As it’s a New Year, I thought this essay would be fitting! So here is an essay that I wrote during my masters degree. I though it would be interesting to give you a little history blog post on a topic that I found super interesting! So I hope you enjoy reading and if you have any questions then please comment below 🙂 If you would like to use any of this information then please reference me or the books that I have linked below! Thank-you.
Disclaimer: The purpose for this post is not to use my essay for your own gain but merely to educate yourself on this topic.
Widespread Panic, Or Worry From A Few? Analysing Literary Sources In The Anglo Saxon Period With Regards To The Fear Of The End Of The World In The Tenth Century.
Throughout the centuries, the fear of the end of the world and the word apocalypse have been become synonymous. In the years leading up to the millennium of the year 1000, the worry of the end of the world was not a new notion. According to Walter Klaassen, the first major writer who wrote of an impending apocalypse was Irenaeus, writing in around 180 to 200 AD. He branded the antichrist as Jewish causing this label to follow through into the middle ages. Thus showing that the fear of the end of the world has spanned many time periods, and the concern surrounding an impending apocalypse have been in the forefront of people’s minds even in the modern day period. It is likely that citizens of tenth century England would have experienced similar thoughts and ideas to what we have had in the twenty first century, relating to the worry of an apocalypse. An example of this is the most recent assumption of the end of the world in 2012, coinciding with the apparent end of the Mayan calendar.
The fear of the apparent apocalypse of 2012 had been trivialised by society, this was possibly due to scare mongering by the media, resulting in the majority of the general public not taking the end of the world seriously. An example of the use of scare mongering by the media is shown in an online article in The Independent which was titled “Doomsayers await the end of the world – on 21/12/12.”
This research seeks to answer the question of how widespread this panic truly was in the medieval world, focusing specifically on the citizens in England. This will be completed by analysing texts from the period of the tenth century as well as looking at Bede’s texts from the eighth century. The reason for the choice of Bede’s work to be mentioned, is that the text which will be analysed does not pinpoint a date for the end of the world and as Bede was well known, many writers may have sought guidance and knowledge in his texts. The three pieces of texts chosen will aim to give more of an understanding to how the citizens of England reacted to the thought of the end of the world. The question of where the concept of an apocalypse in the year 1000 originated from will also be looked at later on in this essay.
The hypothesis that this essay is based upon, is that the vast majority of citizens in England knew somewhat about the apocalypse of the year 1000. Though it should be made clear that the three pieces of texts that will be mentioned, only a select few citizens would have had access to them directly. The relevancy of linking Christianity to the end of the world, is that those who went to church may have listened to sermons about the anxiety of the apparent apocalypse, and that all three chosen sources are written by members of the clergy. The word apocalypse refers directly to Christianity and therefore the theme of linking God to the apocalypse is evident, according to a dictionary definition the world will be destroyed by God and those worthy will join him in Heaven and as such there is no denying the strong religious aspect.
Though research will be focused on England, the anxiety of the apparent apocalypse was not just limited to Britain itself but was much more widespread, at least amongst the elite. This is shown through a source which mentions Otto III, the Holy Roman Emperor in the year 1000, who opened up the tomb of Charlemagne in an attempt to stop the apocalypse. One cannot be sure how reliable the source is but if it indeed happened, then one questions if others were willing to go great lengths such as Otto III to stop what they believed was the end of the world.
Before one analyses the three literary sources chosen, the historical background of tenth century England should first be understood. The context of tenth century England could have had a major impact to how others perceived the end of the world and if the events happening in this period could possibly been linked to the apocalypse by the citizens.
The history of tenth century England, will also put into context how the writings of the scholars may have been influenced by the world around them, indeed clearly linking the history to the literary texts. There are numerous examples given as to where the fear of the end of the world may have originated from, yet there is not one clear answer, so one may assume that it is due to the fact there were many reasons which contributed to this panic.
