Finding New Apocalypses

Last week I spent an enjoyable three days at a mammoth conference in Vienna: “Making Ends Meet: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on the End of Times in Medieval Christianity, Islam and Buddhism”. It is not often that you get medievalists in a room comparing Western and Byzantine Christendoms, different Muslim cultures, Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism, and Shintoism in Japan. Of course, comparative histories come with many challenges we skipped over a little due to pressures of time. Still, it was interesting to see the themes which emerged in common, particularly how often the afterlife was discussed in terms of bureaucracy.

I don’t want to try and summarise the conference, because that would create a long and joyless blogpost. You will have to content yourselves with the tweets by me and Rutger Kramer (@AnotherAspirin) under #endtimes2015 until the book comes out in 2016/17.

What I do want to talk about is one paper at the end of day one by Cinzia Grifoni and Clemens Gantner, on the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, a prophetic text written in Syria c. 690 and quickly translated into Greek and, from the Greek, into Latin. There has been much written on this recently, with a full translation published in 2012 by Benjamin Garstad, a good article on it by Clemens, and a chapter on it in my Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages.

The Apocalypse is unusual. It claims to be a vision by St Methodius (d. 311), which is obviously not the case because it talks in detail about the Arab conquests of the seventh century. The author criticises his Christian contemporaries for accepting life under Arab authority and speaks of hope that a ‘king of the Greeks or Romans’ will rise up ‘like a man from a drunken sleep’(!) to restore peace for a decade, before Antichrist and the hordes of Gog and Magog turn up to usher in the End of the World as horribly as possible.

The text was adapted in the West, the subject of Grifoni and Gantner’s talk. There are three versions:

  • A relatively straight translation of the Greek by ‘Peter the Monk’, which amps up the language in places.
  • A shorter version which cuts out a whole section on Alexander the Great imprisoning Gog and Magog behind the Caspian Gates, with added references to conquest in Spain, Gaul and Germany(!) so that the Arab conquests mirror Roman conquests.
  • A different short version, which maintains the Alexander legend and tweaks the text so that ‘the Son of Perdition’ in the Last Days is more clearly ‘Antichrist’.

The third of these is experiencing something of a surge in interest. In 1988, a provisional handlist of manuscripts of the Latin versions listed only one manuscript: Karlsruhe, Badische Landesbibliothek, Aug. Perg. 254. The manuscript has been described as ‘ninth-century’ but may be a little earlier; it resided for a long time in the monastery of Reichenau, but Bischoff thought that it may have been copied in Northern Italy. One manuscript, however, does not always help work out what is going on with a text.

But then!

Cologne DB 15

Cologne DB 15

As I was working on Apocalypse, Stephen Pelle at Toronto brought to my attention a second copy in a late-ninth century manuscript, now in Cologne. (You can see it here and Stephen being interviewed about something else here). Jaffé and Wattenbach had noted the presence of the text in 1874, but recent cataloguers were more confused: a ‘manuscript census of the Rhineland’ in 1993 described it simply as ‘nota’, while the authors of a 1995 survey of manuscripts in Cologne deferred to the comments in Patrologia Graeca 18, that the author might have been Methodius I of Constantinople (d. 846). All this is recorded on the Codices electronici ecclesiae Coloniensis page for the manuscript.

And then!

A third manuscript was uncovered! This time, it was in a manuscript in St Gall, so not so far from Reichenau. Here again, there was some confusion amongst cataloguers. The old 1875 survey by Gustav Scherrer reports that, where we find Pseudo-Methodius, the text is ‘excerpts, the last from Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies IX.2’. This was effectively the description given in 2008 by Anton von Euw too.

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St Gall CSG 238

St Gall CSG 238

The manuscript looks initially like it might be helpful for narrowing down when and where the third version might have been made. It is datable to between 760 and 780 and the grounds that was copied in the distinctive hand of Winithar, who copied several other manuscripts. But it lacks certain passages that are in the other two copies… so could even this be a late copy? Well, for now Grifoni and Gantner suspect that the text was probably written close in time and space to this version. Myself and Immo Warntjes still wonder whether it might be northern Italian.

It seems that the conclusion then is really that more information has not, strictly speaking, ‘answered questions’ so much as given us more material to generate more questions. And that is good. In the meantime, the ‘discovery’ of two new witnesses to a text highlights the importance of going back to the manuscripts and not always trusting what earlier authorities have written on a subject.

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