October 11, 2013, by Christina Lee

Prophecies and politics (or: anarchy in ASE)

P1000697Bob Geldof has joined the ranks of doom mongers when he predicted that the world only has a good 17 years left to go. While there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic, given all the current wars and human tragedy, the idea that the end is nigh has been around for a long time. Christians believe that Christ will return, which will be the end of all earthly things. For much of the Middle Ages there was speculation on the date of this event and people looked for signs of the impending doom. The Viking incursions, for example, were seen as a sure sign of the apocalypse, on the basis of Old Testament prophecies, such as that of Jeremiah 1:14: ‘From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land’. The Book of Revelation, with its depictions of war and plagues, gave further clues of how to identify that the end was nigh. While doomsday spotting may be a very medieval preoccupation, it continues to appeal today since the ‘Book of Revelation’ prophesies have been used in plenty of films and TV series, the latest of which is Sleepy Hollow.

The calculation of earthly time is once again the brainchild of the Venerable Bede. From the sixth century onwards,1 time was calculated from Christ’s incarnation, but it was Bede who developed a systematic idea of the world’s age. Even though Bede himself complained about simpletons who asked him daily about the date of the end of the world, 2 his work may have led his English ecclesiastical successors to believe that the year 1000 would be a good candidate for an end to all things.

One of the most interesting end-of-the-world narratives is Wulfstan, Archbishop of York’s Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (The Sermon of Wulf to the English), written at the beginning of the last millennium when the English king Æthelræd found himself in a difficult political situation, since he seemed unable to fend of attacks by the Vikings. Æthelræd had tried to pay them off without success, and even advocated genocide in 1002, when he commanded anyone with a Scandinavian background in England to be killed (the so-called St Brice’s Day Massacre). Wulfstan, who worked for this king, but also for his successor Knut (Canute) the Great from 1016 onwards, used the Sermo Lupi as an audacious criticism of his contemporaries, framed in an ‘end of world’ narrative.

Wulfstan begins his homily with the lines: ‘Leofan men gecnawað þæt soð is: ðeos worolde is on ofste & hit nealæcð þam ende.’3
‘Dearly beloved, know what the truth is: this world is in haste and it nears its end.’ This certainly got people’s attention and I yet have to see a punchier beginning for a sermon. Wulfstan is a master of rhetoric and his prose uses rhyme as well as alliteration to make a point: ‘here & hungor, … stalu & cwalu, stric & steorfa, orfcwealm & uncoþu, hol & hete, ….’4 – ‘ war (armies) and hunger, … and stealing and killing, strife and pestilence, murder and disease, slander and hatred,…’. Even today, this homily read aloud is certainly an experience.

Wulfstan’s signs of a society in decline will chime with modern readers, for example, he chastises his contemporaries for sex trafficking: men buy a woman to have sex with her, which he describes in some detail, and then sell her on to the enemies, by which Wulfstan means the Vikings. He implies that the reason behind such decay of decency is a moral decline where avarice and greed have turned people against each other and where the weakest in society are left behind. In his list of wrongs are the heavy taxes which oppress the people and the crimes that go unpunished. It is a description of the breakdown of civil order which would not be out of date in modern doomsday scenarios.

The main purpose of the sermon is to shame people into repenting – whether Wulfstan truly believed the end was nigh is a moot point, since he surely believed in a judgement day which would happen sooner or later. Wulfstan’s main gripe in this sermon is that the church is no longer respected and his remedy is a return to humility and investment in religious institutions, not social change. However, since the medieval church was the one institution which provided charity to those in need, his appeal is also one that Sir Bob is familiar with: support and protect those who are weak. While Wulfstan’s motivation is to protect the Church and to help his flock on the Judgement Day looks outdated in our increasingly secular society, his believe that people should be judged by their deeds, is not. His view that a functioning society needs a moral compass and social order makes the Sermo Lupi look remarkable modern.

1. Peregrine Horden, ‘The Millennium bug: Health and Medicine around the year 1000’, repr. in Hospitals and Healing from Antiquity to the Later Middle Ages (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), 201-219, at 202.
2. Horden, ibid, 2004.
3. I am using Melissa Bernstein’s e-edition here, which is readily available via the internet: http://english3.fsu.edu/~wulfstan/noframes.html [accessed 7 October 2013)
4. Ibid.

Posted in Anglo-SaxonHistoryLanguage and LiteratureOld EnglishTheologyViking