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View Medieval End of the World Hoaxes

The medieval mind fixated on the end of the world. Predictions of imminent, world-encompassing disaster turned up during the middle ages with almost clockwork regularity.

This atmosphere of constant dread had its ridiculous elements. For instance, we read about medieval survivalists frantically storing up grain or heading to high ground in anticipation of the final days. But it also had serious consequences for the course of European history. Many of the crusaders of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries viewed themselves as participating in battles that would anticipate Judgement Day. Even Christopher Columbus seems to have been driven by a belief that he needed to help bring about the conversion of all the people of the world before the end of the world.

Predictions of disaster and catastrophe were usually done with no intention to deceive. They were motivated by genuine beliefs inherited from the cultural tradition of early Christianity and ancient Judaism. Such beliefs helped to provide a framework of meaning within which to understand catastrophic events such as wars and plagues. They could also serve as rallying points for efforts to reform or change society. Nevertheless, such predictions often lent themselves to fraud and manipulation.

The Toledo Letter

In 1184 a document called the Toledo Letter appeared and rapidly spread throughout Europe. It predicted that an ominous conjunction of the planets signalled the imminent end of the world in September 1186. When the letter reached the Archbishop of Canterbury in England it prompted him to order a 3-day fast.  September 1186 came and went, and the world didn’t end. But this didn’t deter the letter’s true believers. They kept circulating the letter for several more centuries, after changing the doomsday date and a few other minor details.

In the early fifteenth century the Taborites of Bohemia predicted that Christ would return to earth in February 1420. Once again, believers in the prophecy waited as the highly anticipated month came and went and nothing happened. But the anticlimax didn’t deter the Taborites. They announced that Christ actually had returned, though he had decided to remain hidden. Bolstered by this conviction, they launched into thirty-two years of civil war against those who denied their claims.

The Panic of 1524

In 1499 the astrologer Johann Stöffler predicted that catastrophe would rain down on Europe in February 1524. As 1524 approached, mass hysteria engulfed Europe.  Anticipating that the catastrophe would take the form of a flood, many people built boats or moved to higher ground. But by this time, a few people were growing more cynical of such predictions. The philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli responded to the warning by sardonically urging the women of Florence to run away to the hills and live with the hermits. Once again the catastrophe did not arrive.

Nostradamus

One of the most famous prophets of doom of all time was Michel de Notredame, better known as Nostradamus (1503-1566). Supported by the patronage of the French queen Catherine de Médicis, he wrote numerous verses predicting the downfall of her great rival, Elizabeth I of England. Obviously these predictions didn’t pan out. But Nostradamus’s great genius was in writing his prophecies in an ancient form of French worded so ambiguously that it could be interpreted to mean almost anything a reader desired. As a result, ever since his death his followers have continued to reinterpret his writings, reading into them predictions of calamitous events such as the great London fire of 1666, the rise of Adolf Hitler, the Iranian revolution of 1979, and the events of September 11, 2001. Some of his more zealous fans have even gone to the effort of penning new, more specific verses, after such events have already occurred, and attributing the ‘predictions’ to him.

After 1524 apocalypticism waned in southern Europe. But in northern Europe such beliefs continued to remain very influential, first amongst German protestant reformers of the sixteenth century, and then amongst English Puritan reformers of the seventeenth century. The puritans exported their apocalypticism to America where predictions of imminent doom have tended to find willing audiences ever since.

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