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Nine hundred years ago, on April 25, 1112 – an Easter Sunday – a mob in the French town of Laon rose up in a carnival of vandalism and homicide. Witnesses describe a world turned upside down. Merchants murdered the local bishop and set fire to the town’s cathedral. Serfs insulted and attacked their masters. Priests hid in sewers. Men dressed as women and women as men in order to escape the mob. Mothers and daughters pulled carts loaded with dead husbands and fathers.
An abbot at a nearby monastery placed ultimate blame on the town’s most powerful citizen, an Englishman named Waldric (previously Lord Chancellor of England under Henry I, but known as “Gaudry” to his French subjects). The bishop of Laon for the previous six years, Gaudry had bought his bishopric with political favors even before he was ordained a priest. Instead of caring for his flock, he had devoted himself to managing business interests abroad. The Abbot Guibert, who chronicled the uprising, had watched as the bishop rode around Laon pretending to be a knight. He also suspected that Gaudry had organized a rival’s murder.
In the months leading to the Easter Insurrection, the town’s burghers had negotiated a new charter with the bishop, giving them certain rights and privileges. But the bishop, unhappy that his powers were being diminished, paid the King of France to revoke the new charter.
Furious at the bishop’s treachery, the citizens of Laon sought revenge. Sources agree that the bishop died in the melee that Easter, though it’s unclear exactly how. Some say he was slaughtered in the crypt of the cathedral, others that he was burnt at the stake, still others that he died in a brawl. Soon enough the local peasantry joined in the pillaging and violence.
Although the abbot considered Bishop Gaudry primarily responsible for Laon’s descent into anarchy, Guibert acknowledged that he, too, had been complicit. At the outset, he had ignored signs that this man was not fit to be a priest, let alone a prince of the church. The abbot had even joined an embassy to Rome to persuade the pope that Gaudry deserved the bishopric. His own crime, Guibert confessed, was his failure to read the potential for injustice and violence hidden in plain sight.
But how should we “read” violence – how should we understand its significance? We normally respond to acts of aggression, desecration, and harm with horror, confusion and censure. Shouldn’t we be trying to interpret its broader meaning as well?
It may be that today, reading violence seems to rationalize it, as if to understand is to forgive. In Holy War, Martyrdom and Terror, Philippe Buc has traced how emergent modernity pathologized violent groups. Behaviors once explained as religious zeal or divine/demonic possession came to be read as manifestations of insanity or hysteria in the later Middle Ages; the Enlightenment saw them fully pathologized. The “madness of crowds” now provides a staple explanation for collective uprisings, making the violent acts that accompanied them a defining quality. But by treating violence as essentially incoherent, we create false equivalencies between all forms of public protest, and between those attacked and those attacking.
Medieval observers were as ready as modern audiences to disavow violence; the term “violence” itself was largely avoided, unless used to condemn the actions of others. But many also saw in violence a challenge to their own abilities to respond to good and evil in the world. Violence joined a group of other negatives – such as scandal or heresy – that could be repurposed in order to train and educate. Properly understood, a mass uprising might indict an unfit leader who had corrupted his allies, lied to his supporters and betrayed his high office.
Plunder, vandalism and killing provided momentary ruptures to remind Christian writers like Guibert that humanity lost the right to peace after its expulsion from Eden. On a daily basis, this absence of peace manifested as political intrigue or sexual cravings, and most dangerously, poor judgment. Temporary physical eruptions, while deplored, should also be embraced as useful reminders. Within the bounds of human history, outward violence could fit safely in a long narrative of redemption.
I say within the bounds of history because any prospect of the world’s end point changed the meaning of violence and its potential for containment.
Around 1100, even as Guibert pondered the insurrection at Laon, he noted a more portentous mass movement in the Levant, and read it very differently. After July 1099, when Crusader armies from western Europe conquered Jerusalem and massacred its inhabitants, monks who had never been east of Rome began to rethink the course of history. For centuries, they had maintained that the world was not moving toward its end: humanity must endure the present with good and evil intertwined. The conquest of Jerusalem fit into another, more dynamic vision of history: apocalypse.
Some historians grumble that if you’re out looking for apocalyptic concerns in medieval writing, you’re probably going to find them. But that is exactly the point: apocalypticism is a way of looking, a consciousness of history in a different register, with events as headings in a new narrative. For some Christians in 1100, the Crusader conquest of Jerusalem was like a sign reverberating backwards from the end point of history. They are not the only ones to have seen history this way.
