With Augustinian theology elevated to the status of the defacto official position of the Roman Catholic Church, eschatology was downplayed in terms of an emphasized doctrine. However, that did not necessarily mean that assorted undershepherds followed this example dutifully. Rather, a number of subtle errors were introduced over the decades and centuries often from non-Biblical sources that not only undermined the credibility of the Christian faith but also resulted in a degree of social confusion and even upheaval.
In popular consciousness, it is often assumed that what could be referred to as millennial madness began to pick up steam as the year 1000 approached. However, in the chapter titled “The Slumbering Apocalypse: Medieval Christianity”, Kyle argues that apocalyptic movements at this time were not so much tied to a pending date but rather often reflected concerns regarding invasions on the part of Huns, Magyars, and Muslims. Kyle writes, “...generations of medieval historians have examined a broader range of evidence. They concede that for decades before and after the year 1000, ordinary believers and some clergy feared the rise of the Antichrist. Still, there is no evidence that concerns about the Antichrist and the end time greatly increased at the time (45).” There certainly was not anything approaching the level of a mass panic. Kyle points out significant numbers of Europeans might not have even been aware of what year that it was in the same sense as a particular numerical chronology now pervades contemporary existence.
Most medieval millennial madness did not transpire actually until after the year 1100, well after the turn of a new millennium. A case could be made this came about as a result of concerns regarding the expansion of Islam at the time of the Crusades. On a cautionary note, it must also be observed that popular End Times thinking during the Middle Ages often incorporated aspects found nowhere in the pages of Scripture. The most prominent of these ideas could be traced back to a series of works referred to as The Sibyline Oracles.
In particular, The Sibyline Oracles foretold of a Christian emperor that would fight against the Antichrist in the final days (Kirsch, 154). Initially, it was predicted that this beneficent ruler would likely be Constantine. As time passed, other thinkers put forward their own contenders as to the identity of this utopian deliverer who could just as easily have been the Antichrist duping those having set aside their discernment to embrace this sort of speculation in the first place. Interestingly, Geoffrey of Monmouth in the History Of The Kings Of Britain through the literary device of Merlin (an individual fathered by an incubus to a human mother and who was not even considered a Christian in the first place) even convinced a number to believe that this king returning to usher in the Second Advent would be King Arthur himself.
The figure to really spark interest in the Apocalypse across medieval Europe was Joachim of Fiore. This Sicilian Cistercian formulated a philosophy of history based upon the Trinity, with time divided into three epochs each symbolizing a specific member of the triune Godhead. The Age of the Father spanned from the time of creation to the time of Christ. The Age of the Son began with the time of Christ up until Joachim's day. The Age of the Spirit would ultimately be a time of peace and spiritual renewal but would come about gradually, commencing with the establishment of monasticism commencing with Benedict of Narissa (Thompson, 65). The Second Age according to Joachim would end with the defeat of the Antichrist.
Of Joachim, Kyle writes, “Joachim was neither a revolutionary nor a millennialist in any strict sense...He envisioned a reformed and purified Christendom as the goal of this evolutionary process (48-49).” Joachim might have been willing for events to unfold at their own providential pace. However, others of a similar perspective did not necessarily possess the same degree of patience to simply observe the grand historical drama in reflective contemplation.
Franciscans in particular found themselves drawn to Joachim's speculations, seeing themselves as the new breed of spiritual men that he had foretold. When the apocalypse predicted in 1260 calculated using Joachim's formula of forty-two generations from Adam to Christ did not transpire, Franciscans divided in part over the accuracy of this interpretative eschatological model. Those known as the Franciscan Spirituals dug in deeper, turning to mysticism and openly condemning as the Antichrist the popes that opposed them. Despite the attempts of the Papacy to eliminate the Franciscan Spirituals, their ideas lived on in the Beguines, the Beghards, and the Fraticelli (Kirsch, 146-149).
It is one thing for apocalyptic speculation to result in heated rhetoric strongly critiquing the established order. The concern rises to the next level when these ideas begin to manifest themselves in the form of physical violence. With the end expected by 1260, the famine and plague that erupted a couple of years prior to that date in Italy sparked a movement in anticipation in which a number of Joachimites took part that came to be known as the flagellants. The flagellants hoped to win divine favor before the pending judgment by beating themselves in imitation of the sufferings of Christ.
Another sect inspired by apocalyptic thinking that turned to violence were a faction of Hussites known as the Taborites. Jan Hus was a professor at the University of Prague that grew increasingly critical of the establishment church over time to the point that he eventually condemned the Pope as the Antichrist. The martyrdom of Hus only galvanized his followers into adopting an ideology far more radicalized than anything he had ever professed.
Unlike the Hussites that despite their disagreement with the Church did not break with it or call for substantial social change, the Taborites started with the assumption that nothing in religion was to be considered true unless it could be found in the Bible. The group turned to violent revolution after the end members expected in 1420 did not materialize, prompting them to go on the offensive against those the sect deemed the enemies of God. A break away group from the Taborites known as the Adamites believed that they were living in the Millennium and as innocent as Adam and Eve. As such, members cavorted about buck naked and, yet still possessing a sin nature, fell into promiscuity as they conveniently believed all of the men owned all of the women (Kyle, 254).
By Frederick Meekins
Abanes, Richard. End-Times Visions: The Doomsday Obsession. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1988.
Kirsch, Jonathan. A History Of The End Of The World: How The Most Controversial Book In The Bible Changed The Course Of Western Civilization. San Francisco, California: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006.
Kagan, Donald, Ozment, Steven and Turner, Frank. The Western Heritage Since 1789 (Fourth Edition). New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991.
Kyle, Richard. The Last Days Are Here Again: A History Of The End Times. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1988. Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1996.
Ladd, George. The Blessed Hope: A Biblical Study of The Second Advent and The Rapture. Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1956.
Thompson, Damian. The End Of Time: Faith and Fear in the Shadow of the Millennium.