The Medieval Review 16.10.19
Palmer, James T. The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. pp. 274. $29.99 (hardback). ISBN: 978-1-107-44909-1 (hardback).
CIC, Bar Ilan University
I once asked a great medievalist, who had written on Raoul Glaber and the heresies and paradigmatic cognitive shifts that emerged suddenly in the early new century/millennium, why he never looked at the issue of the apocalyptic year 1000. “You know, as a graduate student I wanted to, but my advisor told me, don’t open that can of worms.” He might better have said, that hornet’s nest, because if one pokes around in there, one meets, as Michelet did from Ferdinand Lot, and I did from Sylvain Gouguenheim and Dominique Barthélemy, with vigorous, indignant, hard-hitting denial, roundly applauded by colleagues. 
Apparently, it violates some hard-wired medievalist conviction to suggest that the denizens of an entire generation of Western culture acted as if they were participants in the End-Time drama–whether they believed that this apocalyptic transformation would lead to the millennial kingdom on earth, or the End of the world entirely. No, it seems, leaders of the past (clerical and secular) kept their sangfroid in the face of (what to those of future, hindsight-endowed generations appeared to be) ludicrous prophecy. Augustine, historians have assured us, was the “true conscience of Christianity,” who guided his generation through “the dangerous thinking” at the time of the fall of Rome, and established the dominant orthodoxy in which neither apocalyptic beliefs nor millennial ones had a significant place. Up until a generation ago, most historians thought there was no millennialism between Augustine and Joachim of Fiore, and up until two generations ago, most medievalists thought Joachim was an insignificant thinker who would harm the reputation of any scholar foolish enough to consecrate her time to his study.
So when James Palmer set out to write a book on The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages, which would cover the period from the fall of Rome up to Y1K as he calls it, he was, at the very least, opening several cans of worms, in particular the two other “millennial” dates that preceded 1000 in Christian traditions of dating the apocalyptic advent of the messianic kingdom of the saints–das tausandjähriger Reich–to the end of the sixth millennium since creation. According to chronologies that variously calculated the number of years from creation, the year 6000 came twice within this book’s purview, in 500 (Y6K I), and in 801(Y6K II). While a few historians have made much of this tradition of millennial calculation,  no medievalist has yet to give a book-length treatment to the range of these dates, and no historian of either the “Fall” of Rome or the Carolingian imperial experiment has integrated this into their analyses.
Palmer does his best to strengthen the anti-apocalyptic (Augustinian) reading of history. For him the changes in calculation of the age of the world derive not from a desire to avoid facing an apocalyptic year 6000, but rather from “scholarly concerns.”
But…the roots of changes in chronological systems lay not in an aversion or attachment to their apocalyptic implications, but rather in debates about computistical orthodoxy… The results, I will argue, muddied the water for understanding the passing of the world’s 6,000th year considerably, which makes it harder to determine if the silence of the sources is quite as deliberate as it might at first sight seem [italics mine]. (141)
Unpacked, this question mal posée–as if the scholarly drive and apocalyptic agenda were mutually exclusive  –sufficiently muddies the waters so that if historians wish to continue writing the biographies of men like Theodosius and Clovis, or Charlemagne and Alcuin, or Otto III, Aethelred, and Robert, with no reference to the possibility that they lived in an apocalyptic generation, they can do so comfortably.
Ironically, but consistently, experts in computus and chronology tend to promote the most non-apocalyptic/a-millennial versions of their subject.  Hence if one might consider Palmer’s knowledge of both chronology and computus as one of his great strengths, his understanding of apocalyptic dynamics, including their relationship to chronological discussions, constitutes one of his weaknesses. He discusses Augustinian eschatology as a regnant norm: commentaries on Revelation produced a perception of eschatology in which “it did not matter if the end was imminent or not.” The expanded role of this de-apocalypticized spirituality (apocalypse here meaning sense of imminence), produced a “politicized apocalyptic discourse in the direction of reform and combatting heresy.” (105)
Alternatively, Palmer emphasizes the predominance of a sense of “‘psychological imminence’ rather than ‘chronological imminence'” [italics mine], that favors penitential attitudes, and institutionally acceptable forms of apocalyptic reform. He ends up with so spiritualized a notion of apocalyptic, however, that he can lump personal sense of Judgment together with collective forms. “The difference,” he notes, “between what would happen to an individual if they [sic] died the very next day, and what would happen to them if the world ended in a non-millenarian scenario, is quite minimal: they would be judged.” (14-15)
On this abstract and solipsistic plane, perhaps there is no difference; but the magic of apocalyptic moments is the collective anticipation of simultaneous public Judgment for all mankind–the quick and the dead! The final reckoning takes place “before the eyes of all living creatures.” Apocalyptic moments, in this context, differ drastically from individual, solitary experiences of imminent Judgment. Indeed, far more unites apocalyptic believers whether they are part of a “purely” millennial movement (messianic era to begin now), or “purely” eschatological one (Last Judgment at End of the World). All those swept up in apocalyptic time, share the sense that history hangs on the hinge of salvation, and “we” are the generation chosen to live at that cosmic culmination and turning point.