Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview

PART SIX
Searching for the Millennium

As I write, it is early January 1998. At a definite instant in the near future--a moment for which some people have already begun the countdown--the clocks and calendars will flip from one millennium to another. Some who read this edition of this book will read it after that much-talked-about second. They will know whether something truly amazing transpired at midnight on December 31, 1999. Why is it that so rare an event makes such a difference in the fantasy life of so many people? It is as if the calendrical event has an inherent force of its own, acting powerfully on the social imagination.

It is impossible, of course, to study the phenomenon of millennium frenzy by the usual methods. None of us was around when this sort of thing last occurred, so we cannot make a very exact historical comparison. It is, I recently discovered, a devilish task to try to unearth even one thing that transpired at the end of the previous millennium. Before turning to the reference works, I thought there must have been something salient about the year 1000 C.E. I had been thus disposed by my own cultural bias about events occurring near the year we now call 0 C.E. (or, is it 0 B.C.E.?). I had expected that something remarkable happens as one millennium ends and another begins. In 1000 C.E., there must have been, I thought, something similar to, if not exactly the same as, the events that gave birth to what some of us call the Christian Era. But I could find nothing of particular interest,--only stray facts: On or about the year 1000 C.E., in the area we have since come to call Europe, the last Frankish king ( Charles the Fat!) had been dead for over a century, and the dominant German king was then Otto the Third. At about the same time in China, the northern Sung dynasty was enjoying sufficient prosperity to strike a major peace treaty in 1004, which perhaps, in turn, gave impetus to the invention of the world's first paper currency in 1024. In the Islamic world, the Fatimids had built the Mosque-university of al-Azhar in Cairo, while elsewhere in Africa, things seemed pretty stable so far as I could determine in several hours of research. I am sure that experts can come up with something that happened on the late evening of December 31, 999, but it is a little shocking to the sincere amateur that nothing noteworthy presented itself. Then again, I remember from a systematic study I once did of the early Christian era that the events of the year 0 C.E. were at the time of interest only to a small group of provincials in a remote corner of Mesopotamia. Elsewhere in the Roman Empire everyone was busy writing laws, building aqueducts, conquering foreigners. Pretty much business as usual.

These painfully imprecise comparisons of our own millennium frenzy with the apparent lack of such like in the previous eras do not mean that those who lived in those times did not find the calendrical changes exciting. Still, we can be certain

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