Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages

ISBN: 0195004566
ISBN 13: 9780195004564
By: Norman Cohn

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Reader's Thoughts

Nathan Dehoff

I bought this on a whim when I found it at the school bookstore for $2, but it turned out to really be up my alley. Apparently this was a fairly famous book for its time (it was originally published in 1957, and then expanded for the 1970 edition), but I guess it didn’t retain its popularity. It deals with the apocalyptic cult movements of Europe in the Middle Ages, with an underlying theme being how the lower classes tended to turn to such radical beliefs when they felt particularly put upon by the secular and religious authorities. The book of Revelation tells of a struggle between Christians and the Roman Empire, but when the Empire adopted Christianity as its official faith, the idea of the coming millennium of peace and love had to be altered to reflect this development. Eventually, the storyline had it that there was a golden age before private property and class structure had been developed (some people blamed Nimrod for this), and that it would arrive again when Jesus returns to Earth. Before that happens, however, the last emperor would journey to Jerusalem and offer his robe and crown to Christ. As it became obvious that most of the rulers and the clergy were looking out for their own interests, many peasants took to following various leaders who claimed to be reincarnated emperors and such, and attempting to bring the new millennium to the world by reorganizing society, and often killing church leaders as well as Jews. None of them lasted, but the same basic idea has arisen throughout history in different forms, usually in times when people feel particularly exploited. Definitely worth reading if you take an interest in religious history, or just weird cults.

Mustafa Al-Laylah

One of the first and most readable major books written on the subject of medieval Millenarianism, Cohn manages to make what might seem to the modern reader obscure and baffling heresies into highly engaging historical reading.Having read this, Vaneigem's "The Movement of the Free Spirit" and Ehrenreich's "Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy" I would say all three are valuable if read in a particular order. Start with Ehrenreich, finish with Cohn and supplement with Vaneigem.

Martin Empson

Any study of the medieval European period finds that peasant rebellions and uprisings, far from being uncommon, are actually part of the fabric of a society dominated by feudal relations and class antagonisms. Some of these uprisings relate directly to the oppression of medieval society. Rich against poor, landowner against serf. Many of these used religious imagery and language to inform and inspire the rebellions, perhaps best illustrated by the speeches and role of John Ball in the 1381 Peasants' Revolt in England.Other events however took a different form. These millenarian movements are documented in great detail in Norman Cohn's classic book, and his extensive scholarship has found a wealth of fascinating movements throughout Europe that have often surprising parallels across the continent.Full review; http://resolutereader.blogspot.co.uk/...


It's late here, everyone gone to bed. No one here to talk to except my own fears. Such as my fear of becoming caught up in a revolutionary millennial cult in the 14th century. That is a major fear of mine. This was a brilliant yet depressing book. Imagine five hundred David Koreshes, five hundred versions of Jim Jones' People's Temple, five hundred rancid little messiahs running about convincing the pitifully ignorant with their sincere madness and then - well, whoops - establishing themselves a little harem full of buxom hausfraus once they'd taken over some reasonable sized place like Munster or Zaanstadt or Prague. It's kind of interesting and also really fantastically boring to notice that the cardboard prophets of the middle ages did exactly the same thing that little Charlie Manson, David Koresh, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Elijah Muhammed and all the rest of them did. Once they were boss they wanted to shag lots of women! Makes you think that was the main point, rather than establishing God's kingdom on earth.Plus ca change, plus le meme chose, eh, you bastards?These days you have to be a bit careful with your self-harming but in those days, huh, you had the option of joining any passing procession of flagellants, those classic Disney masochists who walked from place to place whipping each other's backs as they did so - I assume the guy at the end of the line would switch places with someone else or he'd feel all left out - did you ever see that Ken Russell movie called The Devils? If not, you really should - where else are you going to see a whole crowd of naked nuns doing unspeakable things to themselves with crucifixes!! (oh, what's that you say? there's a whole series of that kind of stuff on Redtube? gosh, I can be so naive) - anyway, from what this book says, for about 600 years that's what all of Europe was like - like a Ken Russell film - and just so Americans don't feel smug, America would have been like it too if Europeans would have gone there sooner.I know that my bookshelf is called History Will Teach Us Nothing, which is a nice Sting song (sorry, what was that? what did you say? there is no nice Sting song? What about the one where he mentions Vladimir Nabokov - you must like that one) and also a very true statement, but this history book does teach us something : don't believe anything those mystical 14th century idiot apocalyptical loonies tell you! It won't end well!


