Apocalypse then

Eugen Weber. Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults and Millennial Beliefs Throughout the Ages. Hutchinson, 1999
This latest addition to the spate of premillenium books on millenialism and apocalypse is by a distinguished historian who has specialised in French history, and therefore perhaps the chief interest lies in his quoting of much obscure material from France, in what is in effect a whistle stop history of apocalypticism in Christian culture. Weber’s major thesis is that apocalyptic thought was by no means confined to the poor, downtrodden and marginal, as he believes writers like Norman Cohn have argued, but was central to the word view of many leading figures in past times – this aspect of their careers often being overlooked by modern, Whig historians. This reflects the general disdain of the academic community towards fantastic beliefs, which are dismissed as the superstitions of the peasantry and of past ages.

This may have been the case in the 1950’s when Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium was first written but is hardly true today, when there is a vast academic literature on topics such as millenialism, astrology and witchcraft. Of course it must be said that few if any of these academics belief in witches, fairies or the imminent end of the world, but this does not mean they cannot treat sympathetically people, past or present, who did or do believe these things.

Weber has been accused by some reviewers of being too kind towards apocalypticism. While I am not sure that I would go that far, I think he underplays the truly destructive role that these beliefs can play, especially when linked with themes of the annihilation of ‘the terrible others’, leaving only a ’saving remnant’ of the pure and elect to, if not always build, at least inhabit the New Jerusalem. It also has to be said that there are passages in this book which some may see as offensively anti-Semitic. |PR|

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