The Future, Fate and the Millennium in the Old English Period

Kristina Kyser

copyright 2000

Frank Kermode has suggested that we, as human beings, "project our existential anxieties on to history" (97), and thus "not only the millenium but the century and other fundamentally arbitrary chronological divisions…are made to bear the weight of our anxieties and hopes" (11). This phenomenon is a product of our desire for "human kinds of order" (11) and our need to relate ourselves to time in a comprehensible way. In keeping with this argument, Kermode writes that the years approaching a.d. 1000 were dominated by a feeling of apocalypse-crisis. St. Augustine, for example, believed that the millennium was the first thousand years of the Christian era and thus that the events of the Apocalypse were imminent. Norman Cohn tells us that "[p]eople were always on the watch for the ‘signs’ which…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" (21).

This commentary suggests that the prevalent attitude towards the future in the Old English period was one of apprehension and expectancy. Cohn writes that "[i]n almost every new monarch his subjects tried to see that Last Emperor who was to preside over the Golden Age…[and] the coming of Antichrist was even more tensely awaited" (20). Joseph Trahern, though he writes that "it is now usually thought that there was no widespread alarm in Europe around the millennial year in anticipation of the coming of Antichrist and the end of the world" (167), concedes that there were preachers and writers anticipating the End, and that "the two great prose writers of the late Old English period, Ælfric and Wulfstan, saw evidence of the last times in current events transpiring on either side of the year 1000" (168).

In addition to the strong eschatological dimension of Christian doctrine at the time, the prevailing attitude towards the future seems to have been influenced by a more general perception of the world as waning or decaying. Trahern explains that "the earth in its youth was said to have seduced mankind from the eternal, whereas in its last age, corrupt and decaying, it brings man closer to the eternal things" (162). The implication is of a circular narrative, in which humankind strays from the Absolute and then, in the last stages of history, we find ourselves pulled inescapably back to it. For Christians in the Anglo-Saxon period, life was seemingly led "in the last age of the world" and they believed that "this life was a pilgrimage of sorts to the next, and that there was no permanence to be expected in the earthly existence" (Trahern 165). Human life was seen as ephemeral, in contrast to inexorable fate—the fate awaiting not only each individual, but presumably the world as a whole. This perception of human life as transient was brought to the fore in the elegiac poems of the late tenth-century Exeter Book, which share "a preoccupation with loss, suffering and mortality" (Fell 172). These poems include The Seafarer, The Wife’s Lament, The Wanderer, The Husband’s Message, The Exile’s Prayer, and The Ruin, among others.

Fate, free will and individual responsibility were major concerns of the Anglo-Saxons. Related to this is the current scholarly debate over the use of the term wyrd (for example, in Beowulf: "as wyrd, the measurer of each person, shall decree for us" Trahern 161) and whether it denotes a purely secular fate or points inevitably to the Christian God behind an individual’s destiny. Trahern tells us that "Wyrd was not a sort of pagan god: it was a poetic term, often personified, for what is a timeless concept, pagan only in its associations, the concept of the inescapable event" (163). In any case, whether Old English poetry set up a dichotomy between humanity and God or humanity and fate, the contrast remained one of ephemeral mortal vs. inexorable force, and this certainly affected the general perception of time and the future.

An individual’s fate is, of course, "sealed" by the coming of the Apocalypse. Because the notion of fatalism was such an important one for the people of the Old English period, their lives seem to have been dominated by the End—that is, their awareness of this life was drastically affected by its status as a precursor to the next. Their anticipation of the year 1000 was obviously affected by their assumptions about their status in the divine eye, and the possibility of being damned or saved for eternity at the Apocalypse cast its long shadow over life’s duration. If, as Cohn suggests, "for medieval people the stupendous drama of the Last Days was not a phantasy about some remote and indefinite future but a prophecy which was infallible and which at almost any given moment was felt to be on the point of fulfillment" (20), then it is not surprising to learn of their general perception of life and this world as things only læne or "on loan" to humanity (Fell 173).

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