On apocalypticism, extinction rebellion, and ahistorical cosseting

Yesterday my colleague Dan Jones did a shift down at the bad take factory and decided to write an article seemingly aimed at making me incredibly angry. To be fair to him, he seems to be as embarrassed about it as is suitable, being as he hasn’t tweeted that he wrote it at all, and LOL neither would I. He is out here trying to plug his new book – and hey aren’t we all! – and so has written as confusing a statement as ever I have seen associating Extinction Rebellion with … apocalyptic preaching in the medieval period. In it he manages a rare feat – he both seems to treat his subject of study – medieval people – and the people involved with XR completely under the bus for no ostensible reason.

The article in question. That sound you can hear is me audibly sighing.

Now as you all know apocalyptic preaching is kinda my first racket, and unlike the Good Mr. Jones, I have a PhD focused expressly on popular apocalyptic preaching. So my lad has brought a knife to a gunfight, and also did not know there was a gunfight. He just thought a bunch of Tories were gonna pat him on the back for a bizarre little rant. And he is inevitably right about that, so fair enough. However, his new book is about the fourteenth century and yet he seems to be misinterpreting it pretty strongly and strangely here, so I am going to respond to it anyway.

Before I get too into it, I want to say that I have, as the comrades would say, critical support for Extinction Rebellion. I, too, do not want to make the planet much much less habitable for human life. The Gulf Stream? I think it is good and want to keep it. Polar bears? I think they are better than the handful of billionaires who are making money while the planet dies. However, I don’t always agree with XRs tactics, and think, among other things that they like cops too much. So, like, this is not about me wanting to protect them especially or something. I just think that it seems like Dan Jones doesn’t understand apocalyptic preaching and also is writing to placate a bunch of rich guys who want to make sure society keeps working expressly for them at all times.

The trouble with the entire offending article is that the argument doesn’t stand up under its own pretext. You can understand why he is so wrong here because as previously stated my man here seems to really hate medieval people and their structures of thought. He states that “cultivating fear of impending doom” is a “classic medieval Christian stunt”, for example. So, first of all, honey that is just a Christian stunt. It has absolutely nothing to do with the medieval, specifically, at all whatsoever.

From the Val-Dieu Apocalypse. British Library Add. 
Ms. 17333, f 36 r.

Christianity by its very design is a linear religion, as I have written about before. It has a beginning in the Garden of Eden, a middle when Jesus comes, and an end TBD when we are gonna do the whole lashing tail of the dragon, stars falling from the sky thing. Indeed, it is this hard-wired Christian belief in the End Times that is connected to, for example, messianic American Christians’ antisemitic support for moving the capital of Israel to Jerusalem, among other things.

It therefore makes no sense to claim that apocalyptic vibes are somehow expressly medieval. There are plenty of Christians right now in the year of our Lord 2021 that actively want the world to end and are funding projects to make sure it ends the way that they want to and THEY WERE LITERALLY IN OFFICE IN AMERICA UNTIL JANUARY THIS YEAR. But yeah, it’s the medieval people who exclusively think about the end of the world, and the environmental protestors who want to end it. Sure. Whatever.

The second major misconstruction is where Dan insists that the trouble with apocalyptic preachers and XR alike is that they “don’t want to prevent the end of the world, they just want it over on their own terms” and boy howdy, no absolutely not. The great majority of apocalyptic preaching is actively about attempting to sway people from their action in order to save the world. Dan claims that this apocalyptic preaching calls for “repentance as the only means of salvation” and that is just flat out not true. My boy Jan Milíč of Kroměříž (d. 1374), for one, was nothing if not a fourteenth-century apocalyptic preacher, and one with a much larger following than anyone Dan comments on in this piece. Milíč’s entire deal was a) that yeah Antichrist may already be in this world or about to come, and therefore we are looking at the beginning of the End Times. His idea of a good time was to go before the entire Prague synod and warn his fellow clergymen that their violations of the law had led them all to the time of the persecution under Antichrist.[1] However, the reason that he gave these sermons was that he believed b) that is something which can directly be combatted through intervention.

The earthquake at the opening of the Sixth Seal. British Library Add. MS 35166, f. 9 v.

And whomst the fuck, you may ask, did Milíč want to intervene to stop all the sin and Antichrist? Well according to Dan, as Milíč was active in the fourteenth century he must have wanted to pull everything down and start again like the Jacquerie. (?????ASukhWBDI HOW? WHERE ARE YOU GETTING THIS FROM DAN?) But no, he wanted the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV (1316-1378) and Pope Urban V (1310-1360) to convene a huge synod and basically ask priests to stop having sex. Hell, one of the things that he thought was bringing back Antichrist into the world was that the Holy Roman Empire was “broken apart and every day is distracted”[2] He wanted a strong sin-free Church that work alongside a united and powerful Holy Roman Empire. This is the opposite of a movement that seeks to rebuild society from the ground up. Milíč wanted a top-down moral inventory of society in order to save the world.

