00.02.08, Millennium: Apocalypse and Antichrist and Old English Monsters.

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Gernot Wieland

The Medieval Review baj9928.0002.008


Thudny, Zacharias. Millennium: Apocalypse and Antichrist and Old English Monsters c.1000 A.D.. Notre Dame: Cross Cultural Publications, Inc., 1998. Pp. xiii, 257. ISBN: 0-940-12151-4.

Reviewed by:
Gernot Wieland
University of British Columbia

The night from 31 December 1999 to 1 January 2000 has safely passed, and what people most remember are the spectacular fireworks in Sidney, or on the Thames or the Eiffel tower. The Y2K bug, rumoured to bring black-outs, computer failures, airplanes dropping from the sky, bank machines unable to dispense cash, and even an economic crisis, delivered none of these disasters. While the bug has shown itself to be harmless, the preachers of doom and the sowers of panic have been accused of wishing to making easy money with the fears of a populace in awe of computers. Medievalists were not entirely immune to the Y2K bug, but with them it took the more benign form of a number of books on the only other millennium the Western World had ever experienced. Thundy's book is one of these.

In the "Preface" he states: "At this juncture in our cultural history when we are intrigued by the prospects of the end of the second millennium and the birth of the third millennium, it is useful to look back to the time when our ancestors mulled over the end of the first millennium. Their thinking was characterized by the twin notions of Apocalypse and Antichrist." (xi) This is blunt language, as though nothing but the apocalypse and Antichrist preoccupied their thinking. Thundy, of course, knows that this was not so and provides numerous examples to the contrary. He recognizes, for instance, that the authorities in the Church discouraged any speculation about the end of the world. Augustine and Bede set the tone, basing their scepticism on Acts 1:7 "It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power." Thundy knows that "the year 1000 was not yet a significant historico-eschatological landmark all over Europe" (139) because most people computed years by "markers like births and deaths in families;" he might have added that the reigns of kings also were a convenient way of reckoning time. He cannot adduce any definite historic document that would indicate that Anglo-Saxon England, with which he is primarily concerned, believed that the apocalypse was to take place in the year 1000. If he had known them, he might have added the opinions of Jose Ortega y Gasset whose book Los terrores del ano mil (1904) debunked the myth that the French feared the end of the world in the year 1000. But his knowledge to the contrary does not deter him. Since in the year 1000 the Anglo-Saxon king Aethelred seemed to worry more about Viking invasions than the apocalypse, Thundy finds a source that shows that the German "Emperor Otto III apparently rushed to Rome on the eve [sic] the year 1000 to await the return of the lord." (138)

Thundy casts his net wide and maintains that "fear of impending doom continued to haunt the imagination of preachers and faithful then, as now, as we are moving toward the end of the second millennium." (138) He says that Wulfstan preached his sermons "around the year 1000," even though he knows that the famous Sermo Lupi ad Anglos was delivered in 1013, i.e. thirteen years after the supposed end of the world. It is a fact for him that Beowulf "was composed--written or copied or recited--around the apocalyptic year 1000" (168), despite his knowledge of the literature concerning the dating of Beowulf. Yes, the poem was written down around the year 1000, but if the year 1000 was not a "significant historico-eschatological landmark," how can he suggest that it "may perhaps have something to do with the apocalyptic character of the book" (168)? And why write the story down if the end of the world is near? Who would read it after the apocalypse? This attempt to connect the year 1000 with fear of the end of the world despite evidence to the contrary is one of the major flaws of this book.

This is not to say that the book does not have positive aspects. Thundy has collected a wealth of information on Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Manichean, and Germanic ideas of the end of times. He is persuasive in arguing that many of these apocalypses have shared features, and that several of them influenced each other to such an extent that it is almost impossible to draw exact lines between them. He examines the exegetical tradition of the apocalypse, and finds that ideas first uttered in the "East" (e.g. Syria, Byzantium) somehow made their way into the "West," even when there are no direct witnesses to the transmission. He subjects the figure of Antichrist to closer scrutiny, and again comes up with some interesting findings: pagan Rome, Nero, a Jewish person from the tribe of Dan, a dragon, Islam--all of these were at one period or another considered Antichrist by Eastern and Western exegetes. Thundy is at his best when he presents the facts of the exegetical tradition of the Apocalypse and Antichrist, and when he examines both the differences and the interconnectedness of Eastern and Western exegesis. Most of the background is presented in what he calls "Part I: Apocalypse and Antichrist in the First Millennium."

