The late Norman Cohn's study of "Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages" is a book I first read in my early twenties, have dipped into now and then over the years, and have just finished re-reading in full. I no longer remember exactly why I picked it up in the first place, years ago, though I'm fairly sure that I did in fact seek it out deliberately rather than simply stumble across it by accident. At the time I first read it I had negligible grounding in medieval history or the study of millenarian movements (not that I have much more now), but Cohn was a vivid enough writer and an assured enough scholar to overcome the reader's shortcomings in that regard, and for that reason the book has long had an appreciative audience. As far as I can tell, The Pursuit of the Millennium has been more or less continuously in print since the publication of the first edition in 1957. My paperback of the revised edition features glowing quotes by such British intellectual heavyweights as Bertrand Russell, Hugh Trevor-Roper, and Isaiah Berlin, but its influence has been surprisingly widespread, having had its effect on Guy Debord and the Situationists as well.
Cohn's subject, in brief, is the tradition of millenarian excitement that flourished in Europe throughout the Middle Ages and into the Reformation. An appendix examines the activities and writings of the Ranters in 17th-century England; other than that Cohn makes little attempt, in what is not after all a particularly lengthy study, to draw comparisons with similar movements in other times and places, though the relevance of such events as the War of Canudos of 19th-century Brazil is clear.
The millenarian tradition drew its intellectual origins from various canonical and non-canonical apocalyptic writings of the Jewish and Christian traditions, from the Book of Daniel to the Sibylline Oracles, but much of its energy arose from the social conditions of the Middle Ages, from the vast disparities in wealth between rich and poor, from the blatant corruption of much of the clergy, and from such disruptive events as the Crusades, the Black Death, and the rise of towns. In the geographical area that Cohn focuses on (mostly the Low Countries, France, Germany, and Bohemia), hardly a generation seems to have gone by without the appearance of some would-be prophet or redeemer, usually but not always self-appointed and often identifying himself with a historical figure, like Baldwin IX of Flanders or the Emperor Frederick II, who had supposedly returned from the dead. The coming of this figure was taken to herald the violent downfall of the rich and the corrupt and the advent of an era of peace, prosperity, and righteousness in which, as in the primal State of Nature, all things would be held in common, the faithful would be sustained without labor, and the world would be unified beneath the strong and just hand of the redeemer. In some but not all cases there was a marked Antinomian strain; as the elect or even the incarnation of God, the army of the faithful literally could not sin, and thus anything — theft, adultery, murder — was permitted to them.
As unhinged and megalomaniac as many of these figures may have been (and many of their followers were hardly less delusional), the movements were often surprisingly potent. Drawing the allegiance not only of the dislocated poor but of disaffected clergy and nobles who chafed against the wealth and privileges of the Church, they successfully occupied and defended major towns and cities, notably in Münster in 1534-35. Horrific violence was an intrinsic part of the pattern, as the participants, justified by divine sanction, simply slaughtered anyone who opposed the new order or violated its injunctions, or anyone against whom they held a grudge; devastating pogroms against Jews were a regular occurrence. For their part, the civil and ecclesiastical authorities, in their zeal to suppress the disorders, meted out merciless punishment to anyone deemed heretical or subversive; time and again we read of dissenters who met their end by being burned, beheaded, drowned, or simply hacked to pieces.
Cohn doesn't stress, but does make note of, the applicability of the movements he describes to more recent history. Millenarialism, of course, has never gone away, though it has largely been absorbed within conservative Protestantism and tamed to the point of banality. The affinity of some of the movements with Marxist expectations of the overthrow of capitalism and the institution of a classless society is evident, and has been indeed noted by some Marxist historians (who naturally have tended to emphasize the social rather than theological roots of such movements). Possibly less familiar is the anticipation of Hitler's explicitly millennial Tausendjähriges Reich in the writings of the anonymous 15th-century "Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine," who proclaimed that "the Germans once held the whole world in their hands and they will do so again, with more power than ever." As Cohn writes:
There is the same belief in a primitive German culture in which the divine will was once realised and which throughout history had been the source of all good — which was later undermined by a conspiracy of capitalists, inferior, non-German people and the Church of Rome — which must now be restored by a new aristocracy, of humble birth but truly German in soul, under a God-sent saviour who is at once a political leader and a new Christ. It is all there — and so were the offensives in West and East — the terror wielded both as an instrument of policy for its own sake — the biggest massacres in history — in fact everything except the final consummation of the world-empire which, in Hitler's words, was to last a thousand years.In the end, with five centuries or more separating us from most of the events described in this volume, the reader would be ill-advised to draw much inspiration from the millenarian uprisings of the Middle Ages, however legitimate the grievances of their participants. Understanding what produced them, and how the events played out once they were set in motion, however, would still seem to remain valuable.