I’m reading a book right now about messianic eschatology in the middle ages — Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millenium. I saw it for sale on the street while I was on my way downtown, but hesitated just long enough for the bookseller to tell me that all books were one dollar. So I grabbed it and he immediately retreated to “Normally I’d charge five or ten for that one… Good eye.” I felt a little bad for taking advantage of him, because it’s a really nice book, but I figure don’t make the pitch if you don’t want to honour it, right? I probably would have walked by if he hadn’t said that.
I don’t read much serious non-fiction anymore. What use is it to me what heretical cults in the thirteenth century thought about the end of the world? It makes me feel like a bit of a Clavin. The knowledge flows through me like water without getting me wet, if you know what I mean. Writing about it helps though.
After reading the back flap I realized that I’ve read another book by him, Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith. Although Cohn is a historian and TPotM is aimed at an academic audience, he’s an uncommonly talented storyteller. These tales feature a multitude of messiahs and ascetics who sprouted up throughout Europe to proclaim their, and their followers’, world-historical importance in the eschatological fantasies of an imminent End Time, when a Warrior Christ would return to judge the wicked, overthrow the rule of Anti-Christ (usually identified with the Pope) and rule as Emperor over a thousand-year kingdom of true believers. It’s a belief which has persisted for thousands of years now, right up through the present-day American president, and it’s difficult to exaggerate the amount of bloodshed it has caused. In the twelfth century the crusading Pastoreux travelled from town to town to “convert” the Jews, (the conversion of the Jews to Christianity being one of the common features of apocalyptic prophecy), and it wasn’t long before people figured out that there’s more than one way to purge the world of non-believers. Jews who refused baptism were slaughtered en masse by the followers of various messianic figures who, as a commentator at the time put it, “sought to please God in that way.”
The changes taking place in the tenth and eleventh and twelfth centuries provided fertile soil for millenial fantasy. The feudal arrangement between armed, landed nobility and the serfs, for all its injustice, at least had the weight of timeless tradition behind it; a codified set of historical rights to protection that the Lord owed to his serfs, and which the latter did not hesitate to enforce through rebellion and uprising. With the emergence of the capitalist merchant class and urbanization, this covenant broke down and serfs became renters and flocked to cities. Cohn shows how this societal upheaval, the anxieties it created in the poor, their dissatisfaction with a clergy that had become too compromised by weath, hermetic isolation, or political interests to fulfill their spiritual needs, and the natural catastrophes of famines and plagues which befell them, all of these forces ensured a sympathetic hearing to any holy-man willing to annouce that the poor had a role as God’s favoured people in paving the way for Christ’s return. This apocalyptic ideology is of a piece with Nazi fantasies of a thousand-year Reich. It is also an ideology which has grown dramatically in the U.S. during the past half-century, and that’s a thought that keeps me up at night.
I haven’t finished it yet, right now I’m on chapter 8, “An Elite of Amoral Supermen” (the chapter titles are wonderfully evokative; the chapter on flagellant movements, “An Elite of Self-Immolating Redeemers” being my favorite), which deals with the anarchistic Cult of the Free Spirit who preached radical freedom and mystical eroticism. Fascinating stuff, I hope to write more about it soon.