The most obvious is that the apocalypse could have stemmed from uncertainties of the world the Anglo Saxons saw around them. Around forty years before the apparent end of the world of 1000, London was hit by a plague. Though there is very little evidence, if any, to show how many people were affected by this plague, its importance can be shown through the fact it has indeed been recorded. According to some historians such as R.H Bremmer, this plague showed signs of the destruction to follow and may have been the beginnings of when people started to question the end of the world. One would disagree with R.H. Bremmer interpretation of how important this was and disregard the plague as a major factor. Due to the fact it is assumed to have only affected London, thus in regards to anxiety over the end of the world, it would not have had a great significance to the rest of England who were unaffected and had possibly not known about this occurrence.
A key factor and one that should not be overlooked linking to citizens panicking over the end of the world is the reign of Æthelred II. Succeeding to the throne in 978 after the suspicious death of his older half-brother Edward, whom people speculated that Æthelred’s mother may have been played a part in was not expected to be King. Therefore, being a young king (possibly not even a teenager when his reign started) combined with the speculation surrounding his brother’s death may have caused the citizens to be wary of his leadership.
At the start of Æthelred’s reign he was met with the second wave of Viking raids, which one would assume would once again causing panic and ambiguity around what is known today as Britain. The second wave of Viking raiders is important to the fear surrounding the end of the world, as this may have planted the assumption that the world was ending for the citizens who were directly affected by them. It is hard to comprehend how the citizens may have reacted to these invaders, especially for those who had a king that they had no confidence in and knew would not be able to protect them. This may even have been enforced by the Battle of Maldon when Byrhtnoth and his army was defeated and the Viking raiders succeeded to victory causing Æthelred to be forced to pay them to leave. The Viking raiders were not a new threat to the citizens of Britain, and the Anglo-Saxons in the tenth century may have been told stories by the older generations of the previous invaders.
Similarly to the previously mentioned plague of London, it is difficult to know how many people were directly affected by the Viking raids or even knew about the raids happening. The most likely possibility of the fear of the end of the world is that people thought that the year 1000 marked the anniversary of “Christ’s Incarnation.” For the citizens of England which regularly went to Church, which would have been the majority, one assumes that this anniversary would have been common knowledge amongst parishes. One English scribe mentioned that the antichrist was due to be born in the year 999, if others thought this way then this date would have thus been cause for panic. Even when the world did not end in the year 1000, there was still speculation that the end was still near. Five years after the apparent end of the world there was a famine and with the change of kings to Cnut the Great many may have still be waiting for the apocalypse to come.
Since the history has been mentioned, one can now analyse the huge impact that the potential apocalypse had on the literacy of the medieval period, taking into account how the writers may have been affected by the events of tenth century England. Aspects of Bede’s writing can be linked to the apocalypse, most clearly in a text by Bede in the form of a letter written by Pope Gregory to King Ethelbert, as well as Aelfric and Wulfstan’s texts. All of these scholars were chosen due to their great influence in medieval England around the tenth century.
In the tenth century, Bede would have been well known even though he was no longer alive. All three of these writers were important figures and all closely linked to their faith. Bede grew up in a monastery and became a priest when he turned thirty. Aelfric was Abbot of Eynsham and referenced Bede in many of his works and Wulfstan from the same period as Aelfric was Archbishop of York, these two writers cover the entirety of England, the South and North. By analysing these texts from Aelfric and Wulfstan, it will show that the idea of the apocalypse was not only thought about centuries after the turning of the first millennia but that accounts from first hand sources testify the extent of worry.
According to historian Malcom Godden, both Aelfric and Wulfstan stated that the end of the world in 1000 was context for their writings. This is backed up in the preface of Aelfric’s work, as he writes the reasons for producing this text is that as well as writing due to his trust in God but also due to “people need good teaching most urgently in this time, which is the ending of the world.” Thus as it is so clearly stated there is no ambiguity as to his purpose and decision to write his manuscript. The original text of Aelfric and Wulfstan’s work is written in Old English and Bede’s writing is in Latin, therefore these texts have been translated into Modern English, leaving some words slightly interchangeable.
