The end of the world. A final battle between good and evil. A cataclysm of unprecedented violence that ultimately results in the end of all sorrow and the renewal of humanity and the cosmos. Doomsday, The Day of Judgement, Frashokereti [Zoroastrianism], Ragnarok, are all part of a literary topos that is the logical conclusion of a basic human desire: that the never-ending battles, conflict, struggle and suffering that make up life, will come to an ultimate end and peace will reign. Given the violence and uncertainty our ancestors endured, it’s no wonder they pined for a day of pure harmony. It is also not surprising that they could never imagine ultimate peace occurring without the ultimate conflict. To travel to paradise was to walk through a veil of a tears. In Christianity the end of the world is called ‘apocalypse,’ a Greek word meaning ‘revelation,’ the last revelation of God, as revealed in the Book of Revelation. Yet, in common parlance, ‘apocalypse’ means the violent end of all things; an understandable misreading, given just how tumultuous the Bible depicts the end of the world. In Christian eschatology, a branch of theology dealing with the end of the world, the Beast of the Earth (commonly referred to as Antichrist) will seize dominion of the world. A final war ensues, after which Christ will return to rule over a thousand-year Millennial Kingdom, before a new heaven and Earth are created.
The very first Christians in the late first and early second centuries believed that Jesus would return in their lifetimes. This belief remained prevalent throughout the Christian persecutions, but it fell off dramatically after the Roman Empire converted to Christianity. The reasons for this theological change were understandable: first, it had been centuries since the life of Jesus of Nazareth, so people became more hesitant to predict his return. Second, the Christian leaders of the Roman Empire downplayed apocalypticism because it threatened their power. As historian Richard Landes argues, the belief that the corrupt and evil world leaders will get their come-uppance and the oppressed will be uplifted, makes eschatology a naturally rebellious form of theology. Leading scholars, among them Saint Augustine, dismissed apocalyptic predictions as crankery at best, heresy at worst. At one point Greek theologians even tried to remove the Book of Revelation from the Biblical canon, which is a pretty audacious thing to do since the last chapter of Revelation states,
“18 For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.”
I’m not going to lie, I’m not superstitious, but I am a little stitious, and the fact that Revelation implies that a person can be damned for changing its words is pretty scary. Apparently, Greek thinkers were unperturbed. Yet, no matter how much established figures nay-sayed the imminent coming of Judgement Day, anti-establishment figures and mystics predicted the end was nigh, and during times of war, famine and epidemic disease, their words could spur popular rebellion.
Apocalypticism was at a low point during the Carolingian era, but by the end of the 10th century it experienced a marked revival in France. Commoners saw horrors and strange signs all around them which they believed or hoped, heralded the return of Christ. There were many reasons why this occurred, the first of which was that many people believed that the year 1,000 held special significance. 1,000 is an important number in Christianity, especially in reference to eschatology. Many Christians at the time looked to the thousand-year anniversary of Christ’s birth as a natural starting-point for the end of the world.
Second, Christendom was under invasion from non-believers. Muslims threatened the southeastern frontier and, until 972, even set up their own state in Provence centered around Fraxinetum, whose mujahedeen regularly attacked holy sites and religious figures across Europe. Viking pagans conquered much of northern France and raided downriver. From the east came marauding shamanistic Magyar horsemen. The bishop of Auxerre lamented the superstitious belief of his flock, who claimed that the Viking and Magyar attacks were by Gog and Magog, two entities mentioned in the Book of Revelation who launch a final assault on the faithful.
Third, violence within France seemingly increased. The failure of the Carolingian House meant that the kingdom devolved into largely autonomous duchies and counties, whose magnates regularly fought with each other. Constant low-level fighting between Christians wearied the populace. Fourth, the end of the Carolingians and their replacement by the Capetians troubled many, who saw the new dynasty as usurpers. Fifth, there were a number of strange events recorded during the period. Abbo of Fleury reported that fires from heaven appeared across the kingdom, and people reported sightings of demons. In 989 Halley’s comet blazed in the night sky.
