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The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages

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The end of the millennium has always held the world in fear of earthquakes, plague, and the catastrophic destruction of the world. At the dawn of the 21st millennium the world is still experiencing these anxieties, as seen by the onslaught of fantasies of renewal, doomsday predictions, and New Age prophecies.
This fascinating book explores the millenarianism that flourished in western Europe between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries. Covering the full range of revolutionary and anarchic sects and movements in medieval Europe, Cohn demonstrates how prophecies of a final struggle between the hosts of Christ and Antichrist melded with the rootless poor's desire to improve their own material conditions, resulting in a flourishing of millenarian fantasies. The only overall study of medieval millenarian movements, The Pursuit of the Millennium offers an excellent interpretation of how, again and again, in situations of anxiety and unrest, traditional beliefs come to serve as vehicles for social aspirations and animosities.

416 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1957

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About the author

Norman Cohn

19 books33 followers
Jewish academic, historian and writer who spent fourteen years as a professorial fellow and as Astor-Wolfson Professor at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom.

His main subject were the connection between medievel anti-semitism and contemporary anti-semitismn.

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Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,196 reviews9,478 followers
June 16, 2017


What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9

This book is a brilliant account of the really crazy cults which sprang up all over Europe during the Middle Ages. Whatever Isis is now doing, the Christian cults did in the 16th century, although they didn’t have ground to air missiles. I think it’s worth putting Isis into this context. Christianity hardly ever refers to its extremely violent past but it has one all right.

I might add that in retrospect it does now look like the Puritans in the English Revolution (and Puritans elsewhere) in the 17th century were the Christian Taliban – in England, for example, they abolished the celebration of Christmas and closed all theatres; and they also smashed what they considered idolatrous images inside churches. Stained glass was out, large public crosses were destroyed.

And now back to my usual book-review-as-comedy-sketch mode.



It's late here, everyone gone to bed. No one here to talk to except my own fears. Such as my fear of becoming caught up in a revolutionary millennial cult in the 14th century. That is a major fear of mine. This was a brilliant yet depressing book. Imagine five hundred David Koreshes, five hundred versions of Jim Jones' People's Temple, five hundred rancid little messiahs running about convincing the pitifully ignorant with their sincere madness and then - well, whoops - establishing themselves a little harem full of buxom hausfraus once they'd taken over some reasonable sized place like Munster or Zaanstadt or Prague. It's kind of interesting and also really fantastically boring to notice that the cardboard prophets of the middle ages did exactly the same thing that little Charlie Manson, David Koresh, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Elijah Muhammed and all the rest of them did. Once they were boss they wanted to shag lots of women! Makes you think that was the main point, rather than establishing God's kingdom on earth.

Plus ca change, plus le meme chose, eh, you bastards?

These days you have to be a bit careful with your self-harming but in those days, huh, you had the option of joining any passing procession of flagellants, those classic Disney masochists who walked from place to place whipping each other's backs as they did so - I assume the guy at the end of the line would switch places with someone else or he'd feel all left out - did you ever see that Ken Russell movie called The Devils? If not, you really should - where else are you going to see a whole crowd of naked nuns doing unspeakable things to themselves with crucifixes!! (oh, what's that you say? there's a whole series of that kind of stuff on Redtube? gosh, I can be so naive) - anyway, from what this book says, for about 600 years that's what all of Europe was like - like a Ken Russell film - and just so Americans don't feel smug, America would have been like it too if Europeans would have gone there sooner.

I know that my bookshelf is called History Will Teach Us Nothing, which is a nice Sting song (sorry, what was that? what did you say? there is no nice Sting song? What about the one where he mentions Vladimir Nabokov - you must like that one) and also a very true statement, but this history book does teach us something : don't believe anything those mystical 14th century idiot apocalyptical loonies tell you! It won't end well!
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,081 reviews68.1k followers
February 20, 2022
Even the Past Is Not Past

Norman Cohn describes a continuous line of religiously inspired revolutionaries from the author of the Book of Daniel in the 2nd century BCE to the apocalyptic cults of the 19th and 20th centuries. Arguably it was the Montanists of the mid-second century who held the first millennial revivals, even then calling for a return to the ‘original’ message of Jesus’s teaching. And it was they who established the paradigm for future Christian enthusiasts, a vision of a world ruled by demons, upon which God would imminently take revenge. They lived expectantly not, as the Jews for victory over their oppressive enemies, but for the destruction of the entire world - a kind of religious paranoia.

To describe this religious attitude as a psychosis may seem an exaggeration but it appears exactly that (how else to describe a hope for global annihilation?). These millennial cults arise most forcefully not in the midst of persecution but rather through some other general dislocation in society. As Cohn says, “again and again, in situations of mass disorientation and anxiety, traditional beliefs about a future golden age or messianic kingdom came to serve as vehicles for social aspirations and animosities.” In other words, this kind of religious fervour is much more political than it is spiritual. The goal is always power and dominance over other groups, even (perhaps especially) those who share similar beliefs.

According to Cohn, such movements are always anti-establishment. But while Judaism tolerated a range of eccentric groups, the Christian Church did not, indeed, could not, since it was doctrine rather than genetics which held the institution together. So, “When in the fourth century Christianity attained a position of supremacy in the Mediterranean world and became the official religion of the Empire, ecclesiastical disapproval of millenarianism became emphatic.” But despite persistent attempts to suppress doctrinal deviation, such internal ecclesial strife “persisted in the obscure underworld of popular religion.”

Cohn identifies the primary constituents of these radical movements, namely “the unprivileged, the oppressed, the disoriented and the unbalanced.” In every case, it appears, the ‘have nots’, even while espousing the spiritual superiority of their relative disadvantage, seek to reverse their roles with those whom they criticise. In those instances in which their objectives are attained, they then maintain their attitude of superiority while accumulating the the means of power they formerly despised. Thus the continuing cycle of religious sociology through the Protestant Reformation and beyond.

