The Fear of an Apocalyptic Year 1000: Augustinian Historiography, Medieval and Modern
By Richard Landes
Speculum, Vol. 75, No. 1 (2000)
Introduction: In 1901 George Lincoln Burr published an article in the American Historical Review in which he summarized for American historians a new consensus among their European colleagues: the arrival of the year 1000 had not provoked any apocalyptic expectations. This position completely reversed the previous view championed in the mid-nineteenth century by historians like Jules Michelet, who had drawn a dramatic picture of mass apocalyptic expectations climaxing in the year 1000. Despite extensive advances in scholarship since 1900, medieval historians continue to accept and repeat this revisionist position, a position that is methodologically jejune and that almost completely ignores the social dynamics of millennial beliefs. This paper proposes to reconsider the issue from the perspective of the more sophisticated understanding of the phenomenon made possible by two generations of millennial scholarship.
For Michelet the liberating power of this eschatological fervor-arousing hope in the oppressed and terror in the oppressors – was the key to the transformations of eleventh-century France. Other historians of the period readily embroidered on this theme of Apocalypse and revolution, although in time the emphasis shifted from revolutionary hope to paralyzing terror. Eventually, the picture became an anti-clerical caricature: greedy priests and monks manipulated the fears of commoners to extort gifts of land and money.
Shortly after the revolutionary catastrophe of the Paris Commune in 1871, however, a powerful reaction set in among both ecclesiastical and increasingly “professionalized” (i.e., positivist) secular historians, who now categorically rejected the “terrors of the year 1000” as a romantic legend. There was, these historians argued, simply no evidence to support a picture of an entire society quaking in fear at the approach of a date that, they contended, few contemporaries even knew about. Most of the documents invoked by the “terrors” school turned out, upon close examination, either to be about a different date (1010, 1033) or were later texts reflecting the composer’s fantasy rather than any evidence from the year 1000. Moreover, nothing in Scripture gave any reason to expect the Apocalypse in 1000. The scriptural millennium, they pointed out, was not a chronological marker, but the period of a messianic kingdom to come; and even that notion had disappeared from Christian beliefs since Augustine had banned it in the fifth century. To the contrary, nothing in the sources distinguished the year 1000 from any other year. This radical revision of the turn of the first Christian millennium became an integral part of European and, through Burr, American historiography by the early twentieth century. By the mid-twentieth century a prominent historian could merely note in passing that this “myth has been effectively banished from serious historical writing,” without even citing a reference.