The Apocalypse isn't upon us, but there's great stuff to read

January 24, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

Some pious people fear the world will come to an end 341 days from today. Others believe the end of all evil will occur that day, and welcome it joyously. Yet others, driven not by faith but by electronics, are convinced that to survive after Dec. 31, 1999, it is necessary to store food, fuel and everything else necessary to sustaining life, because everything distantly affected by computers will come crashing down.

The millennium craze has, inevitably, yielded dozens of books already published and more en route. Among the more interesting are two that have to do with that last 1000-year red letter day. They are "The Last Apocalypse: Europe at the Year 1000 A.D.," by James Reston Jr. (Doubleday, 299 pages, $24.95); and "The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium," by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger (Little, Brown, 240 pages, $21.50).

Both are scholarly yet delightful, seriously researched by superbly credentialed writers -- fast-paced and often delicious. Reston's is his 11th book, and looks at all of what is now known as the Western World in that last millennial year. Lacey and Danziger are British, and between them have published 20 previous books. This latest, their first collaboration, concentrates on England and its people in and around 1000, but not to the total exclusion of the rest of Europe.

They agree that history is quite firm in recording that the year 1000 came and went with little if any speculation about the Apocalypse. But nonetheless, there was a powerful coming together of forces.

In the period leading up to 1000, all Europe was in turmoil. The Roman Empire was long since dead, of course, and by then Rome as a residual civilization and seat of the Catholic church had collapsed as well, dispersing the papacy.

Magyars were sweeping into central Europe from the east and southeast. Vikings were invading from the north. Moors controlled much of Iberia. All of them sacked, pillaged and slaughtered as they went -- destroying libraries, seats of knowledge and what today would be called infrastructure.

Christianity had already been well established in western Continental Europe and the British isles, but it was mortally threatened by these pagans and spiritual enemies. What is now considered the Western World in the year 950 was still 90 percent non-Christian -- either polytheistic or Moorish Muslim.

Then, in an astonishingly short period of only about 25 years running up to the year 1000, Vladimir converted to Orthodox Christianity and brought that to bear on Russia. The Magyar tyrant Vajk did so as well, and is now remembered as Saint Stephen. Poland was converted in 999. The Moorish caliphate was stopped dead and Christianity rose over its ashes.

The most powerful of the Viking kings, Olaf Trygvesson, embraced the faith and declared, "All Norway will be Christian or die." He summoned all the wizards in one region into a long house for a banquet, sealed the doors and burned the place to the ground -- in case you were wondering what ever happened to wizards.

Bang! By 1000, Europe was at peace, and largely Christian. The Dark Ages were over.

Both books make it elaborately clear that there was little if any celebration of the year 1000, or anything remotely like today's fussing over the approach or passing of a mighty date. There was no printed material then and thus few if any calendars, except in often threatened religious redoubts. Most people were illiterate. There was little sense of time.

A better parallel to today's apocalyptic enthusiasms, Reston points out, would be the year 1500, when printing had just begun to sweep Europe. There was considerable expectation then of the return of Christ. What happened instead was the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation -- an occurrence of importance on the level of the triumph of Christianity 500 years before.

Amid all this speculation in 1999, there are deflating facts about the upcoming calendar drama that are simple enough -- if too anticlimactic to be popular.

All these dates are utterly unreliable in terms of the birth of Jesus, by at least 10 days and arguably four years, or 30-some -- and perhaps many more. Thus absurd in terms of biblical apocalyptic predestination. In spiritual terms, the official Millennium date is almost, if not quite, as portentous as the National Beekeepers Appreciation Day.

In the Book of Revelations, St. John the Divine does not predict the date of Armageddon or the Apocalypse (the ultimate battle in which Good defeats Evil, followed by the Second Coming of Christ) in any firm manner. Even if you put great store in the authenticity of Revelations -- which is questioned by many serious and devout scholars -- its language is elliptical enough to suggest the years 6000, or 500, or 3000.

Contemplating the year 1000 from today's vantage, however, Lacey and Danziger engage in an interesting speculation -- though it is tenuous to the point of playfulness. That is the suggestion of a millennial parallel between 1000 and 2000. Marxists play the role of pagans; they lose and peace descends upon the land. In both cases:

"After decades of bitter and tense conflict between two mighty ideologies, one had collapsed as the millennium approached, leaving the other in charge of the agenda and with a conclusiveness that had long been preached with fervour, but which had not been that obvious when the battle was at its height."

If you know any wizards and they are real pals, you may want to warn them off. A modern-day Olaf Trygvesson may be planning a banquet any day now.

Pub Date: 01/24/99

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