Imagining the end of the world is one of humanity’s most perverse pleasures. For decades, cinema-goers have been treated to apocalypse by rogue planet, asteroid, earth’s core overheating, earth’s core stopping, climate-changing super-storm, melting polar caps, dying sun, solar flares, mass infertility, blindness, zombies, plague, aliens, dragons, walking plants, sentient machines, nuclear war and the wrath of God. One thing that all these films have in common – besides the dodgy special effects and regular American guys saving their estranged families – is a moral. Planetary destruction isn’t always an accident: it’s frequently the consequence of human failings and can sometimes be prevented at the last minute when these are remedied. On the occasions when it can’t be helped, the orgy of destruction becomes the backdrop for a drama of appropriate punishment and individual redemption. Either way, it provides an opportunity for biting social criticism.
This passion for moralising over doomsday has deep roots in western society and political discourse. The ‘apocalypse’ genre was established in the Hebrew tradition by the third century BCE, although the contents of such texts varied considerably. In the middle ages, ordinary people could study lurid depictions of the Apocalypse on the walls of their local church, while the wealthy had their own lavishly illuminated manuscripts of the Book of Revelation (see here, here and here). This imagery wasn’t produced simply for entertainment, but served the function of a public information bulletin. The Bible made it clear that the world would end, soon, and Judgement Day would follow. People who were optimistic about going to heaven quite looked forward to this. 1 More sinful individuals would, it was hoped, reflect on the horrors to come and reform their ways. In the meantime, accusing one’s enemies of being secretly the Beast of the Apocalypse or the Antichrist was a pastime in which many, including popes and emperors, indulged.
There have been long-running debates among historians over the question of how pressing apocalyptic expectation was for medieval people. Was the year 1000 a time of particular terror? This has seeped out into popular views of the Middle Ages. Was the whole period from ca. 400 to ca. 1400 a dark time of wild-eyed preachers bellowing about hellfire to cowering populations? Was the Enlightenment a relief?
Through the centuries and in many societies, both history and contemporary affairs have been given meaning by the way they are framed in stories of the creation and destruction of the planet and its inhabitants. For medieval Europe, its imagination dominated by the teaching of the church, sin entered the world in the beginning and would intensify to an extreme in the last days. There would be attempts to deceive the faithful; there would be wars and rumours of wars; famines, earthquakes, terrible persecutions and betrayals; compassion and charity would grow cold in human hearts. Only the person who stood firm through all this would in the end be saved. 2 These expectations provided a template for understanding and criticising society. They were drawn upon by those committed to reforming injustices, tackling disparities in wealth, challenging the behaviour of powerful elites and arguing for the equal value of all human souls.
Prophecies about the unfolding of the apocalypse also affected European interactions with non-Christians. For much of the medieval period, Jews were offered a measure of protection from persecution on the grounds that their mass conversion was not supposed to occur until the very end of time. In the later medieval period, the old obligation to spread Christianity across the globe became more pressing in a heightened eschatological context. This consciousness led to urgent attempts to engage with societies throughout the known world.
The strange glamour of the apocalypse, together with terror of the end-times, was used by medieval society to advance agendas that are not dissimilar to those of contemporary social reformers. And now? Well, from nuclear holocaust to 4 degrees of global warming, the threat of the end of the world has not lost its resonance…
Merry Christmas, everyone.