As December 2012 was – the date that many believe marks a sort of “ending of time” (as we know it), according to an interpretation of the ancient Maya calendar – many are pointing out that fears of an impending “end of the world” are nothing new. Among the most popular erudite-sounding references is the “millenial panic” that allegedly struck Europe as the first millenium was drawing to an end. People were panicking and committing atrocious follies, we are told, because they thought the world would end with the advent of the year 1000.
Yet the “millenial panic”, recounted in many popular books and online discussions, apparently never was. How, then, did this myth come to be, and how did it find its way into popular historiography?
What do Medieval Authors Say About It?
The earliest mention of a “panic” around the year 1000 appears in the Annales Hirsaugiensis written by the German abbot Joannes Tritemius about the year 1500:
“In this year a terrible comet appeared, which by its look terrified many, who feared that the last day was at hand; inasmuch as several years before it had been predicted by some, deluded by a false calculation, that the visible world would end in the year of Christ 1000.”
So, “some” – who were undoubtedly far more familiar, and involved, with time-keeping than ordinary people of the era ever were – had predicted the end of the “visible world” in the Anno Domini 1000.
Some always do make such predictions.
But that does not account for the apparently widespread panic that has been reported over the centuries.
And those reports simply do not make sense in the light of historical facts.
For one thing, time keeping was nowhere as uniform as it is today. Various regions of Europe had their own traditions of time keeping, and the new year did not necessarily begin on January 1st. For example, in Rome the new year began on Christmas Eve, in Florence on March 25th, in Byzantium on September 24th.
Moreover, our era from the birth of Christ was first calculated, by Dionysius Exiguus, no earlier than in the 6th century, and his theory was by no means universally accepted.
A 17th and 18th Century Exaggeration?
It would appear that the snowballing of the A.D. 1000 “millenial panic” myth began in earnest in the 17th century, with the writing of Cardinal Baronius (1695) and Le Vasseur (1633), but it gained momentum especially with William Robertson’s historiographic accounts, which were very influential among European scholars and intellectuals of the time. Here is what he wrote about the mood in Europe around the year 1000:
“An opinion which spread with rapidity over Europe about the close of the tenth and the beginning of the eleventh century, and which gained universal credit, wonderfully augmented the number of credulous pilgrims, and increased the ardour with which they undertook this useless voyage. The thousand years mentioned by St. John, were supposed to be accomplished, and the end of the world to be at hand. A general consternation seized mankind; many relinquished their possessions, and, abandoning their friends and families, hurried with precipitation to the Holy Land, where they imagined that Christ would quickly appear to judge the world.”
(History of the reign of Charles the Fifth, 1769, vol. 1, “The Crusades”, p. 13.)
In the relevant footnote, Robertson quotes the chronicle atributed to one Willelmus Godellus, a monk living in Limoges around 1150, who wrote about a “panic” in the year 1010, as quoted in Bouquet’s Recueil des Historiens des Gaules et de la France (1738), vol. 10, p. 262.
(The panic of which Godellus wrote, alpmost 150 years after the fact, was apparently related to the rumoured seizure of Jerusalem by the Turks in the year 1009.)
Historians and scholars writing in the 18th century, the “Age of Reason”, wasted no opportunity to criticise or ridicule the Church and its adherents, so it is no surprise that this myth should prove popular with them.
But the myth of the “millenial panic” was cemented by Jules Michelet, a very influential French author whose work has been classed as “romantic historiography”. His account of the An Mil (the year 1000) was and remains popular because of its vivid, life-like descriptions of life in the Middle Ages. In his Histoire de France (1840, volume IV, ch. I) he writes about the alleged “terror” among Christians triggered by the advent of the year 1000, and explains it in the light of biblical prophecies, quoting Rodulfus (Raoul or Ralph) Glaber (11th century) and other medieval authors.
Myths Die Hard
The myth of a widespread “millenial panic” around the year 1000 had been exposed as a gross exaggeration of isolated cases, misinterpreted – sometimes disingenuously – by later historians, more than a hundred years ago. (See, e.g., Jules Roy, L’An mille, formation de la légende de l’an mille, Paris 1885.)
And yet it persists among many lovers of history.
One could speculate that its popularity may be due to its perpetuation in Charles Mackay’s book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1853) that was very popular in its time.
“A strange idea had taken possession of the popular mind at the close of the tenth and the commencement of the eleventh century. It was universally believed that the end of the world was at hand: that the thousand years of the Apocalypse were near completion, and that Jesus Christ would descend upon Jerusalem to judge mankind. All Christendom was in commotion. A panic terror seized upon the weak, the credulous and the guilty, who in those days formed more than nineteen-twentieths of the population. Forsaking their homes, kindred, and occupation, they crowded to Jerusalem to await the coming of the Lord, lightened, as they imagined, of a load of sin by their weary pilgrimage.”
Since then, many books and articles have refuted this myth.
Here is what Hillel Schwartz wrote in his book Century’s End: A Cultural History of the Fin de Siecle From the 990s Through the 1990s:
“None of this is true. Not the suicides, not the flaming swords, not the whips. Not the absolution, nor the parole, nor the forgiveness of debts. Not the mass hysteria, the fatalism, the nightmare, the terror of the number itself. Not the families abandoned (or swept up) by an army of pilgrims, nor the wealth divested (or spent on saddlebag supplies) by pilgrim knights, pilgrim serfs. No, not the buildings left to decay, not the churches in ruins. Not even the panic itself, unless all accounts of general consternation have been suppressed. And no mechanical clocks to strike the midnight hour at millennium’s end, no hallelujah choruses at a minute past twelve. None of it – at least according to the last hundred years of scholarship. A score of medievalists have published books and articles in Italian, French, English and German demolishing evidence for a ‘panic terror’ at the approach of the year 1000.”
Why does this myth remain so popular with history-loving folks?
Partly, its popularity could be attributed to inertia: to a lack of proper individual research, which has – ironically – become pandemic since the advent of the internet.
On the other hand, it is undeniably comforting to see how “wrong” our ancestors were in their fears – because it offers hope that, perhaps, we are likewise wrong in our own fears today.