Last week Cambridge University Press published my new book, The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages! This, I thought, would be a good time to reflect on a couple of themes from the book.
The idea that people believed that the world would end, and probably soon, is often not taken too seriously. For many modern readers, the point of comparison is often cults, often something like Waco. It is all a bit marginal. Or silly. No rational person would believe such a thing. Besides: look at all the evidence that does not ever refer to apocalyptic desires!
The apocalyptic isn’t like that. It appears in many cultures and situations in different guises. Often people assume it generates hysteria and fatalism; many studies have shown that it can provoke reason and inquiry, and channels emotions in uncertain times.
Last week, for instance, the Washington Post ran a story, blaming apocalyptic beliefs for a lack of action on climate change. Too many people in the States – 49%! – thought that global warming was linked to the End Times somehow. This interpretation of the survey material did not adequately explain why so many people both believed in the link and wanted to act. Nor, of course, did it explain much about the lacklustre performance of the remaining 51%….
The rhetoric of climate change is often itself apocalyptic. The world is ending: what will you do? Many people will want to fight, even if the odds are high. It helps, of course, if that anxiety for action can be channeled somehow. Saying we are all doomed and that’s it might not inspire positive results; saying we are all doomed but there’s a plan is better.
It’s at this point I will turn to the early Middle Ages. In the course of my research, I have became convinced that the key feature of apocalypse – at least then – was the desire for reform. People believed that the end might come at any time, either for them individually or for the world as a whole. Most of these believers wanted to be judged well, and the threat of imminent judgement often encouraged them to do something sooner rather than later.
In my opening story, an earthquake shakes the imperial city of Constantinople in 557. Self-proclaimed prophets say it is the end, and for a time people are frightened into living better lives… not into fatalism! But, as is so often the way, the fears subside, and everyone goes back to their old ways.
(Interestingly, Agathias – our source for this – goes on to explain that it was really a social disaster, which is the kind of analysis people weren’t supposed to be into until Rousseau and the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake…).
The story of 557 highlights lots of the kind of things which modern historians (notably Richard Landes) like to pin on apocalypticism, such as hysteria. Hysteria is not, however, the only response. Let’s take the example of Gregory of Tours, everyone’s favourite historian of the Merovingian period. He also has a couple of stories about crypto-apocalyptic hysteria. The most famous one is about someone who proclaims himself to be a new Christ, renames his sister Mary, and leads a merry band of lay and religious folk to attack Le Puy with naked dancers. This, one might conclude, is exactly the kind of madness you might expect of people who believe the end is coming.
Except. The interesting thing about Gregory’s story is that it is Gregory who makes it an apocalyptic episode. Characters such as the False Christ of Bourges, Gregory opines, are the pseudo-prophets warned of in Scripture. They herald the end times. What we have, it seems, is a popular movement with possibly apocalyptic interests being portrayed negatively by a relatively sober-minded official with a different view of how the apocalyptic works.
Then, of course, we have to think about what Gregory is up to. Well, there no one can come to a consensus. Until Martin Heinzelmann’s 1994 study of Gregory, most people thought Gregory’s work was a form of chaos, but not everyone agrees with Heinzelmann’s assessment of Gregory having a clear plan either. I like to think that Gregory was moralising in an entertaining manner – warning anyone of the right social standing to have access to his Histories about the fragility of the world (and the importance of Gregory too, no doubt). This would mean that Gregory’s apocalypticism was not hysterical and marginal. Rather, Gregory believed in the urgency for action, when faced with civil war, plague, famine, violence, and an end of the world that could logically come at any moment. Or not. But he did not want to be caught not trying.
And that’s the thing about the apocalyptic. It doesn’t have to be everywhere announced hysterically or the subject of unconvincing predictions. Anyone who reads the New Testament can see that Christ promised that there would be an end, but that when was a matter for God alone. The logical position for Gregory, then, would be to prepared in the face of uncertainty. Johannes Fried argued back in 1989 that many people, including mainstream figures, were often energised to pursue positive things when they considered the approaching end in the Middle Ages. That’s what most of early medieval apocalypticism is like. I would expect more than one person, convinced of the fragility of the modern world, to be motivated to action too -not reduced to fatalism or hysteria.