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21.03.17 Bjork (ed.), Catastrophes and the Apocalyptic in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

The Medieval Review

21.03.17 Bjork (ed.), Catastrophes and the Apocalyptic in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance


This volume is a collection of twelve short essays that explore aspects of medieval and Renaissance apocalyptic mentality and its expressions, in word and image, against the background of contemporary catastrophes, natural and human-made. The essays were presented as papers at the 2014 ACMRS conference and are mostly technical and narrowly-focused, concentrating on a single source, event, or tradition. Geographically, the scope is wide, as investigations range from Iceland to Russia to the Ottoman Empire. The arrangement is chronological with essays beginning in the eleventh century and ending with an excursus that stretches to Russia's Soviet period. Since no single reviewer can do full justice to such a diverse collection, what follow are synopses intended to orient the potential reader in the gist and argument of the contributions, and a suggestion for future endeavors in the field.

In the first essay, Nicole Volmering discusses the rhetoric of catastrophe in a late eleventh-century Irish text, the homily entitled the Second Vision of Adomnán. High medieval Irish literature appears to have been well-supplied with speculations on the Last Day and on disasters and catastrophes perceived as signs preceding Doomsday, such as a flood supposed to wipe out the Irish and a plague that was to kill off three-quarters of the population. The homily capitalized on these fears, but also reassured the Irish that they would be spared, if only they prayed and performed a series of fasts, the most crucial of which would fall on the feast of the Decollation of St John the Baptist, in the vein of a textual tradition considering it a particularly unlucky day. The message, then, is positive, designed to allay anxiety about impeding deadly cataclysms. According to Volmering, the text was meant as a safety device, attempting to halt escalating fears stoked up by the intersection of eleventh-century chance environmental upheavals in Ireland and the long-standing tradition of catastrophic literature.

Similarly positive is the message of another text of the northern tradition, the Old Norse-Islandic Maríu saga, analyzed in the essay of Daniel Najork. The saga, composed in the first quarter of the thirteenth century, is a biography of the Virgin, supplemented with theological, doctrinal, and ritual commentaries. According to Najork, the saga dedicates ample space to a discussion of the Last Judgment because it had been a murky issue in Iceland, and the author wanted to clarify the available vernacular tradition in aspects such as the Assumption of Mary, her gravesite, the location of the Last Judgment, and the transformation of the bodies and souls of the righteous. Ultimately, the saga implied that the sinless Icelander should not dread death and the Last Judgement but anticipate them with a cheery mood--a view markedly different from contemporary continental teachings. Najork's is a decent textual study, but the reader is tempted to ask: why was this the case and why did the saga differ from the established tradition?

Karlyn Griffith's scrutiny of ten illustrated Apocalypses made in Lorraine ca.1295 to 1320 is a good case-study of lay consumer-driven manuscript production. Griffith's argument is that the Lorraine patrons desired Apocalypses with manipulated visual imagery, "in order to make Revelation more relatable and accessible" (31). In a technical, dense, and detailed analysis, Griffith establishes that modifications were carried out in terms of format, iconography, and additions of texts and images. The modifications were made in response to socio-cultural developments--such as the commercialization of book trade, the rise of the vernacular, and a widening book culture--and reflected lay interests and lay eschatology. Text and iconography parted ways in the Lorraine codices, and iconography became adapted to vernacular texts' mise-en-page. Images suggesting anti-clerical moods were incorporated, and the Antichrist was often outfitted as a courtier; several new images of the Antichrist were added, suggesting connections with popular bestiaries. Finally, the Apocalypses were bound in the same volume with works in genres more suited to upper-class lay readers. In sum, the manipulated Apocalypses are a fine example of lay readers' agency and independent text consumption.