Far-Right rally goers in America today prominently display Crusader emblems. The rioters in D.C. repeatedly invoked Trump’s power to pardon them, not unlike Crusaders who received assurances of salvation even if they died in battle without Last Rites. Though “crusader” is a retrospective label, historians like Jay Rubenstein have shown that these warriors saw themselves in a battle for the fulfillment of history. This crusading outlook found enemies everywhere. Well before they got to Jerusalem, Crusaders rehearsed apocalyptic violence by massacring Jewish communities in Germany.
Camouflaged in roleplay and cosplay, medieval images today incubate the pernicious contexts of their origin. My colleague Matthew Gabriele has exposed such imagery, insisting that their purveyors have knowingly collaged the most racist and militant of symbols. Of course, historical interpretations will only take us so far, since Far-Right extremism is promiscuous in its emblems, espousing any framework that will serve its monstrous purpose. Nevertheless, the inner mechanics of medieval apocalyptic thinking can illuminate a sense of history that has radicalized American Conservatives.
Not all apocalypticism insists that the literal end of the world is near. There are, of course, some strains, both secular and religious, that believe in an imminent end. Writing against the backdrop of global Communism, Norman Cohn described millenarianism in terms of the anticipation of a collective, total and proximate end as a force for mass revolution in history, rather than the final destruction of life on earth. Millenarianism appeared in social uprisings of the poor, downtrodden and marginalized against long-standing oppressors. It represented the potential for an abrupt break from the normal timeline to usher in a period of justice.
Cohn’s vision of revolution saw the masses rising up against evil persecutors – but sometimes millenarianism is just a brand. In the wake of the attack on the Capitol, conservative journalists have offered sheepish defenses, painting far-right insurrectionists as oppressed and poor people who won’t take it anymore. But even a casual look at the cast of characters makes nonsense of their claims: the realtor who flew from Texas in her private jet; the son of a judge; the Olympic swimmer; the numerous lawyers and lawmakers showing up in the inevitable sedition selfies. As Adam Serwer points out in the Atlantic, these privileged few were anything but “low class,” as their erstwhile leader labelled them.
The rioters at the Capitol may have clothed themselves in the skin of beasts, but in reality they were quite ordinary people who would shave their shaman beards, wash off that Celtic makeup, hang up those Wagnerian helmets, and go back to home offices and cubicles. Within the limits of their imagination, they were role-playing an oppressed underclass, oblivious to a real underclass that has managed for generations to resist with dignity and within the bounds of the law.
The violence of Jan. 6 parallels a medieval apocalyptic strain that is simultaneously reactionary, imperialist and anti-institutional. It is apocalypticism as a consciousness of historical destiny, and one’s own part in an unfolding ultimate drama. Exposed in the smearing of feces, appropriation of civic symbols, and attacks on public servants, this American apocalyptic relies on inversion and monstrosity.
In the Christian tradition, “apocalypse” signals the end of an age of mercy, in which good and evil were allowed to mingle. Greek for “revelation”, apocalypse is also tied to a prophecy of universal empire. Several rioters at the Capitol proclaimed Donald Trump “eternal emperor.” Some medieval Christians believed that a Last Emperor would rid the world of infidels. But in this strain of apocalyptic thought, uncertainty sometimes arises over who the ruler really is: a salvific emperor, or Antichrist?
To some that distinction may mean little – as long as the apocalypse unfolds according to plan. In contemporary America, conservatives have been invoking apocalypse since the onset of the new millennium. When the complacent nineties failed to provide an ultimate triumph of capitalist history, right-wing commentators cast around for answers. The Obama presidency offered several converging targets: Islam, foreigners, socialism, race-war.
As the great scholar of medieval apocalypticism Bernard McGinn has argued, even those who do not see the end at hand can espouse elements of apocalyptic thought and vocabulary. Shorn of any final expectations, apocalyptic language is a call to radical purification and retribution.
Medieval Christian thinkers saw social violence as a challenge to reason and spirit, and so they tried to push beyond its surface, and to understand its origins and deeper meaning – even if that meant staring down monsters. But their mode of reading could radically change, depending on what they believed the violence had revealed.
Where Guibert of Nogent saw misrule and bad faith in Laon, he saw a providential plan for End Times in Jerusalem. Today, some treat the attack on the Capitol as a moment come and gone. More discerning responses note that monsters have prowled the rotunda for a while now. The hollow messianism that attends Trump’s departure says they’re not leaving anytime soon.
Jehangir Malegam is a historian of religion and culture in Medieval Europe at Duke University’s Trinity College of Arts & Sciences.