With that said, it would be impossible for me to write anything this week without discussing how utterly terrible 2016 has been so far… so I’ve decided this week’s articles will be about Apocalypse narratives, and predictions of disaster. It seems fitting, considering that regardless of personal political leanings, it would seem that British and American politics have become a horrific joke, and all the celebrities I admired growing up have departed to another plane of existence.
Disclaimer: I also do not wish to minimise or belittle the utter horror that so many people must be feeling at the moment. All discrimination is wrong, whether orchestrated by hate groups, perpetrated by individuals, or made policy by government, and I hope that good people are able to overcome such things.
The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages
The core of the apocalyptic mythology can be traced two main sources: the Book of Revelation, and the Gospel of Daniel (with the Gospel of John getting an honourable mention).
Revelation provided a detailed description of the nature of the end of the world. In Revelation 20, the author John describes an angel chaining Satan in a pit for a thousand years, where after it is explained that he must be briefly released.
In this description of the time where Satan shall be loose, we read of an apocalyptic cycle:
“Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.”
When that thousand years are over, a great battle was predicted:
“And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison. and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
The narration then goes on to describe the judgement of the living and the dead, a second coming of Christ, and the lavishly appointed utopia that would be called New Jerusalem.
The Book of Daniel (Daniel 2: 36-45, to be exact) in the Old Testament had predicted a series of Kingdoms that would come and go: the first was King Nebuchadnezzar, the second would be inferior, a third of bronze would come to rule the earth; then a fourth kingdom, of iron, would come, which would be divided. Finally, fifthly, there would be a king directly appointed by God.
These ideas – along with John 12:31-32, stating, “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world be cast out” – would catch the imaginations of leaders in the early church. From the first century, Cerinthus upheld the idea that Christians would subsequently have a thousand years of ease, and while many of the church fathers would frame this as a more spiritual event, the vision of the New Jerusalem and the baggage of Revelation was upheld by Church Fathers including Cyprian, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Lactantius.
The rich imagery of the Book of Revelation gave huge grist to the theological interpreter’s mill: there were two beasts persecuting saints (one with two horns, another with ten), there were seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven vials of wrath.
Writing in the 5th century, Augustine of Hippo’s interpretation of eschatology aimed to reassure Christians that the end of the world was nothing to do with the fall of the Roman Empire in 410. For Augustine, the progress of humanity would indeed be divided into five time periods, each of a thousand years, and that the fourth was due to end fairly soon – although Augustine further complicated prediction by stating that the ‘thousand years’ were in fact generations.
This was, however, enough to persuade Christians that the first Millennium would be the beginning of the end, with Satan free in the world. After the year 1000 Christians became convinced that they were living through end: Joachim of Fiore developed an individual interpretation of the apocalypse, stating that history was in fact divided into eight ‘world days’, with the last being the second coming. He contradicted Augustine’s teachings that the events of Revelation could not be held to specific events or nations by writing that the rise of Islam under Saladin was one of the world days.
These ideas – that the year 1000 marked the loosing of Satan upon the world, that the apocalyptic events of Revelation could be tied to world events, and that the final battle was looming, would go on to influence thinkers through the Reformation and beyond. Writing against the Catholic church, John Bale set the ‘corruption’ of the true church as beginning in the year 1000, with the reformed Protestant church having ‘woken up’ from the influence of the Antichrist.
The Cedars of Lebanon and English Civil War Propaganda
In 1237, the Mongols had sacked the Grand Duchy of Suzdal. A lone Dominican named Brother Julian had escaped with a prophesy that would become known as ‘The Cedars of Lebanon’:
“The high Cedar of Lebanon will be felled. Mars will prevail over Saturn and Jupiter. Saturn will waylay Jupiter in all Things. Within eleven years there will be one God and one monarchy. The second god has gone. The sons of Israel will be liberated from captivity. A certain people called ‘without head’ or reputed to be wanderers, will come. Woe to the Clergy! A new order thrives: if it should fall, woe to the Church! There will be many battles in the world. There will be mutations of faith, of laws, and of kingdoms. The land of the Saracens will be destroyed.”
