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A study of apocalyptic expectations and the pattern
FROM: "The Use and Abuse of Eschatology in the Middle Ages, eds. W. D. F. Verbeke, D. Verhelst, and A. Welkenhysen, (Medievalia Lovaniensia ser. 1, studia XV, Louvain, 1988), pp. 137-211
The dating shift effected by the early Carolingians strongly suggests that the lay population knew both the apocalyptic meaning of the year 6000 and its imminent approach. ** This is the context in which the Annus Domini took its place as the third major dating system in the Church's struggle against apocalyptic enthusiasm. To the descendants of Bede's overly curious interrogators the Carolingians responded first with an Annus Mundi according to the hebraica veritas, and then with a new concept of measuring time, by the Year of our Lord. By dating the Coronation AD 801, then, they publicly affirmed urbi et orbi this new system which, like its predecessors, promised a reprieve of several centuries (italics added, CW).
Moreover, AD's anti-apocalyptic subtext was only one part of a still large tacit discourse on the eschatological significance of current events, a discourse addressed to and understood by a wide audience. Just as Augustine and Jerome's contemporaries could see Rome's sack through the lens of II Thessalonians, so too could Alcuin's and Charlemagne's view a woman's usurpation of the imperial throne in Constantinople as the signal that the Fourth Empire had fallen and that AntiChrist had been unleashed—and, in fact, Irene's coup occurred in 797 AD, or, according to AM II, in the last five years of the final millennium. The pope's disgrace and flight from Rome the following year could only have encouraged such speculation.
** This is not to say they knew the exact date (we do not), but obviously an indiscreet cleric could easily divulge his own version of what should be left unsaid: after all, such knowledge would confer great prestige and even power on its possessor.
Surely these issues weighed on Alcuin's mind—if only because of what others were saying—when he wrote his famous June letter of 5998 (?) to Charlemagne, urging him to take the imperial title since the two highest seats of power in this world, the papal see in Rome and the imperial throne in Second Rome—were empty.
Hence, as he put it, the salvation of the Churches of Christ lay in Charles alone. But then why would Alcuin not cite biblical and patristic sources to argue that no emperor in Constantinople and no pope in Rome would lead to the 'apostasy' of unleashing the Antichrist—unless Charles acted. Would not this argument have been still more compelling? Perhaps Alcuin did not want to; more significantly, perhaps he did not have to. But in any case we can rule out one answer: that he was not thinking about it. That may seem the simpler answer, and makes Alcuin and Charlemagne more like us in their thinking. But it cannot explain the silence on so weighty a matter.
For if the Carolingians really were unfamiliar with AM II chronology, and if the millenarianism it incited were of no great import; if then some antiquarian monk had stumbled upon this magnificent coincidence between Charlemagne's plans and a forgotten dating system, why did this court not capitalize on the arrival of the 6000th year since Creation and give to the coronation a cosmic significance? Millennia do not come around that often. If the Emperor Philip held great festivities on the thousandth anniversary of Rome's founding (248 CE), why would Carolingian and Papal propagandists not use the theme of inaugurating a new age in world history to exalt their unprecedented proceedings?
Have we an historical parallel to the 'Hound of the Baskervilles', a case where the decisive clue was that the dog did not bark? Such a silence, then, invites us to think about two sides of the same event—about the Coronation of Christmas Day 800', eloquently consecrated by a Bedan orthodoxy which stretches across the millennia; but also, as Professor Juan Gil argues, about the Coronation of Christmas Day 6000.'
In the final analysis, we have been taken in by the orthodox record keepers....