The historian, Norman Cohn (b. 1915) died yesterday. He is the author of one my favorite books, one that inspired and confirmed me in my love of over-the-top rhetoric, The Pursuit of the Millennium.
What a cast of characters: The English Civil War Ranters, advocates of a radical theory of political and economic equality; the flagellants – travelling about the countryside, mortifying their flesh, seeking to expiate sin and hasten the coming of The End; Chiliasts, echatological fiddlers, frauds, and psychopaths galore! Anarchist Millennarian peasant uprisings seeking to establish apostolic communism in Reformation Europe – all brutally crushed; the Cathars and Waldensians, against whom a war of extermination was fought in southern France in the 12th century. Ah yes, the days when religion had its proper sway in the affairs of western society! Oh wait, then why are we so angry with our Muslim co-habitants of the planet?!
Cohn, trained as a linguist, read all the available texts, and sought to explain the social context, the human brew that gave vent to these outrageous religio-politico vaporings. He felt that the Nazis and Communists were deeply indebted to these ancient movements, and that they sometimes conciously, sometimes not, employed their logic and rhetoric: The New World is coming! Kill the dissenting cockroaches! All values are gone – only the declarations of the great charismatic annointed leader, the one who has heard the prophecy, are to be obeyed! Trust not your parents, your teachers, put all faith in Herr Hitler, Comarade Stalin, Chairman Mao… whoever.
Yes, and let’s not forget that movement that really was true to the spirit of Norman’s subjects, albeit in a small way, the Symbionese Liberation Army, led by Field Marshall Cinque. The newsman always pronounced it as Sin-Cue, but I wonder, was he actually a francophile devotee of the radical left, Monsieur Cinque?
Here’s a snippet from Cohn’s book, quoted on of all places, a Situationist website devoted to the French (millennarian?) Raoul Vaneigem:
It was in the crowded Italian towns that organised flagellant processions appeared for the first time. The movement was launched in 1260 by a hermit of Perugia and spread southwards to Rome and northwards to the Lombard cities with such rapidity that to contemporaries it appeared a sudden epidemic of remorse. Led usually by priests, masses of men, youths and boys marched day and night, with banners and burning candles, from town to town. And each time they came to a town they would arrange themselves in groups before the church and flog themselves for hours on end. The impact which this public penance made upon the general population was great. Criminals confessed, robbers returned their loot and usurers the interest on their loans, enemies were reconciled and feuds forgotten. …Whole towns became involved in the movement … As the processions moved along they constantly increased in size, until they were many thousand strong. But if at times people of all classes would join in, it was the poor who persevered; so that in the latter stages of the movement they alone remained.
The circumstances under which this first outbreak of mass self-flaggellation occurred are significant. Even by medieval standards, conditions in Italy at that moment were exceptionally hard. … A chronicler remarked that during the flagellant processions people behaved as though they feared that as a punishment for their sins God was about to destroy them all by earthquake and by fire from on high. It was in a world which seemed poised on the brink of the abyss that these penitents cried out, as they beat themselves and threw themselves upon their faces: ‘Holy Virgin take pity on us! Beg Jesus Christ to spare us!’ and ‘Mercy, mercy! Peace, peace!’ — calling ceaselessly, we are told, until the fields and mountains seemed to echo with their prayers and musical instruments fell silent and love-songs died away.