The Last Apocalypse

Sunday, December 12th, 1999

The Last Apocalypse

Maybe millennial madness has gotten to me as well: immediately after finishing The Year 1000 I picked up The Last Apocalypse by James Reston Jr. in the hopes that I could remain immersed in medieval Europe for just a little bit longer. The Last Apocalypse is yet another popular history book dealing with Europe of 1000 years ago. Unfortunately, the book is more “popular" than “history."

The book didn’t start off badly. In fact, it really caught my attention in the first few pages. The prologue opens with the author himself in England, tracing the history of the Battle of Maldon (991 A.D.) by way of the medieval poem of the same name. He parks his car, wanders to the causeway where the battle between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings began and - poem in hand - he surveys the landscape and begins to reflect on the events of the past. I thought it was a good start. I was drawn in by Reston’s contemplation, and I could imagine myself standing there as well, trying to get in touch with history.

Unfortunately, this approach only lasts about 12 pages. After the prologue, the author - and hence, the present day - retreats into the background, and historical characters take center stage. The present day pops up again unexpectedly on page 162, and by that time it just jars you out of the Middle Ages in a most unpleasant way. The present vanishes once more on the same page, and neither it nor the author appear again until the epilogue 100 pages later (where, incidentally, the book becomes somewhat interesting again).

Apart from this structural weakness, the writing leaves a bit to be desired. At the start of the book I found the tone quite amusing. A quarter of the way through, however, the author’s flippancy starts to grate a bit as it becomes more forced. There is also a strange pattern of repetition, at least in the first half of the book. For instance, Chapter 1 ends with the sentence, “Pity King Olaf: he was happy in holy war, cruel in his rule, devout in his faith, and unlucky in love.” 20 pages later, Chapter 3 opens with almost the same sentence: “King Olaf Trygvesson was happy in holy war and cruel in his subjugation, but he was unlucky in love.” It’s a nice sentence and all, but really…

Another repetition: on page 14, we learn that this same King Olaf (the Norwegian king) was transformed into a brutal warrior by the premature death of his much-loved Polish wife. On page 57, we are reminded that Olaf turned to cruelty after the death of his Polish wife. And on page 99, in case we’ve forgotten, we are told that the early death of his Polish wife hardened Olaf into the warrior he was. At times, I felt like I was watching a mini-series: “Last week in The Last Apocalypse, King Olaf is distraught after the death of his beloved wife. Meanwhile, the Anglo-Saxons…" If this repetition was a deliberate literary device, it didn’t work.

I have two other problems with the language of the book. One: Reston drops the term “geopolitics" several times throughout the course of the book without ever taking the time to explain exactly what geopolitics means (yes, I can figure it out on my own, but that’s not the point). And two: on page 100, the island of Rugen is spelled “Rugen", and four pages later it is spelled “Ruegen". If both spellings are acceptable, I think Reston should have picked one and stuck with it. Then I wouldn’t have had to run to the atlas to figure out which one was right.

Picky stylistic gripes aside, I just don’t care much for Reston’s point of view. The book portrays the Europe of 1000 years ago from the point of view of Christianity being threatened on all sides by rabid heathens. From the Christian point of view this is true (the Arabs massacred in Jerusalem by the Crusaders 100 years after the turn of the millennium undoubtedly had a slightly different view of things). Obviously, it’s fair enough to write a book from that point of view; after all, not every book can cover every point of view.

What I don’t find so fair is that these heathens are portrayed in an almost uniformly bad light. Reston seems to think that they were all just greedy, bloodthirsty, ignorant and wild. After finishing this book, I feel the need to hunt down a medieval history book written by someone from Scandinavia, just to see how the descendents of the Vikings portray themselves. Yes, the Vikings raped, pillaged and burned. But they also had a highly developed seafaring culture that made it possible for them to sail all the way to America almost half a millennium before Columbus. To be fair, Reston discusses this in his book - but he makes it clear that this technological advancement didn’t change the fact that the Vikings were barbarians.

The Moors in Spain are approached the same way. They built huge cities, they ran numerous universities and they were scientifically and artistically miles ahead of the rest of Europe, but this book presents the Moorish leaders as being violent and incompetent. It is, apparently, only under the wise rule of the Christian king Sancho the Great that Spain is pulled out of chaos and unified. It’s all too one sided for me. This “concentrated campaign to expunge the vestiges of pagan religion” (pg. 276) was not necessarily such a noble cause.

I thoroughly disagree with Reston’s conclusions about the last millennium - the Last Apocalypse - as well. Reston sees Christianity’s conquest of Europe as a sort of apocalypse - a “miraculous transformation” (this and all following quotes are from page 277) - that did not happen all at once, but rather lasted several decades and allowed the “dream of civilization” to be recaptured. Perhaps it is Reston’s need for a simple, tidy conclusion to his book which provokes him to write that this Christian victory was a “deliverance from terror”, that it “culminated in peace and tranquility” and that the new millenium started with an “absence of terror” and with “hope and excitement about the future.”

It is true that the average person in 999 A.D. was not terrified about the turn of a new millennium - because the average person didn’t even know it was the turn of a millennium. Comets and eclipses frightened the common people, but the change from one year to the next was rather unremarkable (they certainly couldn’t keep track of it on a calendar). There is not even any evidence that Church thought this change from 999 A.D. to 1000 A.D. portended anything. Church calendars were aimed at determining holy days, not at keeping track of individual years and centuries, and there were as many different ways of determining the advent of the Apocalypse as there were monks with active imaginations. We’re a lot more afraid of a new millennium today than people were 1000 years ago.

But to think that any lack of terror on the part of the people had to do with a Christian victory in Europe, or to think that this victory opened the way for a millennium filled with optimism, joy and “peace and tranquility” is just ridiculous. Even if it were possible to really know the mindset of Christian Europeans of 1000 years ago (and I would love to know it as much as the next historian), I seriously doubt that optimism and tranquility would be the predominate attitudes. Medieval peasants didn’t have time to be tranquil - and they certainly didn’t have anything to be optimistic about. Life after this Christian conquest was just as brutal as it was before. After all, Christianity brought the violence of the Crusades, the persecution of the Jews and - much later - the Inquisition.

So who are the real barbarians?

Comments

1

I am looking for a receipe for apple cobbler, with a pie crust type top, which was in a paper back book called Mormon Cooking. Do you have that receipe? Please send if you do. Much appreciated. Kathryn Hirschi

Posted by Kathryn Hirschi

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