The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Religion, War, Famine and Death in Reformation Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Andrew Cunningham is one of the more distinguished and
influential writers on medicine in early modern Europe. Ole Peter Grell, his
frequent collaborator, is likewise an expert in the field of early modern
studies who often focuses on religion.
As the two begin this book, they note that the
historiography of early modern Europe has usually followed a compartmentalized
approach: scholars take up Reformation history, medical, agricultural, or
social history, and so on. As valuable as those contributions are, such narrow
slices tend to leave behind a certain something that can be provided only by a
synthesis. That observation identifies the central goal of this book.
The decision to take on such a huge task naturally
raises two basic concerns: method and sources. The authors explain that their
approach includes a couple of basic moves. First, they read the story looking
forward from primary sources. Second, they read the same story, this time looking
backward; that is, from the vantage point of "modern specialized
historiography.” The goal of such an exacting method is to understand “why an
apocalyptic interpretation of events and crises in early modern life made sense
to a Christian society under stress” (2). In addition, the authors suggest that
historians of the period have overlooked the significance of contemporary art.
So, they bring that feature of the history to the fore with over 70
illustrations in this book.
Chapter 1 is an introduction titled “An Apocalyptic Age.” Cunningham
and Grell identify the period under study—1490 to 1648—and name ten episodes or
developments that mark off the era as a time of “deep religious, social,
political, economic” and, above all, “demographic” crisis (1). They assert that
sometime after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the end of the Thirty
Years’ War in 1648, Europe was engulfed in “apocalypticism.” This outlook
expects the divinely-appointed and imminent end of the world, followed
immediately by God’s judgment of all people. A favorite text of the time, “the
apocalyptic period par excellence” (11), was the Book of Revelation,
appropriately placed at the end of the New Testament. More specifically, Europeans
drew a correspondence between their experiences and Revelation 6:1-8. The
passage identifies four horses whose riders bring cataclysm to the world.
Perhaps better than all the preachers combined, the artist Albrecht Dürer
communicated the message with his impressive woodcut of 1498 titled, Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, which
appears on the book’s front cover.
Chapter 2, “The White Horse: Religion, Revelation,
and Reformation,” begins by noting that by the 1510s, more and more people
associated the conqueror on the white horse with Christ himself (19). From
there, the authors take up, in turn, a variety of related topics: the
eschatological character of Lutheranism, the development of radical, sometimes
violent, responses to growing expectations, apocalyptic elements of Calvinism,
excitement over what were thought to be
astronomical portents, and assumptions about cosmic decay and the prevalence of
demons and witchcraft during the Last Days.
In Chapter 3, “The Red Horse: War, Weapons and
Wounds,” the authors argue that the economic growth of the period accelerated
the breakdown of age-old political and social structures. Resulting skirmishes
and wars, all of which were thought to have some sort of religious meaning,
lead to a social preoccupation with death. Early modern Europe also witnessed the
development of new, more powerful weapons and more-effective techniques in
battle. Naturally, greater numbers of casualties generated a whole new era of
medical treatment. For example, new procedures for amputations were developed,
and artificial limbs became more common and sophisticated. Christian humanists
and a few notable Puritans raised their voices against the growth of war. But
they were drowned out by the large majority who believed that war could serve
to advance Christ’s kingdom and hasten a welcome end to the present age.
Chapter 4, “The Black Horse: Food, F(e)ast and
Famine,” begins by observing that 1498 to 1648 was a time of advanced food
production in Europe. But, it was also a time of tremendous population growth.
Consequently, most everyone experienced dearth, and sometimes even famine. As
the reader has come to expect, all such episodes were interpreted as direct
acts of God. (Regarding food shortages, the authors explicitly adopt the
position of Ronald E. Seavoy, Famine in
Peasant Societies, 1986. Seavoy argued that a sustained growth in
population that avoids famine must be accompanied by farming that is industrial
as opposed to subsistence). Although Europeans ate all sorts of food, with
regional variety, the staple was some sort of grain that could be made into
bread. Food might be in short supply for two reasons: man-made and natural. In
the case of the former, some memorable famines resulted from the siege of a
city, combining the Red and Black Horses as it were.
Appropriately, Chapter 5, the last main part of the
book, focuses on “The Pale Horse: Disease, Disaster and Death.” The chapter
begins with a disturbing section on “Sexual Disease.” Untold thousands of
people suffered terribly in an age when syphilis was not understood and had no
known cure. Many hospitals of the time were built primarily for the purpose of
seeing to the needs of its victims. There were, in addition, epidemics that
resulted from siege and from outbreaks of plague. The prevalence of sudden
death presented early modern culture with a paradox: death was the result of
divine disfavor, but hope sprang from a belief in divine grace.
In a brief “Epilogue” Cunningham and Grell conclude: “We
have argued that these [four horses and horsemen] were images which contemporaries
used, not only to understand, but also to decode and give meaning to the troubles and disasters which
they found themselves exposed to in the increasingly unstable and
changing world of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries” (319). Following the end of the Thirty Years
War, a post- apocalyptic era emerged on the continent of Europe. And why did
things unfold in that way and at that time? First, there actually were more wars, outbreaks of epidemic
disease, and famine between 1498 and 1648. Second, these were due to population growth, which was the result
of “global warming” during that century and a half. It seems probable, say the
authors, that these were directly related. In spite of all the death and
destruction of the period, the population managed to double during the time in
question. Third and finally,
sometime during the early 1600s, Europe began to cool again, and
population leveled off. Once population growth subsided in the early
seventeenth century, the apocalypse "receded into the future" (323).
This is a splendid book, a tremendous academic
achievement from which I have learned much. Though nothing like an expert in
this period, I cannot help but wonder if the authors have placed too much
weight on their main idea. It may very well be true that, historically, warming
trends lead to greater food production, which leads to sustained population
growth, which generates all sorts of economic, political and social problems,
which produce apocalypticism in a Christianized society. But I cannot be the
only reader who has thought that that explanation is a bit too neat and tidy.
Not unrelated, it seems to me that the authors underestimate the extent to
which apocalyptic language and themes can reverberate in a Christianized
society (like post-World War II America) that is very different from early