Pursuit of the Millennium

by Norman Cohn

Paperback, 1993



Call number




Pimlico (1993), Edition: New Ed, Paperback, 414 pages


The end of the millennium has always held the world in fear of earthquakes, plague, and the catastrophic destruction of the world. At the dawn of the 21st millennium the world is still experiencing these anxieties, as seen by the onslaught of fantasies of renewal, doomsday predictions, and New Age prophecies. This fascinating book explores the millenarianism that flourished in western Europe between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries. Covering the full range of revolutionary and anarchic sects and movements in medieval Europe, Cohn demonstrates how prophecies of a final struggle between the hosts of Christ and Antichrist melded with the rootless poor's desire to improve their own material conditions, resulting in a flourishing of millenarian fantasies. The only overall study of medieval millenarian movements, The Pursuit of the Millennium offers an excellent interpretation of how, again and again, in situations of anxiety and unrest, traditional beliefs come to serve as vehicles for social aspirations and animosities.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member setnahkt
If the word “Millennium” appears among the secular nowadays, it usually refers to a thousand-year period in the common calendar; i.e. “The First Millennium”. For historian Norman Cohn, however, the title of The Pursuit of the Millennium had nothing to do with Y2K problems. Cohn’s study
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identifies a surprising number – well, surprising to me, at least – of European medieval heretical movements associated with bringing on “The Millennium”, not “a millennium” – a thousand-year period identified in the Book of Revelations when Christ would return to Earth and reign with the saints and martyrs in Jerusalem. (I note from a little Web research that there are very divergent views over what exactly the verses in Revelations mean. I’m not going there.) The aims and methods of a lot of the movement still resonate today – sometimes in a pretty disturbing fashion.

Cohn identifies a number of themes among the millenarian believers. They’re not necessary all present in all such groups, nor is the order necessarily the same as listed here, but there’s typically two or more involved:

* There once was a “Golden Age” in which all were equal and no one had to work, because the Earth produced abundant food free for the taking. (Interestingly, the “Golden Age” idea seems to have its root in Greco-Roman mythology rather than the Garden of Eden).

* In a variant, all women were in common in the Golden Age as well. (Men being what they are, nobody seems to have suggested that women got their choice of men, rather than the other way around).

* In a more Christian variant, the Apostles “held all things in common” and therefore this is the ideal state for Christians.

* A “good Emperor” will appear.

* The “good Emperor” is a known member of some European noble family.

* The “good Emperor” seems to be deceased, but is actually “sleeping” or “in hiding” somewhere.

* The “good Emperor” will right all wrongs and redistribute wealth such that the “Golden Age” is restored.

* The “good Emperor” will lead the faithful to Jerusalem and retake it.

* On the way to Jerusalem the faithful will kill all the Jews.

* Once the faithful are established, they are no longer subject to Biblical or common law.

* Various prophetic books – sometimes by Christian authors, sometimes by the Sibyls – detail these events.

So, successive variants of “the good Emperor” include “King Tafur”, a mythical leader of a crusading band of poor; Charlemagne; Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV; Godfrey of Bouillon; Raymond of St. Giles; Emmerich, Count of Leningen; Louis VII of France; some later King of France who would simultaneously be Pope; Baldwin, Count of Flanders; an unidentified person called “the Master of Hungary”; and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. (Oddly, Frederick Barbarossa, who actually died on Crusade and who is rumored to be sleeping somewhere in a mountain until his beard grows three times around a table, doesn’t seem to figure as a potential “good Emperor’; nor does King Arthur, who’s also supposed to be “sleeping” somewhere).

Some of these candidates were just bruited about by various itinerant preachers; others, such as Count Emmerich, actually led bands in the general direction of Jerusalem; and still others were supposed to arise only after their followers had shown sufficient devotion – usually by looting and killing Jews.