A very interesting overview of the history of Millenarianism up to the 16th century. It really does deserve it's place amongst the classics. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in Millenarianism or Medieval history in general.


Norman Cohn lays down some deep meditations on MIllenialism in the MA's.

Hywel Owen

One of the great books about the human condition. Through a detailed and authoratitive look at cults of the Middle Ages, Norman Cohn shows that groups within society are forever susceptible to the seductive dreams purveyed by narcissists. Leaders of these groups offer simple and often fantasist solutions to all ills, and their followers are all too ready to follow them to their doom, realising only too late that the confines of reality actually do exist.Whilst Cohn never explicitly describes modern-day equivalents of Millenarian cults, it is clear that he refers to Marxists in particular - and to other movements of that ilk - and allows the reader to draw the obvious parallels. In this book is revealed the underlying truth of mankind, rather than the gloss of this epoch's manner of expressing it. Cohn's scathing regard for the nonsense of Marxism, and indeed for all eschatological political movements, is plain to see. They are in fact the products of (hopefully) unrequited megalomaniacs, which are then exploited by opportunistic sociopaths. Jan Bockelson and Josef Stalin are social twins.In terms of understanding the nature of history, I would rate this book as a must-read. 'Journey for our Time' by the Marquis de Custine is another.

Robert Hund

Been there, done it. Book might be worthwhile to see how far off his predictions are.GREEK: 4 most important things in the world(!)1. health2. personal beauty3. clean money-wealth without guilt4. to be young with one's friends

Yama Rahyar

Every once in a while humanity explodes. These onces-in-a-while can be thrilling or horrifying, ugly or beautiful, or start at one pole and move toward the other. This book is utterly engrossing in spite of its very very tiny type because, even though you know how things end, in the course of the moments described, people really had no idea and anything seemed possible.

Leonard Pierce

Cohn has written and astonishing and enlightening book on the religious and social manias that struck the west at the turn of the first millennium. Absorbing and fascinating.


I started Cohn’s book with a particular interest that grew once I read in the index the name of some movements described. This reading was especially fascinating for me because I found in it a lot of information about historical events that I have yet encountered. My disposition was very favorable because I felt involved in such stories. The very reason for my attitude is that my favorite novel is set in the period in which movements described by Cohn emerged. Reading again about Thomas Muntzer and Anabaptists, in particular, brought me back to strong emotions that I felt during the reading of Q. However, when I read the Cohn’s conclusions, I felt a bit disturbed because actually I do not agree with the author. Even if I consider quite accurate the description of the different movements, the author’s attempt to compare both Nazism and Communism to these movements does not convince me. It’s my attitude, because of my studies and of my cultural background, to separate these historical experiences in their original means if not in their conclusion. The fact is that I am quite sure that Nazism from the beginning had no real idea of emancipation for all mankind, and this emerges clear in its actual implementation. On the other hand, the basic idea of Communism that is very elder than its more known theorist, Marx, involves a form of emancipation without an Elect population. For what I know, the idea of a single social class that guides humanity beyond Capitalism is historically circumscribed and it is not intended anyway to exclude someone from the world that have to come.