Firstly, Aelfric’s text will be analysed. This source was found in The Apocalyptic Year 1000 Religious Expectation and Social Change, 950 – 1050:
“Often people say, behold, now doomsday is coming because the prophecies that were laid down about it have passed. But there comes war after war, tribulation after tribulation, earthquake after earthquake, famine after famine, nation after nation, and still the bridegroom does not come. Also the six thousand years from Adam are completed, and still the bridegroom delays. How then can we know when he will come?”
This text starts off with mentioning of “often people say” clearly interpreting that Aelfric is not just referring to himself in regards to the topic of the end of the world, but that others have also said similarly that the world is ending. It should be noted that Aelfric does not mention who these people are or how often they are mentioning the end of the world so it may be Aelfric justifying his own opinions thus writing that he is not the only one saying this. As Aelfric often referenced Bede in his work, one could assume that he indeed may be referring to Bede as one of the “people”. Though from this piece of text he does not outright discuss who these people are. Basing on one’s interpreting of this first piece of text, it leaves the reader with the impression that the thought of the apocalypse was indeed widespread in Britain.
Aelfric goes on to say in this text that prophecies had passed, though he does not make it clear to the reader what prophecies he is in question talking of. He may have been writing in terms of biblical sense or perhaps he was referring to the plague and the Vikings which at the time of his writings were raiding Britain. Which again one questions if the fear was widespread if many prophecies have happened. At the start of this text, Aelfric clearly states the apocalypse is coming and that others also have stated this although later on one feels as though he then starts to question the end of the world. “Still the bridegroom does not come” shows that he is questioning why the antichrist has not yet arrived on Earth.
Another example of this, is “how then can we know when he will come?” Again it leads interpretation if Aelfric is questioning himself or trying to reinforce the fact that he the “bridegroom” as in the antichrist is coming soon.
Overall this text clearly outlines that multiple people were worried about the apocalypse, though he does not mention who just that “other” which means there is no clear evidence that this ‘other’ to Aelfric was not just a small group of monks or clergy. It also feels that Aelfric is in two minds and possibly trying to convince himself and his readers that the apocalypse is soon upon us whilst pondering on why it has not already happened yet.
The second text chosen to be analysed is writing from Wulfstan. This text is dated after the year 1000, therefore the date for the apparent end of the world had passed but it is shown that Wulfstan still regarded the end as soon. The same as the text written by Aelfric, this source was found in The Apocalyptic Year 1000 Religious Expectations and Social Change 950 – 1050:
“Now must things become necessarily much worse, since it is coming very close to his time, just as it is written and was long ago prophesied: “after a thousand years Satan will be unbound.” That is, in English, after a thousand years Satan will be unbound. A thousand years and more have now passed since Christ was among men in human form, and now Satan’s bonds are greatly loosened and Antichrist’s time is very close, and therefore things are in the world ever the weaker the longer it goes on.”
Wulfstan makes it clear from the onset that things are becoming worse as “it is coming very close to his time” though he does not specify what is getting worse. He does not make it clear if he is referring to sociological or environmental changes hence it could be interpreted as both. His writing potentially could be referring to the second wave of Viking attacks and reign of Æthelred. This also shows the similarity between Wulfstan’s text and Aelfric’s, both wrote of the state of what was happening in England although as they are both living in the same time period this may be understandable. If things were getting as bad as Wulfstan had written then the citizens of Britain would have clearly been aware of the changes and the world getting worse.
Wulfstan writes that it is prophesied that the antichrist will be on Earth, “Satan’s bonds are greatly loosened and Antichrist’s time is very close.” Again showing a similarity between his text and Aelfric. A key difference between these two texts is that Wulfstan states the end of the world as though it is a fact comparing to Aelfric whose text is full of questioning.
As previously mentioned, Wulfstan was Archbishop of York hence it must be noted that due to his high status it is entirely possible that Wulfstan’s opinions may have dictated writings of sermons for monks and priests to read. Therefore he had some sort of authority and respect to people who would be preaching sermons. As he may be directly writing for someone else to preach or analyse his words, this may be why he did not pinpoint when the antichrist would be returning to Earth and why his text is very matter of fact.