It was the Christian appropriation of Jewish apocalyptic in the Book of Revelation and the derivative Sibylline prophecies of the Middle Ages which kept the fires of radical religion burning. These documents “deeply affected political attitudes. For medieval people the stupendous drama of the Last Days was not a phantasy about some remote and indefinite future but a prophecy which was infallible and which at almost any given moment was felt to be on the point of fulfilment.” The specific political situations that evoked these prophecies - the Roman Empire in the case of the New Testament and medieval social hierarchies in the case of latter prophecies - were forgotten, but the prophecies themselves retained their appeal and continue to motivate millennial and evangelical groups.

Perhaps the most important conclusion that can be drawn from Cohn’s work for the 21st century is the essential paradox of these movements. They start with popular discontent, attaching themselves to some expression of religious precept as an alternative to current norms. Very quickly they generate a leader who is invariably associated with the Messiah, either as his messenger or as the Last Emperor who will prepare the world for his arrival. But inevitably:
“In almost every new monarch his subjects tried to see that Last Emperor who was to preside over the Golden Age, while chroniclers bestowed on him the conventional messianic epithets, rex justus or maybe David. When each time experience brought the inevitable disillusionment people merely imagined the glorious consummation postponed to the next reign and, if they possibly could, regarded the reigning monarch as a ‘precursor’ with the mission of making the way straight for the Last Emperor.”

Am I simply prejudicial in suggesting Trump and his evangelical mob constitute the latest manifestation of the millennial fantasy?
Profile Image for William2.
745 reviews2,968 followers
August 2, 2019
This came recommended by Ian McEwan in his Five Books selections. Here’s part of what he says:

This celebrated book has been in print for over half a century. It’s a historical account of the fanatical millenarian sects that swept across Europe from the 11th to 15th centuries: sects that were driven by certainty of the world coming to an end. Clearly, it has relevance for our times. And when the world ended there would be deliverance for the elect. Your enemies would be damned just as you would be saved. These sects were extremely violent, and they came from the poorest, most deprived, marginal sections of society. They surged across Northern Germany, killing Jews, priests, the bourgeois.

Frank Kermode, in his famous book The Sense of an Ending, elaborated on Cohn’s masterwork by suggesting that actually it’s very common for all of us – especially artists – to feel that we live at the end of times, and that our own demise means all the more to us because we’re not simply dying in the middle of the plot, in medias res. Our lives take on significance because as we decline we notice our society is declining all around us. It’s part of a yearning for narrative significance. As Kermode said, no one can hear a clock saying, as it does, tick tick. What we hear is tick tock. A beginning and an end. We impose this order.

Cohn’s book found its way into conversations in On Chesil Beach, and it’s present in Solar, when Beard reflects sceptically on the environmental movement. The epigraph to Solar is a quote from Rabbit is Rich, in which Rabbit is pleased to note that the Earth is decaying, just as he himself is. We’re bound to ask ourselves, if we’re thinking of matters like climate change, whether we are indulging our time-honoured tendency for end-time thinking. Of course, even if we are, that doesn’t make climate change any less real. In On Chesil Beach it’s raised within the context of a discussion of the nuclear arms race: the fear that the Earth could be obliterated in a matter of hours. And again, we do now have the technological capability to destroy ourselves – whereas in medieval times the imagined destruction had supernatural causes. It was God’s revenge.

The other reason I mention this book is because in its final section, in what I think are rather resounding pages, Cohn notes that this European tradition of end-time thought fades after the 15th century, or at least becomes less bloody, then re-emerges in the 20th century in secular form, in two great totalitarian movements which derive their momentum from the millennial of the Middle Ages. One of these was Nazism, with its deliberate echoes of the Book of Revelation – the thousand year Reich. The Aryan master race will be the elect, the saved, while the Jews would be damned. And again in Soviet communism: the State will wither away, the proletariat will be the elect, the enemies – the bourgeois, the kulaks – will be destroyed. Again there is a sense of deliverance through blood and fire.

We now live in a kind of dazed, post-totalitarian world. You see little reawakenings, in the more extravagant and radical forms of Islam, and in even tinier groups within Christianity. But basically those two great movements consumed so many in the fire that we’re still recovering – the smoke still hangs in the air. So we have nothing, and we are lucky to have nothing. Those grim utopian movements defined the 20th century in its first half. Whatever progress we make now, we’ll have to achieve it in small steps.
Profile Image for Jonfaith.
1,857 reviews1,370 followers
August 30, 2015
Like most people, I was shocked and intrigued by the enigma of ISIS, how it spread so quickly, how it attracted so wide a band of support and how easily it initially fared against the Kurds. Unlike a number of folks I turned consequently to Norman Cohn. Cohn qualifies the successes, however fleeting of Millennial cults by stressing how such always appeared in the wake of larger rebellions or movements. I find it fascinating that so many individuals appeared to be the reincarnations of lost leaders. I suppose I can understand someone hearing voices and believing they are a prophet or even the divine, but when a number of people claim to be Barbarossa so that a prophecy can be fulfilled, well, that sort of baffles me. I then think of Teddy Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace and all appears well again. Maybe “well” is a poor adjective in the wake of a pogrom or the sacking of a monastery. What is one to make of the phenomenon of the flagellants? This literal craze flashed across Europe and exacted a lethal response to Jews everywhere. Residing at the core of all is this a desire to return to the Natural State where all was communal and there was no crime or avarice. See John GrayBlack Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia for further examples of this lunacy. I should be careful with my descriptions. Lord knows there were sociological forces at play, the sense of dislocation after feudalism ended, thus limiting the ties with the extended family as well as towards the manor.

Cohn provides a fascinating account of the history of these movements in Northern Europe. Apparently the activity there was practically dwarfed by the resonance in the Mediterranean basin. Paul Bryant in his masterful review notes how common it is historically for cult/movement leaders to pronounce polygamy or a free love of sorts. This wasn't near as prolific as the killing of Jews in Cohn's survey. I suppose the more cynical would allude to a Lacanian blockage.
Profile Image for Forrest.
Author 41 books712 followers
January 2, 2015
Pursuit of the Millenium is a well-documented history of anarchic millenarian movements in the Middle Ages that might have been perfect if it weren't for some fairly obvious auctorial bias.

