Martin Luther, on the Printing Press, 1517

Apocalyptic Cults and the Early-Modern Information Explosion

Collectively we have never known more about ourselves, our past and the natural world, but individually we are cruelly fated to perceive it through the Baudrillardian hall of mirrors that is the internet. Surrounding by an informational expanse that would take many lifetimes to parse let alone fathom, the old gatekeepers of knowledge — be they banks, religious leaders, journalists, politicians or even scientists — are suffering a catastrophic crisis of legitimacy, leaving the multitudes to dive into the abyss of data to see for themselves. E.O.Wilson describes the situation as “drowning in information while starving for wisdom” and in place of wisdom, we are drawn to mirages of narrative coherence. As we are bombarded with hashtags of ominous portent — apocalyptic fires, epidemics and the looming spectre of war — fringe movements of strangeness and intensity have come to dominate and polarise public discourse, each attempting to hijack the reigns of power and shape the historical narrative. Some promising a return to the safety of an idyllic past, others wanting to sweep the past away to lead us to a future world of where hierarchies have been banished private property abolished.

To the historian, this all looks eerily familiar. Beginning with the invention of the printing press in 15th century Europe a similar explosion of information occurred, leading to massive growth in literacy and artistic and intellectual ferment, but also political turmoil, extremism and polarisation. It was a time of society-wide confusion — from the Latin confusionem meaning to mingle and muddle together — of different theological perspectives at first, then more and more fragments of news, rumour and scaremongering from across Christendom and the expanding world. Suddenly the seemingly eternal certainties of Church doctrine began to crumble, leading to peasant rebellions, uprisings and civil wars. As the legitimacy of popes, kings and statesmen imploded and wars and schisms multiplied, there came to be a growing sense that the world was falling apart and that a new one was on the cusp of being born.

Amidst this turbulence, prophecies went viral — with whole swathes of the population coming to the belief that the reason for the chaos was the imminence of Christ’s return to establish His eternal kingdom. Radical movements appeared from nowhere and came to guide the fates of cities and nations, transforming the history of Europe and ultimately reshaping culture and human cognition.

To the intellectuals and theologians of the Middle Ages, the dream of the Kingdom of Heaven was an intellectual canvas on which to project their imagination of a better, fairer and juster world. And in the isolation of monasteries, they attempted to emulate it. Coalescing in the fifth and sixth centuries from what had previously been solitary holy men and hermits, they sought to replicate the imagined egalitarian communities of the early Church, complete with the abandonment of self and property. Rather than accepting hierarchies and inequality as natural as the pagans did, these monks sought to embody a vision of humanity rooted in supreme virtue and equality in the eyes of God; a mirror of the Kingdom of Heaven. In attempting to emulate these ideal monks were constantly struggling against their own fallen natures, a virtue which would be rewarded in the hereafter. In this world of inner reflection and introspection, the monks came to be deeply attuned to the natural world and contemplative about their relationship to the environment; in the words of Evagrius they looked “to dwell in the place of God”.

These island of virtue existed in an ocean of sin. In the medieval mind there was a widespread belief that since the time of The Fall, the world was on a terminal downward spiral towards the end-times. There was no such concept as progress towards a better future; generations-to-come would experience a material world very much the same as that of today, only a little bit worse. Beyond the event-horizon of Christ’s return there would be no material existence at all, for unlike the cyclic cosmologies of the Hindus or the Aztecs in which world would die only to be reborn, the Christian cosmology had only one end-point in time beyond which souls were saved in the Kingdom of Heaven, or eternally damned.

This all changed one Easter morning in the mid 12th century when a young court official from Italy called Joachim of Fiore decided to make a pilgrimage in the Holy Land while on a business trip in Byzantium. He journeyed to the place where it was said Jesus would one day return; Mount Tabor in Israel, and sat on its summit in deep meditation. The next day he descended the holy mountain with what he called “the fullness of knowledge” and soon quit his job and became a monk, before being quickly promoted to an abbot. So brimming with ideas was Joachim that he gained a dispensation from Pope Clement III to write a trilogy of books; The Harmony of the New and Old Testaments, Exposition of Apocalypse, and the Psaltery of Ten Strings. His radical spin on eschatology was that history is not in terminal decline, but rather evolving towards an “Age of Freedom”;

“Scripture taught a record of man’s gradual spiritual developments, leading to a perfected future age which was the fulfilment of prophetic hope.”

