Medieval Apocalypticism: Looking for the Last Emperor

BECAUSE ANNO DOMINI DATING (setting the annual calendar from the birth of Christ) was still relatively new in A.D. 1000, historians doubt the year had much apocalyptic significance for medieval men and women. A Burgundian monk named Raoul Glaber spoke a few years later of “numerous signs and prodigies that had occurred before, after, and around the year 1000” and more around 1033 (the millennium of Christ’s death and resurrection), but that’s about the only evidence for first-millennium fever. That’s not to say, however, that the turn of the first millennium was quiet, or that late medieval Christianity was little interested in end-times speculation. Quite the contrary.

Surrender at Golgotha

Around 950, a monk named Adso wrote the most complete treatise on the Antichrist to date. The Antichrist would come from the Jewish tribe of Dan, he argued, and would be raised in the East.

Before he could come, however, a Frankish king must reign. This king would triumph over all the enemies of Christendom and rule a peaceful, Christian world. He would then go to Golgotha to surrender his crown, and this would signal the coming of the Antichrist.

Adso’s notion of “The Last World Emperor” became widespread, and soon became the ideal for temporal power. The Chanson de Roland, written about 1095, depicted Charlemagne (d. 814) as a messianic ruler who triumphed over all Muslims and pagans. Count Emich of Leisingen, a leader of the First Crusade, massacred Jews who refused to convert because he was convinced God had summoned him to be a Last World Emperor. At the same time, tensions between national and church rulers were waxing, and kings and emperors used Adso’s messianism in their defense.

A.D. 1183

Joachim of Fiore begins having apocalyptic visions.

Church corruption (greed, sexual license, and power grabbing) and the inability of ecclesiastic leaders to reform the church energized apocalypticism.

As a result, people like the German Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) predicted that lay princes would forcibly take away land and riches clergy had amassed, and Christendom would enter an era of millennial prosperity and peace. Though disarmament would entice pagans to attack Christian nations, she believed Christians would eventually win. Ultimately, the Roman emperor would lose almost all authority, and the pope would only rule Rome.

Christian Babylon

One of the more well-known proponents of church reform was Abbot Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135-1202). Joachim constructed two schemes for understanding the past and the future. One divided history into two times, that of the Jews and that of the Gentiles, culminating after 1200. The other scheme divided history into three status, paralleling the Trinity and the three orders (laity, clergy, and monks).

Joachim compared Christendom to Babylon because everyone wanted money, power, and worldly fame. Shortly after 1200, he speculated, two anti-Christian forces, possibly Muslims and heretics, would attack, defeat, and severely persecute Christians. Thus purified, a reforming pope and monastic orders would create a holier world in which people would attain unsurpassed understanding of the hidden meaning of the Scriptures. For an indeterminate period, Christians would dominate the world in peace.

The rivalry between the popes and the emperors culminated in the 1240s when Pope Innocent IV waged “total war"—a war of both swords and words—against emperor Frederick II.

Messianic Antichrist

Frederick’s supporters hailed him as a messiah, wonder of the world (stupor mundi). But Innocent and his supporters branded Frederick the Antichrist. Even after the Holy Roman Emperor died in 1250, at least one Innocent supporter refused to believe it—the emperor had not accomplished all the evil that was expected of him as Antichrist. This conflict reverberated in apocalyptic texts well into the 1300s.

Furthermore, church reform continued to prove elusive. Even mendicants—Franciscan and Dominican orders who were founded as reform movements—were caught up in amassing wealth. Boniface VIII (c.1234-1303) was a canon lawyer who combined rampant nepotism with extreme claims for papal power. French pope Clement V (1264-1314) moved the Curia to Avignon, which upset everybody but the French, who dominated the papacy for the next 70 years.

A spate of texts interpreted these and other events apocalyptically. Benedictine monk Henry of Kirkstede, a librarian who collected prophetic texts from Hildegard, Joachim, and others, was perplexed. Authorities gave radically different meanings about the same events. The bubonic plague had swept across Europe between 1347 and 1350, killing perhaps 40 percent of the population.

The Great Schism in 1378 divided the church between popes in Avignon and Rome. Henry wondered if such events portended the coming of the Antichrist and the end of history, or the beginning of true church reform.

In either case, eschatological enthusiasm boiled, spilling over into the great literature of the day. Virgil told Dante in the first canto of the Divine Comedy that no one could ascend the hill past the beast until a hound came “who would eat wisdom, love, and virtue, not land and money.” William Langland, the author of Piers Plowman, envisioned a new David, whose reign would be marked by total peace, honesty, and justice. All weapons would be forcibly destroyed, and non-Christians would stand in awe of Christian goodness.

Scarcely a ruler ascended a throne without someone calling him a messiah. If English, he would seize the sword Excalibur and be a new Arthur. French kings would be Charlemagnes. German ones were all Fredericks.

But though the kings of England and France took control of the church, they didn’t reform it as expected. Disappointment led to apocalyptic visions against the rulers. Jean de Roquetaillade, a pro-French Franciscan, wrote from prison that a true millennium would begin about 1370, when “popular justice” would overturn the corrupt social order. Itinerant English cleric John Ball preached Edenic equity, and prophesied that God was ready to overthrow inequality and private property. Peasants who joined Ball in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 were responding to such millennial dreams.

In another corner of Europe, the burning of Czech reformer Jan Hus led to widespread and apocalyptic rebellion. The most radical Hussites, called Taborites, seized a mountain and tried to begin a revolution in which both worldly ranks and private property would be abolished. Moderate Hussites eventually repressed the radicals, but similar rebels appeared in Germany in 1525 and radical millennialists took over Münster in the 1530s.

700 years of millennial fever

Hope for Adso’s “Last World Emperor” continued to the Reformation era. In 1494, French king Charles VIII led an army into Italy to take up French claims to the south. His appearance at Florence smashed the citizens’ apocalyptic illusions that they were a match for the powerful kingdoms of the north.

Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola stepped into the spotlight, preached powerful sermons against wealth and luxuries, and predicted that the French army was only a prelude to the coming of a holy, pure, millennial world. Charles just might be the true Last World Emperor. When Charles was defeated, Savonarola was burned at the stake.

As the 1500s opened and the Renaissance spread, apocalypticism was still ubiquitous. University scholars eagerly collected new prophecies and commented anew on older ones. Churchmen dreamed of the long-awaited clerical reform. Townsmen and peasants sought social justice through millennial movements.

Only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the rise of the Enlightenment, were church authorities, both Protestant and Catholic, able to push underground the apocalyptic enthusiasm that had so characterized European Christianity for seven centuries.

Resources:

Liber De Concordia Novi Ac Veteris Testament is available through Amazon.com.

Bernard McGinn, who specializes in medieval apocalypticism, recently published Visions of the End. It’s a necessary volume for any study on the subject, not only for his comments, but for its translations of primary source documents.

Links:

The Fourth Lateran Council’s condemnation of Joachim is available online.

By E. Randolph Daniel

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #61 in 1999]

Randolph Daniel is professor of history at the University of Kentucky and editor of Joachim of Fiore’s Liber De Concordia Novi Ac Veteris Testament (American Philosophical Society, 1983).
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