Friday, May 20, 2011

"...And I Feel Fine."

Apocalypse, As Envisioned in the Middle Ages
The end of the world has been in the works for a while. The first recorded mention of it was on an Assyrian clay tablet, ca. 2800 BC, wherein the writer complained that "bribery and corruption are common" and so assumed that the world must be getting ready to call it quits.

The predictions of apocalypse are comparatively scattered until things really heat up in the middle ages. (One presumes the Greeks and Romans were too busy inventing things, writing literature and philosophy, and building aqueducts to think much about whether it was all going to get obliterated.)

Medieval life, however, was just about as rough as Hobbes supposed life without organized community would be, with: "no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" being more or less de rigueur for most people's existence. Faith was just about all anyone had, and though very few could read the Bible themselves, they understood that it mentioned a time when God would return to the earth and establish a Kingdom of Heaven there. For people constantly dealing with wars, diseases, and any number of hardships, this couldn’t happen fast enough.

There were those who tried to speed it along. Plenty who joined in the Crusades did so thinking they were fulfilling biblical prophecy and were in fact pilgrims to the Holy Land. The fact that nothing they did seemed to bring about a biblical apocalypse did not sway people from thinking it must be coming soon.

In 1184, a prediction of the end of the world appeared in the form of the Letter of Toledo, insisting that astronomical forces meant the world would end in September 1186. So certain were the believers of this prediction that, when October 1186 rolled around, they simply changed the date and other pertinent points and said the end would be coming soon enough. This lasted a good few centuries before enough new predictions took over to capture attention.

Oddly, there don't seem to have been any predictions of the end times as 1348 dawned, which seems a poor show on the part of the prophesiers. This was, after all, the year of the Black Death, when half or more of Europe's population was obliterated. Perhaps, as it got underway, it seemed obvious that this was the end of the world, and no one needed to be so tactless and redundant as to point it out.

After the plague, life actually improved for a lot of peasants – the shortage of labor meant they could negotiate for higher wages and better working conditions, although this process was not without a few snags. Likewise, the inability of clergy to stop the disaster, and the poor quality of the monks who were hastily recruited to fill badly depleted ranks, made a lot of people more cynical about religion. All told, it seems a recipe for the beginning of the end of end times predictions.

But this was not to be. The certainty of the end being nigh continued to flourish right alongside the Renaissance, although more and more Europeans were growing skeptical and much less willing to give the doomsayers an ear.

Ears were given to a British soldier, William Bell, in 1750. There was an earthquake in London, which was unusual enough, but 28 days later, there was another. That was enough for Bell, who took it upon himself to tear through the city announcing that in another 28 days, the world would go belly-up, London first. Widespread panic led to people leaving the city in droves (although exactly why they thought they would be safer in the countryside is unclear). The appointed day, however, saw no apocalypse and the city authorities made their own announcement: Bell was a nutcase and was tossed into Bedlam.

His fate did not dissuade other doomsayers. The world was supposed to end regularly throughout the nineteenth century, and the Jehovah's Witnesses were sure that World War I was the Battle of Armageddon. (reports from Ypres might almost bear them out)

And on and on and on until now. When Sunday rolls around and this current crop of believers finds that the world is still as they know it, they'll shrug and start making calculations to determine the next date of rapture.

Wonder what their high school math teachers would say?


  1. Very astute Ms. Stratford.

  2. The formula was simplistic. The notion (nailing the day) was presumptuous. The baggage (trinity and hellfire) was typical. And he sure did flummox a lot of followers. But he is 'keeping on the watch.' No one can say he's not doing that. As so many before him have done. As you pointed out.