Friday, July 18, 2014

Norman Cohn - The Pursuit of the Millennium

Any study of the medieval European period finds that peasant rebellions and uprisings, far from being uncommon, are actually part of the fabric of a society dominated by feudal relations and class antagonisms. Some of these uprisings relate directly to the oppression of medieval society. Rich against poor, landowner against serf. Many of these used religious imagery and language to inform and inspire the rebellions, perhaps best illustrated by the speeches and role of John Ball in the 1381 Peasants' Revolt in England.

Other events however took a different form. These millenarian movements are documented in great detail in Norman Cohn's classic book, and his extensive scholarship has found a wealth of fascinating movements throughout Europe that have often surprising parallels across the continent. Christian millenarianism, in Cohn's words, refers "to the belief held by some Christians, on the authority of the Book of Revelation that after his Second Coming Christ would establish a messianic kingdom on earth and would reign over it for a thousand years."

But Cohn makes the point that in these millenarian movements could rarely be separated from wider circumstances. Thus, millenarian sects or movements always portrayed their salvation as being remarkably down to earth. Collective, in the sense that the messianic kingdom would be enjoyed collectively, on earth rather than heaven and imminent. As Cohn explains,

"The world of millenarian exaltation and the world of social unrest.. did not coincide but did overlap. It often happened that certain segments of the poor were captured by some millenarian prophet. Then the usual desire of the poor to improve the material conditions of their lives became transfused with phantasies of a world reborn into innocence through a final apocalyptic massacre."

This is why, sometimes, but not always, these movements were violent, destroying and massacring their opponents. A frequent theme is for millenarian sects to believe that since they were the saved, they could treat the unsaved as the source of wealth and food for their survival. Frequently this meant targeting the established church, for, as Cohn explains, the Church had its own interests too. It was

"a powerful and prosperous institution, functioning according to a well-established routine; and the men responsible for governing it had no wish to see Christians clinging to out-dated and inappropriate dreams of a new earthly paradise."

But there was a contradiction, for

"In Christian apocalyptic the old phantasy of divine election was preserved and revitalised; it was the body of literature inaugurated by the Book of Revelation which encouraged Christians to see themselves as the Chosen People of the Lord - chosen both to prepare the way for and to inherit the Millennium. And this idea had such enormous attraction that no official condemnation could prevent it from recurring again and again to the minds of the unprivileged, the oppressed, the disoriented and the unbalanced."

The reality of feudal exploitation and oppression coincided with a ideology that meant,

"For medieval people the stupendous drama of the Last Days was not a phantasy about some remote and indefinite future but a prophecy which was infallible and which at almost any given moment was felt to be on the point of fulfillment."

Notably though, Cohn does not see all peasants as being necessarily susceptible to the charms of such millenarian movements. He argues that the "messiahs" tended to gain support and flourish,

"not amongst the poor and oppressed as such, but amongst the poor and oppressed whose traditional way of life has broken down and who have lost faith in their traditional values."

Particularly from the end of the 11th century, Medieval Europe was frequently the subject of great religious dissent. Society was also struck by the disorienting effects of war, climate change and political crises. In addition, population pressure, the beginnings of industrialisation and the growth of urban areas were also making their impact felt. Providing fertile ground for millenarian movements. It is these movements that Cohn explores in fascinating detail.

Such a variety of movements and sects are described in this book, it would be impossible to cover them all in this review. One or two mentions will have to suffice. The 1251 "Crusades of the Shepherds" which began at Easter when three men began to preach a Crusade in Picardy and within days their preaching had reached far beyond France. One of them was Jacob, a renegade monk, who (in common with many similar movements) claimed to have a letter from the Virgin Mary which called on shepherds to make a crusade. Hundreds flocked to the call, and thousands more joined them. A contemporary estimate (that is likely to be exaggerated) suggests 60,000. The army went on the march

"It was divided into fifty companies; these marched separately, armed with pitchforks, hatchets, daggers, pikes carried aloft as they entered towns and villages, oso as to intimidate the authorities. When they ran short of provisions they took what they needed by force; but much was given freely for.. people revered the Pastoureaux as holy men."