As is natural with anxiety, anxiety about one thing spurred anxiety about another. Fears about local violence led to exaggerated worries about country-wide instability. Reports of miraculous occurrences in one area led to talk of the supernatural in another. Peasants might explain a bad harvest as God’s displeasure, which they naturally blamed on corrupt leaders, which combined with stories of demonic sightings, led to belief that the realm was cursed. By the mid-tenth century abbot Adso of Montier-en-Der wrote an incredibly influential book on the Antichrist, fueling widespread beliefs in the region that the end of the world was nigh
Most high-ranking priests dismissed apocalyptic fears as peasant superstition incited by heretical lunatics. Yet, some priests and monks occasionally did believe that Judgement Day was fast approaching. The most famous source on this was Abbo, abbot of Saint Benoit of Fleury-sur-Loire. In a letter, translated by Richard Landes, he writes,
“‘Concerning the end of the world, as a youth I heard a sermon preached to the people in the Paris church to the effect that as soon as the number of one thousand years was completed, Antichrist would arrive, and not long after, the Last Judgment would follow. I resisted as vigorously as I could to that preaching, citing the Gospels, Revelation, and Daniel. Then my abbot Richard, of blessed memory and keen mind, rejected another error that grew about the end of the world; and after he received correspondence from Lotharingians, he ordered me to answer. For a rumor had filled almost the entire world that when the Annunciation fell on Good Friday, without any question it would be the end of the world.’”
Here Abbo records that a priest within an established church in Paris preached that the apocalypse was approaching; a remarkable thing given that the Catholic Church opposed such teachings. It is doubly shocking given that the priest in question spoke to the public, rather than debate eschatology privately with other priests. Thus, it is probable that belief in apocalypse was widespread; even if the majority of French people did not believe or even regularly talk about the end of the world, there were adherents to eschatological tenets across the kingdom.
Another prediction that Abbo mentioned was that the world would end on the 25 of March. This was when the Annunciation coincided with Good Friday, something which occurred every 11 years. Relevant to our time period, that would be 970, 981, 992, 1003, 1014, 1025 and 1036. Each time this date passed it caused an apocalyptic panic. That might surprise some of you rationalists, who ask, “Why would people who thought the world would end in 970, realize it was wrong later on, then look forward to the world ending in 981? Then when that didn’t happen they look forward in 992?” The answer is that just because something is factually wrong does not mean people stop believing in it. Humans typically believe things out of desire, rather than reason. Even when those beliefs are provably false people usually become more entrenched in their beliefs. The apocalypse is no exception; when one supposed apocalyptic date passed many simply looked forward to the next one.
Here it’s worth noting that our ancestors were not any less rational than modern humans. By point of comparison, in the early 1840s in the United States a large group of Christians heard pastor William Miller predict that the world would end on the 22ndof October 1844 based on his reading of the Book of Daniel. Thousands of people believed him, some selling everything they had in preparation for the end. But the world did not end, much to the woe of the Millerites, who referred to that day as ‘the Great Disappointment’ because they had been so looking forward to it. Yet, Miller’s movement did not die. His followers adjusted their beliefs, claiming that the world entered into a new period and that the ‘end’ was not physical but spiritual. This movement eventually became the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, a religious group that today has roughly 22 million members and is perhaps the fastest-growing denomination within Christianity and among the fastest-growing religious groups in the world. I could of course point to other failed predictors of apocalypse, such as Heaven’s Gate, or the Year 2,000 conspiracies. Many, including Star Wars creator George Lucas, worried that the world would end in 2012 because the Mayan Calendar ended on that date, and Roland Emmerich even made a terrible disaster movie called 2012 about just that. Never mind that the Mayan calendar did not end because of any apocalyptic predictions, and in fact ended because the Spanish conquistadors conquered them and persecuted their non-Christian beliefs. Apologies for this diversion but I think it’s worth remembering that we are, unfortunately, not usually more rational than our predecessors.
As France neared the millennium kingly troubles exacerbated anxieties. Robert II married his cousin Bertha, leading to the Papacy threatening to excommunicate him in 998. The idea that their king would be denied communion and condemned to hellfire unless he repented frightened devout Christians. While the church opposed apocalypticism, their attempts to suppress these beliefs had mixed results. One problem stemmed from the Bible’s claim that in the End Days there will be many false prophets. Rudolfus Glaber, a monk of Cluny claimed that the church condemning so many as heretics for believing in imminent apocalypse was itself a sign of imminent apocalypse!
