“The final sum of days he himself established by his authentic power.”
~ Christ and Satan
(Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius 11, p 213 – 29)
In 601 C.E. Pope Gregory wrote to King Ethelbert, the first English king to convert to Christianity. He began his letter by complimenting Ethelbert, before turning to a gloomier and graver concern: “The end of this present world is at hand,” he warned, “and the everlasting kingdom of the saints is approaching.” Gregory continued by explaining that the first pangs of doomsday would make themselves palpably felt: “When the end of the world is near, unprecedented things occur – portents in the sky, terrors from heaven, unseasonable tempests, wars, famines, pestilences, and widespread earthquakes.”
There were several modes of thought concerning the apocalypse. The version sanctioned by the Church was that doomsday was inevitable but its day of arrival unforeseeable. As Gregory tells Ethelbert, “Not all of these things will happen during our own lifetimes, but will all ensue in due course.” Christ III (The Judgment), a piece contained in The Exeter Book, maintains the same message, and insists that Judgment Day will arrive “with sudden swiftness upon the midnight” like “an audacious thief who goes abroad in the dark … it will painfully cast down those people unprepared.”
This doctrine alone would be enough to incite Anglo-Saxon apocalyptic angst, but another, often discouraged view, held that the world was already in its final stages of life and the apocalypse imminent. In his essay ‘The Ruin of Time’, Michael Swanton notes that, “It was commonplace to contemporary thought that the world as it neared the millennium would show clear signs of decline if not of actual decay.” Swanton points out that, for the Anglo-Saxons at least, the proof of Judgment Day was stamped all over the known world: “All over Western Europe lay the tangible ruins of a once-great civilisation: towns, villas, and public buildings lying desolate and empty.”
Poems like The Ruin do not herald the end of days, but they do catalogue the abundance of buildings “smashed by fate”: crumbled, collapsed, and sinking into the mud. The Seafarer also explains that the world is in a state of disrepair: “The nobility of the earth ages and dries up.” The Wanderer also depicts a world that “each and every day declines and falls.” It elaborates that “The Creator of men thus laid waste this earth,” indicating that the world’s steady dereliction is heavenly mandated. “Here, wealth is transitory; here a friend is transitory; here a man is transitory; here a kinsman is transitory. All the earth’s foundation will become empty.” Neither The Seafarer nor The Wanderer proselytise the end of the world, but they do depict one that is obviously teetering on the brink.
The ruins of Roman and post-Roman British towns speckling the countryside would be an ample reminder that God-sanctioned destruction was a very real (and just) possibility. Christian moralists therefore usually invoked the apocalypse as a means of frightening their wayward congregations into observing good behaviour. Gregory tells Ethelbert that “these portents of the end are sent to warn us to consider the welfare of our souls and remember our last end, so that, when our Judge comes, he shall find us prepared by good lives.” Later in the tenth century Aelfric of Eynsham would write that “men have need of good teaching above all at this time, which is the ending of the world.” The Blickling Homily XI (circa 971 A.D.) asserts that the Day of Judgment “is not far distant, for all the signs and portents which our Lord said should occur before doomsday have occurred, except only that the accursed visitant Antichrist has not yet come into the world.” Afterwards, between 1010 and 1026, an English bishop named Wulfstan wrote The Sermon of the Wolf to the English, which opened with the lines “Beloved men, know that which is true: this world is in haste and it nears the end.” Wulfstan aimed to remind the English that the Britons had been displaced from their land as punishment from God, and that the same fate would befall the descendants of their Anglo-Saxon conquerors if they continued to live in sin.
But the end never came. Judgment Day seemed to be starting and stalling through a succession of disasters and maladies, and after decades of internecine conflict and foreign invasion and doomy portents the English had become well acquainted with the transience of worldly things as a result. Aelfric, in his Second Series of Catholic Homilies, seemed frustrated: “Often people say, behold, now doomsday is coming because the prophecies that were laid down about it have passed. But there comes war after war, tribulation after tribulation, earthquake after earthquake, famine after famine, nation after nation, and still the bridegroom does not come.”
Transience, decay, and the eventual judgment of mankind became familiar themes in Old English poetry. Some, like the aforementioned The Ruin, focus on architectural deterioration, where the “work of giants decays.” Others, like Soul and Body I & II, focus on the posthumous breakdown of the human body and the gratification or anguish of its spirit, as well as its eventual fate on Judgment Day – a date which, importantly, is left ambiguous. In Soul and Body II, the spirit of the recently deceased must visit its corpse every week for three hundred years, “unless the everlasting Lord, almighty God, brings about the end of the world beforehand.” Poems such as these keep Judgment Day distant but certain; in the meanwhile the soul has an untold amount of time to reflect on its eventual doom. Extracts such as Judgment Day II affirm that the end of days will erupt suddenly, leaving mortals in a state of angst and woeful surprise: “I remembered my sins, the crimes of my life and the long-drawn-out time of dark death’s advent upon earth, and I was afraid of the great judgment because of my wicked deeds upon earth.” Later works like Earth upon Earth also focus on bodily decay and the composition of the human form: namely, dust or clay rendered flesh that will, upon death, return to its prior form.
The impermanence of things is remarked upon frequently in Beowulf, where we are reminded that Heorot is doomed (almost as soon as we are introduced to it), and that all great genealogies come to an end, whether they are those of Hrothgar, the monster Grendel, or Beowulf himself. In the 8th century poem, Guthlac A, an angel promises the titular figure that the Kingdom of Heaven will host “edifices which never decay”, and will ensure that life for the saved, in comparison to their prior existence in the mortal world, “grows better for them the longer it goes on”. Later, an angel assures Guthlac that the “whole earth beneath the sky was ephemeral,” and he praises “the enduing good in the heavens,” where things are everlasting. A later story, Guthlac B, attests that worldly existence is merely an “ephemeral span” and “a long wait.”