According to contemporary reports, it was precisely because the Pastoureaux had a habit of "killing and despoiling" priests that they had much popular support. The movement however over-reached itself. At the town of Bourges, Jacob preached against the Jews, and his army pillaged houses, raping and plundered the churches. Despite having earlier gained the trust and support of the French Queen Mother, she now realised her mistake and the movement was outlawed. This caused a crisis within the ranks and allowed local forces to smash Jacobs followers. Some escaped and one even made it to England were he continued to preach and gathered a following of hundreds of peasants and shepherds around Shoreham until troops sent by Henry III led to the movements final destruction.

One of the interesting aspects to the movements discussed here, is the parallels. For instance, in 1381 a movement in northern France took the form of a popular uprising in a number of towns. Here, "the first objective of these people was always the tax-farmer's office, where they destroyed the files, looted the coffers and murdered the tax-farmers; their next, the Jewish quarter, where they also murdered and looted their fill." Anyone who has read about the 1381 English Uprising will note that the first target of the Rebels over the Channel was to burn records of taxes and serfdom and immigrant labourers from Flanders were also massacred.

Another theme is the way that many movements broke apart traditional notions of sexuality. Take the "Free Spirit" movement. It's doctrine was that the person who has "become God" must use all things,

"You shall ordered all created beings to serve you according to your will, for the glory of God.. You shall bear all things up to God. If you want to use all created beings, you have the right to do so; for every creature that you use, you drive up into its Origin."

One expression of this, says Cohn, was a "promiscuous and mystically coloured eroticism." Women were created to be used by the "Brethren of the Free Spirit. Indeed by such intimacy a women became chaster than before, so that if she had previously lost her virginity she now regained it."

While many movements (Cohn suggests the Ranters of the English Revolution and the 'Swabian heretics in the 13th century") had views that said sexual intercourse could never be sinful, it is not hard to see in the views of the Free Spirit adepts above an excuse for rape and violence against women. That said we must be careful not to fall for the propaganda of the enemies of these movements, who often claimed that heretics were engaged in orgies, or other shocking and sinful behaviour, in order to discredit them.

Hans Böhm
Precisely because they began with the desire to break free of earth-bound restrictions many of these movements would discard old ideas and men and women would free themselves of many ideological and legal chains.

In 1476 another mass movement developed around a shepherd Böhm. His vision was of a world turned upsidedown. One Abbot commented on Böhm's movement that,

"What would the layman like better than to see clergy and priesthood robbed of all their privileges and rights, their tithes and revenues? For the common people is by nature hungry for novelties and ever eager to shake off its master's yoke"  

Böhm was eventually executed, though he was remembered almost religiously by his followers, some of whom kept the earth from the stake at which he had been burnt as a relic. Böhm had tried to lead a radical, perhaps revolutionary movement. Many of other movements looked to the day of judgement, perhaps expecting it would be started by their own actions - both of violence and prayer.

Frequently those at the heart of these events would be so convinced of their divine inspiration that their actions led to their own deaths and the destruction of their followers. But it would be wrong to suggest that this means these self-declared messiahs were insane. Whether it was the small scale sects, or the mass followings of Thomas Müntzer or the extraordinary tale of Jan Bockelson and the Münster Rebellion, their ideas and preaching inspired tens of thousands and frequently shook the medieval world to its foundations. These radicals could not have built the new world of which they dreamed, but their existence exposes the contradictions at the heart of medieval society and proves once again that ordinary people have always dreamed of, and struggled for, a better world.

Related Reviews

Hilton - Bond Men Made Free - Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381
O'Brien - When Adam Delved and Eve Span
Lindsay and Groves - The Peasants' Revolt 1381

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