Ceasing to fear the End in the millennial Limousin

[This entry was written as a part of a larger one over the Christmas period of 2013/2014, and stuck in the queue at a position I’ve only now reached in my backlog. The second part, which bore no actual connection, will follow in a couple of posts’ time. I’ve completed the links, images and footnotes and edited for better style, but the text is still something I wrote in my previous job and this shows. I think it’s still interesting though!]

It’s probably the kind of thing that belongs in a list of phrases headed by, “You know you’re a medievalist when…”, when you select a medieval French cartulary for your holiday reading. Although the cartulary of Beaulieu is relevant to one of my eternally-developing draft papers, as those with long memories may recall, it wasn’t exactly relevant to what I should have been doing over the holiday, which was substantially write about the Spanish frontier and work up course materials for a course on the Apocalypse. And yet, by that process of scholarly coincidence that seems to follow us around, the thing that was in front of me turns out to have a strange relevance.

The abbey of Saint-Pierre de Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne

The abbey of Saint-Pierre de Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, original home of said cartulary. Par Wester (Travail personnel) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ou CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.

You may be aware from previous exchanges on this here blog between myself, others and Professor Richard Landes that there is something of a debate over the significance of the date 1000 A. D. for those who lived shortly before or through it. With various more-or-less reputable Biblical or Patristic texts fairly set on the idea that Christ could be expected to return after a thousand years, it’s certainly understandable that such prospects might have worried those alert enough to chronology to realise this, or those to whom they preached, but there is little or no agreement about how many people those people were, how widespread and how influential, and the whole debate has become somewhat impassioned and polemical.1 One of the counter-arguments made against the original idea of the ‘terrors of the year 1000’, in which this was supposed to be a general cause of worry and social upheaval in the run-up to 1000 or 1033 (1000 + Christ’s birth and crucifixion respectively) was that texts suggesting the end of the world was imminent are fairly easy to find long before 1000. This can be worked either way of course: either 1000 was not therefore as significant as it’s been made, or apocalyptic worry was much more general than we assume.2

Illustrated page from the Catedral de Girona, Núm. Inv. 7 (11)

Several people cared about the Apocalypse in 975 enough to order really luxurious copies from the Leonese monastery of Tábara of this illustrated commentary on it by Beatus of Liébana, this one of which has now wound up in Girona, but the actual commentary was written closer to 800… So the same problem arises only more colourfully. This is from the Girona Beatus, which is Catedral de Girona, Núm. Inv. 7 (11). By Meisterin der Schule von Távara [Public domain], it says at Wikimedia Commons whence the file.

Unaware of how this debate would later develop, however, in 1869 we find M. Maximin Deloche, in the process of writing a lengthy and very erudite introduction to his edition of the Beaulieu cartulary, adding an obvious extra step to the ‘terrors’ argument that I haven’t seen anywhere in the more modern literature, as follows:

The Christian centuries that preceded the year 1000 were busily preoccupied with that date’s approach, which, after a certain interpretation of Revelations and according to popular belief, would witness the end of the world. It is an error to believe that this sentiment of fear had its birth shortly or even one or two centuries before this era that one should have considered so fatal. We find a manifestation of this in a monument of which the sincerity is incontestable, the will of St Radegund, dated to 584: it begins with the words, “Mundo in finem currente…”

So far we are conventionally stood against those arguing for a millennial spiritual crisis, but after another pre-1000 example of such sentiments, he goes somewhere unexpected:

Several of our charters contain this [fear] in their preamble. If we consult their dates, we see that they embrace a period of a century and a half before the year 1000. Thereafter, we find it announced only once more, in a title of the year 1060, but this redaction is without doubt only a reproduction, made mechanically and without discernment, of a preceding formulaic usage.

He takes it no further, but it’s important: what does it mean if, even if the idea that the end might be coming soon was common long before 1000, after that it stops?3 Studies on the disappointment of such prophecies suggest that they were usually quickly retooled for a new date, but if the Beaulieu pattern were to be found more widely, we might need to think in terms of disappointment with and even cynicism about such learned predictions, which might indeed find echoes in the rise of popular heresy that Robert Moore more than anyone has demonstrated from, say, 1030 onwards.4 There was so much else going on, of course, including a sea-change in the way that documents were being written that could maybe explain the abandonment of a purely formulaic usage, so this too could serve both sides of the argument over apocalypticism’s importance, but just methodically I really like this use of negative evidence. Why should such a thing disappear, and if it doesn’t elsewhere then why here? It’s worth thinking about…

1. The resort to dismissal and ad hominem examined, not without involvement, in Richard Landes, “Introduction: The Terribles Espoirs of 1000 and the Tacit Fears of 2000″ in R. Landes, A. C. Gow. & R. Van Meter (edd.), The Apocalyptic Year 1000: religious expectation and social change, 950–1050 (Oxford 2003), pp. 3–15.

2. A good clear account of the earlier historiography is Edward Peters, “Mutations, Adjustments, Terrors, Historians and the Year 1000” in Michael Frassetto (ed.), The Year 1000: religious and social response to the turning of the Millennium (New York City 2002), pp. 9–28.

3. M. Deloche (ed.), Cartulaire de l’Abbaye de Beaulieu (en Limousin) (Paris 1869), pp. XCV-XCVII, quotes XCV-XCVI & XCVI.

4. Retooling of expectations studied in depth in Richard Landes, “Lest the Millennium Be Fulfilled: Apocalyptic Expectations and the Pattern of Western Chronography 100–800 CE” in W. Verbeke, D. Verhelst & A. Welkenhuysen (edd.), The Use and Abuse of Eschatology in the Middle Ages (Leuven 1988), pp. 137–209. On the rise of heresy in this period see Robert I. Moore, The Birth of Popular Heresy (London 1975, repr. Toronto 2005), and for heresy’s connection to the millennuium, Moore, “The Birth of Heresy: a millennial phenomenon?” in Journal of Religious History 24 (Oxford 2000), pp. 1–24, vs. Richard Landes, “The Birth of Heresy: a millennial phenomenon”, ibid. pp. 26–43.


5 responses to “Ceasing to fear the End in the millennial Limousin

  1. Pingback: Doorbells of the early medieval Dordogne | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  2. Pingback: More curiosities of the Beaulieu cartulary documents | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  3. Pingback: Seminar CXLIV: who was afraid of the end in millennial England? | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  4. Pingback: Leeds 2014 Report III: priests, charters and finally Hungarians | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  5. Pingback: The quiet return of the ruler of all | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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