The Mediecal Millennium: Objects of Desire

Lecture 8. The Year 1000


Focillon, Henri. The Year 1000. Translated by Fred. D. Wieck. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1969, "The Problem of the Terrors," pp. 39-72.


At the beginning of term, the theme of our classes involved signification (how does one thing stand for or represent another?) and geography (East and West, North and South). With the idea of a "Carolingian Renaissance" we have opened up a new theme--the theme of the meaning of Time.

On the one hand, we understand history as a continuing narrative of events extending horizontally like the path of an arrow or piled on top of another like strata in a rock formation. The passage of time in this sense leaves things behind it -- births, deaths, battles and buildings. These physical objects almost become proof of the passage of time and historians try to gauge the age of an object from its physical forms. This approach corresponds to Saint Augustine's definition of "natural signs." On the other hand, time can be understood as a kind of language--those who can read it will detect a cosmic plan.

The Magdeburg Ivory reveals both kinds of time. It is not a picture of an event yet it does reflect an historical reality -- the close relationship -- symbiosis -- of "Church and State." We have already recognized this situation in the Byzantine Emperor Justinian -- how did we get to this point in the North?

The idea of a radical break in the eighth century--the Pirenne thesis--the spread of Islam--the end of the Mediterranean cultural/economic unity.

Key events:

Treaty of Verdun 843
Peace between King Alfred and Guthrum--the Danelaw, 886
Unsuccessful siege of Paris, 885
Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, 911

The Ottonian Empire.
Stability was established largely due to the power of the Church and close relations with a dynasty of rulers that begins with the dukes of Saxony (Henry, first duke, then in 919 King). The period is characterized by a succession of powerful rulers.

The Abbey of Cluny.
Cluny may represent the conversion of the violent tenor of secular life through the principles of monasticism. The cult of saints was now made more accessible through new kinds of architecture. There also arose a new awareness of sin and salvation.

Another approach to Time tcorresponds to Saint Augustine's theory of conventional signs. Time can be understood as a kind of language that is capable of revealing the master plan -- a cosmic reality. In other words, the artists employed by the Emperor Charlemagne concentrated upon artifacts from Rome and Byzantium in a deliberate attempt to appropriate the past so that Charlemagne would be comparable to the Emperors Constantine or Justinian--he would share in a typology of power that goes back to God's commandment to the Israelites to obey kings.

We are dealing with the power of architectural language to wipe out the damaging or corrosive effects of time and fuse the past with the present. Ivories or paintings can accomplish the same result. Everything we are aware of has a beginning, middle and end -- days, years, life-spans. A very interesting thing happens when we fuse the cyclical with the teleological concept of time and theorize about beginnings and ends imposed upon a linear matrix. On the human level, because the cycle of the seasons has no end, we conclude that human beings also will be re-constituted at the end of time. Matthew's account of the Last Judgment (Matthew: 24), Saint Augustine's City of God. The concept of death; Second coming, resurrection of the body, Christ will then rule the world for one thousand years ("millenarianism")

The events of Augustine's period must have seemed like the end of time. The idea that as the Middle Ages progressed toward the year 1000 the "evening of the world" had been approached. Henri Focillon (p.53) gives a number of examples of such thought in the late 900’s and none after 1000. However, the first systematic attempt to predict the end of time comes from the commentaries on the Apocalypse developed by Beatus of Liébana (born c. 730, died 798) who wrote (c. 776) a commentary on the Apocalypse in 12 books -- 25 extant manuscripts.

The illustrations: The Last book of the New Testament belongs to a visionary tradition already inherent in Old Testament books like Ezekiel. "In my vision, I saw/I heard..." Generated by the opening of the seven seals, the sounding of seven trumpets and the pouring of seven vials, ending with a clear vision of the Celestial City. Beatus declared the Apocalypse to be the key to all the other books of the Bible. Beatus divided the 22 chapters of the Apocalypse into 68 sections or "storiae." An explanation follows each section. Cosmic intention -- to present a history of redemption and salvation. The idea that time was divided into seven phases each lasting a thousand years beginning with Creation (5,200BC). The crucial sixth millennium begins 800, in Beatus's lifetime. But Beatus also says, No one knows the days or the hour..."

How serious were the fears of a Second Coming in 1000? The chronicler Raoul Glaber wrote, "Satan will soon be unleashed because the thousand years have been completed" -- "About three years after the year 1000 the world put on the pure white robe of churches." Yet even for 1033, "Men believed that the orderly procession of the seasons and the laws of nature, which until then had ruled the world, had relapsed into the eternal chaos and they feared that mankind would end."