Friday, September 4, 2020

The End of the World

As the tenth century since the Incarnation continued to darken, so men looked at the world about them, and dreaded the portents that they read there.

-          Millennium, Tom Holland

After Charlemagne’s attempt at rebuilding Rome failed (ignoring, of course, the New Rome of Constantinople), Western Europe entered a dark and difficult period.  This is not to suggest all was glorious during Charlemagne’s rule, as he obtained empire by conquest and war – new wars virtually every year of his reign.

In 899, strange and savage horsemen descended on Lombardy and stripped it bare, “the nightmares of every civilized Christian…the invaders were rumored even to have drained their victims of their blood.”  A year later, it was Bavaria.  Then it was Provence.

Every year, somewhere in the decaying Frankish Empire, new fields, new villages, new monasteries were scoured and plundered utterly.

These invaders were Hungarians.  A description of their tactics:

Their army had mostly light cavalry and were highly mobile. Attacking without warning, they quickly plundered the countryside and departed before any defensive force could be organized. If forced to fight, they would harass their enemies with arrows, then suddenly retreat, tempting their opponents to break ranks and pursue, after which the Hungarians would turn to fight them singly.

Returning to Holland, citing “A Letter on the Hungarians”:

‘For they say that this is the last time of the age, and the end of the world is near, and therefore the Hungarians are Gog and Magog.  Never were they heard of before – but now, behold, it is the end of time, and they have materialized.’

Over the course of seventy years, the Hungarians conducted close to fifty raids in various parts of Europe.  In almost every case, these raids were successful.  Even if the Hungarians were not Gog and Magog, surely they must portend Antichrist.

Bishops and monks who were far from the devastation could write of God’s love of the world, even if this was the end; these terrors were a call, not to panic, but to repentance; instead of prophecies of end-times, prayer, contrition, and good works are in order.

Those more directly in the Hungarians’ path tended to be less sanguine.

Conveniently it was approaching one thousand years since the Incarnation – was it so, that the Evil one thrown in the pit would soon be released?  Whereas Augustine would interpret this abstractly, others believed that it was meant literally.  As the time approached – was it to be measured from Christ’s birth, or Resurrection?  Either way, the end was drawing near – and the Hungarians were announcing it.

History, by the mid-tenth century, had become a nightmare from which the Christians of Francia were struggling to awake.  Confidence in their ability to shape their own future had been largely abandoned. …Signs of the ruin of West Francia appeared everywhere lit up by fire.

At one point, Laon had been captured and King Louis IV briefly taken prisoner.  He was descended from Charles the Bald, grandson of Charlemagne, ruling one sliver of what is today northeast France.  His wife, the Saxon Gerberga, turned to a churchman for his knowledge of Antichrist: Adso, Abbot of Montier-en-Der.  While Adso would not give a precise date, he was certain that the end of days was imminent:

“In fact,” he informed the terrified queen, “the times we live in being what they are, there is no topic of more pressing urgency.”

And it was only the house of the Franks that stood between the world and Antichrist.  Quite a stunning view, but it was the Franks, after all, that were the heirs of the Roman Empire – and the collapse of their kingdom could only mean the end of the world.  One might have considered that, whether counted from Rome or from Charlemagne, the collapse was already behind them.

Adso was studying St. Methodius, a fourth-century Church Father, who prophesied that a Roman emperor would conquer the world before travelling to Jerusalem and set in motion the Second Coming.  How arrogant, Adso thought, to believe it would be a Greek to accomplish what was destined for the Franks!

Paralysis and despair.  This is what could be offered.  Sure, a new heaven and new earth would follow – but right now it is the Huns.  The princes would fight amongst each other, fields trampled by rival armies, and the shrinking borders of Christendom (remember Christendom was also dealing with the Vikings and Muslims during this time as well) were in flames and red with blood.


Yet Adso saw only one solution: a return to the past.  Not the Roman past, but a Frankish past.

The times, though, were changing – as Gerberga herself, a Saxon princess, might well have chosen to remind the abbot.

To the east, a new European power was rising.  One forced into Christendom by Charlemagne, subject to the worst of slaughters prior to conversion.

A power capable, as time would prove, of securing the West against its most fearsome enemies, and of forging a new Roman Empire….


A side trip regarding the aforementioned end-times prophecy: while Adso attributed it to Saint Methodius of Olympus, this may not have been a proper view:

Written in Syriac in the late seventh century, the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius shaped and influenced Christian eschatological thinking in the Middle Ages. Falsely attributed to Methodius of Olympus, a fourth century Church Father, the work attempts to make sense of the Islamic conquest of the Near East. The Apocalypse is noted for incorporating numerous aspects of Christian eschatology such as the invasion of Gog and Magog, the rise of the Antichrist, and the tribulations that precede the end of the world.

The Apocalypse, however, adds a new element to Christian eschatology: the rise of a messianic Roman emperor. This element would remain in Christian apocalyptic literature until the end of the medieval period.

It seems many Christians, under the sway of Scofield, hold to a similar view: how silly of those medievals to believe it could be Rome or the Franks or any other than the United States that would hold this position.


  1. I thought the only interesting thing about the Middle Ages was sword and sorcery stories, but it is really a story about the attempt to rebuild civilization.

    I have been reading the Walking Dead comic when I can find an issue. It has many parallels with the historical Middle Ages. The characters wrestle with the same issues as here, but unfortunately Kirkman largely ignores the important role Jesus took then and will in the future.

    I have started reading a book that parallels this book some too, though it spans more history and doesn't spent too much time in any one era. But I think the ideas compliment what BM is writing here. Take a look if you are interested.

    1. Jacques Barzun would write of the Middle Ages:

      "The truth is that during the 1,000 years before 1500 a new civilization grew from beginnings that were uncommonly difficult….showing the world two renaissances before the one that has monopolized the name."

      "…the Germanic invaders brought a type of custom law that some later thinkers have credited with the idea of individual freedom.…no rule was held valid if not approved by those it affected."

    2. Edith Pargeter brings to life living in 1137 England. Historical accuracy blended with enjoyable reading. Brother Cadfael, a former crusader, now taken the cowl., Peg