Cohn starts with an excellent thesis and documentation about how the fervor of the Crusades, particularly among the poor, set the stage for later millenarian cults. The 2nd Crusade, in particular, set the stage for later messianic movements by using the non-canonical "Sibylline Prophecies" as pretext for invading the Holy Land and killing a lot of innocent Jews, Muslims, *and* Christians (almost always representatives of the Catholic church) along the way. These prophecies, forged at a much later date than their authors' claimed that they were written, were composed mostly by monks to elaborate and integrate the eschatological pronouncements of the Revelation of John into a world-view that saw an "Emperor of the Last Days," either a reflection of or a resurrected Charlemagne, as the key figure that would usher in the final judgement of the world and an era of peace and prosperity for believers. These apocryphal writings informed, to some degree or another, all the millenial movements that came after the 2nd Crusade. Common themes were the rise of a righteous earthly ruler who would lead the fight against the Antichrist (first in the form of the Saracens, later in the form of the Pope) and his minions, resulting in their utter destruction.

In most cases, this "phantasie," as Cohn calls it, led to instabilities in the social order, revolution, violence, and, much of the time, the extermination of anyone identified as an enemy to the movement. Think religious terrorism is of modern provenience? Think again! The methods and agenda of the anonymous author of the Book of a Hundred Chapters, written in the mid-15th-century, would make Daesh squeamish. He even claimed to have used alchemy to invent explosives with which to overthrow the kingdoms of Europe. Car bombs before there were cars!

Cohn's writing throughout is solid and, at times, downright poetic. Take, for instance, this paragraph about the flagellants, those who felt that by lacerating themselves with metal-barbed whips, the world would be bettered by their suffering penitence:

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 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.

But why stop at whipping yourselves when you can help others to be repentant, as well? These flagellants were wont to destroy the inhabitants of entire cities at a time, likely whipped up into a frenzy of violence by their self-punishment. 'Tis better to give than to receive, no?

While Cohn starts out in a strictly Marxist vein, he branches out to other methods of historical analysis in the later two-thirds of the book. The history of the Brethren of the Free Spirit is fascinating, complex, and "layered" in a way that makes a very confusing movement understandable. Best of all, at this point, Cohn lays off on both the thick Marxist and thinly-veiled Freudian analysis, both of which show too much of their structural prejudices early on in the book. This section is really compelling history!

One of my biggest complaints about Cohn is his assumption that Luke's account in Acts Chapter 4 is an "Imaginary version of the primitive church". The only evidence I see of this is Cohn's say-so, which makes for very bad interpolative history. Luke was there. He saw it and lived it. There are other accounts that corroborate this evidence, too. Just because the millenial cults used this to further their own arguments for egalitarianism doesn't make it "imaginary". Furthermore, I don't know why Cohn is so adamant in distancing himself from this "phantasy". I wonder if it had something to do with the time in which Pursuit of the Millenium was originally published, 1957, at the height of the Red Scare. Perhaps Cohn was fearful of being outed as a communist for his analysis of these movements, which often pitted the poor against the rich, so he made certain that it was known that he did not believe that early Christianity actually practiced the commmunal order that they claim to have practiced. But he presents absolutely no compelling evidence to substantiate his argument.

The account of the Taborite movement is fascinating - reading it was like watching what was essentially a medieval hippie commune disintegrate from the inside out. The usual problem with these arrangements reared its head: No one wanted to work, but everyone wanted the benefits of work. The idealism of the movement sowed the seeds of it's own self-destruction, while economic reality caused them to blossom into oblivion. Here, Cohn is back on his game with well-reasoned arguments and a careful reconstruction of the foundation, growth, demise, and the significant influence of the movement on later generations of millenarians.

The beginning of Matthys' Anabaptist movement in Munster sends historical echoes even further down the hall of time to the opening of Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia. Though the movements are not connected in any way geographically or chronologically, the methodology of both is strikingly similar. From the use of intimidation to the extremities of communal ownership to the fostering of ignorance (in the Anabaptist sects through the burning of all books that were not the Bible and in the Khmer Rouge through the execution of all intellectuals, doctors, etc), the analogs are shocking. Comparing the two would make for interesting research in social history. To whomever takes this as their doctoral dissertation in comparative history, you're welcome. Mention me in the credits, please.

While this is good history, for the most part, it is clear that Cohn really, REALLY likes Marxist analysis. That's fine, as it seems to suit the subject matter and the evidence, at least in the early instances of the millenarian movements. But I suspect that some people joined these revolts out of a sense of spiritual compulsion, not just because they were poor. Poverty is neither necessary nor sufficient to push a person into millenarianism, though it might be sufficient to foster the growth of such movements. The evidence seems compelling, but what evidence *isn't* being shown here? Cohn does not show the full deck of cards here, and I believe he is hiding a card or two up his sleeve. It's not blatant enough to accuse him of outright cheating in the game of presenting historical evidence, but it's enough to arouse suspicion in the reader who is paying attention.

Still, a solid historical work on a subject that could use a lot more attention, given the religious extremism we see both domestically and abroad. Alas, we may just be doomed to having to deal with false Messiahs and their violent movements again and again. After all, we've been doing it, in the Christian world, at least, for 1500 years now. And that is a lot of historical precedent to drag behind us as we try to move forward. At least Cohn's work here helps us to clearly see the sort of circumstances that lead to these extremist movements. Maybe it's enough to start to get a grasp on how to prevent them from spreading so quickly and becoming so violent. Maybe . . . maybe . . .
Profile Image for Murtaza .
664 reviews3,401 followers
August 20, 2020
The dream of an egalitarian millennium brought about by a revolutionary movement of the underclass has far deeper roots than the Russian or even French Revolutions. The idea emerges in the darkest recesses of medieval European history, where time and again mass movements have been born heralding a world in which, alongside certain supernatural expectations, all divisions had been made equal and property is shared among all classes. These movements foresaw this new order as being related to the end of all time, brought about with the help of some charismatic figure bearing a connection to the divine. They usually defined themselves in opposition to the established Church, hated for its material opulence, as well as local Jews (and in the case of some of the Crusades, foreign Muslims) who were excoriated for one reason or another and usually suffered extreme violence in the process of revolution.

