07.27The Year 1000 A.D. and the Millennial Panic
by Edward P. Wallner
In his recent review of an apocalyptic novel by the fundamentalist Pat Robertson, the writer Christopher Buckley recounted in his own words the familiar story of the panic over the imminent end of the world at the close of the first millennium A.D.:
“The year 999 was a boom year for monasteries. Penitents flocked in, hysterically bearing jewels, coins and earthly possessions by the oxcartful, hoping to cadge a little last-minute grace before Judgment Day. The year 1999 may turn out to be a similarly good one for fundamentalist Christian churches.” (Buckley 1966)
Since we are destined to hear this theme repeated frequently in the next couple years (with and without the error that the first millennium ended with the year’s end in 999 instead of 1000) it seems appropriate to review how the story has been transmitted over the intervening centuries.
The earliest mention of the panic was in a passage on the year 1000 in the Annales Hirsaugiensis written by the German abbot Joannes Tritemius about 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.” (Quoted in Burr 1901)
This passage was not printed until 1690 and the first actual publication to mention the millennial end of the world was that of Cardinal Baronius in his Annales Ecclesiastici of 1605. He states that the year 1001 had been “foretold as the world’s last, or nigh thereto, when Antichrist should be revealed.” He also quotes the tenth century Abbo of Fleury telling of a preacher in Paris who declared that at the end of the thousandth year Antichrist should come and not long after him the Judgment.
The story was enriched by Le Vasseur in 1633 with a passage, attributed to Radulf Glaber, about the earth’s “covering herself with a white robe of churches” built in relief and thanksgiving after the safe passage of the year 1000.
In his influential and widely translated “View of the Progress of Society in Europe during the Middle Ages” of 1769, the Scotsman Robertson cited other medieval chronicles in addition to Abbo on the panic and noted it as a factor in the origin of the Crusades.
Charles Mackay, in his chapter on the Crusades in “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” also cites this as a preamble to the Crusades:
“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.” Mackay 1853, p.356-7.
The French historian Michelet in 1833 and Michaud before him added as evidence quotations from church councils and the preambles of charters of that era which mention the approaching end of the world.
The noted German historian of the First Crusade, Heinrich von Sybel also acknowledged the influence of the panic in his 1881 edition:
“As the first thousand years of our calendar drew to an end, in every land of Europe the people expected with certainty the destruction of the world. Some squandered their substance in riotous living, others bestowed it for the salvation of their souls on churches and convents, bewailing multitudes lay by day and by night about the altars, many looked with terror, yet most with a secret hope, for the conflagration of the earth and the falling of heaven.” (Quoted in Burr 1901)
More recently the book, “1000 A.D.: Living on the Brink of Apocalypse,” though primarily devoted to the career of Pope Sylvester II (Gerbert of Aurillac), contains many such scenes throughout. (Erdoes 1988)
An even more recent text, “Century’s End” (Schwartz 1990) devotes its first three and a half pages to a vivid retelling of the story. There then follows:
“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.”
The present piece is principally taken from one of these articles, “The Year 1000 and the Antecedents of the Crusades.” (Burr 1901) Burr traces the origins and embellishments of the story as well as the development of critical scholarship dating from the skepticism of the Italian jurist Francesco Forti in 1840.
In 1873 the Benedictine Francois Plaine thoroughly demolished the basis of the legend: no eleventh century Italian, German, French or English annalist mentioned such a panic; such statements of the imminence of the end of the world as those from the Councils and preambles have been heard constantly since the beginning of Christianity; it could not have been later than 960 when Abbo heard that preacher, who was refuted on the spot and rated no further mention; the chronicles added by Robertson refer in two cases to the First Crusade a century later and in the other to 1010 when the cause for alarm was not the magical year 1000 but the taking of Jerusalem by the Turks; and though Glaber mentions prodigies and marvels for the year 1000, as he does for other years, there is no hint of a panic in his text.
In an apparently independent study published in 1878, the anti-clerical Paul RosiŠres came to the same conclusions, as did the German historian Heinrich von Eicken, working from German sources, in 1883.
Burr also points out that the Christian era, which had been introduced by the Roman abbot Dionysius Exiguus in his Easter table of 525 A.D. (Ginzel 1914), was not generally used by 1000. Indeed, Dionysius himself had not dated his letters by this era (Pedersen 1983) and the first papal documents to do so were of the papacy of John XIII (965-972). (Ginzel 1914)
Further even Christian dates were usually expressed in Roman numerals and M does not have the cachet of the “round number” 1000. In short even if the great masses who supposedly panicked had been aware of the year of the Christian era they would probably not have thought it significant.
All of this research should have laid the legend of the “panic terror” to rest, as it indeed did among medievalists and other historians. However, like contemporary urban legends, it makes too good a story for mere facts to kill so we will undoubtedly hear it again and again.
1) Buckley, C. Review of “The End of the Age” by Pat Robertson, New York Times Book Review, 1996 FEB 11, p. 8
2) Burr, G.L. 1901 The year 1000 and the antecedents of the Crusades. American Historical Review 29:429-439.
3) Erdoes, R. 1988 A.D.1000: living on the brink of apocalypse. New York, Harper & Row.
4) Ginzel, F.K. 1914 Handbuch der mathematischen und technischen chronologie III:178-181, Leipzig, J.C. Hinrich
5) Mackay, C. 1852 Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1932 edition)
6) Pedersen, O. 1983 The ecclesiastical calendar and the life of the church, p51. In Gregorian reform of the calendar, Vatican City, Specola Vaticana.
7) Schwartz, H. 1990 Century’s end. New York, Doubleday.