Recognizing Millennialism in the Middle Ages

A position paper for the Center for Millennial Studies
Dr. Johannes Fried

The existence of millenarianism does not go without saying. So it is not just useful, but indispensable to start with few remarks about definitions, sources and the applied and adequate hermeneutics. According to the character of this paper I am not going to discuss all statements at length, there may be many other opinions about the topic; I give mine.

Christian eschatology has two aspects and has been prone to extremes from the beginning, when the second coming of the Messiah, which had been expected during the lifetime of the first Christians, was delayed again and again. The believer has to await the end of the world eagerly and yet has to pray for delay, at least for the sinners; he or she really looks forward to the everlasting life and yet really fears the Last Judgement. Of course, it is forbidden to calculate the exact span of time the world will spin (disregarding for a moment that this spinning was far from sure) and it is known that God did everything in number and proportion (Sap. 11, 21) giving a huge amount of hints about days, years, millennia in His Scriptures together with a clear statement of hopelessness for human knowledge to cope with the problem (Matt. 24,36). So if anyone (like Abbo of Fleury) rails against giving any exact date of this world's end, what does it mean? Of course, it is no direct proof that millenarianism existed in Abbo’s day; but considering the medieval frame of mind concerning the questions given above, it is no proof of the opposite either. The believer was warned to calculate and to live as if the last days were at hand, but laziness and being too sure that the Last Judgment is far away was forbidden too. "Not yet" is "just now" in terms of uncertainty.

During the tenth century the "now" indicates the nearly expected end, that the apocalyptic future was at hand [Odo of Cluny, Collationes II,37]. I would like to generalize: the ambiguity of "awaiting the near end" (Naherwartung) during the Middle Ages, not to mention the fact that every prediction failed, is what makes the sources more or less speechless about the existence of millennialism. Often those who came after apocalyptic authors eliminated every ambiguity in the record and disguised prediction: they simply knew better, this time. This means that we have to be aware of the slightest remark, the most tiny hint as an indicator of a millennial high-tide; utterances against millennarism become crucial indicators of eschatological terrors. During the whole drama called the Middle Ages (at least when performed by Christians in the Old World) the end of the world was near; what we are used to calling millennaristic periods were times when the end was nearer.

With this general setting in mind, a certain pattern of apocalyptic expectations is easily recognized, connected with the Jewish calendar and Jewish apocalyptisism in general. The peaks of millennialism during the Middle Ages are approximately at about 100, 400, 800, 1 000 and 1250 (Joachim of Fiore) CE. For the remainder of this paper I would like to concentrate especially on the year 1000 (and there are in fact are several years connected with it), the last turn of the millennium, where we find a wide range of telling and typical attitudes toward apocalypticism, which I would like to sketch. [Details: Fried 1989. The best overview for the preceding centuries may be Landes 1988, also giving further literature; for ca. 800, see Brandes forthcoming and Fried 1994, 332ff.]

"Apocalyptic" signs, from the beginning, preluded famines, wars, all sorts of illness and even death. Biblical examples were at hand. In the early eleventh century these signs were scrutinized according to a preset order, counting down the end of the world. Searching for the exact time of the great event, people used apocalyptic signs to make sense of the present and get a glimpse of the future. The attitude was fueled (and is for historians indicated) by the widespread impression that, whatever one is doing, one has to hurry. Robert the Pious of France, asking Gauzlin of Fleury for the meaning of the rain of blood in Acquitaine, demands an answer "with this same messenger"; Fulbert of Chartres, "festinanter," sends his disturbing interpretation. We should be aware that the above mentioned people were not exactly what we may call the uneducated, illiterate masses. Looking for precedents and signs in books of history, chronicles and some apocalyptic texts of diverse sorts was a habit of intellectuals, and their methods were not far from being scientific. The year 1000 in fact encompasses a lot of years, even if we disregard the general uncertainty about the exact hour of the end. It was well known to intellectuals that the Christian chronology was hopeless. When did Jesus die? Abbo of Fleury calculated the year 1000 after Christ's passion, the most meaningful date in eschatological debates, for the 'regular' 1012 CE; Christ was bom 21 years BC. Heriger of Lobbes fixed 1042, while Sigebert of Gembloux agreed with Abbo; the complete list would be long. In looking for eschatological movements caused by the coming of the year "1000", we therefore have to take into account the years 979 to 1033/1034, or even to 1042.

These letter-writing intellectuals are, together with Adso of Montier-en-Der and his letter to the west-frankish queen Gerberga, the only eschatologically affected people we know by name. The only chronicler who reports fears about the millenium is Radulfus Glaber. Where are the rest? A letter written by an unknown monk to the bishop of Verdun (Berengar or Wicfred) about 960 may provide the crucial hint: they hid themselves to hide their shame [Migne PL 13 1, col. 963-8; Fried 1989, 385 n.13]. A bishop is by no means allowed to fear the Last Judgement or the second coming of Christ, and is to beware calculating it in public. "Whoever is upset by the troubles of this world is God's enemy," writes the hidden monk. No names, no fears?

The first millenium met a commonly shared, holistic concept of the world, which may well be called magic. Nature and history formed a unity; everything was affected by, and could affect, everything else. The Christian king--who, in the contemporary view, did not act in a separate, autonomous political sphere--was, besides his usual duties, responsible for understanding the present and scrutinizing the ftiture. Otto's III cloak, ornamented with scenes of the Apocalypse, was no counterpoint to the medieval idea of kingship.

Apocalypticism is nothing to laugh at; shouldn't we take it exactly as seriously as the times we are interested in? If it was an issue in medieval society (I think it certainly was), it should be an issue in our research. Being more historical means to make our questions, concepts and preoccupations more and more adequate to the things we already know about the Middle Ages, it means getting rid of the modernistic bias. A good example is the fear about the year 1000, which was (and is) taken for granted by generations of historians. No fear, no millenarianism? Fear was just one side of the medal; the more important may have been penitence and the initiating of good deeds and a new life. The anticipated coming of the end did not paralyze the fideles. On the contrary: they hurried to change their lives and prepare for the things to come. Make things new! "as if the earth wanted to get rid of her age to dress in the garment of shining cathedrals." [Radulfus Glaber, Histories, III,4,13].


Brandes, Wolfram (forthcoming), Endzeiterwartung um das Jahr 800 in Byzanz und dem Westen [unpublished book-manuscript]. Fried, Johannes (1989), Endzeiterwartung um die Jahrtausendwende, Deutsches Archivfiir Erforschung des Mittelalters 45, 381-473. Fried, Johannes (1994), Der Weg in die Geschichte, Propylden Geschichte Deutschiands, vol. 1: bis 1024, Berlin.
Fried, Johannes (forthcoming), Awaiting the Last Days... Myth and Disenchantment
Fried, Johannes (forthcoming), Time and Eternity in the Eschatology of the Guennol Triptych
Landes, Richard (1988), "Lest the Millenium be Fulfilled: Apocalyptic Expectations and the Pattern of Western Chronography 100-800 CE", The Use and Abuse of Eschatology in the Middle Ages, ed. by Wemer Verbeke and others, Leuven/Belgium.

Johannes Fried, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universitat Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

Copyright 1997 by the Center for Millennial Studies. All Rights Reserved.

Return to CMS Article Page

Return to CMS Home Page