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The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical… (1957)

by Norman Cohn

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8231019,184 (4.14)18
The end of the millennium has always held the world in fear of earthquakes, plague, and the catastrophic destruction of the world. At the dawn of the 21st millennium the world is still experiencing these anxieties, as seen by the onslaught of fantasies of renewal, doomsday predictions, andNew Age prophecies.This fascinating book explores the millenarianism that flourished in western Europe between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries. Covering the full range of revolutionary and anarchic sects and movements in medieval Europe, Cohn demonstrates how prophecies of a final struggle between the hostsof Christ and Antichrist melded with the rootless poor's desire to improve their own material conditions, resulting in a flourishing of millenarian fantasies. The only overall study of medieval millenarian movements, The Pursuit of the Millennium offers an excellent interpretation of how, again andagain, in situations of anxiety and unrest, traditional beliefs come to serve as vehicles for social aspirations and animosities.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
A rigorous and informative history of millenarian ecstatic movements from the 800s through the 1500s including my favorite, the Anabaptist takeover of Muenster town. Mostly told in an episodic fashion, every 5th chapter or so steps back and provides a reset in socio-economic stimuli behind these movements. Told from a perspective on history that is obviously reacting to Marxist events in the authors own time, it concludes by tying medieval eschatological utopian movements with the Marxist drive for utopian end of history, which was a little too tidy for my tastes. The author also is devoid of humor, although is not averse to descriptive passages regarding the misery his subjects experience. ( )
  billt568 | Aug 25, 2020 |
The Reformation had a wilder side, and Dr. Cohn tries to cover it for the student. The prose is clear, and the book was for a while the standard college text on the subject in North America. ( )
1 vote DinadansFriend | Jul 31, 2019 |
Like most people, I was shocked and intrigued by the enigma of ISIS, how it spread so quickly, how it attracted so wide a band of support and how easily it initially fared against the Kurds. Unlike a number of folks I turned consequently to Norman Cohn. Cohn qualifies the successes, however fleeting of Millennial cults by stressing how such always appeared in the wake of larger rebellions or movements. I find it fascinating that so many individuals appeared to be the reincarnations of lost leaders. I suppose I can understand someone hearing voices and believing they are a prophet or even the divine, but when a number of people claim to be Barbarossa so that a prophecy can be fulfilled, well, that sort of baffles me. I then think of Teddy Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace and all appears well again. Maybe “well” is a poor adjective in the wake of a pogrom or the sacking of a monastery. What is one to make of the phenomenon of the flagellants? This literal craze flashed across Europe and exacted a lethal response to Jews everywhere. Residing at the core of all is this a desire to return to the Natural State where all was communal and there was no crime or avarice. See John Gray[b:Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia|360648|Black Mass Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia|John N. Gray|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1390134668s/360648.jpg|1334977] for further examples of this lunacy. I should be careful with my descriptions. Lord knows there were sociological forces at play, the sense of dislocation after feudalism ended, thus limiting the ties with the extended family as well as towards the manor.

Cohn provides a fascinating account of the history of these movements in Northern Europe. Apparently the activity there was practically dwarfed by the resonance in the Mediterranean basin. Paul Bryant in his masterful review notes how common it is historically for cult/movement leaders to pronounce polygamy or a free love of sorts. This wasn't near as prolific as the killing of Jews in Cohn's survey. I suppose the more cynical would allude to a Lacanian blockage. ( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
If the word “Millennium” appears among the secular nowadays, it usually refers to a thousand-year period in the common calendar; i.e. “The First Millennium”. For historian Norman Cohn, however, the title of The Pursuit of the Millennium had nothing to do with Y2K problems. Cohn’s study identifies a surprising number – well, surprising to me, at least – of European medieval heretical movements associated with bringing on “The Millennium”, not “a millennium” – a thousand-year period identified in the Book of Revelations when Christ would return to Earth and reign with the saints and martyrs in Jerusalem. (I note from a little Web research that there are very divergent views over what exactly the verses in Revelations mean. I’m not going there.) The aims and methods of a lot of the movement still resonate today – sometimes in a pretty disturbing fashion.


