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Monday, May 7, 2012

Hydatius: The Medieval World's Doomsday Prognosticator

Human beings have always been fascinated with "doomsday" stories.  For whatever reason, the idea that humanity might come to an end via alien invasion, a killer comet, nuclear war or religious apocalypse has caused almost every generation and civilization to predict where, when and how the end of days might play out.  I have actually blogged about this phenomenon  before.  American culture is full of examples of doomsday practitioners who tailor their rhetoric to invoke the desired reaction from their target audience.  Whether it takes the form of fire and brimstone televangelists, doom and gloom political pundits, awe inspiring Hollywood films or mysterious Mayan predictions, we Americans seem to have a love/hate relationship with all things apocalyptic. 

But we Americans are far from alone in our apparent affinity for the end of days.  Virtually every civilization in every corner of the world has their doomsday stories.  One of my all-time favorites comes out of Medieval Europe, from the 5th century to be specific. 

Along the Iberian Peninsula, in what is today Spain, a man named Hydatius lived a life of faithful devotion to the emerging religion known as Christianity.  In fact, so great was his piety that in 427, Hydatius was made Bishop of Chaves, where he labored extensively to establish the church in that particular part of the Late Roman Empire.  Hydatius had a reputation for rooting out any and all forms of Christian heresy and pagan loyalty.  As a result, his name was revered by many of the chief figureheads of both Rome and the church.

Despite his tenacity and zeal for the work of the church, Hydatius was forced to come to terms with the changing world around him.  The Western Roman Empire was dying a slow, painful death that was only being made worse by the intrusion of northern "barbarian" tribes who were eager to feast of the rotting carcases of the once great empire.  For Hydatius, this reality was an extremely bitter pill to swallow.  Rome, and the church, were the palpable reality of God's kingdom on Earth.  With Alaric's sacking of Rome in 410 still fresh in the minds of many (not to mention the other barbarian incursions and mounting political instability of the Western Roman Empire), the idea that the Roman Empire might disappear completely was a painful future to consider. 

Due in large part to the emergence of the Christian faith along with the rapidly approaching demise of the Roman Empire, men like Hydatius were quick to assume that not only might Rome come to an end, but the world itself by be nearing its conclusion.  Beginning with the creation story from the Book of Genesis, Hydatius sought to place all of human history within the context of a linear progression, starting with Adam and Eve and ending with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, which Hydatius believed to be right around the corner (some sources specify the date of May 27, 482).  In fact, Hydatrius could easily be considered as the "father" of the Christian end of days phenomenon, in which virtually every succeeding generation has followed his example.  As a member of the social elite, Hydatius had access to a number of chronographic and historical sources, and he cited them extensively in his forecasts of the end of the world (though he often exaggerated the historical records or simply made stuff up to fit his agenda).  As a result, Hydatius gained quite the following, even among some in the upper class.

In addition to establishing the precedent of fitting a world apocalypse within the construct of Christianity, Hydatius was a pro at depicting the end of the world as a doom and gloom event.  Much in the same way that a Glenn Beck or a Harold Camping of today spins their rhetoric to invoke fear and terror of the future, Hydatius was a master of fear mongering.  For example:
Such are the contents of the present volume, but I have left it to my successors to account of the Last Days, at that time at which they encounter them...famines run riot, so dire that driven by hunger human beings devoured human flesh; mothers too feasted upon the bodies of of their own children whom they had killed and cooked with their own hands...And thus with the four plagues of sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts raging everywhere throughout the world, the annunciations foretold by the Lord through his prophets came to fulfilment.
As you can see, Hydatius didn't have to look far to find his "ammunition."  All around, examples of the crumbling Roman world were to be found, and Hydatius was like a kid in a candy store.  The animalistic, heathen barbarians, intent on rape, pillage, plunder, destruction, enslavement and conquest, were the perfect characters for any and all devil/anti-Christ roles that could be imagined.  In short, Hydatius' life, and that of his contemporaries, is a miserable, hopeless, decrepit and evil existence, but all is well because the end was coming...and coming SOON!   

All of this begs the question, "Were things really as bad in the 5th century as Hydatius makes them out to be?"  The quick answer to this question is a resounding, "No."  Sure, the Western Roman world was a world in change and constant flux.  Political strife and social decay, coupled with the rise of "barbarian" northerners and the Christian religion, all made for a very unpredictable world.  But this does not mean that the world itself was hanging by a thread or that good, innocent people were living in a constant state of panic.  In fact, the overwhelming majority of commoners probably never heard or cared about the type of rhetoric that Hydatius was spinning.  For most peasants, coloni, etc., like was pretty much the status quo existence of farming, socializing within a very limited and localized structure, praying to god(s), etc.  Hydatius' message was not one that got a ton of airtime and he was clearly embellishing things to advance his apocalyptic message.  From historian E.A. Thompson's book, Romans and Barbarians:
The entry of the barbarians into Spain in 409 was an event which made an impact, but not a resounding impact, on the chroniclers of the outside world.  Most of them speak of it, but the do so briefly -- only in a few words...For Hydatius, on the other hand, it was a calamity which deserved as much space as the Fall of Rome itself...a disaster which dumbfounded the civilized world.
With that said, Hydatius' accounts, though sensationalized and often misleading, provide some important glimpses into the 5th century history of Spain.  As such, they are an invaluable treasure.  Of course, much of it needs to be taken with a grain of salt.  After all, we now know with the blessing of hindsight that the world didn't end in 482 (far from it), nor was the "barbarian invasion" into the dying Roman Empire the end of the world.  In fact, it marked the beginning for the emerging Medieval societies of Europe, not to mention the future greatness of Christianity as the single most influential force of the next 1000+ years.

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