Eschatological fears crescendoed in the year 1,000. People reported unprecedented earthquakes. Pilgrims traveled to Jerusalem in greater numbers. Some sold their belongings. Yet, that year passed and the world did not end. Still, that did not dismay the doomsayers, who saw even more signs of the end. Landes records that “the years after 1000 are unusually rich in distinctly apocalyptic incidents-prodigies; near Orleans, a terrible famine, the horrifying plague of holy fire, a supernova spotted the world over in 1003-6, and in 1009-14 more prodigies and disasters, a rain of blood, and the slaughter of Jews in response to al-Hakim’s destruction of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.” Even after 1,000, Rudolfus and others simply believed the end was coming at a different date. He first justified an extension by claiming if the Antichrist was released in 1,000 then he would be defeated 3 and a half years later. When 1003 came and went, others predicted that the end would occur one thousand years after Christ’s death in the year 32 rather than his birth. Meanwhile each passing of 25 March when Good Friday and Annunciation coincided brought with them renewed worries. In 1028 accounts tell of a rain of blood in Aquitaine, which was so widely believed that Duke Guillaume V of Aquitaine, King Robert II, and leading bishops and abbots sent letters to each other on the matter. The years 1030-1032 witnessed horrendous famines. Many believers held that this was when the world would finally end, and there were mass pilgrimages to Jerusalem.
The world did not end. Good harvests returned in 1033. Robert II expanded his power in France and brought more order to the country. The Norsemen largely abandoned their raiding and became the Normans, living similar lives to their French counterparts. The Magyar invasions ended. Al-Andalus fell to civil war and collapsed in 1031, while Christians in the north seized more territory, securing France’s southwestern border. King Robert II had abandoned Bertha in the early 1000s and revived his reputation for piety. Meanwhile, he “burned heretics in his capital of Orléans,” [Landes] and oppressed them throughout the country as he and the church sought to finally end these end-times conspiracies. As France stabilized apocalypticism declined among the masses and became the purview of mystics.
For a long time, the history of the millennial panic was lost. Following 1871, French historians with a renewed sense of rationalist fervor dismissed millennial apocalypticism as a myth. This narrative dominated for a century, as the sources for the millennial panic were few and there were even fewer historians writing on it. Moreover, those surviving written sources are generally by elites who naturally dismissed apocalyptic fears as common superstition, heresy and an affront to their own power.
The people who believed in the coming apocalypse did not leave behind much written material. Most were illiterate or semi-literate. Those who could write had their works burned or they were otherwise lost to time. Not that many of them would spend much time writing on the apocalypse. After all, why leave a record when the world is about to end and no one will read your work? And afterwards, why write on the apocalypse that didn’t happen? The only reason to write on the apocalypse would be if someone suspected the apocalypse was coming but was not entirely convinced.
A strict reading of the sources naturally led many historians to dismiss the idea of a millennial panic as fanciful. But recent historiography has recovered this lost chapter of history by reading between the lines. Landes and his colleagues critique the remaining written material, which is almost always critical of apocalyptic thinking. They hold that increased accusations of heresy and mysticism point to a real eschatological anxiety. While direct sources on apocalypticism are rare, the fact that we have them at all says something; indirectly there is far more material.
I am inclined to believe that the millennial apocalypticism was a real, fairly widespread event. There are enough sources of fantastic events and fantastical descriptions of events to imply end of times beliefs. Additionally, this era coincided with a time of increased interest in chronology. Moreover, this period was filled with both anxiety and piety. Anxiety, because the 200-year Carolingian Empire collapsed, France fragmented and it faced incredible violence from without and within. Piety, because to combat this violence laypeople joined with local religious leaders to use Christianity to end violence in the Peace of God movement, which is the topic of the next episode.
All of the necessary ingredients for apocalyptic fears were present and a millennial panic probably did grip France from the 970s to the 1030s. But in 1032 the millennial anniversary of Jesus’ crucifixion passed uneventfully. France had survived the apocalypse.
The Catholic Encyclopedia
Richard Landes, “The Fear of an Apocalyptic Year 1000: Augustinian Historiography, Medieval and Modern,” Speculum, Vol. 75, No. 1 (Jan., 2000), 97-145.
The Bible, New King James Version