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


a book i was introduced to by way of a college course, meaning that is dense, dry and not at all reader-friendly. having said that, i cannot recommend it more highly to those who want to be able to look at Catholicism - and Christianity in general - in a different way. specifically, as a delicate balancing act between the immediate (preaching that the return of Jesus Christ and the end of days can/will happen at ANY TIME) and the long-term (how does one keep that idea fresh for almost two thousand years? how can the Church keep from losing control of this message and the masses they preach to?).in europe during the middle ages - amid fear and rumors and an illiterate populance - this balancing act was especially tricky... and fraught with perils. a very interinting read.

James Williams

When I came across this masterpiece in a second-hand bookshop in Madison, WI in September 2011 for 25 cents (!!) I could hardly believe my eyes. Had there been ten copies I would have taken them all. It had been nagging away on the edge of my list of books to get/read/etc for a decade, and somehow had eluded me (well, actually, I know how - over-ambitious, poor concentration, poor application to finishing tasks, but, hey, this review is not supposed to be about me), so, on with the show... The Pursuit is social and intellectual history at its best. Cohn opens up a whole cosmos of diversity at the heart of supposedly monolithic medieval Europe and infuses conventionally sepia views of ordinary life in the middle ages with a whole raft of colour.There are personal stories, judicious judgements, even-handed treatment of (what is, to moderns) the strangeness of the age, clear exposition of ideas, movements, reactions, and a compelling meta-narrative. He writes nicely, too.About half-way through reading it the other week I was struck by how little is new under the sun (a comment I believe was anticipated several thousand years ago by a wise man in Ecclesiastes) and how some of the eponymous anarchists resemble the counter-culture movement of the sixties. Using different tools and concepts, and making allowance for the genuine "otherness" of these groups they manage to almost converge. Turns out Cohn himself intimates as much in a wonderful conclusion that leaves the reader wishing he had gone on in earnest to turn his pen to that analysis...

Patricio Borvarán

Interesante locura medieval por la fiebre escatológica, imposible no pensar en el proselitismo protestante actual. Es un libro de historia, pero más de alguna sonrisa saca.


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


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

Peejay Who Once Was Minsma

I'm glad that I read this ahead of Y2K and the idiocies that surrounded the millennium. Cohn does a masterful job of defusing millennialism and apocalyptic thinking, tracing it through a thousand years of history, and showing it as the root cause for so many of the iconic tragedies of the violent 20th Century. This is a masterwork of psychological history and the dissecting of religious mania. I highly recommend it.


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.


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

Christopher Stevenson

I know, I know, this is one of those quintessential hipster books. It was amazing. I kept getting caught up in descriptions of mythical monks trying to overthrow the Church.

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.

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.

Chris Cangiano

Brilliant overview of revolutionary millenarianism, mystical anarchism and religious dissent in Central Europe between the Eleventh and Sixteenth Centuries. Cohn's work on this subject was the first look at the subject and still the most important. It stands as not only a brilliant view of collectivist Utopianism of the Middle Ages in its historical setting but shows the sociological, economic and psychological roots of that Utopian impulse as it has continued forward to the present day, from both the Left and the Right of the political spectrum. Highly recommended.


A classic- I was referred to the book via Cantor's the "invention of the middle ages", and once again, I was not dissapointed. I would imagine this is the standard work on the topic, judging from its continued popularity after being in print for half a century. The histoiographical method- his use of various sources and willingness to give voice to many which "traditional" history ignored, is most impressive. Considering that this book was first published in 1957,Cohn was ahead of his time in his presentation of a social history of the "Pursuit of the Millennium". The cast of characters is colorful, to say the least: ranters, flaggelants, the brotherhood of the free spirit, taborites, anabaptists. You could almost call this a history of the "pre reformation". Classic text.


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.

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