September 28, 2007


Professor Norman Cohn: Historian and linguist of rare erudition whose masterpiece was 'The Pursuit of the Millennium' (Independent, 29 September 2007)

Norman Cohn wrote three great histories, each thematically related to the other. His first book, The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), showed how apocalyptic beliefs fuelled medieval heresies and, in the 20th century, Nazi and Communist orthodoxies. His second, Warrant for Genocide (1967), exposed that arsenal for anti-Semites The Protocol of the Elders of Zion for the forgery that it was. His third, Europe's Inner Demons (1976), showed how the idea of the satanic pact was at the heart of the European witch-craze. In 1948 the great Annales scholar Lucien Febvre had written his (then) startling essay, "Witchcraft: nonsense or a mental revolution?" Cohn's published writings would provide the most satisfying answer to that question.

But first the nonsense had to be got out of the way. Not just the history – Nazi reliance on a dodgy document. But the historiography: credulous readers' reliance on Margaret Murray's fiction of witchcraft as Christianity's ancient religious rival. Cohn, the most modest and gentle of men, swept her 1921 romance The Witch-Cult in Western Europe into the dustbin. His weapons were, as in all his inquiries, patience, scrupulous testing of evidence and empathy into minds of very different cultures, all backed with formidable linguistic skills.

It was as a linguist, not a historian, that he had begun his academic career. [...]

Cohn was as accessible as he was erudite. Generations of undergraduates thrilled to The Pursuit of the Millennium. Scholars continue to raid his works for fresh insights. In the current Journal of Ecclesiastical History there is a review of a new French book on witchcraft, which grapples with the great question: where was the link between witchcraft as attested in early medieval folklore and the apparently sudden and unprecedented emergence, at some point after 1400, of a belief in a conspiracy between witches and the devil? The reviewer likes the book, but his final message is: go back to Cohn!

Sometimes the very boldness of the presentation leads to a failure in his readers to appreciate the subtleties behind it. Cohn never said – although he has been credited with saying it – that millenarianism inevitably produces revolutions. But his brilliant evocations of John of Leyden's reign of terror in Munster – and those flagellants who seem to have walked straight out of The Seventh Seal – once encountered by the reader stay in the mind. Cohn intended them to do so, but not at the price of failing to realise that millenarian speculations could have stabilising effects as well as destabilising ones.

He was particularly sensitive to the power of belief in a Last World Emperor as a secular companion figure to the Angelic Pope. There are 31 entries on the Emperor cult in The Pursuit of the Millennium index, which will surprise only those who accept a simplified reading of the Cohn thesis.

Norman Cohn, Historian, Dies at 92 (DOUGLAS MARTIN, 8/27/07, NY Times)
In highly detailed, laboriously researched studies that depended on his knowledge of many ancient languages, Mr. Cohn reached far back into history to illuminate subjects of compelling current interest from totalitarianism to anti-Semitism to repression of minorities.

His gift for seeing old stories with new eyes shone in his book on the development and interpretation of the biblical story of Noah, “Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought.” His crisp writing drew praise.

He was an unusual historian in that as a student he did not study history, but was trained as a linguist; he then put his knowledge of medieval Latin, Greek, Old French and High and Low German to work in his famously meticulous research. He also brought passion to his search for the roots of hatred: he had lost relatives in the Holocaust.

The Times Literary Supplement included his seminal 1957 book, “The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages,” in a 1995 list of the 100 nonfiction works with the greatest influence on how postwar Europeans perceive themselves. Other books on the list were by Camus, Sartre and Foucault.

Beginning with the Crusades and concluding with 16th-century Anabaptists, Mr. Cohn showed in this book how the desire of the poor to improve their lot merged with prophecies of a final struggle between Christ and Antichrist, to be followed by the emergence of a new paradise.

“In situations of mass disorientation and anxiety, traditional beliefs about a future golden age or messianic kingdom came to serve as vehicles for social aspirations and animosities,” he wrote.

This vision, he suggested, passed among cultures and languages and from religious to secular discourse without losing its coherence or power to jolt the downtrodden to rise up. Messianic leaders like Stalin and Hitler appealed to the deep, biblically inspired belief that after intense struggle history would end, and an elect of believers would inherit paradise.

“The old religious idiom has been replaced by a secular one, and this tends to obscure what otherwise would be obvious,” he wrote. “For it is the simple truth that, stripped of their original supernatural sanction, revolutionary millenarianism and mystical anarchism are with us still.”

Mr. Cohn’s theory emerged from a decade of research into millennial movements like the Flagellants who massacred the Jews of Frankfurt in 1349, the 16th-century Anabaptist theocracy of Münster, Germany, and the Ranters of the English Civil War.

Anthony Storr, a psychoanalyst who has written on historical figures, once called Mr. Cohn “the historian of important parts of history that other historians do not reach.”

Norman Cohn (Paul Lay, August 9, 2007, The Guardian)
-ARCHIVES: Norman Cohn - The New York Review of Books

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 28, 2007 7:17 PM
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