimension to which Bede referred when he complained about rustici who want to know how many more years in the millennium. When the second millennial date 6000 (the first = 500, the second = 801 C.E.) had passed, the next "target date" became 1000, a date with an Augustinian pedigree. (See chart.)

3) Apocalyptic expectation is a profound mixture of the most extravagant fears and hopes; those who reduce it to a paralyzing fear for which they find no evidence (Plaine, Lot, Riché) not only fail to understand the ways in which the phenomenon can present itself (hope engenders actions like pilgrimage and peace councils), but also the dynamics of redating: those who fear feel relief at the passing of a date; those who hope feel disappointment and redate.

4) So just as one cannot restrict the evidence of apocalyptic belief to signs of fear, so one cannot restrict the role of an apocalyptic 1000 to the year itself: all great "dates" effect the period before and after, when apocalyptic hopefuls either jump the gun or "redate" after prophecy fails. Glaber openly alludes to this tendency when he points out how many expected the same extraordinary events around the millennium of the Passion as that of the Incarnation. Historians who argue in favor of an apocalyptic year 1000 point out that there are really two generations steeped in an apocalyptic Zeitgeist (Hugenholtz, Verhelst, Fried, Callahan, Landes)

5) The period tam ante quam post, circa tamen annum Christi Domini millesimum (Glaber) was one of immense ferment and change, not only evident to modern historians (l'école mutationiste), but also to contemporary observers like Glaber, Ademar of Chabannes, Theitmar of Meerseburg, etc.). To claim, as does Lot, that the peace councils that intensify in the decade before each millennial date (990-1000; 1023-1033), are just business as usual, is to mistake the radically extraordinary nature of the phenomenon. Quite the contrary, the Peace of God movement may be one of the most powerful and consequential chiliastic movements in the history of the West.

The question remains however: If so much went on, why do the texts not tell the story more clearly? Why is the vast bulk of this mountain of belief and activity submerged below the waterline of the documentation. To understand, we must consider the dynamics of apocalyptic rhetoric and the impact it has on the documentary record. There are two, fundamentally opposed stances about the nearness of the Apocalypse in any religion with a strong eschatological tradition like Christianity -- roosters and owls. Roosters crow the dawn is imminent, owls that the night is still young. In periods of rising apocalyptic expectation, the roosters crow in chorus, rousing and disturbing listeners sympathetic and hostile alike; the hoots of the owls are straw in the wind. After the failure of the apocalyptic expectations (historically one of the constants of apocalyptic moments -- they have all failed), the roosters are either soup or silent, and the owls dominate the discourse. Given the last laugh, the owls also dominate the documents and the archives, and in a religion whose elite is profoundly shaped by so towering an owl as Augustine, this translates into a documentary record -- particularly in periods of little writing and imperfect preservation -- into a paltry record of apocalyptic expectation. But rather than become the victims of the owls' trompe-l'oeuil, in which we read the documentation, as does Ferdinand Lot, as transparent on reality (few mentions, few instances), we need to read the surviving mentions of millennial apocalyptic (especially Rodulfus Glaber) as the tip of an iceberg. So rather than sweep the passages about apocalyptic expectation and the year 1000 away as so much flotsam and jetsam, if we examine these texts closely, they offer us precious insights into that largely invisible body below the waterline of documentation, the commoners of Europe.

Approached as a complex, dynamic, and highly protean phenomenon with the power to arouse the energies and imaginations of that normally passive mass of the population, the apocalyptic year 1000 offers important insights into the transformations of the period around the turn of the millennium. It is time that social historians began to take this aspect of popular Christian theology seriously in their analyses of the cultural and social mutation de l'an mil and the extraordinarily active and surprisingly autonomous population of commoners who, in succeeding generations will transform the rural, urban, and cultural landscape of western Europe.

There is an important difference to be noted between the impact of apocalyptic expectation in Eastern and Western Europe ca. 1000. In the West, especially France, where central authority was in disarray, the impact of apocalyptic beliefs tended to work from the bottom up, triggering large demonstrations of collective piety -- public penitential processions, mass pilgrimages, peace assemblies with huge crowds of peasants; in Central Europe, however, with the extraodinary, if short-lived Ottonian dominance of both imperial and papal thrones, apocalyptic rhetoric came from above and supported imperial themes. In the East this translated into missionary activity which, as in Hungary, worked from the top down, introducing not the popular Christianity of Peace councils and pilgrimages, but that of monarchical and episcopal authority. True to its protean nature, apocalyptic expectations thus had almost opposite impact on two different elements of Christendom -- depending on the cultural medium in which it expressed itself.

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