"Part II, Apocalyptic Tradition of Early England" begins with a rather unusual chapter which Thundy entitles "The English of the Millennium: A Heresy." In it Thundy does not look at the historical situation of the Anglo-Saxons in the year 1000, but at the settlement of Britain by Germanic tribes. He notes the ethnic mixture of the "Anglo-Saxons," made up of "British tribes and Germanic tribes and Romano-British people, not excluding the descendants of Picts who were in Britain before the coming of the Germanic tribes and Huns who came to Europe about the fourth century" (94). Though one might wonder on what authority Thundy includes the Huns in this ethnic mix, the real "heresy" comes later: "the Mercians," he postulates, "are of Iberian origin." (104) The Swabian king Mir, he explains, gave rise to the Myrgingas, and those in turn settled in the Spanish province Murcia. Attacked by the Visigoths in a war between 456-470, they migrated to Western Britain and established Mercia. Support for this "heresy" can be found in linguistics, because, Thundy argues, "the Mercian dialect .... is related to Gothic" (p. 108). He offers the following "controversial similarities between English and Gothic:"

I apologize for giving the entire list, but I think it best to let Thundy make his own point. "English" seems to mean anything from Old English (twa, thaet, beorn) to Modern English (was, then, she, according to). Vocabulary alone seems to suffice, even loanwords (crecas-krekos). The fact that Gothic is untouched by i-mutation or the effects of Verner's Law seems to be irrelevant to the similarities between Old English and Gothic. What is really puzzling, however, is this: how did the Swabians, an offshoot of the Alemanni, and hence West Germanic speakers, have the time to acquire Gothic, an East Germanic language between 406, when they entered Spain and 470, when they were driven out? Especially since most of the time they were "hounded by the Visigoths" (p. 107)? Thundy will have a lot of explaining to do before his heresy becomes dogma.

Linguistics and history aside, what does this chapter have to do with "Millennium: Apocalypse and Antichrist"? Thundy raises the expectation that because of the supposed early connection between Spain and England there might be later connections as well, connections, for instance, that could explain the migration of Islamic ideas to England. But he does not provide any link of this kind. The chapter stands in splendid isolation, unrelated to the topic of the book, unrelated to the period ("around the year 1000") he is concerned with, unrelated to later chapters, and unrelated to historical and linguistic facts. Heresy, indeed!

With chapters six, seven and eight Thundy returns to safer ground when he speaks of the international relations of the Anglo-Saxons (chapter six), their eschatological writings in both prose and verse (chapter seven), and the pagan Germanic ideas of the end of the world (chapter eight). The same tension that has been observed previously is present here: on the one hand Thundy denies that the year 1000 was important, on the other hand he makes statements such as these:

One may wonder whether there is any connection whatsoever between millennarism and Aelfric's preaching, given the fact that the latter part of the tenth century was, according to some historians, a period of some apocalyptic expectation.
Since Gregory the Great (sixth century), Bede (in his De die judicii - eighth century), and the Blickling Homilist (ninth century) all at one point or another concern themselves with the end of the world, is it any wonder that the tenth century writers Aelfric and Wulfstan do the same? It is part of the Catholic tradition, and is not determined by the date.

Much of the content of these chapters is informative, but Thundy every now and then develops some curious notions, as e.g. the following:

Othin ... often travels, as hero Odysseus or the biblical John the Baptist or Jesus Christ of harrowing-of-hell fame did once, to the underworld realm of Hel to pry into the future by consulting the gods and the deceased as in the poem Baldrs Draumnr (162).
One searches in vain in the Bible for John the Baptist or Jesus travelling to Hell to consult the gods. Either Thundy expresses himself very badly here or he invents stories not found in the canonical writings.

The heart of the book, however, for which the reader is prepared repeatedly in anticipatory notes, lies in chapter nine " Beowulf: Apocalypse and Antichrist." Thundy develops an allegorical interpretation in which Beowulf becomes Christ and Beowulf's opponents become Antichrist. Grendel, for instance, "is Antichrist or godes andsaca" (186). What is amazing here is not the attempt to find similarities between the monsters and Antichrist, but Thundy's certainty. Because Antichrist is godes andsaca, therefore Grendel, who is also a godes andsaca must be Antichrist. This reminds me of the syllogism that "all dogs are mortal--Socrates is mortal--therefore Socrates is a dog." Godes andsaca is a generic term that allows for many members: every devil, every sinner, every creature opposed to God is a godes andsaca, but that does not mean that every individual is every other individual. There is no doubt that Grendel and Antichrist share features, but this does not allow the reckless leap in logic to make the two identical.

Thundy, however, goes a step further: not only is Grendel Antichrist, he is an allegorical representation of Rome. After all, "[t]he Romans robbed the Germanic peoples of their land, destroyed their homes, killed their men, just as Grendel did." (187) Beowulf's fight against Grendel thus becomes an allegory of "the conflict between Germania and Roma" (187). Just as one accepts this idea, however, Thundy switches perspective. Grendel is conceived not as the Rome which humiliated the Germanic people on the battlefield, but as the pagan Rome that subjected Christians to tortures and martyrdom. Thus according to Thundy a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon uses the fifth-century Danish Grendel to symbolize second- and third-century pagan Rome which is interpreted as the millennary Antichrist.

