Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages by Norman Cohn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Pursuit of the Millenium is a well-documented history of anarchic millenarian movements in the Middle Ages that might have been perfect if it weren't for some fairly obvious auctorial bias.
Cohn starts with an excellent thesis and documentation about how the fervor of the Crusades, particularly among the poor, set the stage for later millenarian cults. The 2nd Crusade, in particular, set the stage for later messianic movements by using the non-canonical "Sibylline Prophecies" as pretext for invading the Holy Land and killing a lot of innocent Jews, Muslims, *and* Christians (almost always representatives of the Catholic church) along the way. These prophecies, forged at a much later date than their authors' claimed that they were written, were composed mostly by monks to elaborate and integrate the eschatological pronouncements of the Revelation of John into a world-view that saw an "Emperor of the Last Days," either a reflection of or a resurrected Charlemagne, as the key figure that would usher in the final judgement of the world and an era of peace and prosperity for believers. These apocryphal writings informed, to some degree or another, all the millenial movements that came after the 2nd Crusade. Common themes were the rise of a righteous earthly ruler who would lead the fight against the Antichrist (first in the form of the Saracens, later in the form of the Pope) and his minions, resulting in their utter destruction.
In most cases, this "phantasie," as Cohn calls it, led to instabilities in the social order, revolution, violence, and, much of the time, the extermination of anyone identified as an enemy to the movement. Think religious terrorism is of modern provenience? Think again! The methods and agenda of the anonymous author of the Book of a Hundred Chapters, written in the mid-15th-century, would make Daesh squeamish. He even claimed to have used alchemy to invent explosives with which to overthrow the kingdoms of Europe. Car bombs before there were cars!
Cohn's writing throughout is solid and, at times, downright poetic. Take, for instance, this paragraph about the flagellants, those who felt that by lacerating themselves with metal-barbed whips, the world would be bettered by their suffering penitence:
A chronicler remarked that during the flagellant processions people behaved as though they feared that as a punishment for their sins God was about to destroy them all by earthquake and by fire from on high. It was in a world which seemed poised on the brink of the abyss that penitents cried out, as they beat themselves and threw themselves upon their faces: "Holy Virgin, take pity on us! Beg Jesus Christ to spare us! and: "Mercy, mercy! Peace, peace!" - calling ceaselessly, we are told, until the fields and mountains seemed to echo with their prayers and musical instruments fell silent and love-songs died away.
But why stop at whipping yourselves when you can help others to be repentant, as well? These flagellants were wont to destroy the inhabitants of entire cities at a time, likely whipped up into a frenzy of violence by their self-punishment. 'Tis better to give than to receive, no?
While Cohn starts out in a strictly Marxist vein, he branches out to other methods of historical analysis in the later two-thirds of the book. The history of the Brethren of the Free Spirit is fascinating, complex, and "layered" in a way that makes a very confusing movement understandable. Best of all, at this point, Cohn lays off on both the thick Marxist and thinly-veiled Freudian analysis, both of which show too much of their structural prejudices early on in the book. This section is really compelling history!
One of my biggest complaints about Cohn is his assumption that Luke's account in Acts Chapter 4 is an "Imaginary version of the primitive church". The only evidence I see of this is Cohn's say-so, which makes for very bad interpolative history. Luke was there. He saw it and lived it. There are other accounts that corroborate this evidence, too. Just because the millenial cults used this to further their own arguments for egalitarianism doesn't make it "imaginary". Furthermore, I don't know why Cohn is so adamant in distancing himself from this "phantasy". I wonder if it had something to do with the time in which Pursuit of the Millenium was originally published, 1957, at the height of the Red Scare. Perhaps Cohn was fearful of being outed as a communist for his analysis of these movements, which often pitted the poor against the rich, so he made certain that it was known that he did not believe that early Christianity actually practiced the commmunal order that they claim to have practiced. But he presents absolutely no compelling evidence to substantiate his argument.
The account of the Taborite movement is fascinating - reading it was like watching what was essentially a medieval hippie commune disintegrate from the inside out. The usual problem with these arrangements reared its head: No one wanted to work, but everyone wanted the benefits of work. The idealism of the movement sowed the seeds of it's own self-destruction, while economic reality caused them to blossom into oblivion. Here, Cohn is back on his game with well-reasoned arguments and a careful reconstruction of the foundation, growth, demise, and the significant influence of the movement on later generations of millenarians.
The beginning of Matthys' Anabaptist movement in Munster sends historical echoes even further down the hall of time to the opening of Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia. Though the movements are not connected in any way geographically or chronologically, the methodology of both is strikingly similar. From the use of intimidation to the extremities of communal ownership to the fostering of ignorance (in the Anabaptist sects through the burning of all books that were not the Bible and in the Khmer Rouge through the execution of all intellectuals, doctors, etc), the analogs are shocking. Comparing the two would make for interesting research in social history. To whomever takes this as their doctoral dissertation in comparative history, you're welcome. Mention me in the credits, please.
While this is good history, for the most part, it is clear that Cohn really, REALLY likes Marxist analysis. That's fine, as it seems to suit the subject matter and the evidence, at least in the early instances of the millenarian movements. But I suspect that some people joined these revolts out of a sense of spiritual compulsion, not just because they were poor. Poverty is neither necessary nor sufficient to push a person into millenarianism, though it might be sufficient to foster the growth of such movements. The evidence seems compelling, but what evidence *isn't* being shown here? Cohn does not show the full deck of cards here, and I believe he is hiding a card or two up his sleeve. It's not blatant enough to accuse him of outright cheating in the game of presenting historical evidence, but it's enough to arouse suspicion in the reader who is paying attention.
Still, a solid historical work on a subject that could use a lot more attention, given the religious extremism we see both domestically and abroad. Alas, we may just be doomed to having to deal with false Messiahs and their violent movements again and again. After all, we've been doing it, in the Christian world, at least, for 1500 years now. And that is a lot of historical precedent to drag behind us as we try to move forward. At least Cohn's work here helps us to clearly see the sort of circumstances that lead to these extremist movements. Maybe it's enough to start to get a grasp on how to prevent them from spreading so quickly and becoming so violent. Maybe . . . maybe . . .
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