Even though they originated among Christians millenarian revolutions have tended to have a strong antinomian character, meaning that they stood for the repudiation of all existing moral values. Denouncing the Church in the name of God somehow frequently results in people deeming themselves God and their every action divine. Leaders of millenarian movements have tended to either literally or effectively declare themselves God or give their followers the permission to self-deify. They lambaste the greed and worldliness of the priests and dream of a future that has been returned to the idealized state of nature, believed even during the time of the Greeks to have been one of material communism. The next step in the pattern is to promote norms of transgressive sexuality aimed at overturning social regulations widely seen as emanating from the hated influence of ecclesiastical authorities. During total revolutions such as these, people create a new morality with themselves at the center. Eros is recognized as a powerful weapon in such a project, while also offering obvious worldly benefits to revolutionary leaders. Cohn writes during the 1960s and argues that the movement of "free love" then prevailing is an extension of that ancient sentiment.

The people who were drawn to movements promising the millennium were what we would today describe as rootless and atomized. They lived during periods of intense stress and uncertainty. In medieval Europe the condition of atomization was peculiarly associated with the poor, who lacked guilds and manors and courts to keep the universe on a stable footing and protect them from the vicissitudes of existence. But today this condition characterizes most people living under systems like neoliberalism which isolate people from bonds of communal support and identity. This book was published at the apex of the Cold War and there is a not-so-subtle suggestion that it is actually explaining the emotional and ideological roots of Marxist movements. The comparison might be a bit overdetermined, although Cohn brings to bear so many examples that it is hard to deny the parallels. Inasmuch as those movements were, and are, about millenarian expectation and the abolition of history, the comparison seems plausible. Nothing is new under the sun, except technology and the idioms that we use to describe things.
Profile Image for Jokoloyo.
449 reviews270 followers
March 27, 2016
The content is a bit tedious for me, but the arguments and conclusions are enlightening. The history lessons on this book based were taken from Middle Ages period, but their principles are still valid for 21st century.
441 reviews13 followers
May 2, 2018
Cohn's "Pursuit of the Millennium" has aged well and nearing 50 years of age it is deservedly a classic. Its subjet might be considered by some to be esoteric: it deals with prophets from middle ages Europe who led others to believe that the end of times was at hand, and that they had been chosen by God to purify the world in preparation for the Kingdom of the Last Days, and with pantheistic mystical anarchists who believed that they could do no evil because they had connected with their divine essences. In most cases these figures are virtual unknowns even for people who like history. The few that still turn up are Thomas Müntzer, the leader of the rebellious peasants who were exterminated in the Battle of Frankenhausen (a character in the historical fiction pastiche "Q" by Luther Blisset) and John of Leyden, the tailor who created a totalitarian kingdom of saints in Münster. For the revolutionary millennarians the tale is a bit repetitive, and it usually went like this: a former priest or a hermit with a violent disposition concludes, after meditating for a long time, that he is living at the end of times and that he is God/ he is a god/ he has been chosen by God or a god to lead the just and the good in a final, apocalyptic, war against Antichrist and his followers, to usher in the millennium of the saints announced by John the Divine, prior to the end of the world and the final reckoning. The hermit or defrocked priest finds some followers and eventually is able to take hold of a town or a castle, which he converts into a stronghold with the help of the rootless rabble. Then he proceeds to plunder from the rich (nobles and clergy) and to purge the unredeemed. Eventually the powers-that-be get their act together and dispatch an army of knights who, after a bloody fight are able to capture the prophet and his main followers, who usually are burnt or beheaded after enduring torture. It is peculiar that even thought they are always defeated and crushed, the sort of people who are drawn to this type of leader will rise up to follow them again and again.

Cohn's book tells the story in just the right detail. He shows that certain regions were particularly sensitive to the millennarian prophets. Many such arose in the Northwestern corner of Europe (Northeastern France, the Benelux countries, the Rhineland in Germany). He also shows that generally poor people have had rational aims: to use pressure in order to improve their lot by acquisition of certain rights. Only a minority has felt the attraction of millennarian revolutions, and these usually have been uprooted people without a settled role. Also, these revolutionary initiatives were able to succeed (even if for a short while) only in times of chaos or unrest (i.e., the Crusades, visitations of the plague or black death, economic crises, etc.). Usually the self-appointed prophets used the social disruption in order to further their cause and take advantage from the momentary weakness of defenders of the status quo.

Cohn is a sober commentator who shows that recent historians have sometimes ignored the evidence to further a political agenda. Thus, leftist historians sometimes refused to acknowledge some activities of the prophets whom they regarded as protorevolutionaries (such as their inclination to institutionalized promiscuity or their remarkably violent language), probably in order to maintain their status as predecessors of current "progressives".

An interesting conclusion from the reading of the book is that, contrary to what many think, ideas are not a neutral good to be chosen by informed customers in an efficient marketplace. Some ideas appeal to dark places in people's minds: these are dangerous ideas, and parents and teachers would do well to instruct their children, so that they do not succumb. One such idea is that "God" is in everything, and that when a person becomes aware of this he or she becomes entirely free and can follow his or her desires without any negative ethical implication. Another way of putting this is that nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so, as Hamlet said. This type of belief may lead a person to the most brutal behaviors without any perception that they had done ill. This is a very common opinion nowadays, and in fact both the millennarists and the mystical anarchists have their successors nowadays. Today, the center of millennarian agitation is surely the USA, were many people believe that the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse) is a play-by-play description of the end of the world and that they will live to see it happen. And many new age sects (including Scientology) appear to hold the belief that we can become gods and be free of conventional morality and ethics.