The vision that Joachim received was that the Kingdom of Heaven not an ethereal an otherworldly realm, but as a universal earthly paradise that would be realised in the future on Earth. His cosmology consisted of three ages based on the Trinity, the Age of the Father (the time of the patriarchs) the Age of the Son (the present Christian world) and the Age of the Holy Spirit (the world to come). This Third Age would be born out of a catastrophe in around the year 1260AD, after which the Church and the State would wither away, and a perfect “Age of Freedom” would bloom, characterised by a contemplative approach to nature, and universal equality and love. A time when the Scriptures would become accessible to all — not just the priests — and the imminence of their grace unleashed would bless all of humanity. Although he never knew it, he became the man who invented the future.

Visualisation the three eras; that of the Father, the Son and the Third Age; the era of the Holy Spirit

If talk of the Church and State being swept away sounds heretical you may be surprised to hear that Joachim was a well-regarded theologian while alive, but these were different times. Localised “reformations” had happened repeatedly throughout European history, but they were limited to small geographic locations, word-of-mouth transmission, illiteracy and the economics of the manuscript. Often they simply flickered out of existence. For in the medieval world the Church was much more capable of adapting to local variations of the faith. Eugene F. Rice Jr. in The Foundations of Early Modern Europe writes that;

“The medieval church was more ecumenical, more genially encompassing, more permissive doctrinally than the sixteenth century churches… What so dramatically happened during the age of Reformation is that [different perspectives] crystallised into two distinct and opposed systems, each more exclusive, more consistent, and more rigid than the medieval system from which they derived.”

What Joachim prophesied was a world-spanning monastic realisation of heaven-on-earth. But when these ideas “escaped the lab” in the age of print, millenarian projects to attain it would be unleashed on the world as a series of worldly nightmares of escalating intensity.

In antiquity, Christians knew it was a sin to make ritual offerings to the cult of the Emperor but not all were willing to risk their lives by refusing to do so. As such, they could earn an “Indulgence” from the priesthood as a form of forgiveness which amounted to a reduced sentence in purgatory. These were traditionally earned with various penances and long periods of guilt and reflection. But by the 15th century, they had become commercialised, provoking questions if this might be something that the almighty would approve of. The English thinker John Wycliffe thought the answer was certainly no, concluding that “it is plain to me that our prelates in granting Indulgences do commonly blaspheme the wisdom of God.” These ideas and others spread over the Channel via letters where they would find the mind of the Czech theologian Jan Hus, who elaborated on them in lectures at his chapel in Prague to a growing audience. Why should degrees of the Church — a fallible human institution — be considered more important to the Bible itself?

Hus was ultimately invited to a conference — the Council of Constance — to explain his ideas for reform but was immediately arrested, accused of heresy and thrown in prison. On refusing to repent not only was Hus burned alive, but his remains were burned again, then his charred heart was taken out the cinders and burned a third time before being cast into a lake. In the mind of the Church, this thoroughness of erasure was not just to send a message, but would ensure there were no physical relics that would make this heresy endure in the public consciousness. Unfortunately for the Church while Hus was locked up he had written a series of treatises which he mailed to Prague which were subsequently copied and read aloud. These ideas would endure in away a relic would not.

The fate of Jan Hus
The fate of Jan Hus

The Church followed this up with a crackdown of his followers – the Hussites – leading to a schism within them between a faction who were willing to compromise with the Pope and those who refused to submit to Hus’ killers. The more radical sect overtook the town of Sezimovo Ústí, renaming it Tabor, after the mountain in Israel where Christ would return and where Joachim of Fiore received his revelation. Here they would combine the now heretical thoughts of Hus and Wycliffe with the more radical millenarian social projects. It was decided that in Tabor “whoever owns private property commits a mortal sin”. Ownership was made illegal and taxes were abolished in an attempt to eliminate social hierarchy. This project was kept afloat by sympathisers from across Bavaria but it would soon become an unsustainable form of income. And having swept away the degenerate old world with its many vices the Taborites were left with no functioning economy and descended into brigandry. And in what would become a recurring theme of these sects, women too would become “communal”. They wrote that;

“Everything will be common, including wives; there will be free sons and daughters of God and there will be no marriage as union of two – husband and wife.”

