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As ever, the millennium is just around the corner,
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This review is from: The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, Revised and Expanded Edition (Paperback)
Cohn's "Pursuit of the Millennium" has aged well and nearing 50 years of age it is deservedly a classic. Its subjet might be considered by some to be esoteric: it deals with prophets from middle age Europe who led others to believe that the end of times was at hand, and that they had been chosen by God to purify the world in preparation for the Kingdom of the Last Days, and with pantheistic mystical anarchists who believed that they could do no evil because they had connected with their divine essences. In most cases these figures are virtual unknowns even for people who like history. The few that still turn up are Thomas Müntzer, the leader of the rebellious peasants who were exterminated in the Battle of Frankenhausen (a character in the historical fiction pastiche "Q" by Luther Blisset) and John of Leyden, the tailor who created a totalitarian kingdom of saints in Münster. For the revolutionary millennarians the tale is a bit repetitive, and it usually went like this: a former priest or a hermit with a violent disposition concludes, after meditating for a long time, that he is living at the end of times and that he is God/ he is a god/ he has been chosen by God or a god to lead the just and the good in a final, apocalyptic, war against Antichrist and his followers, to usher in the millennium of the saints announced by John the Divine, prior to the end of the world and the final reckoning. The hermit or defrocked priest finds some followers and eventually is able to take hold of a town or a castle, which he converts into a stronghold with the help of the rootless rabble. Then he proceeds to plunder from the rich (nobles and clergy) and to purge the unredeemed. Eventually the powers-that-be get their act together and dispatch an army of knights who, after a bloody fight are able to capture the prophet and his main followers, who usually are burnt or beheaded after enduring torture. It is peculiar that even thought they are always defeated and crushed, the sort of people who are drawn to this type of leader will rise up to follow them again and again.
Cohn's book tells the story in just the right detail. He shows that certain regions were particularly sensitive to the millennarian prophets. Many such arose in the Northwestern corner of Europe (Northeastern France, the Benelux countries, the Rhineland in Germany). He also shows that generally poor people have had rational aims: to use pressure in order to improve their lot by acquisition of certain rights. Only a minority has felt the attraction of millennarian revolutions, and these usually have been uprooted people without a settled role. Also, these revolutionary initiatives were able to succeed (even if for a short while) only in times of chaos or unrest (i.e., the Crusades, visitations of the plague or black death, economic crises, etc.). Usually the self-appointed prophets used the social disruption in order to further their cause and take advantage from the momentary weakness of defenders of the status quo.
Cohn is a sober commentator who shows that recent historians have sometimes ignored the evidence to further a political agenda. Thus, leftist historians sometimes refused to acknowledge some activities of the prophets whom they regarded as protorevolutionaries (such as their inclination to institutionalized promiscuity or their remarkably violent language), probably in order to maintain their status as predecessors of current "progressives".
An interesting conclusion from the reading of the book is that, contrary to what many think, ideas are not a neutral good to be chosen by informed customers in an efficient marketplace. Some ideas appeal to dark places in people's minds: these are dangerous ideas, and parents and teachers would do well to instruct their children, so that they do not succumb. One such idea is that "God" is in everything, and that when a person becomes aware of this he or she becomes entirely free and can follow his or her desires without any negative ethical implication. Another way of putting this is that nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so, as Hamlet said. This type of belief might lead a person to the most brutal behaviors without any perception that they had done ill. This is a very common opinion nowadays, and in fact both the millennarists and the mystical anarchists have their successors nowadays. Today, the center of millennarian agitation is surely the USA, were many people believe that the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse) is a play-by-play description of the end of the world and that they will live to see it happen. And many new age sects (including Scientology) appear to hold the belief that we can become gods and be free of conventional morality and ethics.
In his conclusion Cohn suggests that many radical movements of the XX century are in fact new versions of the old millennarian revolutionary heresies. There can be no doubt that this is the case: human motivations change little over time. What changes is the language in which they are articulated. In a religious era, the language and imagery were religious. in a godless age the language attempts to be scientific and logical. But underneath there beats the same old hope: the hope to see evil punished and evildoers destroyed, to be part of a chosen elite with a new understanding of the nature of reality, and an exhilarating vision of a better future through hardship and strife. We can all empathise with these feelings. Action movies, comic books, tragedies, country music and soap operas resonate for many of us because they take their inspiration from some of these elements. I only regret that Cohn did not expand the point, although other authors have done so, most notably Michel Burleigh, who in his recent two volume history on the clashes between politics and religion from the French Revolution to our days has shown that much of what passes for politics is in reality religion by another name, and how the most revolutionary creeds of the XX century were really millennarian sects.
And Cohn's perspective is so pertinent that it even explains the rise of Islamic fundamentalism tinged with visions of a holy war that will redeem the world and turn into the Umma, the community of the believers. The followers of fundamentalism have been the large masses of uprooted peasants without a clear role in a modernizing world, and their leaders have been intellectuals or semi-intellectuals who can understand how the world works but want no part of it, other than to redeem it in an apocalytic struggle. Their counterparts in other religions are very similar to them: people who want to find a meaning for lives that provide none, people who are sensitive to unfairness and who instinctively resonate with violence and retribution, people who yearn for zoroastrian visions of entirely distinct good and bad. As ever, for these people, the new millennium of peace and joy is just around the corner, although sadly it can only come about on mountains of corpses and through rivers of blood.
The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, Revised and Expanded Edition(22 customer reviews)