Antonio Nunez

Cohn's "Pursuit of the Millennium" has aged well and nearing 50 years of age it is deservedly a classic. Its subjet might be considered by some to be esoteric: it deals with prophets from middle age Europe who led others to believe that the end of times was at hand, and that they had been chosen by God to purify the world in preparation for the Kingdom of the Last Days, and with pantheistic mystical anarchists who believed that they could do no evil because they had connected with their divine essences. In most cases these figures are virtual unknowns even for people who like history. The few that still turn up are Thomas Müntzer, the leader of the rebellious peasants who were exterminated in the Battle of Frankenhausen (a character in the historical fiction pastiche "Q" by Luther Blisset) and John of Leyden, the tailor who created a totalitarian kingdom of saints in Münster. For the revolutionary millennarians the tale is a bit repetitive, and it usually went like this: a former priest or a hermit with a violent disposition concludes, after meditating for a long time, that he is living at the end of times and that he is God/ he is a god/ he has been chosen by God or a god to lead the just and the good in a final, apocalyptic, war against Antichrist and his followers, to usher in the millennium of the saints announced by John the Divine, prior to the end of the world and the final reckoning. The hermit or defrocked priest finds some followers and eventually is able to take hold of a town or a castle, which he converts into a stronghold with the help of the rootless rabble. Then he proceeds to plunder from the rich (nobles and clergy) and to purge the unredeemed. Eventually the powers-that-be get their act together and dispatch an army of knights who, after a bloody fight are able to capture the prophet and his main followers, who usually are burnt or beheaded after enduring torture. It is peculiar that even thought they are always defeated and crushed, the sort of people who are drawn to this type of leader will rise up to follow them again and again.Cohn's book tells the story in just the right detail. He shows that certain regions were particularly sensitive to the millennarian prophets. Many such arose in the Northwestern corner of Europe (Northeastern France, the Benelux countries, the Rhineland in Germany). He also shows that generally poor people have had rational aims: to use pressure in order to improve their lot by acquisition of certain rights. Only a minority has felt the attraction of millennarian revolutions, and these usually have been uprooted people without a settled role. Also, these revolutionary initiatives were able to succeed (even if for a short while) only in times of chaos or unrest (i.e., the Crusades, visitations of the plague or black death, economic crises, etc.). Usually the self-appointed prophets used the social disruption in order to further their cause and take advantage from the momentary weakness of defenders of the status quo.Cohn is a sober commentator who shows that recent historians have sometimes ignored the evidence to further a political agenda. Thus, leftist historians sometimes refused to acknowledge some activities of the prophets whom they regarded as protorevolutionaries (such as their inclination to institutionalized promiscuity or their remarkably violent language), probably in order to maintain their status as predecessors of current "progressives".An interesting conclusion from the reading of the book is that, contrary to what many think, ideas are not a neutral good to be chosen by informed customers in an efficient marketplace. Some ideas appeal to dark places in people's minds: these are dangerous ideas, and parents and teachers would do well to instruct their children, so that they do not succumb. One such idea is that "God" is in everything, and that when a person becomes aware of this he or she becomes entirely free and can follow his or her desires without any negative ethical implication. Another way of putting this is that nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so, as Hamlet said. This type of belief might lead a person to the most brutal behaviors without any perception that they had done ill. This is a very common opinion nowadays, and in fact both the millennarists and the mystical anarchists have their successors nowadays. Today, the center of millennarian agitation is surely the USA, were many people believe that the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse) is a play-by-play description of the end of the world and that they will live to see it happen. And many new age sects (including Scientology) appear to hold the belief that we can become gods and be free of conventional morality and ethics.In his conclusion Cohn suggests that many radical movements of the XX century are in fact new versions of the old millennarian revolutionary heresies. There can be no doubt that this is the case: human motivations change little over time. What changes is the language in which they are articulated. In a religious era, the language and imagery were religious. in a godless age the language attempts to be scientific and logical. But underneath there beats the same old hope: the hope to see evil punished and evildoers destroyed, to be part of a chosen elite with a new understanding of the nature of reality, and an exhilarating vision of a better future through hardship and strife. We can all empathise with these feelings. Action movies, comic books, tragedies, country music and soap operas resonate for many of us because they take their inspiration from some of these elements. I only regret that Cohn did not expand the point, although other authors have done so, most notably Michel Burleigh, who in his recent two volume history on the clashes between politics and religion from the French Revolution to our days has shown that much of what passes for politics is in reality religion by another name, and how the most revolutionary creeds of the XX century were really millennarian sects.And Cohn's perspective is so pertinent that it even explains the rise of Islamic fundamentalism tinged with visions of a holy war that will redeem the world and turn into the Umma, the community of the believers. The followers of fundamentalism have been the large masses of uprooted peasants without a clear role in a modernizing world, and their leaders have been intellectuals or semi-intellectuals who can understand how the world works but want no part of it, other than to redeem it in an apocalytic struggle. Their counterparts in other religions are very similar to them: people who want to find a meaning for lives that provide none, people who are sensitive to unfairness and who instinctively resonate with violence and retribution, people who yearn for zoroastrian visions of entirely distinct good and bad. As ever, for these people, the new millennium of peace and joy is just around the corner, although sadly it can only come about on mountains of corpses and through rivers of blood.