The Church launched five crusades against the Hussites over the course of ten years, persecution which radicalised them away from pacifism into believing they were warriors engaged in the war of the end-times. Despite this theological fanaticism, the movement would finally be defeated in 1435, five years before the invention of the printing press. But the Taborite ideology in obsessing with reading was already primed for its introduction.

While the propaganda of the Catholic Church was composed of spoken slogans and images, that of the Hussites was aimed at a literate audience and were thus preoccupied with the importance of education in the lower classes. But being before the advent of print, it was not literacy in a sense we are familiar with, more like an augmentation of the oral-visual psychic world of the medieval mind, as historian Thomas A.Fudge explains;

“Systematic educating by the radical Taborie priests had the distinct result that many among the lower classes of Bohemian society were familiar with even the theoretical questions being debated in the ecclesiastical and academic circles of the land. In an essentially non-literate society, conventionally so-called, ideas are communicated primarily through visual and oral modes. Hussite Bohemia was no exception. Thus, in terms of functional literacy it is safe to say that literacy cannot be equated with textuality any more than oral tradition an be considered a form of illiteracy.”

And literacy was in the eyes of the Church fundamentally entangled with heresy. As financial theorist William Bernstein put it;

“The Roman Catholic Church all too well understood the relationships between heresy and literacy; not only did literacy encourage heresy, but… heresy begat literacy.”

Literacy, like access to the Scripture, was the preserve of a tiny minority of literate elites. At this time the Scriptoria in the monasteries performed the further vital function of knowledge reproduction by monks painstakingly copying books from antiquity. Because of the proximity to these holy men to the ordinary citizen, the written word and the book possessed a numinous and talismanic quality, but for the monks themselves, it was not always the meditative exercise it was perhaps intended to be. Some grumbled in commentary in the margins of manuscripts things like “oh, my hand”, “writing is excessive drudgery” and “St Patrick of Armagh, deliver me from writing”.

A medieval Scriptoria

And perhaps he did. For when the printing press arrived it rendered the scriptoria slowly obsolete, and the diffusion of information moved from the laborious work of mostly anonymous monks, to fundamentally altering the impact an individual could have on the world. Though Hus himself was killed in 1415, his ideas lingered on in letters copied by his followers. Perhaps they would eventually have been lost to time had they not eventually been disseminated in print in 1459. As the technology diffused the centuries-long conversations between learned theologians like Joachim of Fiore and his peers became joined by the voices everyday intellectuals, street-preachers, peasants and cranks. At first a trickle, then a flood. Where once their voices were once limited to a town square or tavern, now their ideas both mundane, profound and radical could be disseminated far across space and time.

Nearly a century after the Taborite rebellion and the growth of print a young Augustinian monk called Martin Luther realised its revolutionary potential. An avid reader, Luther was familiar both with Jan Hus and Joachim of Fiore and was captivated by the idea that the printing press would finally unleash the Scripture to the masses as the Italian mystic had prophesied. While there were some German-language Bibles already available, he considered these poor translation to be almost incomprehensible in places. Little more than crude cash-ins. Luther knew that to realise the potential of print he would need to do justice to the Scripture itself, and spent decades on his own translation of the original Hebrew and Greek.

The Luther Bible would be published in 1522 and 1534, selling 200,000 copies. It was a landmark of German literature.
The Luther Bible would be published in two parts in 1522 and 1534, selling 200,000 copies. It was a landmark of German literature.

A believer in the coming Third Age, he described the printing press as “God’s highest and extremest act of Grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is driven forward. It is the last flame which shines before the extinction of the world.” An insightful theologian with a common touch, Luther wanted small-r reforms rather than revolution particularly around the issue of Indulgences. Since the time of Jan Hus not only had they remained commercialised but thanks to the printing press almost immediately industrialised; printed en-mass in the form of a small 31-line flyer starting in 1454.

The 31-Line indulgence was first printed in 1454

Indeed, one priest, Johann Tetzel began touring around Europe selling them for sins yet to be committed, and funnelling the earnings to fund the new Cathedral of St Pauls. In short, they had become a divinely sanctioned form of printing money. In 1517, Luther furiously outlined his opposition to this outrage and marched to the printer to make his thoughts known in a pamphlet destined to go viral; the Ninety-Five Theses. Historian Maurice Gravier, quoted by Eisenstein, wrote that;

“The theses… were said to be know throughout Germany in a fortnight and throughout Europe in a month… Printing was recognised as a new power and publicity came into its own… the printing presses transformed the field of communications and fathered and international revolt. It was a revolution.”

