Many would not expect a book on medieval religion to be 'unputdownable', but this really is a riveting read. Professor Cohn introduces us to a lost world of heretics and heroes, and the revolutions and massacres they inspired. Chillingly the crazed theologies he describes are far from dead; some have mutated into secular versions like Nazism and Communism, some appear to have been rediscovered by modern religious extremists; David Koresh would not be out of place in this book.
I have a special place in my heart for books which combine the utmost intellectual rigour in their research and method, with the most off the wall subject matter imaginable. Perhaps it is the contrast between form and content, perhaps it is the breadth and depth of the conclusions reached by the microscopic examination of insanity.
Whatever the reason, Pursuit of the Millenium is brilliant example of the kind. I suppose you can tell that a book has reached a certain stature when it is referenced in later classics, and that the book must be especially wonderful of its kind if it attains this status despite pertaining largely to the arcane matter of medieval religious sectarianism. If this is true, then the reference to Cohn's opus in On Chesil Beech by Ian McEwan (in which principle male character is reading the book) is some sort of validation - especially given McEwan's predilection for using his novels to drop unsubtle hints about the sort of activities he considers culturally worthwhile.
The book is a succession of remarkable stories, interlaced with the development of the ideas which informed each instance of revolutionary eschatology. Similar motifs and patterns crop up again and again with such surprising reguality over periods of centuries that it is hard not to think that the commonalities must point to some sort of underlying human or structural bias. What it is though, is hard to say. Because it deals with revolutionary movements in the dark ages, it is also a fascinating comparative text for anyone interested in the revolutionary and social movements of the recent past - though Cohn does arguably lay that on a little thick at times.
No real prior knowledge of the subject is necessary to read the book, though I personally needed to make occasional recourse to Wikipedia to remind me of what some theological terms mean.
This, in case you haven't noticed, is a glowing review. Read this book!
"The pursuit of the Millennium" tells the story of a number of sectarian movements between the 13th and 16th century in Northwest Europe that have been inspired, organised and justified by apocalyptic prophesies. Although the topic seems obscure at face value, its reach is far beyond the scope of this book. "Millennium" has been a real eye-opener for me regarding the timeless search for divinely inspired social justice in preparation of the "end of times", and the inevitable destructive forces accompanying its practical implementation.
The sectarian movements that are addressed in this book are not only the Brethern of the Free Spirit, Flagellants, Utraquists and Anabaptists, who still exist today in one form or another, but also more obscure local, shortlived sects led by charismatic, zealous maniacs. However, the interesting parts of "Milennium" for me are the history and interpretations of the apocalyptic prophecies and the explanations why specific sects mushroomed when and where they did.
With the Christian prophesies as the cultural framework, Cohn's economic and social explanations for the rise (and fall) of these sects are utterly convincing. The picture Cohn paints of late Medieval Europe is one of economic insecurity, societies in rapid transition, political disenfranchisement, disease and natural disasters, creating a rich soil for religiously inspired revolutionary movements. It turns out to be not that different from our present-day world.
The current global resurgence of religiousness in general and violent sectarianism more specifically, is a logical consequence of the power of apocalyptic prophesies and abovementioned developments in an increasingly complex and insecure world. As such "Millennium" is in my opinion a mirror of our times and an apocalyptic prophesy of what is to come this century.
This books is a great reference for anyone worried about the end of the world (or hopeful of a new age) as these ideas have been around for a very long time !! Although mainly concentrating on the middle ages the author has pieced together a staggering amount of history of everything from the flagellants to the ranters. These religious fanatics hoping for the arrival of gods kingdom on earth and at times trying there best to bring it about has many parallels with our current era of millennialism with our yk2 bugs and the 2012 prophesy. Of course there is much to learn from this history for the modern eschatologist in that man has advanced to some degree because of some of these ideas but has also been completely repressed on the other, but at least you don't get burnt at the stake for being a heretic as many of these interesting individuals did back then !!. Overall i would say not only is this book incredibly interesting and a great scholarly work but its written in such a way that its highly entertaining too with the authors own style of writing that makes this a pleasurable and engrossing read.
It is all to rare to find a book so rich in detail and scholarship which is an readable as a first-rate novel. In this book Professor Cohn treated us to a glimpse of period and a habit of thought so distant and alien to our own and manages to make it not only coherent but comprehensible.
