Millenarianism

First, we need to be clear about word useage here. ‘Millenarianism’ and ‘millennialism’ are essentially interchangeable terms, the first term deriving from French and the second more directly from Latin. They do not strictly refer to fears associated with the passing of millennial years and indeed in academic writing ‘millenarianism’ and ‘millennialism’ are used to describe a wide range of beliefs – including hopeful ones – about future transformations (see Landes, Heaven on Earth (2011) and Wessinger (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism (2011)).

Millenarian views of salvation defined liberally, in Norman Cohn’s much-quoted formulation, is seen as (a) collective, (b) terrestial, (c) imminent, (d) total, and (e) miraculous. Other studies also point to the importance of charismatic leaders, the prominence of women in such movements, and ‘cults’ as popular expressions of opposition against institutional authorities.

The model of six days of work and one of rest naturally hinted at a seventh age of rest. Revelation (20.4 and 20.6) also spoke of a thousand-year reign of Christ and his saints. A literal interpretation of these passages was put forward by Papias of Hierapolis (2nd century), Nepos of Alexandria (3rd century) and Victorinus of Pettau (d. c. 303). The belief in a bodily seventh age of feasting, however, was condemned as a heresy, particularly by Origen, and later Augustine, Jerome and Eusebius. There is no evidence that the literal version of millenarianism was important in the early Middle Ages, although Richard Landes has argued that this is because it was suppressed.

A ‘liberal’ interpretation of millenarian beliefs may have been more powerful. Indeed, much church reform one way or another centred on establishing peace and promoting a vision of a kingdom of Christ and his saints on Earth. Charismatics and revolutionaries, such as the False Christ of Bourges in the sixth century, could also be interpreted in relation to millenarianism.

Further Reading:

  • N. Cohn, In Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (2nd edn,, London, 1970).
  • R. Landes, Heaven on Earth: The Variety of Millennial Experience (Oxford, 2011).
  • C. Wessinger (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism (Oxford, 2011).
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