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Millennial Fears in the Year 1000: Apocalypse Forever

Millennial Fears in the Year 1000: Apocalypse Forever

New York Times
July 17th 1999

When Patricia Bernstein, a Houston writer long fascinated by the Middle Ages, began research for an article about the year 1000, she was under an impression shared by many educated Americans.

The turn of the last millennium, she believed, was a time of apocalyptic panic, fevered preaching, penitential excesses and, for the Christian faithful, ominous signs and wonders. Daily work was set aside and property, even family, abandoned as Christian Europe waited in both dread and hope for the end of the world and the Last Judgment. Call it the Y1K problem. All very exotic, very dramatic and, as it turned out, very likely untrue.

Ms. Bernstein had barely begun her research when she found that historians generally dismiss this vision of what happened at the turn of the last millennium. More surprising yet, they had been dismissing it for more than a hundred years.

To mimic Gilbert and Sullivan, this climax apocalyptical was actually quite apocryphal. It was a tale, the historical consensus went, that was concocted out of far more imagination than evidence. “Alas for human fallibility!” lamented George Lincoln Burr, an American historian, as early as 1901.

At the most elementary level, there was the problem of the calendar. More than four centuries before the year 1000, Dionysius Exiguus, a monk and mathematician, devised a calendar that numbered years forward and backward from what he thought was the date of Christ’s birth, rather than from various dates in Roman history or other starting points. But as Europe approached the millennium, this calendar was still not universally used.

Nor did everyone agree on the date when one year ended and the next began — whether it was Christmas, Jan. 1, March 25, Good Friday or Easter. Rural life was measured less by years than by the cycles of planting and harvesting, holy days and the feast days of saints.
So were there religious terrors and overwrought expectations of the Final Judgment in the year 999? Absolutely. Also in the years 899, 1199, 1299 — you name it. One might as well turn the question around and ask, “How could it have been otherwise?”

In the period before the millennium, Christian outposts in Europe were struggling against wave after wave of invaders, among them Muslim Saracens and pagan Vikings and Magyars. In addition, there were the usual run of famines and epidemics.

“Medieval folk lived in a more or less constant state of apocalyptic expectation,” said Bernard McGinn, a leading scholar of medieval religion at the University of Chicago. The problem, McGinn wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism” (Continuum, 1968), which he edited, is that “it is by no means clear that fears of the end were more general circa 1000 than at other periods in the Middle Ages.”

So how did the idea of millennial frenzy a thousand years ago originate, and why?
For Ms. Bernstein, that became the real question. The answer, as she recounts it in the most recent issue of Smithsonian magazine, has a lot more to do with modern beliefs than medieval ones.

Her search for an explanation led to the year 1605 and Caesar Baronius, a Roman Catholic cardinal. Writing a church history after Reformation-era upheavals and polemics, Baronius said that at the turn of the first millennium rumors of the coming of the Antichrist abounded.

Working its way into many standard accounts, the cardinal’s statement was further elaborated by Protestant and rationalist historians who were predisposed to contrast their own Age of Reason with what they viewed as Catholic superstition in the earlier Dark Ages.

But it was Jules Michelet, a 19th-century French historian, who etched this tale into modern consciousness. In his epic accounts of the Middle Ages and the French Revolution, Michelet portrayed the French people as a kind of collective Romantic hero struggling against the tyranny of priests and kings.

In his multivolume “History of France,” Michelet painted a vivid picture of the year 1000, with prisoners, serfs, monks and lords universally awaiting the trumpet blast announcing the end of the world, and painfully torn between fear of divine wrath and anticipation of divine justice. It was a picture that perfectly expressed Michelet’s outlook, equating religion with superstition, endowing ordinary people with a potentially revolutionary energy and satisfying the Romantic taste for melodramatic conflict.

Relying on an analysis of the Y1K problem by the historian Peter Stearns of Carnegie-Mellon University, Ms. Bernstein reports that Michelet’s successors indulged “an even stronger antichurch rhetoric.”

“Later French writers suggested that greedy churchmen had encouraged millennial fears deliberately so that people would give their material possessions to the church in hopes of salvation,” she says.

Writer after writer added macabre and colorful details, and the story migrated into poems, plays and popular novels even as historians began to pick it apart.

Well, not all historians. Michelet has something of a defender in Richard Landes, a medievalist who directs the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University and who presents his case on the center’s Web site ( As Ms. Bernstein acknowledges, Landes maintains that apocalypticism did reach a crest — if not exactly around the year 1000, then in the decades before and after.

If there is scant documentary evidence for that, Landes says, it is because the churchmen who wrote the history and preserved the records were embarrassed by the fact that the world did not come to an end. More importantly, they were constrained by church teaching that condemned efforts to predict exactly the end of the world.

The notion of a conspiracy of silence and censorship is intriguing. In one respect it turns the earlier argument upside down: instead of a church malignly whipping up apocalyptic fervor in order to seize the flock’s belongings, here is a church sternly stamping out apocalyptic fancies in order to preserve its own credibility and to discourage any radical visions that could threaten its established status. Either way, of course, the church is the villain.

But McGinn told Ms. Bernstein that Landes’ “hidden millennialism is a figment of his imagination.”

That appears to remain the prevailing view.

Could it be, therefore, that the fears and hysteria surrounding the coming of the year 1000 were nothing compared to those surrounding the coming of the year 2000? If so, who is living in the Dark Ages?

Copyright New York Times July 17th 1999