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Doom approaches or maybe not Apocalypse: When the year 1000 came around, some people expected the Antichrist. Other scholars say most people did not know what year it was.


As a new millennium nears, certain religious sects will probably become more insistent about the coming Apocalypse, about Judgment Day, about the Armageddon.

Perhaps this is always the way with new millenniums.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to know: Our precedent is limited to one. A millennium has only passed once since Christian calendars came into use.

But how was that event perceived?

Historians disagree whether the coming of the last millennium was seen as a big deal. Some believe that the year 1000 was greatly dreaded or greatly anticipated -- depending on whether one considered oneself on God's good side or not.

Other historians insist that the new millennium was hardly noted. According to them, few people were even aware of the changing millennium, and those that were didn't attach any great significance to it.

Whether anything special actually occurred around the year 1000, there is a legend that something did. It was most forcefully advanced a century ago by a group of liberal French historians -- particularly the fiery Jules Michelet -- who were known for their harsh anti-clericalism.

Great terror

In advancing the idea that great terror accompanied the passing of the last millennium, the 19th-century historians were indirectly attacking the corruption and power of the Roman Catholic Church of their day.

According to those historians, the approaching millennium and the expectation of Judgment Day prompted hundreds of people in Western Europe to abandon their homes and farms which in turn led to famine and violence.

Modern scholars now generally agree that the Frenchmen greatly exaggerated their evidence of church-inspired millennial fear. But their contribution to millennium mythology never waned.

"Let's face it, it's a good story, much better than saying nothing happened," says Peter Stearns, a historian at Carnegie Mellon University, who has written a book debunking the idea that millennial fever swept Western Europe in the 10th century. "Some people get a certain satisfaction out of saying our ancestors were pretty stupid. It makes us seem smart."

The reason the debate exists is due to a paucity of hard evidence.

"The historical record is fragmentary," says Bernard McGinn, professor of the history of Christianity at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago.

McGinn acknowledges that while certain monks prophesied about the coming end of the world at the millennium, he says there is little to support the notion that their message was popularly embraced.

Just why anyone attached particular importance to the year 1000 is somewhat of a mystery itself but everyone seems to agree that it stems from a misinterpretation -- either intentional or not -- of the New Testament's Book of Revelation.

That canon speaks of a time when the Antichrist would be loosed on Earth, sparking an Armageddon during which the unrighteous would be wiped out and the observant rewarded. Those events would then be followed by a thousand-year reign of the saints and the return of Christ.

No date was set

Revelation sets no date for the onset of those events. But at some point, its reference to a thousand years seems to have become mixed up with the year 1000.

"Even if you take the Book of Revelations literally, it does not say that it will begin at 1000," says Jeremy Adams, a medieval historian at Southern Methodist University. "The notion of 1000 did not have a clear parentage, it just grew."

"There are a fair number of writings [about the millennium] especially by monks and people attached to the German imperial court," says Adams. "But whether they are popular manifestations, we just don't know. We know that lots of priests hit the road with this doctrine, but we just don't have the kind of evidence from that period to say for sure whether there was or was not a kind of popular interest."

Adams says the Catholic Church actually distanced itself from the idea of a millennial apocalypse. It was lower-ranking clerics -- especially monks -- who most strongly advanced the idea. Lay members of the German court also seemed enamored by the concept, and suggested that Otto the Great (980-1002) was destined to lead the fight against the Antichrist.

Historians such as McGinn and Stearns tend to dismiss the notion that the millennium caused any great stir.

Some of them insist that most people probably weren't even aware that a new millennium was in the offing. They say that the Christian calendar was not in universal usage by 1000, and literacy was at such low levels in Western Europe that in any case few would have paid much attention to it.

"Most people thought in terms of clusters of time dating back to Roman emperors and thought in units in terms of 15 years," says Stearns. "It's not clear that most people kept a calendar at all and not clear that if they did it was kept on basis of Christ's birth."

Other historians, most notably Boston University's Richard Landes, say that those who reject millennialism are setting an unreasonably high evidentiary standard. There may be few direct testimonies anticipating the end of the world, Landes says. That doesn't mean that there wasn't plenty of circumstantial evidence, especially in accounts of the way people behaved.

'Apocalyptic thinking'

For example, Landes points to a number of occurrences around the turn of the millennium: popular antiwar demonstrations, an increase in pilgrimages to Jerusalem, a surge in the executions of heretics and the first popular demonstrations of anti-Semitism. That ferment, Landes says, was not coincidental but the result of "apocalyptic thinking," of anticipation of the world's end.

Landes and some others say it is a mistake to view millennial thinking as applying exclusively to the year 1000. When the end of the world did not come in 1000, they say, attention seemed to revert to the year 1033, which was seen as the thousandth anniversary of the death of Christ.

When the world survived that anniversary, there followed more revisions.

The point is, says Landes, the behavior of people in the Middle Ages suggested an expectation of mystical change. Even Stearns and McGinn agree that "apocalyptic thinking" did exist in the 11th century and later. They just don't believe it was particularly widespread.

But Landes and some of his colleagues also say that it is not simply evidence of fear that reflects how important people regarded the millennium.

After the year 1000, Western Europe entered a period of dramatic revitalization, of population growth, economic progress and especially church-building.

Some historians, such as Landes, attribute this renaissance to a go-for-broke attitude caused by the coming millennium. Under this theory, the expectation that the world was going to end freed some sort of creative energy.

Such theories, Stearns says, are bunk. The revitalization actually began a century or more before the year 1000, and was owing to milder climatic conditions and a lessening of disease. Millennialism had nothing to do with it.

Still, Stearns admits that the idea of a millennial apocalypse is powerful. While it is easy to dismiss it on an intellectual basis, the notion retains an unsettling allure.

Is even Stearns worried about the coming millennium? "Fundamentally no," he says, "but I don't deny when the clock starts chiming I'll be relieved when I hear it stop."

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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