Johns Hopkins Magazine -- February 1999
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An apocalyptic invention... awards galore... catching up with... finding comfort in community... medievalism's marginal studies...

Illustration by Colin Johnson
Inventing the millennium

For those of you who have spent the last five years in a mine shaft, the impending (and technically incorrect) turn of the millennium--January 1, 2000--is going to be a big deal. Never mind that the 3rd millennium A.D. doesn't actually begin until 2001. The New Year's Eve parties are going to be elaborate and staged in exotic locales (cruises to Antarctica are already filling up), some if not many of our computer systems are going to go on the fritz, and there should be lots of apocalyptic weirdness. After all, people have always feared the end of a millennium as signaling the end of the world.

Except...they haven't. The idea that people historically have viewed the fin de millennium (to mix languages) in apocalyptic terms was the invention of French historians in the early 19th century, according to Hopkins French professor Stephen Nichols. For much of recorded history, Nichols says, most people didn't even bother to count years, at least not in the modern sense of decades and centuries.

The idea of enumerating the years since the birth of Christ originated with the English historian Bede, in the 8th century, says Nichols. Before that, people had counted years but in relation to something concurrent, like a papacy, or a monarch's reign--"in the third year of King Vortigern." As Nichols notes, "If you date things by the kings of France, for example, that means nothing to much of England." By adopting the system of counting the years A.D., Bede figured, at least everyone in Christendom could understand an event's place in time.

Around 1570, Nichols says, a French Jesuit suggested thinking of time in decimal units--decades, centuries, etc. But few rushed to embrace the idea. "People have to see the need," says Nichols. "In the 16th century, no one did." They saw no reason to mark the dates for the changing of millennia, either. The religious idea of thousand-year cycles existed (see the Bible's book of Revelations), but Nichols notes that those cycles had not been anchored to any arbitrary start or end points.

That changed, he says, after the French Revolution-- "the first revolution that set out to overthrow social categories on a massive scale," Nichols says. "It was the first radical secular transformation of society." The revolutionaries wanted to abolish the monarchy, destroy the aristocracy, and end the power of the church. For many people, the end of the world as they knew it did seem at hand. By the 1830s, in the aftermath of all that, plus Napoleon, plus another revolt, French historians were grappling with how to describe this cataclysm, and how to place it in historical context.

After so much destruction and terror, Nichols says, the chroniclers wanted to discuss the revolution in terms of new beginnings and rebirth, and counter the sense of the revolution as an apocalyptic event. To do this, historian Jules Michelet and others needed examples of previous periods of history when people thought the world was ending and turned out, obviously, to be wrong. So Michelet reached back to 987, which marked the end of the Carolingian period in French history and the advent of the rule of the Capetians. Michelet wrote, "It was a universal belief in the Middle Ages that the world would end with the year 1000."

What Michelet wanted to do, Nichols says, is draw a parallel to France after the 18th-century revolution that had overthrown eight centuries of Capetian rule, and the France of 987 that had endured a similarly jarring change. The French people thought the world was ending then, he said, and they were wrong. So why make the same mistake now that we've again overthrown a dynasty?

The only problem, says Nichols, is that Michelet's documentary evidence, to substantiate his claim that people at the turn of the previous millennium feared the world was ending, is insubstantial. Michelet interpreted history (some might say made it up) to put the 1789 revolution in the context he desired.

"It's a way of taking the revolution's rhetoric and taking the terror out of it," Nichols says. "You put the French Revolution in a context of other rebirths in history." Even if, as did Michelet, you have to invent some of that history.
--Dale Keiger

Photo by Louis Rosenstock
Cork poppings at The Writing Sems

Had you called the offices of the Hopkins Writing Seminars on a certain day last November, you'd have heard pervasive giddiness. The cause was the National Book Award won by visiting professor Alice McDermott for her latest novel, Charming Billy. Handicapping literary prizes is a goofy business, but that's never stopped anyone, and most observers expected the award to go to either Tom Wolfe or former Hopkins professor Robert Stone. McDermott's prize was greeted in the department with considerable glee.

