Magazine article The Spectator

New Light on a Dark Age

Magazine article The Spectator

New Light on a Dark Age

Article excerpt

MILLENNIUM: THE END OF THE WORLD AND THE FORGING OF CHRISTENDOM by Tom Holland Little, Brown, £25, pp.476, ISBN 9780316732451 £20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Millennia, like centuries , are artificial quantities, mathematical nothings. Medieval men may not have shared our obsession with marking the years in round numbers. But they had much the same desire to bring form and structure to a history that might otherwise be a mere jumble of events.

Chronicles traditionally began at the Creation. All history was a divinely ordained cycle concluding with the last trump. Men lived under the perpetual threat of extinction. Apocalyptic writers of the age were remarkably precise about how it would happen. There would be natural calamities, human catastrophes, plague and mass-murder. Antichrist would come to reign on earth. Then all would be extinguished by the Second Coming.

But when? The first millennium was a damp squib, rather like the second.

Absolutely nothing happened. So far as we can discover, hardly any one thought it would. Millennarianism, in our sense of the word, began after the year 1000, not before. In 1009, the mad Caliph Hakim came to Jerusalem and destroyed the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

This seemed a more promising sign of the end of time. Jerusalem was believed by the best authorities to be the place where the world would end. Hakim could easily pass for Antichrist. A great tide of western Christians headed for the Holy City, expecting to die and ascend to Paradise as the trumpets sounded in their ears.

Again, nothing happened. People started counting the years. 1033 would be the thousandth anniversary of the death of Christ. Surely, that would be the moment.

Another flood of pilgrims. Another disappointment. But this time it was followed by a sense of fresh beginning, as men realised that God had not yet finished with them after all.

In the last 60 years, nuclear disaster and climate change have generated a mood of collective pessimism, insecurity and selfhatred, tinged with apocalyptic enthusiasm, such as we have not seen since the beginning of the 11th century. It seems a good time to revisit the earlier occasion.

That was obviously Tom Holland's original plan. But it is hard to fill a book with a history of nothing, even if it happened three times. So what we have instead is a history of the century before and after the first millennium: the build-up, then the relief. …

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