(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Eugen Weber is a prolific scholar whose many wide-ranging publications include studies of the history and culture of modern France, such as My France: Politics, Culture, Myth (1991) and The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s (1994). An earlier book, France, Fin de Siècle (1986), is, perhaps, an inspiration for this book on apocalypses. As Weber explains in his introduction, an invitation to speak about fins de siècles inevitably led his thoughts from the significance of the end of centuries, in general, and of the end of the twentieth century, in particular, to visions of apocalypse, the end of the world.

Apocalypses is not a popularist compendium of futuristic predictions and biblical prophecies like the best-seller The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), by Hal Lindsey and C. C. Carlson. Rather, Weber’s book is a more scholarly reflection on the transition from the second to the third millennium, like Stephen Jay Gould’s Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist’s Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown (1997). Gould approaches the topic with a scientist’s eye. He questions the accuracy of calendars and focuses on the transformation of the word “millennium” from a religious belief into a temporal period of one thousand years. In chapter 2 of Apocalypses, Weber deals with Gould’s issues of time in the context of apocalypse. For instance, he explores numerology; beginnings and endings; sacred numbers, such as 666; round numbers, such as 1,000; and special dates, such as the anniversary of Christ’s birth and/or death or the sighting of a comet. As a social historian, however, Weber devotes most of his attention to the impact of apocalyptic associations of millennium on Western history and culture. Whereas Gould examines the word “millennium” itself, Weber is more concerned with “millennialism,” “millenarianism,” and “chiliasm,” all synonyms for a belief in a thousand-year period of peace, prosperity, and joy under the reign of Christ either preceded or followed by an inevitable devastation of the entire world.

While his subject matter looks ahead to the future and to endings, Weber offers a glance backward at Western beliefs in an impending new world order or end of the world. As he follows these apocalyptic beliefs from antiquity to the close of the twentieth century, Weber assumes a broad historical knowledge and a solid foundation in religious studies from his readers. The many bibliographic references scattered throughout his endnotes provide evidence of the breadth of Weber’s own reading.

The author begins his sweeping historical overview of apocalypses in chapter 3 by identifying the origins of such beliefs not only in the visions and warnings of the Judaeo-Christian tradition but also in world myths of destruction and renewal. A few examples include flood myths, Zoroastrian cycles of destruction, and the Nordic Ragnarok. Weber shows how recurring Western expressions of doomsday, Armageddon, the Second Coming of Christ, the coming of a new millennium, the arrival of an Antichrist, the resurrection of the dead, and Last Judgment are all associated with a complex blend of Jewish and Christian hopes and fears about the end of the world. The ancient Jews’ expectation of a world’s end brought about by a vengeful God, whose coming would destroy the evil and reward the righteous, was linked with hope in the coming of a Messiah to restore King David’s kingdom in Jerusalem. Christians based their vision on the coming of a God of love. The concept of apocalypse, Weber notes, is a paradoxical anticipation of the final days as a time of joyful redemption, freedom, and utopia but also of dreaded vengeance and retribution.

From these contradictory foundations Weber moves forward chronologically in chapter 4 to the “dark and bloody times” of late antiquity and the medieval period and to efforts by early church fathers, such as Saint Augustine (354-430), to redirect belief in impending apocalypse into a concern about personal salvation. Although the Council of Ephesus declared in 431 that the founding of the church had marked the beginning of the millennium, Gregory of Tours (538-594), Hildegard von Bingen (1098- 1179), Vincent Ferrer (1357-1419), Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), and others still anticipated the end of the world. Events such as an appearance of Halley’s comet in 989, the Muslim destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 1009, and even the Norman Invasion of Britain in 1066 encouraged such fears.

In chapter 5 Weber examines the sense of renewal shared by the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation; the apocalyptic revivalism of Martin Luther (1483-1546), artist and theorist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Anabaptists, and others; and visions of the Antichrist...

(The entire section is 1974 words.)