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Apocalypse - 1000 AD by Tim Harford

AS THE YEAR 1000 approaches, Christians across Europe gather on their knees in prayer. Strange stars appear in the heavens above Wessex, heretics roam through the streets of Paris, blood rains down on the Aquitaine coast, and the Antichrist is among the people of the world.

"They say that demons once ruled the world, but we humans frightened them away."

– Woodcutter in Kurosawa’s Rashomon

Before the Storm

Playing in a post-apocalyptic world is more than a role-playing cliché; it’s a tradition, and perhaps an inevitable one for a hobby which has developed in the Nuclear Age. The flip side of the coin is a world of pre-millennial tension: an exciting setting for any game, and an undervalued one.

Typically, characters faced with a dying world save it. That can be fun, but the end of the world doesn’t have to be the focus of the plot – apocalyptic expectations can be part of the backdrop against which the action unfolds.

Some post-apocalyptic campaigns can lack texture because too much has been destroyed. In the world expecting disaster, the destruction has not yet taken place. In true "disaster movie" style, while the true threat looms closer and closer, its precursors can become ever more destructive. The characters start with friends, with property, and with a place in society. Perhaps it is as a result of upheaval that they become wanderers.

 

Soldiers of Fortune

In my current campaign, the characters are all mercenaries. There is always work for mercenaries, but times of social change present particularly rich pickings. This does not mean that things are comfortable. Already, the baron who hired them has been killed; his young son is at risk of assassination from former allies. The land they were supposed to defend was over-run from an unexpected direction, and by an unlooked-for foe. Many of the leaders of the company which employed them have been killed, and the company has fragmented into various factions under the strain. Life before the apocalypse is about being uprooted.

 

The Modern Perspective

The modern perspective has two facets.

First, the apocalypse did not occur in 1000 AD, nor in 1033 AD. The fears were therefore unfounded.

Second, there were no supernatural events. There was no rain of blood, the famine was caused by natural causes, and any problems were caused by self-fulfilling prophecies of trouble.

Take care! Of course, in a fantasy campaign or an alternate history, these things need not be true. More importantly, even in a historical campaign, the characters do not know that the apocalypse is not coming. Neither do they know that rains of blood are impossible. If Annwn stands for anything, it stands for trying not to take a secular 21st Century western perspective in games where such a perspective is completely alien.

 

The World in 1000 AD

Hopes and Fears

"Apocalypse" is not resonant with positive connotations. But apocalyptic expectations were not all about terror. Many hoped for final deliverance from evil, at the return of Christ, and salvation. If they considered such matters at all, most people would naturally have a mixture of fear and hope; their reactions would be unpredictable, and moods - especially of crowds - could change quickly.

 

A Historians’ Controversy

Interestingly enough, there is no agreement among historians as to whether there really was widespread terror around the year 1000 AD. The 19th century romantics certainly thought so. More recently this view has been called into doubt. For the sake of gaming interest we stick with the romantics – one of their vocal modern proponents is Richard Landes. His site at http://www.mille.org/ is heavy going but a major source for this article, and a good starting point for those interested in taking things further.

A Theologians’ Controversy

The church in the Dark Ages did not agree on any date for the second coming. One of the sources of disagreement was the aim of the theologian: some thinkers (Landes characterises them as "roosters") wish to proclaim that the end is nigh. Others (Landes’s "owls") assert that it is centuries away. These disagreements were made possible not because of argument over the calendar (the AD dating system was in widespread use) but because a wide choice of apocalyptic dates were available; as each date approached, the Owls sought to reset the clock by proposing a later one.

Some dates were based on the Annus Mundi (AM) scale – which measured the years elapsed since the creation – on which there was further disagreement. Early dates include Hippolytus’ AD 200 (5700 AM I) and Augustine’s AD 400 (5600 AM II); there was more theological support for the idea that the Second Coming would be 6000 years after Genesis (AD 500 – following the sack of Rome in AD 410 – or AD 800), rather than 1000 years after Christ. The AD dating system gained popularity after AD 800, and a further resetting of the theological clock did not occur. However, even then, who knew whether the date would be AD 1000 or AD 1033? Throughout all this, the official line was always that the time of the Second Coming could not be predicted.