As the Middle Ages progressed, the prevailing memes changed somewhat; millenarian revolutions were more likely to be based on religious reformation and/or primitive Communism. Cohn discusses the Hussite wars at considerable length. I had heard of the Hussites before, but only in the context of the military genius of John Žižka; Cohn explains the religo-political dimensions. John Hus himself was not particularly radical, merely disagreeing with doctrine on such things as the divine vs. human nature of the Papacy. Hus also didn’t contribute much to the Hussite movement, since he was burned at the stake before it really got started (the initial event is usually considered to be the First Defenestration of Prague, always a fun topic to bring up in casual conversation). Like a lot of religious movements the Hussites quickly splintered into increasingly radical subgroups; the original Hussites became Utraquists, and confined their main doctrinal request to the right to receive wine at Communion in addition to bread. The program of the more radical Taborites isn’t clear, because the victors burned all their publications; however their basic belief seems to be killing everyone that wasn’t a Taborite. The Taborites spun off an even more radical group, the Adamites, who went naked and prohibited chastity and most of the other classical virtues, on the grounds that the New Testament granted harlots and publicans the Kingdom of Heaven and therefore being drunk and promiscuous were mandatory. The Taborites eventually turned on the Adamites, even while fighting off their own enemies, to the extent that after burning the Adamite leader (“Adam Moses”) they sunk his ashes in a river.

The Reformation brought a change to millennial movements, especially as the Pope became identified with the Antichrist of Revelation, and as the Bible became increasingly available for individual interpretation. The parable of Dives and Lazarus and the verse in Acts that states that the Apostles had everything in common caused a lot of class conflict; I hate to seem blasphemous but it probably would have been much better for the future history of the world if the Apostles had invested in mutual funds or incorporated and issued stock. The “all things in common” doctrine caused especial problems as it was discovered – and as it would be discovered over and over and over again – that communitarian idealism always runs aground on the rock of human behavior. Cohn devotes a whole chapter to the “Kingdom of Münster” that started out as an egalitarian Protestant democratic movement and ended up as a totalitarian state that Stalin would have envied. The initial Münster dictator was Jan Matthys, who confiscated all privately owned money, then food, then houses, then books (all books other than the Bible were burned). Matthys eventually took his divinely approved status a little too seriously and led a handful of men outside the walls to lift the siege imposed by former Bishop. The expected army of angels did not appear and Matthys and his men were butchered. This did not end the Münster theocracy, however, as Jan Bockelson (aka Jan of Leyden) took over for Matthys. Bockelson rewrote the Münster legal code, imposing the death penalty for just about everything - murder, theft, lying, slander, avarice, quarreling, and insubordination to authority – any kind of insubordination, including children against parents, wives against husbands, and anybody against Bockelson. Bockelson also added labor to the list of community property; all artisans were required to work for the “community”, and finally women, making polygamy not only allowed but mandatory (Bockelson took 15 wives – but they all had to obey his first wife, under penalty of death for insubordination). Bockelson then announced he was King – not just of Münster, but of the entire world. He renamed all the streets in Münster and personally selected names for all newborns; issued a new coinage (interesting, as money had no function in Münster); had magnificent regalia crafted for himself and his harem (accomplished by confiscating all “surplus” clothing from the inhabitants); and began public executions – numerous because just about anything was a capital crime, and usually personally performed by Bockelson. Eventually the siege tightened to the point where Münster could no longer resist, and Bockelson and his “court” were captured. Queen Divara was beheaded and Bockelson and two other Münster leaders were slowly burned to death with hot irons, then exhibited in cages suspended from a church tower.

