17.04.07, Ryan, ed., Companion to the Premodern Apocalypse

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James Palmer

The Medieval Review 17.04.07

Ryan, Michael A., ed. Companion to the Premodern Apocalypse. Brill's Companions to the Christian Tradition, 64. Leiden: Brill, 2016. pp. 462. ISBN: 978-9-00-424309-5 (hardback) (paperback).

Reviewed by:
James Palmer
University of St Andrews

The world may end soon, or it may not. Regardless, as a growing and vibrant body of scholarship has shown, people have thought about the End and that has had a significant effect on societies--their art, their rituals, their politics, their science, their way of life. Michael Ryan's laudable A Companion to the Premodern Apocalypse arrives at an anxious time in our history, but also allows us to see how entrenched apocalyptic discourse has been in Jewish and Christian history. It is broader in scope than some of its siblings in the Brill Companions to the Christian Tradition series, which means that it cannot hope to function as a fully-encyclopaedic contribution to the field. Nevertheless, it offers thematic, geographical, and chronological breadth, with a collection of subfield overviews and focused case studies that will assist future scholars to open-up comparative views on the apocalypse in history more effectively. In that sense, it offers something of a modern complement to Richard Emmerson and Bernard McGinn's still-essential The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, 1993).

The collection opens with a contribution from Richard Emmerson himself (21-66), who provides a useful overview of the different families of illuminated apocalypse manuscripts with exemplary clarity. For each group, Emmerson identifies key features and manuscripts, then sketches the basic shape of the debates about the groups, before he concludes with some comments on where future research could or should head. These groups are: (1) Carolingian, Ottonian and Romanesque, (2) the famous Beatus manuscripts, (3) Anglo-French texts from the thirteenth century onwards, and (4) other Gothic groups. Emmerson uses the example of the Two Witnesses in Rev. 11 to show aspects of development, as they are unnamed in Revelation and the earliest manuscript (the Trier Apocalypse), then identified as Enoch and Elijah in response to biblical exegesis, and then by the thirteenth century are identified as Enoch and Elijah despite Joachim of Fiore dismissing the association. The discussions about the implications of the manuscripts are appropriately cautious, with a stress on the persistence of eschatological reflection throughout the period without reducing matters to millenarian fervour or predicting dates for Judgement Day.

Natalie Latteri's chapter (67-99) surveys modern historiography on Jewish apocalypticism. It introduces three traditions, rather than start with the obvious ancient texts: the Sefer Zerubbabel (sometime between the fourth and seventh centuries), the talk of the return of the Lost Tribes by Eldad ha-Dani (ninth-century), and three Hebrew accounts of persecution in the time of the First Crusade. Latteri's purpose here is to illustrate the variety of Jewish apocalyptic tradition and how it is historically situated--something she then illustrates few modern scholars have properly grasped. Indeed, modern scholarship on the issues involved seem to have been every bit as political as the texts that have been interrogated.

In chapter 4 (103-143), Kevin Poole provides a useful introductory overview of the principal Western commentaries on Revelation, from Victorinus to Beatus again. Recent translation enterprises by Weinrich, Gumerlock, and Wallis, alongside the significant editorial work by Gryson for Corpus Christianorum, has made these texts more accessible and more understandable to modern readers than ever before. Poole gives an introductory flavour of some of these works, explaining some of the authors' interpretative strategies and intentions in writing. His explanation of Caesarius of Arles' odd commentary-homilies as 'notes' seems sound. Poole's labelling of Beatus of Lièbana as 'millenarian' raises long-standing difficulties with terminology, as Beatus seems more concerned with the end of the world than with either a literal reign of thousand years (from Rev. 20) or social agitation. It would be useful to see the commentaries texts more in their intellectual and political settings to move things on from Ann Matter's still-standard introduction to the subject from the Emmerson and McGinn volume. Overall, this is a useful introductory overview.

Chapter 5, by László Hubbes (144-176), argues that "apocalyptic, beyond being a scriptural genre and a religious social function, is primarily a distinct basic mindset, a fundamental approach and adjustment to reality describable as a mental paradigm" (144-145), which, in turn, affected European civilization only from the Middle Ages. This, Hubbes links to a history of crisis, particularly war between religious groups, which fuelled apocalyptic feeling--a very limited view of the apocalyptic, it must be said. We should not think of the apocalyptic as a predictive narrative or persuasive discourse, Hubbes contends, but "a basic mindset backed by cultural neurosis" or "complex" (167), which prioritises certain ways of interpreting the world. Can it not be both? This is one of those sweeping arguments which seems to rob the past of its complexity rather than to explain it. I prefer Ryan's summary of the article: "Hubbes portrays the premodern apocalyptic as both an aesthetic category and, subsequently, a spiritual paradigm for the ages" (9). That article I would like to have read.

