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April 9th, 2009

Apr. 9th, 2009

Maundy Thursday

On the medieval track, I ran across this on a site called "religioustolerance.org" which claims a kind of ecumenism because the group consists of an atheist, an agnostic, a Christian, a Wiccan, and a Zen Buddhist. 

One of their features has to do with failed predictions of the end of the world.  They C-their-A's by admitting that they have not actually checked any of these out; they've only cut-and-pasted on faith the pronouncements of others; but what the hey.  Two caught my eye:

1000-JAN-1: Many Christians in Europe had predicted the end of the world on this date. As the date approached, Christian armies waged war against some of the Pagan countries in Northern Europe. The motivation was to convert them all to Christianity, by force if necessary, before Christ returned in the year 1000. Meanwhile, some Christians had given their possessions to the Church in anticipation of the end. Fortunately, the level of education was so low that many citizens were unaware of the year. They did not know enough to be afraid. Otherwise, the panic might have been far worse than it was. Unfortunately, when Jesus did not appear, the church did not return the gifts. Serious criticism of the Church followed. The Church reacted by exterminating some heretics. Agitation settled down quickly.

Friends, this paragraph is so bad it's "not even wrong."  Unlike the Y2K panic of recent memory, there was no millennial panic in the year 1000.  First of all, they are projecting 19th century rural American pre-millennarianism onto a culture that was not yet even Protestant.  Second, it is bad theology.  The medievals regarded the Resurrection as the center of history, not the Nativity.  Third, the AD convention of numbering years was not yet in use.  Fourth, in the generations prior to AD 1000, the wars fought against the pagans of the North -- who were known as "vikings" --  were fought mainly to stop the vikings from pillaging and plundering.  Wars were also foght for the good old-fashioned reason of dynastic ambition, etc.  The rest of it -- the gifts, the criticism, the extermination -- are simply made up by people with an Early Modern projection of a powerful church prior to the Hildebrandine revolution. 

Some people will believe anything, as long as they already believe it. 
+ + +

The second one that caught my eye was:

1346 and later: The black plague spread across Europe, killing one third of the population. This was seen as the prelude to an immediate end of the world. Unfortunately, the Christians had previously killed a many of the cats, fearing that they might be familiars of Witches. The fewer the cats, the more the rats. It was the rat fleas that spread the black plague.

Now if a third of Europe is dying, it's hard to blame people for thinking the end of the world has come.  Technically, that's not a prophesy, but simple despair -- as one Irish monk wrote in the margin of a manuscript he was copying, he had written down the course of the plague but did not know if any human being would survive to read it. 

However, the business about the cats is pure silliness, another example of Chesterton's dictum that when people stop believing they will eventually believe in anything.  It is an example of what happens when people approach history from a Theory (fewer cats = more rats) rather than from facts. 

First of all, the rat population did not explode in Europe.  Eurasian brown rats (now known as Norwegian rats) began replacing the native black rat in the middle ages, bringing with them the fleas that carried the Pest. 

Second, there was no great slaughter of cats. 

Third, the medievals did not believe in the early modern concept of witches.  The official church doctrine (Canon Episcopi) was that witches per se did not exist, save the classes that the Romans had called herb women (harmless) and veneficiae (poisoners, not harmless).  The whole sabbat-familiar-broomstick thing was held to be imaginary, not real.  There was no witch mania during the middle ages. 

When I was in college, a lot of us liked to think we were Zen Buddhists, but weren't; and Wiccan is a pretend-religion made up by moderns for their amusement.  (See this link: Lady Pixie Moondrip's Guide to Craft Names for a send-up of name-choosing.  www.chaosmatrix.org/library/humor/moondrip.html


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