In the attempt to equate Grendel - Antichrist - Rome, Thundy rides roughshod over the text of Beowulf. Here are two examples:

Rome, the beast, and Antichrist enjoyed universal power and divine worship...; likewise, Grendel is associated with divine honors in the sense that the Danes 'vowed holy sacrifices to honor the shrines of idols.'
It does not seem to matter that Antichrist is worshipped in the Apocalypse, while in Beowulf the Danes prayed to anyone but Grendel, and prayed to be freed from Grendel. Or:
In Beowulf, there is the period of prosperity between the death of Grendel and the start of the attacks of the dragon while in the Apocalypse there is the anticipation of the messianic millennium (190).
It does not seem to matter that prosperity came to the Danes after the death of Grendel and continued past the attacks of the dragon on the Geats, and that the Geats enjoyed prosperity right through Grendel's assault on the Danes up to the attacks of the dragon. As long as there is an "in-between," it does not seem to matter between what and what.

Grendel represents Rome, and the dragon represents Islam. Here is Thundy's statement: "The poet disguises Antichrist as the dragon and links it with Cain's/Cham's kin who are connected with Islam the latter-day Antichrist." (193) The argument, slightly simplified, proceeds as follows: the descendants of Cham are the Arabs, and hence represent Islam. The descendants of Cain include all kinds of monsters, including dragons. Grendel is explicitly referred to as a "heathen," while the dragon is not. Therefore the "dragon is more like the heresy of Islam" (193). The monumental problem here is the fact that the poet explicitly links Grendel with the race of Cham/Cain, and that he never links the dragon with either Grendel or with the kin of Cham/Cain. The dragon is not even referred to as godes andsaca, nor is any such word as hell or deofol associated with him. In Beowulf the dragon has no ancestry, but this does not deter Thundy: "Though the dragon is not mentioned specifically, he belongs to the unholy brood of Cain." (197) If the Beowulf-poet had wanted us to make the connection, why did he not say so? Thundy's interpretation ex silentio simply is not convincing.

The book ends with Thundy's reflections on his "theory of literature," which he calls "fuzzy literature." At the basis of this theory lies a very valid point: terms such as "East" and "West," or racial words such as "Caucasian," "Black," "Asian," or ethnic appellations such as "British" or "American" cover a wide area, and in the end resist precise definition: the terms are "fuzzy." No quarrel with that. The next step, however, is more difficult to accept: "West" and "East" somehow are supposed to be "disparate" or "opposites." Pre-fuzzy literary theory never posited that. Klaeber, for instance, certainly not an adherent of the "fuzzy literature" theory, could find fabulous and historical elements co-existing in Beowulf, as well as "Christian coloring" and pagan elements. When Thundy therefore concludes "there are no two disparate standard sets called Western literature and Eastern literature, Western classics and Eastern classics, Western Christendom and Eastern Christendom ... [b]ut ... there do exist two fuzzy sets called Eastern and Western, amenable to each other and permeating each other" (228), he is not creating a new literary theory.

Thundy proclaims: "The introduction of fuzziness into literary studies is a departure from the traditional models of literary research which emphasize the scientific principles of universality and necessity, precision and certainty" (224). Re-stated this would mean that "fuzziness" thus departs from "universality and necessity, precision and certainty." If only Thundy acted on his conviction: he claims to depart from certainty, and yet tells us that the thinking of the people around the year 1000 "was characterized by the twin notions of Apocalypse and Antichrist;" he tells us that "[t]he poet disguises Antichrist as the dragon and links it with Cain's/Cham's kin who are connected with Islam the latter-day Antichrist;" he tells us that "[t]he Beowulfian monsters in their physical and moral and allegorical nature are patterned after the monsters of the Book of Apocalypse" (185). If "fuzziness" is the theory on which he bases his literary theory, why does he not depart from the certainty expressed in the indicatives of "was characterized," "disguises," "links," "are connected," and "are patterned"?

The book suffers not only from the points mentioned above, but also from careless proofreading, beginning on p. iv, where the publisher is referred to as "Cross Cultural Publicaations." Historians will be surprised to find that "Ottoman emperors helped Germanize Christianity" (16), when "Ottonian" is meant. Occasionally letters are missing (e.g. on p. 7 in the fourth, third, and second line from the bottom), German words created problems for the author (e.g. "Fiendesliebe" for "Feindesliebe" on p. 47, "Neuszeit" for "Neuzeit" on p. 154, "prose" for "Prosa" on p. 250, "Germantistik" for "Germanistik" on p. 250), and even English names are changed ("Bethuram" for "Bethurum" throughout the book). Sloppiness here accompanies fuzziness.

Millennium: Apocalypse and Antichrist presents some interesting material, especially on the interconnectedness of apocalyptic visions of various religions. Its repeated attempts, however, to connect the year 1000 with the apocalypse despite presenting evidence to the contrary, are puzzling. The identification of Grendel with Rome, and of the dragon with Islam, are not convincing. And the attempt to turn the Spanish Swabians into Gothic speaking emigrees to Mercia is absurd. This is not a book that can be recommended.

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Author Biography

Gernot Wieland

University of British Columbia