The last text that will be analysed is Bede’s The Ecclesiastical History of the English People in book one chapter XXXII. In which he mentions the end of world, referring to a letter and gifts send to King Ethelbert from Gregory. Though it is unclear if it is Bede’s own words or a direct copy of the letter, the fact that it was even written in his book shows the importance that Bede thought it must have had to show the history of England.
“As the end of this world approaches, many things hang over us which were not here before; namely, disturbances of the atmosphere, terrors from the sky, unseasonable storms, wars, famines, plagues, and earthquakes in various places. Not all of those things are to come in our days, but all shall come after our days. If therefore, you learn of any of these things happening in your country, do not let your mind be in any way disturbed. For these signs of the end of the world are sent before for this reason: that we should be careful for our souls, and regardful of the hour of our death, and that we may be found prepared by good works to meet the coming Judge.”
The third text similarly to the previous writings analysed also starts off by mentioning the end of the world, “as the end of this world approaches.”
The context for this text is different from the two previous, as this in the form of a letter whilst the other two are aiming specifically for many others to read or preach. This piece of text is written privately between two people which one assumes would not have been expecting to be shared by a vast number of people. One can only assume that the letter between these two people mentioned are King Ethelbert who was King of Kent estimated around 560 to 616 and Pope Gregory. In the text, Gregory also makes a point of mentioning the environmental changes which contribute to the end of the world such as “terrors from the sky” which may be referring comets or changes in the weather. All of which is open to interpretation.
He goes on to mention “wars” and “plagues” though none in particular are being referred to. Gregory also does not specify a time period nor mention when the world was ending only that is it approaching. Out of all of the text, the sentence in which is vital to using this text as part of this research on the apocalypse of the year one thousand is the statement that, “not all of those things are to come in our days, but all shall come after our days.”
As he has left the date open for interpretation one assumes he means after his and the King Ethelbert’s deaths, thus in the mind of Gregory the end of the world is not in the immediate present. He also refers to all of the things have not happened yet, again reinforcing this point.
It is ambiguous whether or not Bede had interpreted the letter into his own words or if it all words of others in a letter, though one must state that it is possibly the latter. Thus by Bede writing this letter into his own work, the reasons for adding this letter may be due to him backing up his own ideas of the end of the world. Though it should be noted that this letter is dated from the seventh century, leaving a significant time gap of four hundred years before the apparent apocalypse of the year one thousand. Though this source is still valid to this research in regards to the wider population worrying of an apocalypse throughout many centuries before. Thus for many citizens growing up in a world where many were waiting for an apocalypse, this belief of the end of the word being reinforced by the environment, wars and plagues, may give us an insight to what the medieval world was like for the residents of England.
It is difficult to comprehend from the little amount of sources how widespread the panic in England was, due to the percentage surviving from the tenth century. Many texts that do survive do not write in depth about the panic surrounding what the majority of citizens thought over the end of the world. The texts that we do have, the few from scholars that were concerned with the end of the world, cannot speak for the masses. Although by analysing the literary texts of Aelfric, Wulfstan and Bede and linking their texts to the questions by one’s own hypothesis, it is clear from the three chosen that the majority of citizens of England must have had a basic knowledge of the end of the world.
The text analysed by Wulfstan, clearly shows that there would have been sermons preaching on the end of the world and the rise of the antichrist thus those who would have gone to church regularly would have experienced this preaching and been informed of this knowledge. Though one is unable to prove to what extend and how much of the population knew and if there was indeed an obvious degree of panic from a few key figures, as part of a tradition of doom-saying, over the thought of the apparent end of the world. It would be interesting to be able to have a vast amount of sources showing, if they regarded the end of the world being in the year one thousand or in the next hundred years.
Though one feels that there may be many possibilities for more specialised research in this area. It is apparent that the wealthier citizens may have been able to read books on the topic and had the information readily available to them would have had more of an understanding and possibly be more panicked over the end of the world. Comparing these wealthier citizens to another citizen who did not have many opportunities available to them but merely attended a church service of a sermon on the topic of the apocalypse, would have been less troubled.
Bede and Campbell J, ed. The Ecclesiastical History Of The English People and Other Selections from the Writings of the Venerable Bede. New York: Washington Square Press, 1968.