In his conclusion Cohn suggests that many radical movements of the XX century are in fact new versions of the old millennarian revolutionary heresies. There can be no doubt that this is the case: human motivations change little over time. What changes is the language in which they are articulated. In a religious era, the language and imagery were religious. in a godless age the language attempts to be scientific and logical. But underneath there beats the same old hope: the hope to see evil punished and evildoers destroyed, to be part of a chosen elite with a new understanding of the nature of reality, and an exhilarating vision of a better future through hardship and strife. We can all empathise with these feelings. Action movies, comic books, tragedies, country music and soap operas resonate for many of us because they take their inspiration from some of these elements. I only regret that Cohn did not expand the point, although other authors have done so, most notably Michel Burleigh, who in his recent two volume history on the clashes between politics and religion from the French Revolution to our days has shown that much of what passes for politics is in reality religion by another name, and how the most revolutionary creeds of the XX century were really millennarian sects.

And Cohn's perspective is so pertinent that it even explains the rise of Islamic fundamentalism tinged with visions of a holy war that will redeem the world and turn into the Umma, the community of the believers. The followers of fundamentalism have been the large masses of uprooted peasants without a clear role in a modernizing world, and their leaders have been intellectuals or semi-intellectuals who can understand how the world works but want no part of it, other than to redeem it in an apocalytic struggle. Their counterparts in other religions are very similar to them: people who want to find a meaning for lives that provide none, people who are sensitive to unfairness and who instinctively resonate with violence and retribution, people who yearn for zoroastrian visions of entirely distinct good and bad. As ever, for these people, the new millennium of peace and joy is just around the corner, although sadly it can only come about on mountains of corpses and through rivers of blood.
Profile Image for Anna.
1,691 reviews637 followers
February 22, 2020
'The Pursuit of the Millennium' analyses the heretical sects that periodically sprang up to spread apocalyptic sentiment and foment upheaval around Europe during the Middle Ages. The period is not one I've studied or know much about, but I'm always fascinated by apocalyptic visions over the centuries. 'The Pursuit of the Millennium' is fluidly written and full of fascinating material, however it is not the most comfortable book to read. Cohn repeatedly emphasises the link between appalling hardships and outbreaks of Millenarianism, such as outbreaks of plague, famine, and/or war. The vigour and cruelty with which these heresies were promulgated by their originators and then crushed by the Catholic church further emphasises how bleak life could be during the Middle Ages. Although it contained much variation, generally forms of Millenarianism supplied some hope to desperate people. At the very beginning of the book, Cohn helpfully defines his terms:

Millenarian sects or movements always picture salvation as
a) Collective, in the sense that it is to be enjoyed by the faithful as a collectivity;
b) Terrestrial, in the sense that it is to be realised on this earth and not in some other-worldly heaven;
c) Immanent, in the sense that it is to come both soon and suddenly;
d) Total, in the sense that it is utterly to transform life on earth, so that the new dispensation will be no mere improvement on the present but perfection itself;
e) Miraculous, in the sense that it is to be accomplished by, or with the help of, supernatural agencies.

The collective and terrestrial aspects give the book its subtitle, 'Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages'. At a time when politics was religion (apologies to actual historians for that gross over-generalisation), radical resistance to wealth inequality and the political ascendancy of the church took the form of heresy. Cohn traces the recurrence of certain patterns and ideas across the centuries, including communal property, enforcing poverty upon the clergy, and arguing that people cannot sin if aware of their own divinity. While the history of these ideas is really interesting, the history of their application is a depressing reminder of what a violent period the Middle Ages were. Notably, pogroms against the Jewish population occurred with horrifying regularity.

I was also struck by the fact that nearly all heretical movements identified by Cohn were led by one or more very charismatic people, usually men. At that time, with communication and social mobility strictly limited, proclaiming yourself a chosen one and starting a sect were perhaps the most effective ways to gain material benefit from personal charisma.

To the contemporary reader, accustomed to individualism and comfort, the ascetic aspects of these movements seem particularly strange. Weirdest of all are the flagellants, with their intensely masochistic rites:

The men beat themselves rhythmically with leather scourges armed with iron spikes, singing hymns meanwhile in celebration of Christ's passion and the glory of the Virgin. [...] Each day two complete flagellations were performed in public; and each night a third was performed in the privacy of the bedroom. The flagellants did their work with such thoroughness that often the spikes of the scourge stuck in their flesh and had to be wrenched out. Their blood spurted on to the walls and their bodies turned to swollen masses of blue flesh.

It is notable that the height of this particular movement coincided with the horror of the Black Death, also that apparently it did not spread to England, and that flagellants 'played an important part' in the most significant massacres of Jews prior to the 20th century. Even the Pope condemned the flagellants for 'shedding the blood of Jews'. Once flagellants came to be seen as destabilising society, they were burnt after mass trials. Cohn observes that this suppression of the flagellants was largely carried out by local authorities across Germany rather than the Inquisition. This, he suggests, implies that the flagellants were social revolutionaries as well as heretics. The interplay between rebellion and heresy is examined in careful detail for each historically specific movement.

The book proceeds chronologically, concluding with Anabaptism during the Reformation and including an appendix of primary sources about the Ranters, who emerged during the English Civil War. At the very end Cohn summarises his central thesis by linking the currents of apocalyptic thinking with 20th century ideologies. He was writing between 1946 and 1956, so his commentary concerns Nazism and Soviet Communism, making it historically interesting in itself. Throughout the book, however, I found unsettling relevance to the 21st century as well, especially in the very final paragraph:

A boundless, millennial promise made with boundless, prophet-like conviction to a number of rootless and desperate men in the midst of a society where traditional norms and relationships are disintegrating - here, it would seem, lay the source of that subterranean medieval fanaticism which has been studied in this book. It may be suggested that here, too, lies the source of the giant fanaticisms which in our day have convulsed the world.
Profile Image for Hywel Owen.
55 reviews14 followers
July 10, 2012
One of the great books about the human condition. Through a detailed and authoratitive look at cults of the Middle Ages, Norman Cohn shows that groups within society are forever susceptible to the seductive dreams purveyed by narcissists. Leaders of these groups offer simple and often fantasist solutions to all ills, and their followers are all too ready to follow them to their doom, realising only too late that the confines of reality actually do exist.