In the intellectual tradition of Wycliffe and Hus, Luther argued that much of church doctrine – such as Indulgences – were derived not from the Bible itself, but from the accumulation of teachings and additions by the Church Fathers. Baptism of infants, for example, was never mentioned in the Scripture – only adults. So Luther argued for a back-to-basics approach, and inspired by the prophecies of Joachim saw print as a way for every man and woman to have a direct relationship with the divine, negating the need even for an organised priesthood. He imagined a “priesthood of all believers “ infused with the notions of universal equality and the apocalyptic portent of the Third Age. These ideas combined with the explosion common-language Bibles was like uploading the source code of divine authority for anyone to use.

Whereas intellectual contemporaries like Erasmus wrote in Latin for the educated elites, Luther’s pamphlets were theological hot-takes written in everyday German. He was a populist writing about radical equality in an era of growing intellectual ferment and wasn’t above scatological humour and poor taste to get his message across, even making puns at the expense of Jan Hus (Because his name meant “goose”, Luther made jokes along the lines of the “goose was cooked”). But while literacy was blooming thanks to print and the potential audience for such content was growing, he was soon to learn that not everyone with a gift for writing had the subtlety and thoughtfulness of a trained theologian. In an anxious age haunted by the spectre of armageddon ordinary people would bring their own interpretations and with them, their own fantasies of divinely sanctioned heaven-on-earth. So in attempting to reform the Church, Luther’s ideas would accidentally pour rhetorical fuel on the largest European rebellion before the French Revolution.

The German Peasant’s Revolt of 1524–1525 was sparked by a refusal to collect snails for the Countess of Lupfen, but quickly and unexpectedly escalated to full-blown armed rebellion. A collection of peasants got together outlined a list of 12 demands, the first of which was the power to sack priests if they behaved improperly or preached something which was not in the Bible. They also argued that because the feudal burdens placed on them were likewise not in Scripture they were not cosmically ordained they had been told. Indeed the entire feudal social order could thus be questioned. Over 25 thousand copies were printed.

Alarmed that his words could be used in such a way, Luther responded with a pamphlet entitled Against the Rioting Peasants – which was spiced up by marketing people to read Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants. Siding with the local princes, he lambasted them for violating sacred oaths of loyalty and “violently robbing and plundering monasteries” and worst of all complained that they “cloak this terrible and horrible sin with gospel”. Surely he must have had doubts about the “priesthood of all believers” at this stage.

Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses denouncing first the Church and a second pamphlet denouncing the Peasant’s Rebellion.

Luther was learning that he wasn’t the only thinker with access to a printing press, and once his powerful theological arguments had disseminated throughout society they began to mutate and recombine with those of even more ambitious and radical individuals in an orgy of combinatorial evolution. The Wool merchant Bernhard Knipperdolling was one such man. Likewise believing that the end of the world was imminent he described a future in which the righteous would be blessed as monarchs on earth — and that everyone being equal – all would henceforth have the authority of administering holy sacraments, not just priests. (A notable exception being “the wicked”).

Knipperdolling disseminated his ideas by pamphlet and soon joined forces with like-minded radicals looking for a place to establish new heaven on earth; a “New Jerusalem”. These included the cleric Brent Rothmann, a baker-turned-prophet called Jan Matthyas and his disciple, an 25-year-old tailor called Jan Bockelson. Together they spread a message of equality, empowerment, the abolition of social hierarchies. Acknowledging Luther’s observation that conscious will was required to accept the sacrament they began re-baptising adults into their new faith, leading to the name “Anabaptist” (re-baptised).

According to historian Norman Cohn, the excitement that these were the last days had become so widespread that when Matthyas and Knipperdolling ran through a town asking people confess their sins, some female converts who were formally nuns began to see “apocalyptic visions in the streets, and of such intensity that they would throw themselves on the ground, screaming, writhing and foaming at the mouth”. They proclaimed that they were to found a New Jerusalem in the German city of Münster, claiming it would be the only city in the world to survive when the apocalypse came on Easter Day 1534. In a state of hysteria, thousands of believers and their families began migrations from the countryside to Münster, and due to their sheer numbers succeeded in electing an all-Anabaptist council and took over the city.