"It was as if the whole world had shaken off the dust of the ages and covered itself in a white mantle of churches."

– Rodolfus Glaber, Historiarium III

 

Political Responses: trickle-up or trickle-down

Political responses were more pronounced in Central Europe, where the Ottonian dynasty (briefly) dominated both the papacy and the imperial throne. The rhetoric of the apocalypse was used to support the imperial theme: the dynasty was held to be the rightful successor of Charlemagne, and thus a holy bastion against the Antichrist. It was alleged that while the dynasty stood, the Antichrist could not be born. Otto, in fact, exhumed Charlemagne's body at Aachen on Pentecost of the year 1000, held an "unusual procession" on August 15 of that year, reformed the papacy, lead the highly-successful drive to convert the pagans, and copied many of Charlemagne's responses to the coming of the year 6000.

A clear exposition of this view came from Adso of Montier-en-Der. In 950 he wrote a treatise on the Antichrist for the Queen Gerberga of the Franks. Adso observed that the great Antichrist would be born "in the East of the tribe of Dan". He also pointed out that there would be previous antichrists who would rebel against their rightful place - among other things, this provided Gerberga and others in authority with justification for whatever repression seemed in order. Adso claimed that until the Roman Empire had been defeated the Antichrist would be held at bay. Of course, as long as there were Frankish kings who "ought to be emperor", that empire was still "standing." Adso's last assertion was that Christian theologians foresaw a mighty emperor. This emperor would unite the World under Christianity, rule in peace for a hundred years, and then make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, lay down his crown, and usher in the Kingdom of Heaven.

This political opportunity meant that pre-millennial expectation and apocalyptic rhetoric was a "top-down" phenomenon in central Europe. In France, by contrast, central authority was in chaos. Apocalyptic fears and hopes arose in the peasantry, expressed in penitential processions, peace gatherings and vast pilgrimages (in 1026, 1033 and at other times).

More violent actions were not unheard of, though. In the late 990s, church property was forcibly seized at St. Hilaire. In 1018, there was a panic and stampede in the early hours of the morning at St. Martial. A subsequent outbreak of heresy throughout the south of France was seen as the influence of agents of the Antichrist. Four years later heretics were burned at Orléans.

Across Europe, peace councils - the Peace of God movement - intensified in 990-1000 and in 1023-1033. (In 1024, a "letter from Heaven" circulated throughout northern France calling for peace councils.) Missionaries were very active: Kiev, followed by Iceland and Hungary, became Christian. At the end of the last millennium the Christian movement was tremendously powerful.

In England, Archbishop Wulfstan, perhaps the most powerful man in the country at the time, was much given to apocalyptic rhetoric. A translated example…

"Dearly beloved, recognise what is the truth; this world is in haste and it is drawing close to its end. And the longer it is in the world, the worse that it gets, and so it must of necessity occur because of the sins of the people before the coming of the Antichrist that its going to become ever much worse, and truly then it’s going to be grim and dreadful everywhere in the world…"

Meanwhile the Vikings, who were pillaging the coasts of England, were regarded by some as a divine punishment for the sins of the English.

Further afield, the Holy Sepulchre was destroyed in Jerusalem in 1009 by Caliph Al Hakim; the reaction in the west was violent and included anti-Semitic outbursts. The Jews are expelled from Mainz in 1014 following a number of natural disasters.

