Since last night saw the 1,000 visitor to mediaevalmusings, I thought I’d celebrate by considering why the number 1,000 is so significant and what, if anything, people thought about the passing of the millennium in the Middle Ages.
In our world today, when everything from the age of the universe, to the population of the planet, to defence budgets are measured in the billions, 1,000 isn’t really a terribly big number, but it has an unavoidable allure. Having seen a millennium ourselves (and the accompanying Y2K scare) it is easy for us to imagine that during the Middle Ages the anxiety about the end of the world would be even more acute.
There are some solid reasons for believing that this would be the case, the most important being the certainty of the Apocalypse presented in the Bible. The end of the world was accepted as a given by nearly all Christians in mediaeval times, although opinions differed over just how imminent that end would be. Some took the 1,000 years promised by the Book of Revelations as a literal calculation, other theologians argued that it was a symbolic number, and that the exact end of the world could not be known by man. These beliefs gave a strong intellectual force to millenarian expectations and informed the perceptions of those who were aware that the year 1,000 was nigh.
Historians have usually turned to the writings of Rudolphus Glaber to support the argument that these apocalyptic ideas intensified around the turn of the first millennium, because he very consciously wrote a history of his times informed by these Biblical ideas: “Warned by the prophecy of Holy Writ,” he writes, “we see clearer than daylight that in the process of the Last Days, as love waxed cold and iniquity abounded among mankind, perilous times were at hand for men’s souls.” He continues: “therefore these things aforesaid befel more frequently than usual in all parts of the world about the thousandth year after the birth of our Lord and Saviour…”
Unfortunately for Glaber, however, the end of the world didn’t arrive quite on time, and he spends the next few paragraphs elaborating the continuing portents of the next few years, including a volcanic eruption and a plague. While his views are certainly interesting, however, it’s one comment in particular which historians turn to when they argue for a more-widespread apocalyptic movement:
“So on the threshold of the aforesaid thousandth year, some two or three years after it, it befel almost throughout the world, but especially in Italy and Gaul, that the fabrics of churches were rebuilt, although many of these were still seemly and needed no such care; but every nation of Christendom rivaled with the other, which should worship in the seemliest buildings. So it was as though the very world had shaken herself and cast off her old age, and were clothing herself everywhere in a white garment of churches.”
Whether from relief or renewed expectation, Glaber’s contemporaries certainly seemed to respond to the significance of the year 1,000. Some historians, however remain sceptical, in part because the AD dating system still hadn’t become the standard calendar by the year 1,000, meaning that many people might have been unaware of the date’s significance. More convincing still, a huge number of sources keep on recording as if nothing were amiss.
Its probably the case that the truth lies somewhere in between Glaber’s earnest expectations of the end and a complete lack of public interest. After all, millenarian movements today attract a large, but hardly comprehensive, following. We might expect our mediaeval counterparts to have experienced their millennium in a similarly diverse, and sometimes unexpected, way.
Millenarian extracts from Glaber’s writings can be found through the Fordham U. online sourcebooks here!