As Thomas Aquinas put it in a phrase later popularised by Nietzsche “the blessed in the kingdom of heaven will see the punishments of the damned in order that their bliss be more delightful to them”. And so it was that the Anabaptist’s earthly paradise was to be immediately “purified of all uncleanliness”, so Catholics and Lutherans – including, infants, the old and the infirm – were exiled into a deadly snowstorm outside the city. These actions immediately led to an 18-month siege by its absent ruler Prince-Bishop Count Franz von Waldeck.

For the Anabaptists, establishing this eternal kingdom required destroying the world of the past. Catholic Churches were trashed, the central Cathedral was desecrated and its artworks destroyed. Every book and that was not the Bible was set ablaze. Fulfilling their promise to the end of private property, the entire city archive was burned, and with them, all records of ownership. However, the property of the exiled Lutherans and Catholics were stored in warehouses under the lock and key of a newly appointed “Deacon”. Even money and trade was abolished. As Anabaptist chaplain Brent Rothmann put it in one pamphlet.

“Everything which has served the purposes of selfseeking and private property, such as buying and selling, working for money, taking interest and practising usury – even at the expense of unbelievers – or eating and drinking the sweat of the poor (that is, making one’s own people and fellow-creatures work so that one can grow fat) and indeed everything which offends against love – all such things are abolished amongst us by the power of love and community. And knowing that God now desires to abolish such abominations.”

A contemporary depiction of the siege of Münster.

When Christ failed to return on Easter Day, Matthyas took matters into his own hands; so he and 12 disciples decided to meet with the exiled ruler Franz von Waldeck with a hope that this meeting would ignite a chain reaction that would bring about the apocalypse. All that happened was he was beheaded, and his penis was nailed to the city door. His main disciple, the dashing and flamboyant former tailor Jan Bockelson inherited both Matthyas power and ultimately his glamorous wife Divara, who soon married him. While notionally subscribing to the same communistic ideology of the other radicals, Matthyas would come to be a pragmatist when it came to money. Knowing the forces of the encircling Prince-Bishop were drawn from the poor and downtrodden, he had arrows fired into their camps around which were wrapped pamphlets offering better pay, leading to 200 troops switching sides and many others deserting.

With a flair for theatrics and actor’s command of oratory, he ran through the streets naked before entering a trance that lasted 3 days. When he returned to the realm of mortals he announced that he had been given plans for a new, divinely sanctioned social order based on the ancient kingdom of Israel. A group of 12 elders – all men – would form the inner core of this new theocracy, and after some heated discussion, one of the first acts of this new council of elders was to legalise polygamy. While the idea was embraced by some women (there were three times more in the city than men) it provoked in others abject horror (including Knipperdollinck’s own wife) who were now religiously obligated to have amorous new strangers in their homes being intimate with their husbands. Bockelson himself would take 15 new wives, all of whom were under the age of 20 and one as young as 10.

In another spectacular piece of street theatre, a wandering prophet publicly claimed Bockelson was the Messiah spoken of in the Old Testament and was fated to be King of the entire world. After grovelling that he was not worthy in front of a crowd and saying he would rather “tend to the swine or follow the plough than be King” Bockelson humbly accepted the role. Then in the next breath, he exclaimed that his kingdom that would span the earth and “know no downfall”. Fitting for a man of fashion, Bockelson had the flair of a Bond villain. The former tailor had extravagant new royal outfits made for himself and his entourage, and a new insignia made to symbolise his world-spanning regime; a globe Skewered by two swords on which the words “one king of righteousness over all” were engraved.

Jan Bockelson aka John of Leiden in his new regal attire.

Unfortunately for the population of Münster, opulent monarchies do not come cheap. Even though the wealthy city had generous food supplies to see out the siege, it was hoarded by the new elite while the city’s population underwent an age of austerity and starvation. Despite dreaming of a glorious world devoid of money and work, the citizens of Munster had become wholly dependant on a new hierarchy, and it was said that in desperation some people ended up stripping whitewash from walls to sell as milk. This situation would eventually descent into forced labour and — after marriage itself was abolished — state-mandated free-love. (For men at least; women who took new lovers were beheaded.)