Whilst Cohn never explicitly describes modern-day equivalents of Millenarian cults, it is clear that he refers to Marxists in particular - and to other movements of that ilk - and allows the reader to draw the obvious parallels. In this book is revealed the underlying truth of mankind, rather than the gloss of this epoch's manner of expressing it. Cohn's scathing regard for the nonsense of Marxism, and indeed for all eschatological political movements, is plain to see. They are in fact the products of (hopefully) unrequited megalomaniacs, which are then exploited by opportunistic sociopaths. Jan Bockelson and Josef Stalin are social twins.

In terms of understanding the nature of history, I would rate this book as a must-read. 'Journey for our Time' by the Marquis de Custine is another.
Profile Image for Malcolm.
1,720 reviews419 followers
January 31, 2012
This book has sat on my shelf since I first read it some time in the early 1980s - and I recall being gobsmacked by Cohn's breadth of understanding and subtle grasp of the era and experiences of Europe's medieval Millenarian religious and political movements. After over 30 years it is time to revisit - but my 32 year old paperback has got so fragile after so many lendings that I need to find a new copy. I now often find myself in the parts of central Europe that was the home to many of these movements and the wars fought by them and the established church to bring them into line: as the geography of the past comes to life, I keep returning to this book: it is a foundational text in the way I understand an era and a place.

Cohn died in 2007, and became the subject of a fine Guardian obit - http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2007/a...
Profile Image for Mustafa Al-Laylah.
43 reviews14 followers
July 16, 2008
One of the first and most readable major books written on the subject of medieval Millenarianism, Cohn manages to make what might seem to the modern reader obscure and baffling heresies into highly engaging historical reading.

Having read this, Vaneigem's "The Movement of the Free Spirit" and Ehrenreich's "Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy" I would say all three are valuable if read in a particular order. Start with Ehrenreich, finish with Cohn and supplement with Vaneigem.
Profile Image for Mieczyslaw Kasprzyk.
805 reviews94 followers
May 30, 2013
I loved this book! As an analysis of the ideas that permeated the psyche of the Middle Ages, and provided the driving force behind the many movements that give the period its particular character, this book has no equal! The chapter on the Anabaptists alone merits putting everything down just to read it! If you're interested in ideas and history you have to read this!
Profile Image for Jason.
1,193 reviews111 followers
June 24, 2016
Read this a few years back now, think it was one of those books going cheap in a cheap bookshop, sounded interesting so got myself a copy to read. Depressing stuff, on the whole I found it dull, most probably the writing and not the subject matter. I think I still own it so might have to re-read one day.
Profile Image for Aonarán.
110 reviews57 followers
February 7, 2011
The book is decent only in that it's one of the only in depth sources in english about such an important trend.

Raoul Vaneigem's Movement of the Free Spirit and Resistance to Christianity (text available on line) are better sources and told more from a perspective similar to resisters themselves, though not as easy to understand. I recommend reading a section in Pursuit about a particular group then reading about the same group in Movement of the Free Spirit. That way you get the basic information from Cohn, and then a better analysis form Vangeim.

In order that the religious tone of the resisters might be better understood, I recommend reading Giorgio Agamben's In Praise of Profanation.

For a good overview of this same period and people check out Fredy Perlman's Against His-Story, Against Leviathan chapters 17-19 (text available online). As you can see below, Perlman does not like Cohn.

"A man called Norman Cohn, a friend of authority, law and order, will in our time document a millennium of resistance, maligning every episode of it.

A serious scholar is one who takes the Pope at his word and discounts the words of rebels. A ranter is one who takes the rebels at thier word and discounts every word of the Pope. Cohn will be a solid, serious scholar, not a fanatical, ranting extremist. The words of authorities, especially the police, will be his rock, his positive evidence, His-story. Cohn will say that Church dignitaries protect Jews attacked by fanatical extremists. he will depict the entire resistance as a precursor to the Nazi Party--that will be his thesis--and he will come close to saying that every rebel is a Hitler.

A frivolous ranter, in other words one who does not take His-story seriously, one who refers to authority as "It" and not as "We," will see an altogether different picture while looking at the same resistance.

Cohn will know that the supreme authority in the West, the second Pope named Urban, gets the applause of all the realm's dignitaries when he says,

Turn the weapons which you have stained unlawfully in the slaughter of one another against the enemies of
the faith...

With tried and tested methods of serious scholarship, Cohn will say that the Pope didn't really mean it.

When a Bishop lodges his persecuted supplier of luxuries in the servant quarters of his palace, Cohn will pretend the Bishop is appalled by the violence and not relieved that the violence is turning against the Unbeliever's house instead of the Bishop's.

Cohn's peers, professors who will massacre Vietnamese peasants from desks at a State University will pretend to be appalled by atrocities of Calleys who turn the professors' words into deeds, but the professors' real rage will be against the resisters who turn their weapons against the Calleys. The serious professors will heap all the deflected violence, Authority's own violence, on the heads of the rebels resisting Authority's violence.

The resistance is the only human component of the entire His-story. All the rest is Leviathanic progress.


This is why Leviathanic His-storians will discount, malign and try to exorcise such experiences. Contempt and ridicule will be favorite weapons of the serious scholars who will pretend to give unbiased accounts.

Norman Cohn, for example, will go out of his way to talk about the revelations of millennarian resisters. He needs say no more. Equally armored readers will immediately share Cohn's contempt towards individuals who are so pathological as to be guided by their own dreams and visions. The scholar and his armored readers will take it for granted that only the revelations of judges and scholars have validity.

