Rob Hardy: History’s millenial worries

May 20, 2009

Rob Hardy - [email protected]


It wasn’t so long ago that we were all fascinated with the change of millennium, jumping into the two thousands of years. There were worries: Everyone with a computer remembers that shortcuts by 20th-century programmers were supposed to mean computers would crash when they unexpectedly came across years with a first digit of two rather than of one. It’s interesting that our worries with the big date change were technological. They didn’t come to pass. 


When the calendar had advanced to year 1000, the worries with the big date change were religious. They didn’t come to pass, either. Those millennial worries, and the history surrounding them, are the theme within “The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West” (Doubleday) by Tom Holland. This is a big, sprawling book of a strange time; although Holland starts out with Constantine, the book traces history most closely a century before and after year 1000. 


It’s clear that there were fewer people paying attention to the calendar in 1000 than to the calendar in 2000, and probably only religious experts knew of the first millennial change. Holland admits that how much import was given to the year 1000 is controversial, and historians accelerated the controversy around the year 2000 because of contemporary themes. The history he gives, however, full of tumult between leaders and governments of nations and religions, shows that those who were reading the signs of the impending apocalypse did have worrisome events to hang their worries on. His book is a wide-ranging look at the tumult, with plenty of detail and many forceful characters. 


There do seem to have been people who were counting on an end time around the year 1000. Muslims, too, may have been counting, with four centuries having gone by since Mohammed’s death. The mad Caliph al-Hakim attempted to reorder the world to prepare for its end days. He banned, for instance, the sale of watercress and the playing of chess. He also tortured people to convert them to Islam, or fed their bodies to dogs. In 1009, he invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the supposed site of the crucifixion. Christians were horrified, and many saw this as a promise of the end time, with Jerusalem being the site of the final battle. Many of them headed for the Holy City, expecting to see the battle or even participate, and to ascend immediately into heaven. Nothing happened, but 20 years later around the 1,000th anniversary of the crucifixion, another tide of pilgrims made the trip. Nothing happened, once again. 


Throughout this book, there are those who expect the Antichrist to arrive (al-Hakim was certainly a candidate for the title), Jesus to arise again, and the world to end. They are disappointed, of course, as such believers always have been; so far, the world simply has not conformed to prophecy no matter how devoutly believed in. 


The belief in such end times did, according to Holland, change behavior. Otto III, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, like his predecessor Ottos, had attempted to bring together Charlemagne’s former empire. He thought himself as God’s anointed, but worried that this role was not consistent with all the fighting and bloodletting he had committed. He seems to have felt the urgency of the approaching millennium. Prophecies said that the last Roman emperor was going to bring baptism to all the pagans of the world, and Otto was determined to do even more than this. 


He planned to abdicate his position, “And I will offer it instead to one who is better than me.” It is a measure of his self-esteem that the “one who is better than me” was Jesus himself. Otto planned to climb the hill Golgotha, kneel, pray and thus bring forth the end of days. 


It didn’t work out that way; in 1002, Otto and his troops were advancing on Rome. A gigantic dragon was spotted in the sky (this happened a lot back then, according to the stories in this book), so everyone knew doom lay ahead. Otto caught malaria and died. He had been the last Roman emperor, but even that didn’t get the prophecies fulfilled. 


Holland documents a grim time for Europe. Throughout the chapters here, there are invasions by Vikings, Arabs, and nomadic Magyar tribes. Even if the peasants were unaffected by the invasions, their lives were bleak. Holland shows that knights were drawn from the peasantry, those with “a taste for violence and a lack of scruples” who could serve the possessor of a castle. “Food, accommodation and the chance to kick people around — all came as perks of the job. It was an attractive package...” The castellans kept their castles not for the defense of their lands, as the Italians had built castles against the Saracens; they were bandits and their castles were bandit fortresses. 


Readers looking for a bit more elevation will be interested in the “Peace of God” movement centered in the great Abbey of Cluny, which even intimidated the bandit castellans. The monastic movement there helped shape the ceremonies and emphases of the Catholic Church, and the Abbey played a key role in the shifts of power between church and state. Sometimes its efforts didn’t work. In 1074, a Cluniac monk had traveled to Muslim Spain and told the infidels that he’d walk through fire if they would give up their heresies. Those Saracens refused to take him up even on martyring him. Deeply offended, he had, according to a contemporary account, “shaken the dust from his feet, turned on his heels, and set off back for his monastery.” 


There are plenty of stories here that sound weirdly unreal to modern views. Holland has fun reporting them at face value, making this, among other things, an entertaining collection of anecdotes. There is the scandal in Milan in 1057, for instance, when “priests found themselves being boycotted, openly assaulted and even threatened with death.” It seems there was a revolution because in Milan there had been for centuries a custom of allowing priests to marry, live openly with their wives, and enjoy coition. There is the story of the renowned abbot Poppo, who “was especially admired for beating himself on the chest with a jagged stone whenever he had a spare moment, and for never smiling.” And then in Aquitaine, the monks felt the relics in their monastery were in need of an upgrade. They announced that they had discovered the head of John the Baptist was buried within the monastery. “Quite how it had ended up there, buried within a mysterious pyramid of stone, was never fully explained. The enthusiasm of the pilgrims who soon descended upon the monastery, crowding the narrow stairways in their excitement, pushing and shoving their way down into the shrine, ensured that it did not have to be.” 


The key to Holland’s expansive story is in the winter of 1076, when clerics had realized that whatever the significance of the counting of the years, no apocalypse was going to happen according to the schedule they had previously assumed. The German king, Henry IV, came to the Alpine stronghold Canossa to seek absolution from Pope Gregory VII. Gregory had excommunicated Henry and freed his vassals from their allegiance to him because of a basic question: Who was going to appoint bishops and give them their office? Kings or popes? Temporal or spiritual powers? Barefoot, clad in rough wool, Henry waited for three days before Gregory relented. 


There was a resultant division of church and state, and Gregory became, Holland says, “godfather to the future.” Holland argues that it has made our modern world, because although Gregory won the day, the church thereby set up its own independent regulations, administration and revenue sources. Kings would do the same for their separate states. Gregory’s revolution had extraordinary unintended consequences: “A piquant irony: that the very concept of a secular society should ultimately have been due to the papacy. Voltaire and the First Amendment, multiculturalism and gay weddings: all ha

Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]