By Sir Guillaume de la Belgique
(©2004 Scott Farrell)
Daily life in the Middle Ages was fraught all sorts of dangers — disease, injuries, rabid wolves, windburn, disco music, chupacabras, waxy yellow build-up, and bunions, just to name a few. Fortunately, with the help and encouragement of the medieval church, the people were able to put aside these petty concerns in order to focus on the one event which could bring them all together, not just as kingdoms or nations, but as one unified race. This event, of course, was the End of the World.
As the medieval calendar ticked away toward the year 1000, people began to fear that various prophecies of doom and destruction were about to come true. Today, in the Current Middle Ages, we are facing a similar change of calendar, so I thought this would be an ideal opportunity to examine the medieval “time of the apocalypse” secure in the knowledge that our modern culture will face the millennial transition without any superstitious hysteria or sensationalism, and that we are ready to make the change from 1999 to 1900 with absolu7elx no pr0bl3mz wha7sodachshund…
Røk & Roll
One of the earliest and most popular world-end prophecies came from those fun-loving Norse warriors, the Vikings. For the Vikings, there were two ways to pass on into the hereafter. One was to die peacefully in bed, surrounded by family and loved ones in an environment of care and support. The other was to have your head split open like a melon by some psychotic lunatic wielding a blunt, rusty axe. Needless to say, the Vikings preferred the second method.
The Vikings felt nothing but contempt for anyone who had the ill fortune to die in bed. So, knowing the Vikings enthusiasm for violent and painful death, you may not be surprised to learn that they expected — and even hoped for — the whole universe to end in a cataclysmic battle called “Ragnarøk,” which was similar to the finale of a Steven Segal movie but with better acting.
In Viking mythology, Baldur (god of beauty, sweetness and FTD® florists) was killed when Loki (god of mischief, evil and “Thighmaster” info-mercials) tricked Hodr (god of being not-too-bright and … um, some other stuff) into killing Baldur with a sprig of mistletoe — a method of homicide often investigated by the NYPD to this very day. (“When mistletoe is outlawed, only outlaws will have mistletoe,” is what the Vikings used to say. Then they’d drink more beer.)
In punishment for instigating Baldur’s demise, the Norse gods tied Loki to a rock with the intestines of his own son, dripped poison in his face and showed him a relentless stream of daytime TV. Thus, the battle of Ragnarøk was supposed to begin when, half-way through a particularly bad episode of Ricki Lake (“Today … teenage alien clones with hemorrhoids who sing along with ‘N Sync’ music,”) Loki would break his bonds, free the souls of the dead from the underworld and convey his army to the realm of the living in a ship made of dirty old toenail clippings. (Even the most stout Viking warrior was filled with terror at the thought of stinky toe jam.)
Loki’s return would be heralded by the “fimbulwinter” when the world would be covered with snow for three full years, crops would fail, brother would fight brother, men would wear women’s clothing, and Windows 2000 would be released. Finally, the gods would sound the Gjallerhorn to summon the heroes from Valhalla and, amidst darkness and fire, the battle of Ragnarøk would be fought.
The details of the battle sound like a commercial for a WWF match — wolves would eat the sun and moon, serpents would spring out of the ocean, Odin would be devoured by a monstrous hound, and Thor would bash a giant dragon with a folding chair. Finally, the god Surt would fling fire over the earth, killing nearly every living thing and invalidating millions of insurance policies.
The prophesy of Ragnarøk did end on a ray of hope, however. When the battle was done and the Norse gods and all the Viking heroes had met their heroic deaths destroying the minions of evil, Baldur (who had been sleeping in the underworld all this time) and the last two humans, Lif and Lifthrasir (who had been cowering in a bush during the battle) would emerge to re-populate the world and begin what the Vikings called “the Age of Sissies.”
The Y1K Bug
As the age of the Vikings came to an end and the old myths were replaced by Christianity, the people of Europe began to believe the world was soon to be destroyed by the anti-christ, who would single handedly bring about an age of torment, pestilence and horror such as had not been seen since the end of the age of the Vikings.
While the year 1000 was seen as one possible time for the coming of the anti-christ, it was not the only time when the priests predicted the world would end. In those days, not everybody used the Anno Domini calendar. Many people still observed years “anno mundi,” or the years since the beginning of the world, which as you know happened at 3:27 p.m. on June 3, 5198 B.C. (Of course, this came as a heck of a surprise to the Egyptians, who were in the process of administering a successful empire at the time.)
By the anno mundi calendar, the world was scheduled to end in the year 801 A.D. When that didn’t happen, various prophets, in feeble attempts to save their hides from the angry mobs of people who’d rid themselves of worldly goods in order to prepare for “God’s judgement,” began to point to other apocalyptic dates, such as the year 1000 as well as 1033, 979, 968 and “two weeks from last Friday.”
Part of the problem in specifying a date for the end of the world was that most people in the Middle Ages observed time with about as much attention as we give to huge, esoteric concepts such as quantum physics or our 401k accounts. They knew the year was “out there,” but it didn’t really have much bearing on their daily routines.
As a result, people basically assumed the world could end on any given day, and they tended to be somewhat blasé about it. After living through numerous apocalyptic deadlines, medieval peasants would conclude their day by saying:
“G’night love. Tomorrow th’ anti-christ will probably appear, the seas’ll turn to blood, the moon will be covered with sackcloth and great dome of the sky will crumble in fire and ash.”
And their wives would reply: “Aye, love. An’ if not, I think the pig sty’s in need of muckin’ out again.”
The End At Last
In some ways, the year 1000 really was the end of the world — it was the end of the isolated, violent and superstitious world of the Dark Ages, and the beginning of a journey toward a world based on law, reason and mercy. The people who once thought their lives were governed by the arbitrary will of God would begin to realize, with the inspiration of men like Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon and Leonardo da Vinci, that they could not only understand, but could even predict and manipulate their world, their environment and the universe itself.
A thousand years later, pragmatism and logic have nearly replaced the spirit of romance and grace in the modern world. Perhaps, like medieval monks preserving the knowledge of Greece, Rome and Persia through the “apocalypse” of the year 1000, the role of the Society is to sustain the beauty, dignity and glory of the Middle Ages into the third millennium. In the age of MTV, chat rooms and mega-malls, we should celebrate the fact that the SCA not only allows us to touch the wonders of the past, but also to be the custodians of the gentle but powerful virtue of chivalry into the year 2000 and beyond.
Enjoy more (slightly warped) examinations of medieval folklore on the audio CD “Guillaume for the Holidays”