Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Y1K Panic

Here's an example of the Flamingo's wriggling: this essay by medieval historian Richard Landes of Boston University. It explores the reaction of French scholars to his work on the extent and the remarkable social effects on Catholic Europe and especially France of the millenialist panic of 1000 A.D. That there was such a panic was proposed by the 19th century French historian Jules Michelet. Later historians rejected the idea, citing the almost complete absence from contemporary chronicles of any mention of such a panic.

Then after WW II, the Annales school of French historians began to pursue “social history.” They looked to what the great mass of people commonly believed and thought (and did), and how those beliefs and thoughts and doings changed. This school found “a vast and profound cultural mutation” at the turn of the millenium.

Landes, building on their work, and using the memoirs of the monk Ademar of Chabannes, revived the idea of a millenial panic, and then linked it to the social changes. He even goes so far as to assert that the panic (and the reaction to its fizzle) triggered developments which made French culture the seed of medieval and then modern Europe. These developments flowed through the masses and not the rulers. The absence of explict millenial-panic references can be explained, too: the clerics who composed the chronicles preferred to forget about this embarrassing episode.

That’s something I never thought of, never even imagined. One element of Landes’ argument is that calendric millenarianism (wait for the year 1000) was used over and over again in earlier centuries to discredit self-appointed prophets and messiahs who preached an imminent Day of Judgment. This bill came due, eventually, and the impact was enought to shake up the whole society.

Or so Landes argues. About half the essay is about the radical change in French history in the 1990s, when the “vast mutation” thesis was repudiated, and how this led to Landes’ rejection by French historians, including a couple of books devoted to refuting him. Landes argues that this was due to the French elite’s discomfort with society being changed by the commons.


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