Roland Betancourt's chapter (177-205) returns us properly to art history and, this time, the depiction of Last Judgement in Byzantium. He argues that while the Latin Church focused on event-based history, the Byzantine Church conceived of history as a "fulfilment that is in a perpetual, present-orientated state of manifestation" (181). (This is a matter of emphasis and context, of course, as one could find both ways of thinking East and West). Theological differences between East and West certainly fuelled different ways of interpreting art in churches. The comparative aspect of the essay is a little awkward as it pits an eleventh-century mosaic from Torcello made by Byzantine artists for the West with a fourteenth-century Parekklesion of the Chora Monastery in Constantinople for the East. Betancourt points out that there are many alternatives, but that these two examples neatly illustrate two different discursive models, which they do, and nicely.

Part Two of the volume starts with Ernst Ralf Hintz's much-needed study (209-232) of the Old High German poem Muspilli, known as an addition to a single ninth-century manuscript. (The description of the manuscript is a little confusing as Hintz omits to specify that it is in Munich's Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, and indeed now online if you want to consult the whole thing: ). Hintz carefully illustrates how the poem exposes anxiety about the abuse of office. Appropriately, the poet used legal terminology to set up the sense of admonition and Judgement, encouraging not only penance but also vigilance. A number of Carolingian parallels are identified to show the Muspilli as a product of its time--the tip of an iceberg, I assure you.

Next, Hiram Kümper offers a useful survey of a number of apocalyptic German chronicles, from Otto of Freising to the Reformation (233-259)--a far wider spread of examples than discussed in Karl Morrison's chapter in Emmerson and McGinn, overlooked by Kümper himself. Of particular value is Kümper's final section, comparing the use of motifs in these texts. Only the "apocalyptic triad" (war, diseases and famine) are omnipresent, with Antichrist nearly so. Most of the authors were pessimistic about their own times, and the earlier ones put more emphasis on the (little) hope offered by monastic movements. It is impossible for an essay such as this to offer much by way of contextualisation for the chronicles but hopefully, by bringing attention to them and so clearly, it will help to spur future research.

Chapter 9 is useful in a notably different way. Matthias Riedl offers a careful analysis of the text of the Sermon to the Princes, delivered by Müntzer in Allstedt, Saxony, in 1524 (260-296). In that sermon, Müntzer used interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar's famous statue dream, as interpreted by Daniel, to agitate for the violent overthrow of established political order. For Riedl, this offers the opportunity to outline the concept of radical "apocalyptic violence," building notably on the work of Norman Cohn and Robert Lerner. Riedl then outlines Müntzer's development as a radical preacher in relation to his contacts, and then systematically shows how the sermon was constructed to achieve its authority. This may be a focused case study, but the way it is developed will mean that it will be useful to anyone thinking about how apocalyptic rhetoric and religiously-framed incitements to violence work (indeed, the sermon is so useful in this way that one can also find it discussed in Philippe Buc's Holy War, Martyrdom, and Terror (Philadelphia, 2015), but not as clearly as here).

We then switch to Britain and Ireland. One can probably pass on Robert Boenig's contribution, "The Apocalypse in Medieval England." The idea of a chapter on vernacular treatments of apocalyptic themes in Anglo-Saxon England and the later Middle Ages is of course to be welcomed. Boenig sadly relies heavily on outdated scholarship and even longer outdated caricatures, even skipping the period c. 1066 to c. 1215 because the king and court were in France. What joy, then, to find that Katherine Olson's chapter on Celtic vernacular sources is so up-to-date that she was able to use the important volume The End and Beyond: Medieval Irish Eschatology (Celtic Studies Publications, 2014), the product of John Carey's De finibus project. Olson eloquently surveys a number of themes in Irish poetry and prose that reflects on the afterlife and Judgement Day--and even extends analysis to texts produced in Cornwall and Brittany.

The final chapter, by Tom Long, considers early modern appropriations pf medieval apocalypticism (378-425). Its epicentre is a poem on The Day of Doom by the Calvinist Michael Wrigglesworth, which Long uses to evaluate three theories for "the flourishing of the apocalyptic imagination in the period" (379)--the socio-economic hypothesis (i.e. it was revolutionary), the crisis hypothesis (i.e. people felt oppressed), and the rhetorical hypothesis (i.e. talking about apocalypse helps people to understand their place in the world). Protestantism may have challenged "Catholic fables," but it retained much in its own apocalyptic visual and rhetorical repertoire. Long illustrates elements of continuity and difference through analysis of poems, discussion of empiricism, and art, establishing a laudably wide-ranging picture. He concludes by looking forward to more productive research, with scholars looking at material from across the Atlantic world and Africa, and joined by literary scholars, theologians and anthropologists.

Ryan is to be congratulated for drawing together such a wide-ranging and stimulating volume. As a stimulus for future research, there is much here to fuel the imagination. One might criticise the tendency amongst some of the contributors to reduce apocalypse to simple crisis and anxiety, but there is also plenty here to support the growing interest in the cultural and social processes apocalypse provoked or which appropriated apocalyptic ideas. It is good to see that the field of medieval apocalypse studies seems to be moving on from the tired old to-and-fro over whether or not people en masse believed in the end of the world. People believed. And time and again they used apocalyptic hopes and fears to agitate for change.

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