Early Medieval Futures

Yesterday I met THE Peter Brown. He was receiving an honorary degree from the University of St Andrews because he is quite simply one of the greatest historians of the last forty years. (The degree was bestowed on him by Sir Menzies Campbell and the other honorand was Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s chief international correspondent – it was a strange meeting of worlds).


Meeting your academic heroes can be disappointing, but this encounter was rather pleasant, even if we did not chat for long. Alex Woolf introduced us and mentioned that I had just finished writing The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages. You cannot work on belief and society in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages and not be interested in apocalypse, so Peter is looking forward to reading the book. At the same time, he posed me a question: how did people in the past think about the future?

Peter is, unsurprisingly, more interested in this from the perspective of the period between Constantine and Augustine, the long fourth century. What would someone in the early days of a Christian Roman Empire have looked forward to? What hopes would they have had for what could be achieved? Maybe, he thought, someone who worked on apocalypse would not really know about that kind of expectation. I think, however, it is important context for apocalyptic expectations and so an important question to ask. Indeed, Felicitas Schmieder ran a workshop on this kind of issue just last year in Erlangen. And Peter Darby and Faith Wallis, both experts on early English apocalypse, have a new volume of essays forthcoming called Bede and the Future, to which I’ve contributed a piece on Bede’s On the Reckoning of Time and its treatment by Carolingian scholars.

There has been no real consensus on how people in Late Antiquity or the early Middle Ages might have considered their future. The sources do not give us much insight into such expectations, at least outside religious institutions. The issue of how people reckoned time was one which exercised Arno Borst in the last highly-productive of his long and distinguished career. He felt that many scholars underestimated the sophistication of medieval conceptions of time, assuming that it must have been primitive, with little sense of time passing except for the cycle of the seasons. Even Le Goff’s thesis on the late medieval shift from ‘Church Time’ to ‘Merchants’ Time’ – an attempt to find the origins of modern objective linear time – seemed grounded in a presumption towards primitivising the earlier Middle Ages. In some respects, Borst’s work just sought to push back the origins of that modern sophistication of time, associating it in particular with the court of Charlemagne and its collaborative scientific enterprises. There are merits to this.

The material that Borst and others have compiled on the sophisticated time-reckonings of the early Middle Ages exposes some interesting lines of thought. Building the work of Isidore of Seville, Irish and English computists thought that there were three kinds of time: natural time, the artificial time invented by people which they imposed over natural time, and God’s time. A number of thinkers seem to have thought that the first two of these were necessarily open-ended. It was the third of these which dictated any sense of ending, because there would eventually be Judgement Day. At the same time, the New Testament underscored the principle more than once that only God would know when that End would be; not even the angels or Christ would have that information. Had God yet decided? Was there a plan? Could people work it out? Well, as Augustine, Isidore and many others argued: don’t second guess God. The End could come at any point – it could be really soon, or it might be a long way off. The crucial thing, relative to Judgement Day, was to be prepared.

There is important cross-over here with attitudes towards personal mortality. Some scholars have held that ‘everyday eschatology’ is quite different to ‘apocalypticism’ and, while this is true in some ways, they are so closely related that the difference can be exaggerated: both lines of thought require people to realise that their life is finite and that they must make sure their souls were ready to be judged. In early sermons, say by Caesarius of Arles, we find plenty of references to the fate of the soul and the dangers on Judgement Day for sinners. Let’s think about this from the point of view of ‘futures’: it means that preachers encouraged their audiences to think about the radical uncertainty of the future. Like the Apocalypse, the ending might come soon, or it might not. Some text compared this to the ages of man, noting that no old person knows when they will die until they get there. Do you want to be caught out? The popularity of ‘visions of the afterlife’, in which people saw the sufferings of sinners, contributed to helping people to understand the consequences of not being prepared.

The End then was an important part of temporal psychologies. But it was framed by a sense that things would continue for an uncertain and unknowable length of time. This is not so different from modern ways of thinking in some respects, because we all know we are going to die, and we know that nothing lasts forever – governments, institutions, the environment – but that doesn’t mean we can’t imagine the long term and work with that in mind. Some people are constantly energised by the shortness of time, some people are sometimes energised by it, some people never think about it, and some people find it demoralising. We have to allow for a variety of responses.

So, back to Peter Brown’s question: how did people in the early Middle Ages think about the future? It depends who they were, of course. Under Charlemagne, there was a sense of creating a political institution which would last, there was plenty of anxiety about morality and the potential imminence of collective or individual endings, and there was a sense that no amount of work would ever be enough. In 809, 20 years after Charlemagne’s announced a great plan for reform in 789, it was decided in Aachen that the state of affairs were such that it was difficult to do anything about them. In a sense, progress had been made in that time on so many fronts – politically, socially, intellectually – but there was always more work to do. Being part of a project that can never be completed, but which requires work, even when time might run out. That is the challenge now, and it was then too.