The breadth of detail, the enormous number of sources referenced and the humanity with which he delves into the thoughts and concerns of these long-dead men and women of faith all combine to make one of the best books I have ever read.
As soon as I had finished it, I went out and bought every other book by the writer I could find.
This is much more than your average history book. Norman Cohn's "Pursuit of the Millennium" is a fascinating investigation of apocalyptic sects in medieval Europe. The reader is taken on a journey through an extraordinary landscape of different sects and charismatic prophetic leaders. What really brings this investigation to life is the way that Cohn places his cast of radical apocalyptic movements in the context of a long tradition and links them to the great social forces and upheavals that were existing at the time.
The book opens with a helpful outline of the scope of the investigation and gives an introduction to the apocalpytic tradition. Cohn then explores a panoply of strange and bizarre groups, including the Flagellants, Amaurians, Taborites, Waldensians and Anabaptists. These are presented as much more than just crazy bands of zealots, and we understand through the narrative how in fact these sects were medieval responses to particular economic and social crises across Europe. There is a short appendix which takes the story forward to the radical sects that were active at the time of the English revolution in the seventeenth century.
Although this was first published more than fifty years ago, Cohn's explanations remain persuasive, even if the language does appear at times rather dense and academic. A glossary of terms would also have been appreciated for the general reader. But these are minor criticisms of an otherwise groundbreaking text, investigating a subject still fascinating and relevant to our modern day world, in which apocalyptic theology is still a powerful force in a number of world religions.
This was one of the most helpful books I have ever read. I had the misfortune to be reared, in part, as a Jehovah's Witness. Whereas most Christian contemporaries celebrated the moral tales and miracles of Jesus, and St. Paul's evangelism, JWs were obsessed with the imminent End of the World. Part of their prophetic scenario involved the chaining of Satan by St. Michael, and his 1000 year banishment, as related in the Book of Revelation. This banishment is the Millennium to which the title refers.
It was quite salutary to discover, in Cohn's book, that apocalyptic obsessions had, for centuries, been central to Christian belief, and not merely the province of whacko fringe movements. This is hardly surprising, given the content of so much of the Bible. The Crusades, and all their bloodshed, we read, were an attempt to fulfil Biblical prophecy.
Cohn describes a whole range of desperate and credulous people, across several centuries, who were persuaded to follow a range of Christian Revolutionaries, who railed against private property and privilege and claimed thereby to be ushering in a New age of Christian purity and Piety.
There are legends also, of the return of the King, not always Jesus, sometimes the Emperor Frederick II. 'Respectable' clerics, like St. Francis of Assisi and Joachim of Fiore, are also highlighted as stirring up apocalyptic fervour.
Some of the prophets, with their ravings against Jews and private property, foreshadow those two evils of the 20th century, Fascism and Communism. Indeed, it was the righteous certainty of members of both those movements that were the book's inspiration. As an Intelligence Officer in the British Army in WW2 Cohn came face to face with true believers in both those destructive movements. 50 years on this book has not dated. Although Islamic Fundamentalism is beyond this book's scope, it is easy to see the parallels with its mediaeval Christian equivalent.
This is a fascinating history of what happens when socially alienated group, struggling for economic survival, find a messianic leader offering hope.
The ecstatic religious expectations can be manipulated and attract a devoted following. Cohn is clear how given the right conditions, you can generate a toxic revolution, which is very bad news for the established church, local government and the Jews. The behaviour of the Nazis was actually a throwback to many violent uprisings which characterised medieval Germany. They secularised the eschatology, but they used the same emotions with very similar results.
There's a horrifying pattern. It starts with a desire to cleanse the heathen and set up a new model community. That community doesn't tend to be much interested in working hard to build a new society. So they quickly end up resorting to rape, pillage and murder to keep the show on the road.
Thomas Muentzer, John of Leiden, Jan Matthys - they stirred up some serious trouble with their 'End of Days' ideas.
It's curious how in that era accusations against corrupt clergy in the medieval era are the same as the ones made against politicians, today. And we're also seeing some populist parties getting votes from this.
It's a gripping book, which charts the progress of a very dangerous set of ideas.