Given that the elephant in the room was the imminent second coming, Bockelson’s propagandists conceived the idea that the Anabaptists themselves would need to conquer the world in order for this to happen. A new theological framework was set up to justify why the communist dream was slipping further and further into the temporal horizon; what they had done in Münster would need to be repeated across the whole world before it could come to pass. But it did not. When the siege was finally broken in June 1535, the population were massacred, and their supreme leader and his wife Divara tortured to death.

At the same time as the Anabaptists were experimenting with their earthly utopia, the print revolution and the accompanying religious turmoil was also taking hold of Tudor England. Henry VIII’s chief adviser Thomas Cromwell became the first statesman in history to consciously use pamphlets for political propaganda and to lay the ground for their break from the Church in 1534, but even this was not enough for the more radical elements of the reformers.

Puritans were fanatical about many things, but a central one of these things was literacy. As early as possible children were given copies of the Bible and taught to read, and the more children who were educated the bigger the market for books and pamphlets became. And not all of these were flattering to the State. In 1586 Archbishop Whitgift of London attempted to get a hold of matters by decreeing that all pamphlets had to be authorised by himself before being published. In true British style, this led to a series of pamphlets that both parodied him and other leading Archbishops and tested this censorship law.

This is not what’s one would expect from the Puritans given their, well, puritanical reputation. They were full of lewd puns (such as referring Archbishopric as “Archbishprike”) and dense with abusive language poking fun at the Archbishops and their boring, meandering books. Worse still the irreverent format was used to draw attention to logical inconsistencies in their theological reasoning, feeding into public appetite for further reforms. Elizabeth I was so disturbed by the pamphlet’ s popularity that she deployed a crack team of playwrights to pen responses in the same trollish style and issued a public statement to express her displeasure, calling the author Martin Marlprelate “evil and seditious” and the pamphlets themselves “beyond the bounds of all good humanity”. This of course only led to an increase in their popularity.

Despite efforts at censorship, the culture of pamphlets continued to grow in England, and by the mid 17th century – the time of the English Civil War – the print revolution had become a full-on information explosion. In 1500 around 8 million printed books in total were circulating around Europe, a figure that would rise to 200 million by the end of the 16th century, and 500 million by the 17th. The scholar Robert Burton was no stranger to the abundance of knowledge, owning as he did one of the world’s largest libraries. But even he was overwhelmed by the sheer amount that consumed him on a daily basis. In his witty reflection on depression, The Anatomy of Melancholy, he writes;

“I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken, cities besieged in France, Germany, Turkey, Persia, Poland, etc., daily musters and preparations, and such like, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies, and sea-fights, peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarms. A vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, proclamations, complaints, grievances, are daily brought to our ears.

New books every day, pamphlets, currantoes, stories, whole catalogues of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy, religion, etc. Now come tidings of weddings, maskings, mummeries, entertainments, jubilees, embassies, tilts and tournaments, trophies, triumphs, revels, sports, plays: then again, as in a new shifted scene, treasons, cheating tricks, robberies, enormous villanies in all kinds, funerals, burials, deaths of Princes, new discoveries, expeditions; now comical then tragical matters.

Today we hear of new Lords and officers created, tomorrow of some great men deposed, and then again of fresh honours conferred; one is let loose, another imprisoned; one purchaseth, another breaketh: he thrives, his neighbour turns bankrupt; now plenty, then again dearth and famine; one runs, another rides, wrangles, laughs, weeps etc. Thus I daily hear, and such like, both private and publick news. Amdist the gallantry and misery of the world: jollity, pride, perplexities and cares, simplicity and villany; subtlety, knavery, candour and integrity, mutually mixed and offering themselves, I rub on in a strictly private life.”

Robert Burton’s book “The Anatomy of Melancholy” reflects on the information explosion.

From the 1620s and throughout the time of the English Civil War, the massive popularity of pamphlets created a market which tended towards polemics and outrage. Like blogs and social media today, serious-minded people considered the pamphlet-sphere had a reputation of being the domain of nonsense, rumours, quackery, fake news, scaremongering, shitposting and abuse. The sheer diversity of material was disorienting. Some showed images of strange creatures from far-off lands — images and places that had never before existed in the public imagination. Others spread stories about earthquakes, monstrous children, witches and ghosts carrying ominous messages. Some bore revelations that three suns had appeared in the sky in Yorkshire, others contained new theories about the orbits of the planets and the existence of other habitable worlds. It was if the entire cosmology that held society together was in collapse.