Kimberly Fonzo returns us to the written word with an investigation of a segment of political prophesy in Langland's Piers Plowman. According to Fonzo, Langland takes issue with a roster of political prophecies, sponsored by the English nobility, which was profiting from the Hundred Years War, and which put Edward III in the role of King David and the Last Emperor and urged him to go to war with France. Langland unmasked the hypocrisy of such prophecies, having his character Conscience debate with Lady Mede, the personification of political greed. To counter Mede's advances, Conscience stated that Edward would be more like the greedy King Saul rather than the true David and stressed that the Last Emperor would "conquer" the Holy Land only through a peaceful conversion. If Edward III was to play the role of a good leader in Langland's casting of the Last Days prophecy, and act like a true David, he had to reform himself first; just as greed and moral decay would bring about the Apocalypse, David had been a reformed king and, as a rational and penitent ruler, still led his people to salvation.

Alison Beringer's essay on "Res papirea and the Catastrophic Arrival of the Antichrist" may sound more than vaguely familiar to modern-day users of social media. Beringer discusses the changing role of the textuality of the Apocalypse by scrutinizing three German texts from the dawn of the era of printing--a song of Hans Folz, a statement by Abbot Trithemius, and excerpts from Brant's Narrenschiff--to trace the transformation of the Antichrist from a destroyer of scripted books (paper) that had the word of God, to a skillful manipulator of the printed paper with which he schemed to destroy humankind. The figure of the Antichrist is thus deployed to highlight the ambiguity of the new information technology. Still, Beringer's conclusion is that the early modern critiques of printing blamed not the technology per se, but the readers' attitude and response to printing. An intelligent and discerning reader would be able to neutralize the pernicious lies and falsehoods with which the Antichrist saturated the new res papirea.

Since death and the final Judgement are inevitable, however, one had better prepare for the cosmic calamity of the Apocalypse. The fifteenth-century Italian sonnet that Fabian Alfie introduces and publishes in his contribution, "Consider this Tomb" was designed to help with the widespread anxiety over God's impending judgement. The sonnet invites the reader to reflect upon memento mori and draws heavily on Dante and a series of literary commonplaces on the Last Judgement.

With H. Erdem Cipa we cross the Mediterranean to become acquainted with Ottoman interpretations of the Istanbul earthquake of 1509. The author examines the textual tradition of the earthquake against the Quranic teaching on the approaching apocalyptic Last Hour, on the one hand, and the political mentality of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ottoman elite, on the other, to argue that whether or not a specific event was considered "apocalyptic" was entirely a matter of context. None of the earthquake's contemporaries considered it a cosmic catastrophe. Yet, the "consciousness of decline" that seized the minds of the Ottoman intellectuals beginning in the 1570s and that was in synch with the new intellectual current of criticizing the moral decay of Ottoman officialdom made it appear decisively so.

Catherine Schultz McFarland delves into another story of moral decay in apocalyptic context, Pieter Bruegel the Elder's two paintings of the Tower of Babel. In a dense contextual art-historical analysis, McFarland unveils Bruegel's visual semiotics of decay and disharmony, inspired by the clash of ideologies brought about by the Reformation and the actual situation in Antwerp at the time. The iconographic symbols inherent in the paintings' swarms of maniacal workers--spiraling architecture modelled on an eternally unattainable and incomplete Golden Mean, crumbling components, association with Purgatory, and sexually suggestive structures--imply, according to McFarland, a Mannerist anxiety of disharmony embedded in the dizzying ideological changes of the period.

The impact of the Reformation is also the topic of Evan Bibbee's essay on "linguistic Apocalypse" in a Huguenot poem on the sack of Lyon in 1562, commemorating the iconoclastic Calvinist fury in the occupation and pillaging of the city. Bibbee unpacks both the form and the rhetoric of the poem and its borrowing of the Book of Revelation's imagery to reveal the goal of its author: to trace the transformation of Lyons, "the lion" from a manly beast imbued with spiritual decadence and depravity under oppressive and villainous idolater Catholics to the gentle, purified and sinless Calvinist mistress, the paragon of virtue that had submitted to the divine power.

