Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Archive for April 4, 2014

Humans and the End Times:

[This is limited to Europe and the Middle East.]

Amanat states that religions originating in the Middle East – Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam – all share broadly similar apocalyptic beliefs, often in a millennialist framework. This was, perhaps, partly a way of understanding the passage of time in general.

An obvious focus of millennialist beliefs was the year 1000. Fried argues that Europe broadly awaited the end of the world then, and any extraordinary events, even seasonal changes, were seen as prophetic. For example, it was reported that blood rained for three days in Aquitane in 1027. The Duke of Aquitane immediately informed the king, and the agitated Robert the Pious immediately wrote to Gauzlin of Fleury for clerical advice. Around the turn of the millenium, signs were observed by everyone, from the peasantry to the high aristocracy, to ascertain the time of the end of the world. It has even been argued that these apocalyptic expectations were the cause of an enhanced awareness of sin and thus the extraordinary piety around the 11th century, part of the causation for so many major medieval developments such as the crusades. This was, of course, part of a magical worldview shared by all social strata, and the statement in the Scripture that no one knows the day and the hour of the apocalypse except God surely did little to ease any fears. On the other hand, it should be remembered that this was also a time of intense violence and disorder, in which royal powers in France in particular were too weak to enforce justice: hence local warfare was very prevalent.

It seems, indeed, that apocalyptic fears arise most often in times of rapid change or disorder. Sebeos, writing in Armenia in the 7th century following the early Muslim invasions that both destroyed the Persian Empire and much reduced the power and prestige of the Byzantines quickly defaulted to an apocalyptic conclusion in the face of these events. He sees the Arab invasions as a fulfilment of Daniel’s prophecy: “This fourth, arising from the south is the Kingdom of Ishmael, just as the archangel explained (to Daniel), “The fourth beast, the fourth kingdom, shall arise, which shall be greater than all kingdoms; and it will consume the whole earth”. Furthermore, he concludes: “‘The day of [the Arabs’] destruction is close; the Lord has arrived upon them in readiness”. Turmoil and quick political change were thus something that brought the end of times into the mind of a historian. This was not, however, unique to Armenia, and Byzantine authors of the period also predicted that the End was close at hand. For the Byzantines, the time was one of decline not only in military terms but also economically, and politically the empire saw coups d’etat.

Similarly, the Mongols, who invaded much of Eastern Europe and the Middle East in the 13th century, were promptly cast into an apocalyptic role as the tribes of Gog and Magog who too signaled the end of the world. These two occasions of millennialist fears appear to be an attempt to put new circumstances into a familiar framework of a Christian conception of history. If God willed all that happened, it had to be the case that the armies invading Christian lands would have been part of his plan. Historical moments found meaning through the way in which they were linked to divine intentions. Of course, after the situation became more permanent more pragmatic policies were followed: the Latin Christendom, for example, attempted to make alliances with the Mongols to gain influence and territory in the Middle East.

Millennialism around c. 1000 seems to have been more linked to general disorder, the year 1000, and the generally pessimistic Medieval world view: degeneration, after the Classical times or even Charlemagne’s reign, was apparent, and supernatural occurrences such as the rain of blood were further signs that the end was nigh. This is probably also the reason why apocalyptic fears were not as prominent in more prosperous times, or after great military successes. One of the most prominent aspects of an imminent apocalypse was a struggle between Good and Evil, and this could easily explain military conflicts and barbarian invasions that were incomprehensible if not part of “God’s plan” for mankind.