Cohn identifies a number of themes among the millenarian believers. They’re not necessary all present in all such groups, nor is the order necessarily the same as listed here, but there’s typically two or more involved:


* There once was a “Golden Age” in which all were equal and no one had to work, because the Earth produced abundant food free for the taking. (Interestingly, the “Golden Age” idea seems to have its root in Greco-Roman mythology rather than the Garden of Eden).

* In a variant, all women were in common in the Golden Age as well. (Men being what they are, nobody seems to have suggested that women got their choice of men, rather than the other way around).

* In a more Christian variant, the Apostles “held all things in common” and therefore this is the ideal state for Christians.

* A “good Emperor” will appear.

* The “good Emperor” is a known member of some European noble family.

* The “good Emperor” seems to be deceased, but is actually “sleeping” or “in hiding” somewhere.

* The “good Emperor” will right all wrongs and redistribute wealth such that the “Golden Age” is restored.

* The “good Emperor” will lead the faithful to Jerusalem and retake it.

* On the way to Jerusalem the faithful will kill all the Jews.

* Once the faithful are established, they are no longer subject to Biblical or common law.

* Various prophetic books – sometimes by Christian authors, sometimes by the Sibyls – detail these events.


So, successive variants of “the good Emperor” include “King Tafur”, a mythical leader of a crusading band of poor; Charlemagne; Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV; Godfrey of Bouillon; Raymond of St. Giles; Emmerich, Count of Leningen; Louis VII of France; some later King of France who would simultaneously be Pope; Baldwin, Count of Flanders; an unidentified person called “the Master of Hungary”; and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. (Oddly, Frederick Barbarossa, who actually died on Crusade and who is rumored to be sleeping somewhere in a mountain until his beard grows three times around a table, doesn’t seem to figure as a potential “good Emperor’; nor does King Arthur, who’s also supposed to be “sleeping” somewhere).


Some of these candidates were just bruited about by various itinerant preachers; others, such as Count Emmerich, actually led bands in the general direction of Jerusalem; and still others were supposed to arise only after their followers had shown sufficient devotion – usually by looting and killing Jews.


As the Middle Ages progressed, the prevailing memes changed somewhat; millenarian revolutions were more likely to be based on religious reformation and/or primitive Communism. Cohn discusses the Hussite wars at considerable length. I had heard of the Hussites before, but only in the context of the military genius of John Žižka; Cohn explains the religo-political dimensions. John Hus himself was not particularly radical, merely disagreeing with doctrine on such things as the divine vs. human nature of the Papacy. Hus also didn’t contribute much to the Hussite movement, since he was burned at the stake before it really got started (the initial event is usually considered to be the First Defenestration of Prague, always a fun topic to bring up in casual conversation). Like a lot of religious movements the Hussites quickly splintered into increasingly radical subgroups; the original Hussites became Utraquists, and confined their main doctrinal request to the right to receive wine at Communion in addition to bread. The program of the more radical Taborites isn’t clear, because the victors burned all their publications; however their basic belief seems to be killing everyone that wasn’t a Taborite. The Taborites spun off an even more radical group, the Adamites, who went naked and prohibited chastity and most of the other classical virtues, on the grounds that the New Testament granted harlots and publicans the Kingdom of Heaven and therefore being drunk and promiscuous were mandatory. The Taborites eventually turned on the Adamites, even while fighting off their own enemies, to the extent that after burning the Adamite leader (“Adam Moses”) they sunk his ashes in a river.


