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

4.27  ·  Rating details ·  741 ratings  ·  71 reviews
Paperback, Revised and Expanded Edition, 416 pages
Published May 15th 1970 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published 1957)
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Paul Bryant
Sep 27, 2007 rated it really liked it


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 refer
Sep 07, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 05, 2014 rated it really liked it
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 leade ...more
Dec 24, 2013 rated it really liked it
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 inva
Mar 16, 2014 rated it really liked it
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.
Antonio Nunez
Jul 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Feb 21, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Anna by: Mum
'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 hards ...more
Hywel Owen
Jul 10, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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 mod
Sep 08, 2012 rated it liked it
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.
Jun 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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 movem ...more
J.M. Hushour
Oct 08, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Jan 31, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history-europe
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 mov ...more
Mustafa Al-Laylah
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.
Mieczyslaw Kasprzyk
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!
Jul 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Sergio Bernales
Proto-marxists and anarchocommunists from the Age of Darkness and Plague. Fundamentalists flagellants and pseudokings. Cromwell's era neo-gnostics; & the whole madness before the Renaissance and it's Age of Doubt. ...more
Joel Larson
Nov 14, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 exclusio
Nathan Dehoff
Sep 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Jul 09, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
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 P
Wes Freeman
Feb 01, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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 thic ...more
Oct 21, 2014 rated it it was amazing
[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;

And much more articulate about what did bother me than I could ever be. Nevertheless, I still pretty much recommend this bo
Aug 22, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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 hi
Chris Cangiano
Brilliant overview of revolutionary millenarianism, mystical anarchism and religious dissent in Central Europe between the Eleventh and Sixteenth Centuries. Cohn's work on this subject was the first look at the subject and still the most important. It stands as not only a brilliant view of collectivist Utopianism of the Middle Ages in its historical setting but shows the sociological, economic and psychological roots of that Utopian impulse as it has continued forward to the present day, from bo ...more
Dec 22, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: the-end, religion
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.
PJ Who Once Was Peejay
Mar 20, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
I'm glad that I read this ahead of Y2K and the idiocies that surrounded the millennium. Cohn does a masterful job of defusing millennialism and apocalyptic thinking, tracing it through a thousand years of history, and showing it as the root cause for so many of the iconic tragedies of the violent 20th Century. This is a masterwork of psychological history and the dissecting of religious mania. I highly recommend it.
A synthesis of millenarian thought and literature from the Jewish and Christian traditions. An apocalyptic social history of the burgeoning underclass of the High Middle Ages through to Early Modernity. A deep history of the subcultures produced by mystical and eschatological readings of history. A crazy good read if you like reading about people who believe weird things.
Roger Green
Jan 04, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A detailed and excellent introduction to religious enthusiasm from 1000 CE - 1530 CE. While Cohn's argument is saturated with the issues of mid twentieth century liberal democracies, it is still an enlightening commentary on the ways premodern issues still frame issues with respect to religion, nationalism, and scapegoating.
Richard Thomas
Dec 16, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: general-history
Still a seminal book which shaped the view of the Middle Ages and is still both essential reading and good history. I first read this at University as the basis for understanding the Europe of the Middle Ages and the avoidance of the simplistic assumptions of school level history.
John Caviglia
Mar 25, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Memorial stars ... so long has it been.
Sep 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
So Many Dead
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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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“Beneath the pseudo-scientific terminology one can in each case recognize a phantasy of which almost every element is to be found in phantasies which were already current in medieval Europe. The final, decisive battle of the Elect (be they the ‘Aryan race’ or the ‘proletariat’) against the hosts of evil (be they the Jews or the ‘bourgeoisie’); a dispensation on which the Elect are to be most amply compensated for all their sufferings by the joys of total domination or of total community or of both together; a world purified of all evil and in which history is to find its consummation - these ancient imaginings are with us still.” 4 likes
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