Engagingly written, with lots of fascinating detail and good references. Could use some maps, but detailed locations of the events are not particularly relevant to the history. As mentioned, there are uncomfortable resemblances between many of the millenarian movements and recent events; the ease with which popular and democratic reform movements turned into brutal and fanatical totalitarian regimes is especially unsettling.
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LibraryThing member DinadansFriend
The Reformation had a wilder side, and Dr. Cohn tries to cover it for the student. The prose is clear, and the book was for a while the standard college text on the subject in North America.
LibraryThing member billt568
A rigorous and informative history of millenarian ecstatic movements from the 800s through the 1500s including my favorite, the Anabaptist takeover of Muenster town. Mostly told in an episodic fashion, every 5th chapter or so steps back and provides a reset in socio-economic stimuli behind these
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movements. Told from a perspective on history that is obviously reacting to Marxist events in the authors own time, it concludes by tying medieval eschatological utopian movements with the Marxist drive for utopian end of history, which was a little too tidy for my tastes. The author also is devoid of humor, although is not averse to descriptive passages regarding the misery his subjects experience.
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LibraryThing member keylawk
In 1995, the Times Literary Supplement ranked PURSUIT as one of the 100 most influential nonfiction books since WWII.

Norman Cohn is a British historian affiliated with Oxford University. He studied languages, medieval sects, and tyrants. Died at 92 in 2007, just as race-hatred and mob-baiting is
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starting to rise again.
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LibraryThing member Fledgist
A classic work on the subject of the middle ages.
LibraryThing member veranasi
I know, I know, this is one of those quintessential hipster books. It was amazing. I kept getting caught up in descriptions of mythical monks trying to overthrow the Church.
LibraryThing member Lukerik
Such an interesting book. If you take a look at the bibliography you’ll find a massive list of heavy-duty texts mostly in Latin, German, and French. I have no idea how Cohn has managed to transform this into such an enjoyable and easy read.

Anyway, he covers a huge range of millenarian groups. At
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one end of the scale you have the harmless Ranters who just want to have sex with each other and would probably be happy with a night out on the Bigg Market.

At the other end of the scale you have the real millenarian revolutionaries, and it’s here that Cohn flips the human psyche on its back and has a good poke around in its dark underside. These groups share eschatological beliefs that Cohn traces back to early Jewish and Christian apocalyptic works. You know the kind of thing: Anti-Christ and the Second Coming. A massive slaughter where the earth is purified of the followers of Anti-Christ followed by a thousand years of bliss on earth. These groups, mostly consisting of poor people, coalesce about someone thought to be a prophet or living God and rampage across the continent, killing whoever they think is evil. This is usually the Jews, clerics, or the rich. Sometimes all three. On the face of it, this looks to me like some form of human sacrifice.

I found the accounts quite disturbing, and I had to keep telling myself that these people were abnormal. Unfortunately I couldn’t convince myself that this was the case. Cohn draws some convincing parallels between them and the Nazi and Communists movements of the Twentieth Century. I see that various reviewers over on Goodreads see parallels with a whole range more recent groups. I suspect that people will be seeing parallels with their own times from now until Domesday.

Cohn identifies three things that underlie all outbreaks of the behaviour: an increase in population; rapid social change; rapid economic change. He also points out that outbreaks often follow famines and plagues. I couldn’t help noticing that those three requirements might be said to have held true for the United States since the beginning of the colonial period and that millenarian beliefs are really popular over there. Now let’s look at Trump. He targets two groups as evil. Immigrants (the very cause of population growth) and the political elite. He releases footage of himself being prayed over by pastors. He promises miracle cures involving injecting beach into the veins and bringing light inside the body. Q-Anon appears to have thought he was waging a secret war against a paedophile death cult. Plague strikes the US causing rapid economic change and BLM protests sweep the world causing rapid social change.

When they stormed the Capitol I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I just couldn’t understand why they would want to set up a monarchy. If I was going to storm the Capitol I’d want tanks, artillery and control of the air as an absolute minimum. These people were doing it with sticks and seemed surprised when they failed. Having read this book I think I understand them a bit better. I feel a bit sorry for them really. They honestly thought they were purifying the earth.

Well, I’m sure this was the last time people will getting up to that sort of thing and we can all rest easy in our beds.
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Original publication date


Physical description

414 p.; 8.35 inches


0712656642 / 9780712656641
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