Apocalyptic language and portents also permeated texts such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In 635 A.D. the Chronicle noted that, “This year there was in Britain a bloody rain, and milk and butter were turned to blood.” Compare this to Revelation 16:4, and the language reveals itself as apocalyptic: “The third angel poured out his vial upon the rivers and fountains of waters, and they became blood.” As Pope Gregory forewarned in his correspondence with Ethelbert, there would be palpable signs of the world’s end, including war, famine, and signs in the sky, and the Chronicle recorded them all. There was “great famine” in 975, 976, 1005, and 1082. In 678 a comet, another harbinger of doom, appeared in the sky for three months “like sunshine.” More comets appeared in 793, 891, 905, 975, 995, and of course in 1066, when Halley’s Comet arrived along with William the Conqueror. Eilmer of Malmesbury, who seems to have spied Halley’s Comet on its last circuit, was quoted by William of Malmesbury on the topic of the bolide’s reappearance in 1066: “Thou art come! A matter of lamentation to many a mother, thou art come; I have seen thee long since; but now I behold thee much more terrible, threatening to hurl destruction on this country.”
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle connects many disturbances in the year 975 A.D. with a comet: first, King Edgar dies following the death of “the good bishop Cyneweard,” and this itself is followed by the banishment of Oslac of York. “Many wise servants of God were expelled,” the Chronicle notes, and:
“Then, up in the heavens, a star in the firmament
Made its appearance, which confident sages,
Wise seers, astronomers, and sage scholars
Everywhere call by the name of ‘comet.’
Throughout the nation, the vengeance of the Lord
Was widely evident when hunger reigned
Over the earth.”
There were more catastrophes connected with mercurial weather in 793 A.D.:
“In this year terrible portents appeared over Northumbria, and miserably frightened the inhabitants: there were exceptional flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine soon followed these signs; and a little after that in the same year on 8 January the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God’s church in Lindisfarne by rapine and slaughter.”
These heathens were the Vikings, and their appearance is tied directly to the chaos seen in the skies, as is the famine, which “soon followed these signs”, the language here being very clear that the stormy weather and dragon sightings were not randomly occurring phenomenon, but very deliberate warnings of coming destruction. Later, in 1066, the Chronicle would tie the appearance of Halley’s Comet with the beginnings of another foreign invasion: “Throughout all England, a portent such as men had never seen before was seen in the heavens. Some declared that the star was a comet … Soon thereafter came Earl Tostig from across the sea to the Isle of Wight, with as many household troops as he could muster.” Note the author connecting the arrival of the star with the arrival of Earl Tostig. The comet’s reputation as a harbinger is sealed here: “He sailed thence,” the Chronicle continues, “and did damage everywhere along the seacoast where he could.”
Most of these calamities were not unusual features in the embryonic English landscape. War was certainly common; the shape and make-up of the country was constantly being revised by it. In his book The Pursuit of the Millennium, Norman Cohn writes that:
“Generation after generation lived in constant expectation of the all-destroying demon whose reign was indeed to be lawless chaos … People were always on the watch for the ‘signs’ which, according to the prophetic tradition, were to herald and accompany the final ‘time of troubles’; and since the ‘signs’ included bad rulers, civil discord, war, drought, famine, plague, comets, sudden deaths of prominent persons and an increase in general sinfulness, there was never any difficulty about finding them.”
Texts such as the apocryphal Apocalypse of Thomas, though written in Latin between the second and fourth centuries and despite its excision from Christian orthodoxy, found some popularity in Old English homilies in the tenth century. In his essay ‘Two Uses of Apocrypha in Old English Homilies’, Milton McCormick Gatch writes that “Anglo-Saxon writers did not subject Latin materials to rigorous tests of orthodoxy and canonicity,” and that preaching an apocryphal text would not be too unusual, especially texts that reminded the laity of their salvation or damnation, whichever was relevant for the moment. The Apocalypse of Thomas is thought to have inspired a post-millennial text known as Fifteen Signs before Doomsday, which promises floods, droughts, earthquakes, and the typical apocalyptic chaos.
The Apocalypse itself was not necessarily dreaded. For the doubtful or guilty-minded it was a source of anxiety and pain; for the pious it was the cumulative moment of their life’s work. Tales of Armageddon are frequently introduced with flashes of terror and torture and hellfire, but conclude with Christ’s eternal reign and joy for the blessed. Saintly figures were often depicted as going to their deaths in a jovial mood. As Bede died he did so “on the floor of his cell singing.” Guthlac A ends with Eden-esque imagery, as the saint retires to a tranquil plot of land where fruit is plenty and the animals eat from his palm. Eventually his spirit is lifted to Heaven. In Guthlac B he attests that upon his death “my days in the earthly journey will have slipped away, my sorrow will be assuaged.” Christ III (The Judgment) delineates the fates of damned and saved souls, as does Judgment Day II and Soul and Body I & II.
But for many the end of the world still invoked feelings of damnation and perdition. The Domesday Book earned its ominous title through the common feeling of the conquered English people, as, according to one twelfth century Norman writer, “Doomsday is what the man in the street calls it in the English language, that is, to us, ‘The Book of the Day of Judgment’, for its verdicts are just as unanswerable.”