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1999 In Review: The Year 1000

  • Petra Mayer

As Europe counts down the hours and minutes until the new millennium, you may find yourself wondering -- what did people do the first time around? In the first of several RFE/RL reports marking the approach of a new millennium, RFE/RL correspondent Petra Mayer takes a look at Europe in the year 1000.

Prague, 15 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A thousand years ago, Europe was a vastly different place. No highways, no big cities, no printed books, and certainly no Y2K problem. But was there a Y1K problem? Mediaeval historians can't agree on whether the year 999 brought apocalyptic fear to European Christians, or whether it was just another year. Richard Landes is a professor of medieval history and the founder of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University:

"Since the end of the 19th century, the notion that the year 1000 was an apocalyptic moment, and that people were aware of that, and that it produced a wide range of reactions, mostly fear of the end and relief that it didn't happen, was rejected as a sort of romantic silliness, a feverish product of the overheated romantic brain."

Landes says that for many mediaeval historians, 1000 was just a year like any other. Some historians do still see it that way. Bernard McGinn is a professor of mediaeval studies at the University of Chicago. He says that mediaeval Europeans lived every year in expectation of the end.

"Fears of the end were pretty much endemic and constant in the mediaeval period, mediaeval folk lived with a much heightened sense of apocalyptic events than we do today. But I don't think that these fears were particularly pronounced in what we might call the millennial generation, between 1000 and say 1033, indeed the thought that on December 31st 999 everyone was in absolute fear of the end is pretty much legendary."

Landes holds a different view. He says apocalyptic thinkers didn't necessarily pick a particular date. It would have been difficult, since calendars at that time differed widely across Europe, with some starting the year in January, some at Christmas, and some in March. Most people just expected something to happen during the course of the year, although in non-Christian countries 1000 really was just a year like any other.

Landes says apocalyptic popular movements spread all across Christian Europe around 1000. In France, the people made pilgrimages, formed religious communities, and gathered to worship in the fields as part of the "Peace of God" movement. Nobles pledged not to attack unarmed men. According to Landes, Europeans prepared for the judgment they thought was coming by trying to remake the world.

"In our language today we talk about doomsday as if it were a terrible thing, you know, a catastrophe, and that's a very interesting slip, in a sense. Because doomsday means judgment day, and there were plenty of people who were looking forward to judgment day because they believed that they were long-suffering, and they were good, and they were trying to do what God asks of them, and they're waiting for God to come and zap all these powerful people who are sinful, and who abuse their power, you know, they're waiting for them to get their comeuppance."

Landes says changes brought about by the first millennium were the beginning of civil society. But there were other changes, and many were less positive. Landes says Christians in the year 1000 felt they had to convert as many people as possible to Christianity. Hungary converted that year, opening the way for pilgrims to travel overland to Jerusalem, and later, Crusaders. But in 1000, Europe wasn't yet organized enough to mount a crusade, so would-be crusaders turned on people nearby -- namely Jews. The first pogroms in Europe were recorded around 1000, as Jews were forced to convert or be killed. Landes describes the thinking of those who participated:

"The attack on the Jews is also an apocalyptic attack. It's the end of time, the Jews are supposed to convert, if they don't convert they're with the Antichrist and they have to be destroyed."

Both positive and negative social movements around the year 1000 shared a common theme -- they were popular uprisings. They weren't directed, or even sanctioned by, the Church. In fact, the Church was remarkably silent on the subject of the world ending in 1000. Landes says the Church fathers stayed quiet because they didn't want to stir up popular passions.

But the University of Chicago's McGinn says the clergy were actually opposed to any millennial fears. McGinn says most of the Church's teachings on the coming of the millennium were laid down in the fifth century by the anti-apocalyptic Saint Augustine.

"He certainly believed an end of time would come, but he held that no one should try to predict the end, and anyone who did so was really for him going against the Scriptures, because Christ had said to his disciples at the beginning of the book of Acts, it is not for you to know the days or the hours."

Saint Augustine was proved right when 1000 passed, and then the millennium of Christ's passion in 1033, and the world remained intact. 1000 did not bring the end of time and the heavenly judgment. And, barring terrible consequences from the Y2K computer bug, 2000 will probably go by without incident. However, says Landes, that's no reason to ignore it.

"One of the things that disturbs me about people who say the year 1000 was a year like any other is that they also have a tendency to say the year 2000 is a year like any other. And I think it would be a shame if the year 2000, or the year 2001, were a year like any other."

(The Center for Millennial Studies can be found on the web at

Landes says 2000 is an opportunity for people to think big, to think about the last thousand years, and to think about changing the world in the thousand years to come.