Y1K: Apocalypse then?


At the turn of the second millennium, the people of western Europe did not face the technological problems that we do, but they did have another kind of problem that is still unsolved at the end of the 20th Century.

They wondered whether or not the Y1K had anything to do with the scenario of the Last Days and the End of Time.

The original scenario was laid out in the Book of Daniel, the Gospel of Matthew and Revelation and was enhanced by a long line of apocalyptic visionary literature, all of which recorded in terrifying detail the scenario that was to precede the Second Coming.

"No man knoweth the day or the hour," said the Gospel of Matthew (24:36), and the influential St. Augustine echoed it.

Everyone agreed that the day and hour would inevitably come, and many people thought they knew the signs that would tell when it did. In the years between 979 and 1033, their Y1K problem was: "Is it now?"

Reasons to worry

Objectively, they had good reason to worry. A devastating wave of invasions had struck most of western Europe between 850 and 950, disrupting much of the political, economic and social order, and order was slowly being restored in novel and often unfamiliar and unsettling ways.

We know that those invasions were the last of western Europe until the Allied landings in 1944. We also know that the new forms of political, social and economic organization later led to enormous population growth, a much more productive and varied economy and a distinctive and largely secularized European civilization, but at the time they did not know this, nor could they have.

To many, around the year 1000 some things looked indeed like the scenario of the Last Days.

Unlike some of our chronologically challenged contemporaries, they knew that the first millennium ended at the end of 1000, not the end of 999. Some of them, mostly the learned, also knew that the dates that determined their millennium (and ours), originally fixed in the 6th Century and popularized in western Europe by the English scholar Bede in the early 8th, were probably wrong - but how wrong?

And the millennium of what - the Incarnation and the Nativity of Christ or the Passion? Had the thousandth year of the Nativity come and gone as early as 979 as one calendar argued? And how did the millennium of either the Nativity or the Passion fit with the scenario of the Last Days?

Antidotes to fear

The fears were expressed in many forms - by an intensified devotion to the crucified figure on the cross; to the Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem; to St. Michael, the angel of the Last Judgment - in devotional literature, painting, church-building, relic-cults, pilgrimage, fear of the reappearance of widespread heresy as one of the signs of the End and especially new fascination with the coming of Antichrist. They were also expressed in a distinctly new and virulent expression of anti-Judaism that was connected to the fear of Antichrist.

And all of these sprang up simultaneously in the 10th Century almost as if out of nowhere.

The passing of 1000, 1012, 1033, 1042 and 1065, and all later significantly apocalyptic years, did nothing to change the scenario that had been developed in the 10th and 11th centuries.

The scenario of the Last Days, whose facticity was firmly laid out in scripture, also expected people to prepare themselves for the End by reform, penitence and pious works, the actions that their pastors urged on them in order to prepare for - or even postpone - the End. Year after year they needed only to discard particular interpretations of the scenario, never the scenario itself, as one or another designated year passed and the world did not end. We still live in the shadow of Y1K.

Dr. Edward Peters is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History.

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Originally published on March 18, 1999