Thursday, November 13, 2014

An Apocalyptic Century

Cunningham, Andrew and Ole Peter Grell. 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 modern Europe.

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