Letters Archive
Spring 1996, Vol. 4, No. 2
  • The South, Religion, and the Scopes Trial
  • The Earlier Millennium
  • The Cosmology and Eschatology of the Ghulâlt
  • The Earlier Millennium


    This year's Fellows' seminar at the Humanities Center is concerned with apocalyptic notions and the sense of time, its endings and beginnings, a topic prompted by the impending arrival of 2000 A.D. In the media, the millennial event seems to have prompted only two kinds of stories: an obsession with what to call the first decade of the new century (the "O's, 'l "zeros," "noughts") and the matter of accuracy (the year 2001 is the beginning of the new era, not the turn from 1999 to 2000). Led by Professors Margaret Doody and David Wood, the Fellows have examined issues concerning the rise of apocalyptic fervor surrounding the turn of the century and of the millennium, especially with respect to contemporary culture.

    There is, of course, a precedent of sorts within the European system of dating by reference to the year of Christ's birth: the celebrations that attended the year 1000. One would have to wonder if on the eve of the millennium the Europeans, far from hoisting glasses of not yet invented Champagne, were terrified by an expectation of the end of the world. Historians have changed their minds about whether or not there was an apocalyptic climate at the time and the degree to which it was connected to the millennial calendar. Ademar of Chabannes, a monk of Angouleme, and Raoul Glaber, a Burgundian monk, in sermons and historical narratives, describe disasters and terror that inspired the population of southern France. The venerable Carolingian dynasty had been replaced in France by upstarts, culminating with the betrayal of the last Carolingian claimant by erstwhile allies in 991, a deed that reminded contemporaries of Judas. Halley's comet blazed through the sky in the summer of 989; in 992 the date of the Annunciation coincided with Good Friday; as 1000 approached, waves of the frenzy known as St. Anthony's Fire brought on by ergot poisoning (from spoiled grain) brought on mass hallucinations that seemed to fulfill the prophecy of Revelations 9:5. The beginnings of the Peace of God movement to disarm the knights who were the source of so much disorder and misery was started in this era, arising out of a combination of apocalyptic fear and hope brought on by warnings followed by penance and miracles, so ably described in recent works by Richard Landes of Boston University.

    And yet most medievalists would tend to dismiss accounts of the supposed fear of the turn of the first millennium. The monastic chroniclers on whom this impression was based wrote at some distance and invented a considerable amount of their stories to publicize and make more vivid the miracles associated with the particular saints' cults of their monasteries. Additionally, the presence of apocalyptic expectation does not mean it was centered on the year 1000. The second coming of Christ has always been a central problem in Christianity, and the last book of the New Testament encourages a hunt for portents that has a similar appeal among many Christians today as it had a thousand years ago.

    Perhaps the greatest flaw in positing widespread fear of the year 1000 is the lack of uniformity and even indifference over measurements of time. The custom of dating from the Incarnation, started in sixth-century North Africa and Italy, was adopted by Bede in England and spread to most of Europe by the ninth century. Other systems of reckoning the year were not, however, displaced. Some used the regnal year of a king (thus "in the fifth year of the reign of King Louis") or calculated on the basis of the indiction, a fifteen-year cycle usually beginning with the equivalent of 312 A.D., the year of Constantine's conversion. In Spain, calculations were based on the "era" which began with 38 B.C. ("era millesima octava" would equal 970 A.D.). Furthermore, there was very little unanimity about when a new year was supposed to begin. Some calculated from January 1, but the Annunciation (March 25) was far more common and Christmas, Easter, or several days in September were frequently used according to local custom. Finally, in a period that, to put it mildly, was less driven by time calculation than ours, events were thought of in connection with each other (the year of the spring famine, the eclipse) rather than arrayed on an abstract grid of numbers.

    Monasteries were certainly quite adept at time calculations both from an Augustinian sense of the passage of sacred history and the practical need to figure out the complex problem of when Easter would occur, which is quite a feat if one cannot simply rely on someone else's calendar. There were unusually intense social and religious movements centered around the year 1000 and in a curious way, medieval historians have replicated, or created themselves, a numerological mysticism around this event. The standard accounts of the final decay of the ancient world and the beginnings of feudal society give 1000 as the conventional date, as a shorthand (in French historiography, the whole series of changes that are thought to mark the be ginning of the Middle Ages properly speaking is expressed as "la mutation de l'an mil" the change of the year 1000). This convenient coincidence is now being undermined by new interpretations of evidence and different approaches to the utility of such abstractions as "feudal society." At the same time, there is some greater degree of credence given to accounts of apocalyptic movements of the late tenth and early eleventh centuries that might not have had the turn of the millennium as their exclusive motivation, but at least saw the thousandth anniversary of the In carnation as significant.

    Paul H. Freedman is Professor of History and Director of the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities.

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