Cohn's ridicule will reach heights of scholarly contempt when he tells of individuals who consider themselves Messiahs, who convince themselves that their efforts can help save Mankind from Leviathanic dehumanization, enslavement and doom. Cohn need not exclaim: How naive! How criminal! how well deserved the jailing, the torture, the hanging, the burning! Such exclamations will come automatically to readers who consider their duly constituted authorities the only possible saviors of mankind and Leviathan the only possible Messiah.

* * *

Cohn will condemn the resisters only on paper, and too late to harm anything but our memory of them. The Church and its long secular arms do the actual arresting, jailing, torturing, burning and killing. With a millennium of experience in prevarication, deflection and repression, the Church is no novice as hangman." - Fredy Perlman, Against History, Against Leviathan

Profile Image for J.M. Hushour.
Author 8 books200 followers
October 8, 2018
This is a dense and complicated work that is perhaps best summed up using a portion of its subtitle: "mystical anarchism", for that is truly what is covered here. What is mystical anarchism? Well, it was a series of revolutionary movements, connected to very degrees of tangentiality over many centuries whose central conceit was this: the church and its institutions are evil; we are poor; we must resist them. Stemming out of such diffuse sources as Jewish chiliasm/messianism and the crusader/holy poverty movements (which ironically resulted in free-wheeling anti-Jewish pogroms), mystical anarchism sought to appeal to the masses (read: poor folks) in varying ways (everyone should be poor, especially the high-rolling clergy!; the commons should be held in common per God!, etc)
Of particular interest is the smattering of chapters on the "Free Spirit" movement and the Sufi-like mysticism of thinkers like Marguerite Porete. See my reviews somewhere on here on the peasant drummer of Niklaushausen, the shaman of Obertsdorf, etc, for more in-depth looks at this phenomenon.
Profile Image for Raymond.
119 reviews1 follower
June 25, 2018
This book is quite unique. It doesn't deal with the kings, nobles or bishops of the Middle Ages, but instead covers the much less spoken of but far more entertaining wandering preachers and fanatical cults, as well as the motley and extremely violent rabble they never failed to attract. It's the story of disaffected, half-studied priests who set themselves up as gods, of look-alikes who pretended to be long dead kings and emperors returned to life, of the Children's Crusade, the flagellant movement and the Anabaptists who set up a theocractic terror regime in Münster and dubbed it the New Jerusalem.

It's an academic work, but the colourful material means it's never a boring read. It also provides an interesting analysis of how these movements arose, the nature of social movements in general and how they both differ and are similar to social upheavals in modern times. Highly recommended for anyone looking to get into the truly alien aspects of medieval European spirituality.
Profile Image for Benjamin Fasching-Gray.
718 reviews15 followers
May 5, 2016
Frightening stories about mobs following megalomaniacs to their doom, first massacring and burning, later being massacred and burnt. Cohn is piqued by elements of these chiliastic movements in Fascism and Leninism but reading it today brings a new set of associations. First of all, people who argue that something like Islamic State isn't the kind of thing Christians get up to should read this. Second of all: Trump.
Profile Image for Joel Larson.
1 review7 followers
November 14, 2015
This is a most important piece of historical analysis. It details the madness of the Pastoreaux, the flagellates, and other heresies - some destructive and evil, some utopian and far ahead of their time. We are experiencing similar madness in the 21st century, including yesterday (11/13/2015)'s attacks in France by the new millenarians: ISIS.

I reach the conclusion that we have a global socio-political responsibility to right a great wrong left lingering from the world wars, namely: the exclusion of Islamic societies from the political reorganization of nation-states. ISIS wants an Islamic Caliphate, gone since the demise of the Ottoman Empire. If there was an Islamic Caliphate today, I have no doubt they would exercise their authority to condemn ISIS and their anti-Islamic, murdering, millenarian heresy. In the absence of any such authority, the mad prevail.

In 1349, Pope Clement VI excommunicated the flagellates and their order was soon decimated, eventually eliminated. Inspired by the corruption of simony and the plagues of the mid 14th century, the flagellate movement began with some well-intentioned concerns and a pious desire to save humanity; leadership was usurped by crazy, self-styled embodiments of the second-coming of Christ. Only an authoritative Christian voice dissuaded throngs of religious extremists. If the Islamic World condemned Christian extremists, it would only have encouraged more conflict. And here we are today thinking erroneously that Christians can tell Muslims how to behave.