 

Signs in the Heavens
AD 968 Otto's army panic as an eclipse portends the end of the world.
AD 989, August Haley's Comet appears, and is cited in several texts.
AD 992 German chroniclers report a light in the north "like the sun" at dawn. The rumour in the populace is that three suns and three moons and stars were at war.
AD 1006, May A new star sighted in heavens (Super Nova of 1006).
AD 1009 Rain of blood; sun turns red and fails to shine for three days; plague and death follow.
AD 1028 Another rain of blood on the Aquitanian shore.
AD 1033 An eclipse and terrible earthquake lead to a procession of penitence in Jouarre-Rebais.

 

Adventure Seeds

Vox Populi

In Francia in 859, the standard method of dealing with a peasant uprising was to slaughter them. In Normandy in 990, techniques had been revised: malcontents had their hands and feet removed. What are we to make of the fact that the peace councils which were permitted in the 1030s, despite being a powerful outporing of peasant sentiment? Vast numbers of peasants gathered together, palms raised to the heavens, chanting, "peace, peace, peace…" Was there anyone to stop them?

The peace movement was particularly strong in southern France, and it's no coincidence that secular authority was correspondingly weak. As knights renounce terrorism and peace breaks out all over the region, there's a power vacuum to be filled. Perhaps the characters are well placed to take advantage. Perhaps they are simply charged with putting down the peace movement.

Of the barons and the bandits taking advantage of the movement, might some of them be antichrists, of whom Adso of Montier-en-Der warned Queen Gerbega? And if Royal troops show up, will they ask questions first, or later?

The Letter from Heaven

A number of bishops proclaimed the apocalypse and demanded peace and repentance - after receiving letters from Heaven with these instructions. A letter from Heaven is no small matter - especially a genuine letter, when so many fakes are circulating.

The Bishop of Orly possesses such a letter - this one written by Christ himself. (Many rival letters were merely scribed by Gabriel or Michael.) The letter is of great significance, being one of the holiest relics in Christendom (and therefore the World). Possession of the letter puts the bishop in line for the Papacy - not to mention providing him with a warrant to pass through the gates of Heaven itself.

Unfortunately, it has been stolen.

Leviathan

Strange creatures from the sea were often washed up on the beaches of Europe. They were portents of the apocalypse. Some scholars demonstrated that these were simply failed attempts by sea monsters to invade, and precursors of an eventual onslaught which would prove unstoppable.

The most recent and notable such incursion is of a huge blue-black fish in Poole harbour. The fish is somewhat tubular in form, and over a hundred paces long. The beast is either dead or sleeping, but the boy who saw it beached also claims that it vomited men when it came ashore. These men were strange, tall, leathery figures, and their footprints are nowhere to be found…

The Expulsion from Mainz

In 1014 the Jews were expelled from Mainz following a series of catastrophes. Cut this one any way you choose - a heroic game would have the characters trying to prevent the expulsion and demonstrate the innocence of the Jews. More historical accuracy, unfortunately, would make such a happy resolution unlikely. If the characters are Christians they might well perceive the persecution as fair game. Of course, the characters might not be Christians. Playing Jews in the middle ages certainly suggests adventure and challenge.

An interesting take is that the persecution is likely to have been orchestrated for someone's advantage - someone who will be able to take over Jewish property and Jewish business. They may be taking advantage of circumstance, or the "natural disasters" may not be natural at all. The characters might expose the villain; whether it makes a difference to the fate of the Jews is another question.

Pilgrimage

In 1033 the Deacon of Orleans left for Jerusalem on a pilgrimage, to save his soul and those of others before the apocalypse came. It would suit several parties if the Deacon did not return.

The White-Mantled Church

Glaber's description of the appearance of churches all over Europe is famous; the reason less so. The churches were funded by, and built on, generous gifts of land to the Church from potentates all over Europe who wished to save their souls.

William of Carnac is one such lord; on his death bed he signs over his land to the pasty-faced Bishop Wilfred. William's son, Bernard, is suddenly dispossessed at the moment of his inheritance - unless the documents and Wilfred himself can be caused to disappear very quickly indeed.

Text and Images by Tim Harford, originally published in Annwn