And here is the thing – he was really really really popular. This is an important point to make because just because something had popular support in the medieval period, that does not mean that it is necessarily iconoclastic. Milíč was so popular that his sermon collections exist scattered across Europe still to this day. He was popular enough that centuries later during the 1648 Sack of Prague in the thirty years war some Swedish people stole some of his sermons to take him home. He was a popular popular preacher and also an absolute boot licker. He was so popular that some seven hundred some years later I ruined my entire life by writing a PhD about him, which is mostly used to argue with my better paid colleagues after they are paid to write weird, stilted opinion pieces. So my point is these opinions are by no means isolated, and treating an entire genre of preaching as unified across an entire century is simplistic and also just wrong.

So then, we understand that fourteenth-century apocalyptic preachers are actually really and very seriously attempting to save the world and for many that was inextricably bound up with a desire to prop up the extant hierarchies of the time. How the hell does Dan Jones argue otherwise? Oh he just calls the Peasants Rebellion and the Jacquerie apocalyptic movements. This seems to hinge on the preaching of John Ball (1338-1381) during the movement. Regular readers will remember that John Ball did indeed preach to the members of the English Peasants’ Revolt. (He was not, emphatically, their prophet though. That is not a word that you can use in this context, and it needs to be used very expressly and carefully in historical writing.

The death of Watt Tyler, from
Jean Froissart’s Chronicles, Bib. Nat. Fr. 2644, fol. 159 v.

Now we can, in a scholarly sense, as James Crossley points out, consider Ball as apocalyptic in that “he and his supporters envisaged imminent and dramatic social and political upheaval. … Ball was understood to have believed that the summer of 1381 was the appointed time for the rebels to enact the divine plan to bring about their liberty through the violent transformation of England … For Ball, the problem that needed rectifying was that the ecclesiastical and political elites were maintaining their wealth through, and at the expense of, the peasants and lower orders. He taught that the majority of the elites needed to be removed or eliminated and a new (or revived) order put in its place, with Ball as the leader of the church in England.”[3] 

I know I am just a humble person who has spent many many years of not being paid well to actually do a lot of reading specifically on this topic. As a result I have (and frankly should have) a more nuanced grasp on the subject of what we mean by “apocalyptic” in this context that might escape the non-specialist. Firstly, it is important to understand that “apocalyptic” in this sense is not a signifier that Ball thought the End Times were here. It is more that the world was undergoing a time of change. He was envisioning a new social order, and therefore suggesting that society as a whole was about to shift. This is not the same thing as expecting the world as a whole to end.

Secondly, because I would have failed my entire fucking PhD about popular fourteenth-century apocalyptic preachers by missing something like John Ball preaching actual eschatology, I can say that that this is very probably not, in fact, something that he ever did. He was often in trouble and arrested for stuff like “manifest contumacy”, but that seems to be about it. We can use the much more popular and well-connected Milíč’s career as an indication for what would go down if he was actually caught preaching that there was a specific time frame for the End of Days. Milíč, who had direct backing from the Holy Roman Emperor and friends at the cathedral in Prague had to go to Avignon to defend himself about accusations of preaching the exact coming of Antichrist, and he probably didn’t actually do that. So if the pretty universally reviled by the powerful establishment John Ball had got anywhere close to arguing, for example, that 1381 was going to be the actual end of the world he would have found himself imprisoned right quick. After all, all the rich guys already hated him and were arresting him all over the shop anyway. If they were doing it because he was preaching Apocalypse, I assure you they would have at least took the time to jot that one down.

Peasants working in September, detail from Les Tres Riches Heures du Jean, Duc de Berry.

Where Dan is right is that John Ball and the peasants were attempting to do is, in fact, not unlike what the XR kids are trying to do by like hugging cops or whatever. Where he has mis-stepped is that all of these movements are literally couched in the idea that the world needs to shift now because it is unbearable for the great majority of people on earth and will only become more so without change. How, then, can Jones argue here that anyone in either camp is happy for the world to end? It makes no sense from either a historical point of view or as a point of critique. 

Ultimately, this little article is mostly just depressing. It doesn’t matter that I can write a counterpoint ripping Jones’s understanding of medieval apocalypticism into shreds. He is well connected and can go around writing books about medieval history as much as he likes. Why he would want to do so is what confounds me. He seems to have nothing but contempt for medieval Europeans, as is displayed amply here.

But really all of these confusing twists and turns show his game for what it really is – Dan is playing to an audience that wants to believe that the Peasants’ Revolt and XR alike are bad. This is because they are the sort of “sensible” centerist middle class people who somehow think that they are analogous to the rich and powerful of the medieval period. They look at this period of time, and despite all evidence to the contrary that think that the real heroes of the medieval period are the kings and popes, you know, and that those people reflect their own circumstances. It is those who rule that his readers ultimately care for because they have convinced themselves that they would be and are those rulers.