Another visual representation from the period, Antoine Caron's enigmatic 1570s paining of celestial omens over a Renaissance-looking city, is the subject of Katrina Klaasmeyer's essay. Klaasmeyer identifies and explores possible astrological connections between astronomical occurrences in Caron's time suggested in the painting--the appearance of a nova star and a comet, a rare planetary alignment, and a solar eclipse--to earthly affairs embedded in the upheaval of the Reformation. Much like Bruegel, Caron constructed a visual commentary on the expectation of imminent disasters using the immensely popular interpretative device of astrology to capture the uncertain and anxious mood of the time.

Expectations of the impending and apocalyptic unleashing of the wrath of God appear to have followed a quite stable and discernible pattern, supported both by the Scriptural tradition of the Apocalypse and by the practices of its primary commentators, the representatives of the ecclesiastical estate. To highlight that matrix, Joanna Miles (Ludwikowska) focuses on the long-term similarities and the direct continuity between the cultural constructions of the Apocalypse developed by the late fourteenth-century English clergy, on the one hand, and the Puritan preachers of seventeenth-century New England, on the other. It turns out that in terms of central conceptual categories--such as, assessment of the present, perception of catastrophes as a sign of divine wrath, purposeful manipulation of Apocalyptic imagery in pastoral practice, and the socio-political uses of sermonizing--there was no typological difference between, say, the late medieval English priest Thomas Wimbledon and New England's seventeenth-century firebrand Increase Mather. The conclusion that churchmen within the same linguistic and narrowly-cultural (national) long-term tradition would use its customary intellectual tools and instruments and would put them to similar use is not startling, but it does reinforce the inference that in the matter of Apocalyptic perceptions and attitudes there is no real chasm between the "pre-modern" and the "modern" mind. My hunch is that perceptive observers of our own times would agree that that tradition has not disappeared, and the mentality it showcases is very much alive.

The long-term projection of Apocalyptic mentality is the subject matter of the concluding essay, J. Eugene Clay's discussion of the apocalyptic legacy of Pseudo-Ephraem's Sermon of the Antichrist in Tsarist and Communist Russia. The homily, "warning the Orthodox of the blandishments and depredations of the coming Antichrist," was attributed to the early Syriac father Ephraem (306-373), but was more likely a Greek composition from the sixth or seventh century that was translated into Slavic in tenth-century Bulgaria and became widely popular among Eastern, and specifically Russian, Orthodox Christians. Clay recounts the gist of the homily, in essence a recipe for evading the snares of the Antichrist, and then elaborates on the uses of the image of the Antichrist and his progressive identification with various reformers and opponents of traditional Russian Orthodoxy, and specifically its most conservative wing, the Old Believers, from Patriarch Nikon in the seventeenth century, to Tsar Peter the Great in the eighteenth, to the Communist leadership of the twentieth century.

As noted, the contributions in this collection are narrowly-focused and phenomenon/artifact-specific studies. Even so, the essays make for a thematically coherent discussion, and even though they do not construct a grand narrative of the apocalyptic tradition, they do offer fairly detailed micro-insights into a wide roster of its aspects and, like little pieces of a mosaic, they gradually build up our better understanding of a great part of the Western heritage. There have already been solid monographic studies of pre-modern engagements of the Apocalypse, but evidently the theme is far from having been exhausted. Still, varied in theme and topic as the essays in this volume are, their approach is quite uniform: they are all cultural-contextual endeavors. To the mind of this reviewer, something is missing here: the attempt to address the "Big Why." The tenacity of apocalyptic imagery and the persistence of related themes seem to go beyond the domain of social constructivism. A large and rather unexplored aspect, for example, would be the "deep history" of the apocalyptic current as the domain of an inter-temporality that stretches across long-term historical epochs, appears sedimented on a psycho-somatic level, and may well be an epi-phenomenon of all-human or specifically Western-structured brain architecture. Not a few of the essays, as well as earlier larger works, offer clues that would be fruitful beginnings in a new potential direction of research.