Publication Spotlight: The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages

Regular features of the School of History blog are the two ‘Spotlight’ series, which focus on members of staff or postgraduate students. In these posts the research and teaching interests, as well as pursuits beyond academia, of both groups are discussed. In the coming weeks, we will be featuring a number of posts which will shine a spotlight on the varied and fascinating monographs and edited volumes recently published by members of the School of History. To kick this off, Dr James Palmer discusses the process of writing The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages.

I wrote The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages for a good reason: it was a book I wanted to read, and yet it did not exist.

My interest in the apocalyptic began when I was still teaching at the University of Leicester back in 2006. I had the fanciful idea of writing a cultural history of time in the early Middle Ages, examining the intersections of historiography, theology and ‘computus’ (the science behind Easter calculations). That unwritten study lurks in the background of The Apocalypse and a number of accompanying essays. It meant that my interest in the apocalyptic was not grounded in the fascination with messianic movements and irrationality which defines many other apocalypse scholars.

The ‘apocalypse’ I see in the early Middle Ages is really a discourse about change and reform. The Bible is pretty clear that the end will come, and the timing is left deliberately vague. What do you do about that? Late twentieth-century secularist fashions would encourage us to imagine that no one thought about it because it was ‘irrational’ to believe the world might end. Modern debate about the apocalyptic has often been surprisingly tetchy and defined by scholars arguing either that it was very important everywhere or not important ever. You of course have to take a position somewhere in the middle. Some people thought it was important; some people didn’t. Lots of people thought it was important some of the time but had a lot going on in their lives. What is inescapable is that the apocalyptic frames language and discourse in a significant number of sources, and it is mostly to do with stimulating and directing change urgently. The end might be coming: we’d better put the world right.

This does not lead us to looking at crazy people in the Dark Ages. What we find are strategies for understanding a complex and unsettled world – strategies which often seem familiar to us. The book starts with the example of an earthquake which affected Constantinople in 557. Many people did not know what had happened (the author of our principal source sneered, being a clever lawyer type). Self-proclaimed experts announced that the end was coming. Some people were scared. Some people gave money to the church, while others vowed to live purer lives and even began to do so. Then the crisis passed and everything went back to normal. How familiar does that sound?

Part of the fun was, unsurprisingly, the quest for new material. A good critical synthesis of existing scholarship could happily have filled the gap the book was intended to fill. Yet even a cursory examination of the manuscript traditions of key texts – with time spent in manuscript reading rooms in London, Paris and Berlin – showed that allegedly ‘unorthodox’ material circulated more widely than many people had thought. That needed explaining. There were also gems to uncover, such as an Irish treatise on time and apocalypse, buried unstudied in two manuscripts in Florence. Quickly, the book became both research monograph and a guide to the subject more generally.

Few projects are ever really completed, and I hope that the publication of The Apocalypse stimulates wider debate about the role of the apocalyptic – and belief more generally – in early medieval society. On-going collaborations are important here, particularly with Matt Gabriele at Virginia Tech, who is visiting the department in March 2015. Together we have co-ordinated a number of sessions on ‘Apocalypse, Prophecy and Reform’ for this year’s International Medieval Congress at Leeds, working with Felicitas Schmieder from the FernUni in Germany. Further projects will follow. In many ways, the book stands at the middle of a process, rather than at the end.

About standrewshistory
With over forty full time members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from S cotland to Byzantium and the Americas to the Middle East and South Asia.Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching and tutorials allowing for in depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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