As a result, he sets out the great majority of people –  who King Richard II expressly announced he wanted to oppress – as ultimately deserving of that oppression. You know, “Rustics you were and rustics you are still. You will remain in bondage, not as before, but incomparably harsher”? Dan Jones’s readers think that is good, and perhaps sensible and he is encouraging them in that sentiment here. He is therefore arguing for artificially depressed wages and no freedom of movement for the poor. Seventy percent of all people in Europe? Dan’s readers think that they that should “remain in bondage” and maybe be punished for daring to dream of a more equitable world. And he is fine with that. Cool. Not a problem at all.

Bib. Nat. MS Fr. 2813, f. 414 r.

In Dan Jones’s framing his readers are assured that the poor and powerless resisting against their oppressors are nothing but ignorant gadflies. To them, it is certain that if the peasants had got their way and had made a more equitable world, it wouldbe much the same thing as the world ending. Indeed, Dan states that openly. And to be fair, to his readers that is what it would mean. What is even the point of a world that is not set up for them to tut at the poor from a position of comfort unquestioned? So Dan ties himself in knots and fundamentally misinterprets not only medieval apocalypticism, but popular revolts, and the aims of XR so that he can tell his audience that they need not worry about the complaints of a few disempowered young people who want to  <checks notes>, not run out of potable water in their old age. Suddenly the bare-minimum demands of a group of disempowered young people are a demand that society as a whole is restarted on “more or less communistic grounds” (??? Citation extremely needed, and also Dan I really fucking wish that is what XR were about.) and Dan’s readers can focus on an enemy that they recognise from the good old days of the cold war when they understood politics.

However, if that is what Dan’s audience’s worry is then how, exactly, are we supposed to read XR as the apocalyptic fools here? They are worried about a slightly more equitable society and maybe not everything being on fire all the time and will refuse to brook any discussion about it. This is the classic snowflake conundrum. Invariably the people who are throwing around accusations about who is fragile are the ones who are themselves actually freaked the fuck out at the prospect of society being reshuffled. They cannot even countenance a world that has changed even slightly so that they don’t always come out on top. So Dan pops up to tell them that the peasants had it coming, and misinterpret apocalypticism to assuage their fears.

Anyway, TL/DR this is bad history and Dan should feel bad. And perhaps he does. Perhaps he knows that this article is fulfilling a need that the older richer generation has to be told that the status quo will never change, and that they will always be considered right and good. He is creating an a-historical world for them where working-class radicals are always wrong and rightly punished for their transgressions against their moral and social betters. Is it historically accurate? No, but it pays the bills. And to be fair to Dan, that’s more than me and all of my nuance can say.

[1] Milíč, ‘Sacerdotes Contempserunt’, Narodni Knihovna MSX.D.5, fol. 132 v., col. 2.
[2] ‘Et si vultis recipere, discessio ab Imperio facta est. Ex quo ita distractum est, et cottidie distrahitur, quod dominus Imperator non possit ex eo panem habere, nisi haberet de Bohemia. Et quomodo in plura regna et imperia divisum est imperium Romanorum?’ Milíč, Libellus, in, Milan Opočenský and Jana Opočenská (eds.), The Message for the Last Days: Three Essays from the Year 1367 (Geneva: World Alliance of Reformed Churches, 1998), p. 68.
[3] James Crossley, “John Ball and the Peasants’ Revolt”, in, James Crossley and Alastair Lockhart (eds.) Critical Dictionary of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements. 15 January 2021. www.cdamm.org/articles/john-ball. <Accessed 6 September 2021>.

For more on peasants, see:
On defeats, small people, and the UK election
On leisure in August

For more on apocalypticism, see:
The Medieval Sex Apocalypse on Drinking with Historians
On Jerusalem and the Apocalypse, or why you should be deeply unsettled right now
Emergency Pubcast – Why the Pope can’t just say there’s no hell and do me like that
On Mike Pence, Holocaust Memorial Day, and Christian interpretations of Jewish utility
On Jezebel, makeup, and other apocalyptic signs
Look up – this church is judging you

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

17 thoughts on “On apocalypticism, extinction rebellion, and ahistorical cosseting”

  1. Just wanted to send some admiration for this blog straight from Portugal! It is absolutely incredible, engaging, well-written, informative, funny and has a very likeable (for me) tendency to rip the idiots to shreds.

    Parabéns! (congratulations!), and keep up the good work!


    1. It means that someone is seen, specifically, as being directly in touch with the divine and leading a new iteration of a religion as a result. We cannot say that is happening with John Ball, who is just preaching and still a regular flavour Christian.


  2. This is why at the age of 60 I have enrolled to stuDy for a History degree. I am constantly questioning the accounts given by so called historians like D Jones that are presented in the mainstream. Thanks – as ever – for a tremendous post.


  3. Great blog article, thank you ! I confess it’s much more interesting to see you debunk professionnal opinions such as this one from Dan Jones. Had I read his argument in the paper, I would probably have disagreed, then checked his credentials, then doubted myself because I would have assumed he knew what he was talking about…

    Just a sidenote : what do you mean underpayed as a PhD ?! One of my friends just moved from the Continent to the UK to pursue a post-doc in Church history, and she told me how much better it was as a British researcher… How bad do we have it here ?

    Liked by 1 person

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