Blair P. H. The World of Bede. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Cavill, P. Vikings Fear and Faith in Anglo Saxon England. London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2001.
Cooper J. The Battle of Maldon: Fiction and Fact. London: The Hambledon Press, 1993.
Emmerson R. K. Key Figures in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopaedia. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Klaassen, W. Living at the end of the ages, Apocalyptic Expectation in the Radical Reform. Maryland: University Press of America Inc, 1992.
Kirby D. P. The Earliest English Kings. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Lacey R and Danziger D. The Year 1000 What Life Was Like At The Turn Of The First Millennium. London: Little, Brown and Company, 1999.
Landes R, Gow A and Van Meter D.C. The Apocalyptic Year 1000 Religious Expectation and Social Change. 950-1050, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Lionarons J. T., The Homiletic Writings of Archbishop Wulfstan: A Critical Study. Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2010.
Merriam-Webster. “Apocalypse,” accessed Jan 8, 2017, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/apocalypse.
Palmer J. T. The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Restall M and Solari A. 2012 and the End of the World, The Western Roots of the Maya Apocalypse. Plymouth: Rowman & Little Field Publishers Inc, 2011.
The Independent. “Doomsayers await the end of the world – on 21/12/12,” 2012, Accessed Jan 8, 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/doomsayers-await-the-end-of-the-world-on-211212-8395863.html.
 W. Klaasen, Living at the end of the ages, Apocalyptic Expectation in the Radical Reform (Maryland: University Press of America Inc, 1992), 1.
 M. Restall and A. Solari, 2012 and the End of the World, The Western Roots of the Maya Apocalypse (Plymouth: Rowman & Little Field Publishers Inc, 2011), 11.
 “Doomsayers await the end of the world – on 21/12/12,” The Independent, 2012, accessed Jan 8, 2017, ”http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/doomsayers-await-the-end-of-the-world-on-211212-8395863.html.
 “Apocalypse,” Merriam-Webster, accessed Jan 8, 2017, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/apocalypse.
 James T. Palmer, The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 205.
 R. Landes, A. Gow and D.C. Van Meter, The Apocalyptic Year 1000 Religious Expectation and Social Change. 950-1050 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). 156.
 Palmer, The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages, 209.
 P. Cavill, Vikings Fear and Faith in Anglo-Saxon England (London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2001). 21
 J. Cooper, The Battle of Maldon: Fiction and Fact (London: The Hambledon Press, 1993). 73
 Cavill, Vikings Fear and Faith in Anglo-Saxon England, 22.
 Ibid, 6.
 Palmer, The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages, 189.
 Ibid, 192.
 Ibid, 210.
 Cavill, Vikings Fear and Faith in Anglo-Saxon England, 33.
 P. Hunter Blair, The World of Bede (Cambridge University Press, 1990). 3.
 R. K. Emmerson, Key Figures in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopaedia (New York: Routledge, 2006). 6.
 J. T Lionarons, The Homiletic Writings of Archbishop Wulfstan: A Critical Study (Suffolk, D.S. Brewer, 2010). 1.
 R. Landes, A. Gow and D.C. Van Meter, The Apocalyptic Year 1000 Religious Expectation and Social Change. 950-1050. 155.
 Ibid, 159.
 R. Landes, A. Gow and D.C. Van Meter, The Apocalyptic Year 1000 Religious Expectation and Social Change. 950-1050, 163.
 R. K. Emmerson, Key Figures in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopaedia. 6. Routledge, 2006, New York.
 R. Landes, A. Gow and D.C. Van Meter, The Apocalyptic Year 1000 Religious Expectation and Social Change. 950-1050. 163.
 Ibid, 170.
 Ibid, 171.
 Bede and J. Campbell, ed., The Ecclesiastical History Of The English People and Other Selections from the Writings of the Venerable Bede, (New York: Washington Square Press, 1968) 57.
 D. P. Kirby, The Earliest English Kings (New York: Routledge, 1991). 23.
 Bede and J. Campbell, ed., The Ecclesiastical History Of The English People and Other Selections from the Writings of the Venerable Bede, (New York: Washington Square Press, 1968) 57.