The Reformation brought a change to millennial movements, especially as the Pope became identified with the Antichrist of Revelation, and as the Bible became increasingly available for individual interpretation. The parable of Dives and Lazarus and the verse in Acts that states that the Apostles had everything in common caused a lot of class conflict; I hate to seem blasphemous but it probably would have been much better for the future history of the world if the Apostles had invested in mutual funds or incorporated and issued stock. The “all things in common” doctrine caused especial problems as it was discovered – and as it would be discovered over and over and over again – that communitarian idealism always runs aground on the rock of human behavior. Cohn devotes a whole chapter to the “Kingdom of Münster” that started out as an egalitarian Protestant democratic movement and ended up as a totalitarian state that Stalin would have envied. The initial Münster dictator was Jan Matthys, who confiscated all privately owned money, then food, then houses, then books (all books other than the Bible were burned). Matthys eventually took his divinely approved status a little too seriously and led a handful of men outside the walls to lift the siege imposed by former Bishop. The expected army of angels did not appear and Matthys and his men were butchered. This did not end the Münster theocracy, however, as Jan Bockelson (aka Jan of Leyden) took over for Matthys. Bockelson rewrote the Münster legal code, imposing the death penalty for just about everything - murder, theft, lying, slander, avarice, quarreling, and insubordination to authority – any kind of insubordination, including children against parents, wives against husbands, and anybody against Bockelson. Bockelson also added labor to the list of community property; all artisans were required to work for the “community”, and finally women, making polygamy not only allowed but mandatory (Bockelson took 15 wives – but they all had to obey his first wife, under penalty of death for insubordination). Bockelson then announced he was King – not just of Münster, but of the entire world. He renamed all the streets in Münster and personally selected names for all newborns; issued a new coinage (interesting, as money had no function in Münster); had magnificent regalia crafted for himself and his harem (accomplished by confiscating all “surplus” clothing from the inhabitants); and began public executions – numerous because just about anything was a capital crime, and usually personally performed by Bockelson. Eventually the siege tightened to the point where Münster could no longer resist, and Bockelson and his “court” were captured. Queen Divara was beheaded and Bockelson and two other Münster leaders were slowly burned to death with hot irons, then exhibited in cages suspended from a church tower.


Engagingly written, with lots of fascinating detail and good references. Could use some maps, but detailed locations of the events are not particularly relevant to the history. As mentioned, there are uncomfortable resemblances between many of the millenarian movements and recent events; the ease with which popular and democratic reform movements turned into brutal and fanatical totalitarian regimes is especially unsettling. ( )
3 vote setnahkt | Dec 28, 2017 |
This came recommended by Ian McEwan in his Five Books selections. Here's the first paragraph of what he says:

"This celebrated book has been in print for over half a century. It’s a historical account of the fanatical millenarian sects that swept across Europe from the 11th to 15th centuries: sects that were driven by certainty of the world coming to an end. Clearly, it has relevance for our times. And when the world ended there would be deliverance for the elect. Your enemies would be damned just as you would be saved. These sects were extremely violent, and they came from the poorest, most deprived, marginal sections of society. They surged across Northern Germany, killing Jews, priests, the bourgeois."

You have to page through the article to get to the discussion of this book, but to find the rest of Ian McEwan's commentary on it go to:

http://fivebooks.com/interviews/ian-mcewan-on-five-books-have-influenced-my-nove... ( )
1 vote | William345 | Jun 11, 2014 |
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The end of the millennium has always held the world in fear of earthquakes, plague, and the catastrophic destruction of the world. At the dawn of the 21st millennium the world is still experiencing these anxieties, as seen by the onslaught of fantasies of renewal, doomsday predictions, andNew Age prophecies.This fascinating book explores the millenarianism that flourished in western Europe between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries. Covering the full range of revolutionary and anarchic sects and movements in medieval Europe, Cohn demonstrates how prophecies of a final struggle between the hostsof Christ and Antichrist melded with the rootless poor's desire to improve their own material conditions, resulting in a flourishing of millenarian fantasies. The only overall study of medieval millenarian movements, The Pursuit of the Millennium offers an excellent interpretation of how, again andagain, in situations of anxiety and unrest, traditional beliefs come to serve as vehicles for social aspirations and animosities.

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