By 1531, the prophesy had been renovated and merged with another referring to a monarch named ‘Charles’. An unnamed Lutheran divine applied it to Charles of Anjou, where it was purposed towards Lutheran ambitions with dire passages speaking of ‘Peter’s ship’, and ‘the annihilation of the mendicant orders.’ This prophesy was translated from the Latin into vernacular German by the scholar Johann Carion, with the prophesy being variously modified and translated from German into Latin and Back until Charles V, once victorious against the Protestants of Mühlberg, died without issue. Since the modified version of the prophesy specified a ‘race of Charles’, it’s use briefly sputtered out.
The English Civil War saw a war like no other – literacy had been growing since the Reformation, and enough people now read (perhaps as many as 30,000 in London alone) that there was a viable market for written propaganda. Presses in London and Oxford created partisan ‘news’ documents, with authors sparring over both the competence and ‘chosenness’ of their respective faction. Pamphlets appeared stating that women supporting each side gave birth to monsters, depending on the pamphlet author’s opinion of God’s will.
In pamphlet called A Strange Wonder, or the City’s Amazement, God’s anger at Parliament was described as manifesting a storm over London. In A Miracle of Miracles Wrought by the Blood of King Charles the First, the king’s blood was described as healing wounds.
On the side of Parliament, William Lilly produced his work, A Prophesy of the White King – supposedly a Welsh poem in translation that mingled the allegedly Medieval Welsh poem with Lilly’s astrology to show that peace would not return until the death of Charles I, while royalist propagandists used their own astrologers to show that Charles was indeed the Charles of the 16th century version of the Cedars of Lebanon (The Magdeburg Prophesy), destined to bring about peace and achieve victory.
After Charles I’s death in 1649, Lilly turned his pen on the exiled Charles II, writing the book Monarchy or No Monarchy, which refuted the use of the Magdenburg Prophesy to fortell the return of Charles as a great king:
“Charles, descended from Charles… shall overthrow His Adversaries, and shall govern His Kingdom wonderfull happily, and shall bar Rule far and near; and shall be greater then Charles the great.”
Lilly had already, however, written in ominous terms the year before Charles I’s death:
“[There will] appear in this kingdom so strange a revolution of fate, so grand a catastrophe and great mutation unto this monarchy and government as never yet appeared of which as the times now stand, I have no liberty or encouragement to deliver my opinion – only it will be ominous to London, unto her merchants at sea, to her traffique on land, to her poor, to all sorts of people, inhabiting in her or to her liberties, by reason of sundry fires and a consuming plague.”
After the end of the Republic and Charles II’s restoration to the throne, it seemed only natural for those who believed in both Daniel and Revelation to see themselves as the camp of Saints from that final battle with the great beasts. A preacher in Coleman Street was caught vilifying Charles in 1660, and in 1661 the cooper Thomas Venner led a band of Fifth Monarchists – a sect believing in the apocalypse and that the triggering of the final kingdom of God was imminent – marched on St. Paul’s and defeated a force sent against them. A few days later they clashed with the Life Guard, inflicting heavy casualties, but finding themselves routed and captured.
Beliefs that they were living through the final days of human civilisation haunted the almost the whole remainder of the 17th century. Lilly’s Monarchy or No Monarchy had included nineteen plates depicting the future of the English nation, including one of London burning. Earlier, a Royalist mystic had written the poem Mourne London Mourne: “Fire, raging fire, shall burn thy stately towers down.”
The coming of the year 1666, with yet more links to the Antichrist, fired imaginations. The writer Thomas Lupton had written as early as 1597 that the Pope would be overthrown in 1666, while the cleric Francis Potter predicted that 1666 would be a disastrous year, full of catastrophe (little did he know that would be 2016…)