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The Eve of Destruction
Dominated by obsessions with witches, devils, death and decay, the late Middle Ages was a period of anxiety and uncertainty when people believed themselves to be on the brink of destruction.
Life in Europe towards the end of the middle Ages was dominated by a conflict between the promptings of the flesh and those of the spirit. It was an age of strong contrasts, a time of passion and violence. Everyday existence was almost casual in its brutality: lepers walked the streets and public executions were frequent, often theatrical, and very well attended. The popular imagination was obsessed with the idea of death the reality of dying rather than the possibility of heavenly salvation to follow.
It was generally believed that even Lazarus, after his resurrection, lived in terror at the thought of having to pass again through the gates of death. And Lazarus had been one of the just what could an ordinary sinner expect?
Daily existence was intended to be a preparation for the afterlife, but the reality was inevitably worldlier. The Church fathers preached that all earthly beauty and pleasure was sinful, but a common reaction in those uncertain times was 'enjoy yourself as much as you can, while you can'. It was this emphasis on the demands of the body at the expense of the soul which Bosch attacked. He painted from the standpoint of orthodox Catholicism he was himself a member of the Brotherhood of Our Lady with an uncompromising certainty which seems to owe something to propaganda.
People clearly wanted to be reassured by the authority of the Church, but the clergy were failing in their duty, as they repeatedly prey to the sins of lust and greed. Despite the Church ruling of lived openly with women and fathered children. Their blatant conduct caused great offence. And trust was further undermined by bands of bogus monks and friars who travelled around selling false relics and pardons.
Meanwhile, the more senior officers of the Church led sumptuous and extravagant lives. Pope Alexander VI, himself a member of the notoriously corrupt Borgia family, rather hypocritically attempted to enforce a reform bill in 1497 curtailing the activities of the pleasure-loving Cardinals and restricting their vast households to a mere 80 strong.
Where preachers could not convince by godly example and this was the rule rather than the exception they discouraged sin by stressing the torments of Hell. Sin provided more opportunities for lavish and inventive imagery than the calm spiritual grace of a holy life. This morbid fascination accounted for the success of a book appearing around 1486, the Witches' Hammer, which classified the many types of witch and described their relations with devils. The demons in Bosch's paintings were not simply the product of imagination they had a vivid reality for a superstitious age.
Revenge was a part of everyday life, and by extension, if you sinned in this world, God exacted his own vengeance. But the straightforward notion of the good being spared and the evil punished was not borne out by events. The Black Death of 1348, for example, had struck down both the righteous and the sinner.
Some extremists attempted to divert the Divine Wrath by scourging themselves on processions throughout the countryside. And hysteria of a less religious sort manifested itself in what became I known as the 'Dancing Mania' groups of people danced frenziedly in an attempt to find relief from the dreadful fear that the 'end was nigh'. Against a background of natural disaster, with the popular imagination inflamed by demons and hellfire, fears of the end of the world proliferated.
Throughout the Middle Ages various interpretations were put forward of what would happen on the Last Day, and when it would occur. In the 1470s in Germany, Hans Bohm, known as the 'Drummer of Niklashausen', preached that his town was to be the kingdom of the saved. If you made the pilgrimage to Niklashausen you would escape destruction, and if you died there you would go straight to Heaven. Bohm's preaching grew more adventurous as he attacked the clergy and proclaimed the end of the world. Miracles were attributed to him, and he prophesied a future kingdom based on true sharing and natural law.
An important part in the belief in the imminent apocalypse was the theory of the Millennium. This was to be the period of 1000 years before the end of the world and the Last Judgement. The idea had crystallized around the Second Coming of Christ, who would return for the 'Rule of the Just' when he would rule the world with his chosen people. The Second Coming would be heralded by the appearance of the Antichrist, the incarnation of evil, who would make one last bid for world control before being vanquished forever. The Antichrist and Messiah were most likely to appear in human form and were constantly expected. Political events were interpreted with these legendary figures in mind. Chroniclers would identify a tyrant with the Antichrist or try to make out a new monarch to be the Last and Just earthly ruler.
The real disagreements started over the identity g of the chosen people who would inhabit this earthly paradise, and when such a kingdom would come into being. The established Church largely followed St Augustine's teaching that the Millenium had begun when Christ first appeared on the Earth rather than that it would begin with his Second Coming. This effectively meant that since the world continued to exist after the year AD 1000, which was when it should have ended according to the prophecy, then it was possible to suppose that the Rule of the Just (interpreted as the rule of the Catholic Church) had been extended indefinitely.
In this way Millenarianism was supposedly tamed and converted to the use of the established Church, but its grip on the popular imagination was too great for it to perish entirely, and it became an important part of the armoury of religious reformers and small sects.
There were times of hardship and social unrest and the idea of 1000 years of earthly happiness was equally attractive to the body as it was to the soul. Economic patterns were changing, and with the gradual development of industry the financial emphasis shifted from countryside to town, and increasingly large groups of workers were only employed irregularly. It was to such anxious, insecure and envious people that millenarial prophets, with their promises of a stable kingdom of the just, especially appealed.
A strongly individualized example of this kind of Millenarianism was to be found among the Anabaptists. In 1533, Anabaptist missionaries appeared in the Westphalian town of Munster, proclaiming that it was to be the New Jerusalem the Kingdom of the just. Two leading Anabaptists arrived, Jan Matthys and Jan Bockelson, who conducted mass baptisms as hundreds entered the new faith. The Anabaptists believed the Second Coming was imminent and that the Lord's way would be made easier by getting rid of all non-believers. Consequently, non-believers were expelled and control of the city was assumed by Matthys who advocated communal ownership of property and burnt all books except the Bible. Soon after, however, Matthys was killed by the Bishop of Miinster's besieging forces, so Bockelson took over and reigned as a new Messiah, with similar ideas but also encouraging polygamy.
The citizens of Munster were convinced they were saved and that soon they would inherit the whole earth. Bockelson conducted a highly effective defensive campaign against the Bishop of Munster, and set himself up as a prophet king. But the Bishop's siege continued and the town fell in June 1535 when its food supplies were exhausted.
Although orthodox Catholic doctrine had attempted to absorb Millenarianism and render it harmless, it had not succeeded. The Catholic clergy simply could not compete with the millenarial excitement stirred up by Hans Bohm or the Anabaptists. But in his paintings, Bosch fervently tried to impart a similar hypnotic vividness to the hellfire doctrine of the established Church.
Writer – Marshall Cavendish