Benjamin Fry

I am not going to give a detailed review of this book. I am sure others on goodreads have done more than an adequate job of extolling its many virtues. I will just say that I love this book. Even though some of its historiography is a little dated. It is still a fantastic read and inspired a generation of budding historians who may not have been interested in the often ignored adherents of radical religion.


The book is decent only in that it's one of the only in depth sources in english about such an important trend.Raoul Vaneigem's Movement of the Free Spirit and Resistance to Christianity (text available on line) are better sources and told more from a perspective similar to resisters themselves, though not as easy to understand. I recommend reading a section in Pursuit about a particular group then reading about the same group in Movement of the Free Spirit. That way you get the basic information from Cohn, and then a better analysis form Vangeim.In order that the religious tone of the resisters might be better understood, I recommend reading Giorgio Agamben's In Praise of Profanation.For a good overview of this same period and people check out Fredy Perlman's Against His-Story, Against Leviathan chapters 17-19 (text available online). As you can see below, Perlman does not like Cohn."A man called Norman Cohn, a friend of authority, law and order, will in our time document a millennium of resistance, maligning every episode of it.A serious scholar is one who takes the Pope at his word and discounts the words of rebels. A ranter is one who takes the rebels at thier word and discounts every word of the Pope. Cohn will be a solid, serious scholar, not a fanatical, ranting extremist. The words of authorities, especially the police, will be his rock, his positive evidence, His-story. Cohn will say that Church dignitaries protect Jews attacked by fanatical extremists. he will depict the entire resistance as a precursor to the Nazi Party--that will be his thesis--and he will come close to saying that every rebel is a Hitler.A frivolous ranter, in other words one who does not take His-story seriously, one who refers to authority as "It" and not as "We," will see an altogether different picture while looking at the same resistance.Cohn will know that the supreme authority in the West, the second Pope named Urban, gets the applause of all the realm's dignitaries when he says,Turn the weapons which you have stained unlawfully in the slaughter of one another against the enemies ofthe faith...With tried and tested methods of serious scholarship, Cohn will say that the Pope didn't really mean it.When a Bishop lodges his persecuted supplier of luxuries in the servant quarters of his palace, Cohn will pretend the Bishop is appalled by the violence and not relieved that the violence is turning against the Unbeliever's house instead of the Bishop's.Cohn's peers, professors who will massacre Vietnamese peasants from desks at a State University will pretend to be appalled by atrocities of Calleys who turn the professors' words into deeds, but the professors' real rage will be against the resisters who turn their weapons against the Calleys. The serious professors will heap all the deflected violence, Authority's own violence, on the heads of the rebels resisting Authority's violence.The resistance is the only human component of the entire His-story. All the rest is Leviathanic progress....This is why Leviathanic His-storians will discount, malign and try to exorcise such experiences. Contempt and ridicule will be favorite weapons of the serious scholars who will pretend to give unbiased accounts.Norman Cohn, for example, will go out of his way to talk about the revelations of millennarian resisters. He needs say no more. Equally armored readers will immediately share Cohn's contempt towards individuals who are so pathological as to be guided by their own dreams and visions. The scholar and his armored readers will take it for granted that only the revelations of judges and scholars have validity.Cohn's ridicule will reach heights of scholarly contempt when he tells of individuals who consider themselves Messiahs, who convince themselves that their efforts can help save Mankind from Leviathanic dehumanization, enslavement and doom. Cohn need not exclaim: How naive! How criminal! how well deserved the jailing, the torture, the hanging, the burning! Such exclamations will come automatically to readers who consider their duly constituted authorities the only possible saviors of mankind and Leviathan the only possible Messiah.* * *Cohn will condemn the resisters only on paper, and too late to harm anything but our memory of them. The Church and its long secular arms do the actual arresting, jailing, torturing, burning and killing. With a millennium of experience in prevarication, deflection and repression, the Church is no novice as hangman." - Fredy Perlman, Against History, Against Leviathan3.6


Humbling experience, Cohn is a towering intellect, not sure I was smart enough to fully appreciate this book when I read it in 2000.

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