It was a good year for The Writing Seminars. Before McDermott's triumph, the department celebrated Whiting Awards won by visiting lecturer Greg Williamson and alumnus Ralph Lombreglia '81. And the Lannan Foundation presented professor emeritus John Barth with its lifetime achievement award, a prestigious prize that includes a stipend of $100,000.

Matthew Burtner
Photo by Mark Lee
Catching up with...

Matthew Burtner (Peabody MM '97), the student composer featured in the June 1997 issue of Hopkins Magazine, has a new recording of his works, Portals of Distortion: Music for Saxophones, Computers, and Stones, scheduled for release in January. Burtner is now a doctoral composition fellow in residence at Stanford University.

Rosemary Mahoney (MA '85) has published a new book, A Likely Story: One Summer With Lillian Hellman (Doubleday, 1998). The memoir recounts the summer of Mahoney's 18th year, when she worked for Hellman on Martha's Vineyard. This is Mahoney's first book since the much-praised Whoredom in Kimmage (see the February 1994 issue of Hopkins Magazine).

Violinist Florin Parvelescu (Peabody '93) has joined the violin section of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Parvelescu was the winner of the 1993 Marbury Violin Competition, which was the subject of our April 1993 article "Fiddler's Festival."

Return to faith

Until a few years ago, Roberta Israeloff's observance of Judaism was less than ardent. She preferred to spend Friday nights at home with her family rather than worship in the synagogue, and she avoided using Yiddish words in conversation. Despite fond memories of her grandmothers' faith, she was convinced that she'd never experience the same unquestioning belief.

But as 1995 approached, she had to decide if her 13-year-old son would have a bar mitzvah, and the religious education that would prepare him. This prompted a return to spirituality for Israeloff, a graduate of the Hopkins Writing Seminars (MA '95). She describes her journey in her fourth book, Kindling the Flame (Simon & Schuster, 1998).

Israeloff wrote the book in part because she found that a number of her friends, of all faiths, were facing similar issues as their children grew up. "It's no accident that when our kids are turning 13 and having these rites of passage, we're turning 40," she says. "Our thoughts start going to issues of mortality and metaphysical questions."

For Israeloff, a community choir performance in 1994 proved to be an epiphany. She had sung in holiday concerts since childhood, impervious to the discomfort of her parents as they sat listening to Christmas carols. "I'd always loved Christmas music so much," she says. "But there was a sense this time of finding myself as one of the only Jewish people in this choir, and realizing how comforting it is to be with people who are like you, to be in a kind of tribe."

Israeloff describes in her book how she finally takes up the practice of faith again: she selects a synagogue, becomes involved in its operation, and witnesses her son's bar mitzvah. She finds a place to belong. "It was very much a quest for community," she says.

Though she is now more involved with her faith, Israeloff says that she'll never have the same relationship to Judaism that her grandmothers and parents had. "I know my kids won't ever have that experience, and that seems like a loss to me, but it's a loss that I can't really do anything about. I just have to hope that they'll have some sense of what it means to be Jewish."

Photo courtesy Hieronymus Bosch
Medieval grotesquery

Professor of history Gabrielle M. Spiegel recently analyzed medieval studies to determine the current areas of scholarly fascination. She arrived at a curious list that included death, contagion, castration, pain, transvestism, and our favorite...pus.

Spiegel, with Paul Freedman of Yale, assembled the list for an article in The American Historical Review. In that article the authors note that medievalists have taken a turn toward studying the marginal, the estranged, and in many cases the grotesque in papers like "Masochism/Lancelotism." One wonders when Sir Lancelot went from being a mythic hero to a condition, or at least an -ism.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently listed Spiegel's book The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography (Johns Hopkins, 1997) as among important recent books in medieval studies.