Terror in A.D. 1000? | History | Smithsonian

Terror in A.D. 1000?

While we look to the new millennium with both trepidation and amusement, medieval scholars argue about what really happened at this time 1,000 years ago

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Popular accounts of the turn of the last millennium paint a world gone mad. Churches crammed with penitents, soldiers departed from the battlefield, farmers gone from their fields; and the church offering solace to all in exchange for property and gold. While easy to embrace, this vision of medieval Europeans, gripped by paralyzing fear in anticipation of the end of the world, is more legend than fact. So say most medieval historians, who long ago dubbed it a myth and named it the "Terrors of the year 1000."

However, history professor Richard Landes, who is also director of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, recently challenged old-guard academe with a new theory arguing that, in fact, millennium-related activity did occur on a larger scale in the years surrounding the first millennium and that the Terrors myth may actually contain elements of truth. Sources are few and subject to wide interpretation, making the resulting academic debate lively and contentious.

But how did the tale of the Terrors get its start? The short answer is that historians from the 16th century on found the entire notion to be territory too rich to resist. Add to that the idea that interpretation of events in the past are often colored by the historian's own biases. Over the centuries, these interpretations flowered into the Terrors myth.

Journey through the last ten centuries and learn how history is written down, interpreted, reinterpreted and analyzed. Why do year 1000 events so fascinate historians of the 16th, 17th and 19th centuries? And how will our own modern interpretations of the year 1000 be seen 1,000 years from now?

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