The Islamic world, like the far-east, was far advanced compared to Europe in the middle ages. It is a HUGE FAILURE of historical analysis to omit this fact from our teachings, and exclude half the world from our understanding of human progress. We suffer for it now with blood on the streets of Paris.
649 reviews2 followers
September 5, 2013
I bought this on a whim when I found it at the school bookstore for $2, but it turned out to really be up my alley. Apparently this was a fairly famous book for its time (it was originally published in 1957, and then expanded for the 1970 edition), but I guess it didn’t retain its popularity. It deals with the apocalyptic cult movements of Europe in the Middle Ages, with an underlying theme being how the lower classes tended to turn to such radical beliefs when they felt particularly put upon by the secular and religious authorities. The book of Revelation tells of a struggle between Christians and the Roman Empire, but when the Empire adopted Christianity as its official faith, the idea of the coming millennium of peace and love had to be altered to reflect this development. Eventually, the storyline had it that there was a golden age before private property and class structure had been developed (some people blamed Nimrod for this), and that it would arrive again when Jesus returns to Earth. Before that happens, however, the last emperor would journey to Jerusalem and offer his robe and crown to Christ. As it became obvious that most of the rulers and the clergy were looking out for their own interests, many peasants took to following various leaders who claimed to be reincarnated emperors and such, and attempting to bring the new millennium to the world by reorganizing society, and often killing church leaders as well as Jews. None of them lasted, but the same basic idea has arisen throughout history in different forms, usually in times when people feel particularly exploited. Definitely worth reading if you take an interest in religious history, or just weird cults.
Profile Image for J.
366 reviews9 followers
September 10, 2014
When I came across this masterpiece in a second-hand bookshop in Madison, WI in September 2011 for 25 cents (!!) I could hardly believe my eyes. Had there been ten copies I would have taken them all. It had been nagging away on the edge of my list of books to get/read/etc for a decade, and somehow had eluded me (well, actually, I know how - over-ambitious, poor concentration, poor application to finishing tasks, but, hey, this review is not supposed to be about me), so, on with the show...
The Pursuit is social and intellectual history at its best. Cohn opens up a whole cosmos of diversity at the heart of supposedly monolithic medieval Europe and infuses conventionally sepia views of ordinary life in the middle ages with a whole raft of colour.
There are personal stories, judicious judgements, even-handed treatment of (what is, to moderns) the strangeness of the age, clear exposition of ideas, movements, reactions, and a compelling meta-narrative. He writes nicely, too.
About half-way through reading it the other week I was struck by how little is new under the sun (a comment I believe was anticipated several thousand years ago by a wise man in Ecclesiastes) and how some of the eponymous anarchists resemble the counter-culture movement of the sixties. Using different tools and concepts, and making allowance for the genuine "otherness" of these groups they manage to almost converge. Turns out Cohn himself intimates as much in a wonderful conclusion that leaves the reader wishing he had gone on in earnest to turn his pen to that analysis...
Profile Image for Wes Freeman.
59 reviews16 followers
February 15, 2008
Maybe my favorite book, though I'll have to read it twice more before I get it all. Exhaustive-but-readable survey of medieval heretical religious sects back in Western Europe's days as a non-nationalistic, Catholic bloc state. Fairly astounding how chromatic Cohn's wacked out, zealot Europe looks, especially to those raised to believe American Protestant things, like how happy-go-lucky groups of Puritans left the Old Country to found a gay, breezy land full of pre-destination and free from thick, gloomy papal oppression. This, of course, would have been the story that sociopathic, megalomaniac Anabaptist maverick John of Leyden would have told his followers (the ones he hadn't already killed) had he ever made it to a continent big enough to house his ego and multiple wives. Deeply, permanently fascinating revelations herein; Cohn does the essential legwork to give you a better understanding of why people agree with each other to worship the same God, or priest, or charismatic lunatic. Read it in the terrifying context of 2003's ascendancy of the religious right, the book giving a marauding cast to their faces on CNN, fostering implicit comparisons between spittle-spewing, apocalypse-hungry Rhinelanders and hopelessly wandering ascetics. Book resonates so hard in this first decade of the New Millenium that it will keep ya m'f'in head ringin till the second.
Profile Image for Merinde.
129 reviews
March 17, 2015
[edit; gushing about the amount of information aside, the at times annoying anti-Marxist bias (annoying mainly because he kept making comparisons and disparaging comments about Marxist historians where this was not necessary at all) made me look for reviews by people more accustomed to writing about that sort of thing. This was interesting; http://www.notbored.org/cohn.html

And much more articulate about what did bother me than I could ever be. Nevertheless, I still pretty much recommend this book to everyone for the sheer amount of information it contains. ]

This is fantastic book. I've had to read a fair amount about the middle ages when I was still an archaeology major, but there were a lot of things in here that were entirely new to me. It's touching, fascinating, well written, often very depressing -- I recommend it to anyone interested in either medieval religion or the history of uprisings of the poor. Or anyone planning to write a pseudo-historical fantasy book for that matter. He has something against Marxism in particular, but I can live with it. The amount of information is huge and made me interested in reading more about the heresy of the Free Spirit.
Profile Image for Oliver Bateman.
1,144 reviews61 followers
September 29, 2020
Cohn's point becomes clearer as you progress through the book: each successive failed millenarian movement, particularly those using "Free Spirit" rhetoric to create anarcho-communist paradises, results in the temporary elevation of some fallen petite bourgeoisie cleric or artisan and the eventual failure of the project to accomplish its utopian objectives (yet the rhetoric lives on, right up to the "Ranter" writings of the English Civil War and, perhaps in secularized form, long after that). Cohn has the clear distaste for Marxism that permeated the "consensus" side of the academy in the late 50s and 60s, but he marshals consider evidence in support of his claims. That said, I'm sure any specialist on any specific movement in here (flagellants, Taborites, "Frederick returned" people) would say that none of these things are connected because ____, ____, and _____. That's just how the Doing the Work business works.
Profile Image for Cat.
183 reviews34 followers
August 22, 2007
A classic- I was referred to the book via Cantor's the "invention of the middle ages", and once again, I was not dissapointed.

I would imagine this is the standard work on the topic, judging from its continued popularity after being in print for half a century. The histoiographical method- his use of various sources and willingness to give voice to many which "traditional" history ignored, is most impressive.

Considering that this book was first published in 1957,Cohn was ahead of his time in his presentation of a social history of the "Pursuit of the Millennium".

The cast of characters is colorful, to say the least: ranters, flaggelants, the brotherhood of the free spirit, taborites, anabaptists.

You could almost call this a history of the "pre reformation". Classic text.
Profile Image for Bill.
54 reviews20 followers
July 6, 2018
A rigorous and informative history of millenarian ecstatic movements from the 800s through the 1500s including my favorite, the Anabaptist takeover of Muenster town. Mostly told in an episodic fashion, every 5th chapter or so steps back and provides a reset in socio-economic stimuli behind these movements. Told from a perspective on history that is obviously reacting to Marxist events in the authors own time, it concludes by tying medieval eschatological utopian movements with the Marxist drive for utopian end of history, which was a little too tidy for my tastes. The author also is devoid of humor, although is not averse to descriptive passages regarding the misery his subjects experience.
6 reviews
September 18, 2021
a bit redundant after the 15th or so microrevolution of doomsday harbingers, but the thesis ends up looking pretty strong considerings its only been less than half a generation since the ussr fell. the book gives a good card to have in the deck when observing social movements tho, worth a brief look if anything. kill the millenarian in your head and be free
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