An assortment of pamphlets from the 1630s and 40s

Amidst chaos there was also opportunity, and radical religious groups spread rapidly. Some such as the Levellers were animated by the millennialist ideas of universal equality and began to draw in women who were sick of the patriarchal shackles of the established Churches. The Leveller John Lilburne wrote in one pamphlet that the sexes “are, and were by nature all equall and alike in power, dignity, authority and majesty, none of them having (by Nature) any authority, dominion, or magisterial power, one over or above another.” However, while their manifesto, The Agreement of the People demanded freedom of religion (apart from Catholics obviously) its “universal” suffrage did not extend to women or for that matter male servants.

The role of women in society was changing out of necessity if nothing else. Because a quarter of a million men had been killed in the civil war women had no choice but to take up traditionally male duties, such as running family businesses, getting involved in local government and defending homes from invading armies. Some were involved in riots, some preached, others petitioned parliament about the economic impact of the ongoing war. Others, such as Elizabeth Lilburne and Mary Overton lobbied parliament about the unfair imprisonment of captured soldiers. This growing visibility of women, combined with the commonly held belief that they could not control their libidos led to a spate of sexist pamphlets fear-mongering that women would soon come to “have superiority and dominance over their husbands” who would be reduced to “cuckolds”.

Pamphlets also were the medium of highly vindictive public spats around issues of the day. One famous flame-war was between a self-published poet and satirist called John Taylor and an ironmonger turned street-preacher called Henry Walker. Taylor has produced pamphlets questioning the legitimacy of lay-preachers and found himself on the sharp end of a one published by Walker “calling him out” for his views. Taylor then responded by published a pamphlet depicting Walker being shat out by Satan. Not wanting to lose face, Walker responded with a new pamphlet depicting Satan shitting in Taylor’s mouth. The use of easily-created wood carvings made it possible for people to create a library of recognisable images to reuse and riff off, in the way memes are used today.

As the world transformed around them, this confusion of profundity and outright nonsense was competing for the attention of the reader. At the height of the war, one famous pamphlet by our friend John Taylor complained of “the ridiculous fashions of these distracted times”. It was an environment that modern-day corporate consultants would describe as VUCA – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous, and this confusion of different fragments of information had a disorienting effect on the public psyche exactly at the time that society had started to break down and give rise to political polarisation. Oliver Cromwell’s armies emerged from this fever of millenarian frenzy. As Cohn recounts;

“Ecstasies were everyday occurrences, prophecies were uttered on all hands, millennial hopes were rife throughout the population. Cromwell himself, especially before he came to power, was moved by such hopes; and thousands of soldiers in the New Model Army and thousands of artisans in London and other towns lived in daily expectation that through the violence of civil war the Kingdom of the Saints would be established on English soil and that Christ would descend to reign over it.”

For the mainstream Puritans, long gone were the days of lewd edgy pamphlets poking fun at Archbishops. When Cromwell gained power and attempted to build their “New Jerusalem” they tried to ban Christmas; to their mind, a cess-pit of “carnal and sensual delights” as well as a crackdown on the annual Maypole Dancing festival for much the same reason. Adultery was punished with death. Pubs were considered “dens of satan” and closed. “Loose wenches” were sold as slaves. Despite these efforts, they remained convinced that “drunkenness and wickedness rageth in our streets”. Their decision to behead King Charles I in 1649 amplified the millenarian mania to new heights. The pamphlet-sphere became abuzz with rumours of the imminent apocalypse and more and more sects emerged. Cohn notes that in one pamphlet distributed at the time even bemoaned the sheer number of new religious groups that had sprung up across England;

“It is no new work of Satan to sow Heresies, and breede Heretickes, but they never came up so thick as in these latter times: They were wont to peep up by one and one, but now they sprout out by huddles and clusters (like locusts out of the bottomlesse pit). They now come thronging upon us in swarmes, as the Caterpillers of Aegypt.”

Massive population displacement due to the conflict had the effect of creating new religious groups which self-organised out of the refugees. One of these groups had a fondness for public nudity because it demonstrated equality before God, and demanded people “tremble before the lord”. These eccentrics were mockingly dismissed as “Quakers”; a name they afterwards re-appropriated. Another group fond of nudity and much else besides became famous for being boisterous, amorous and extremely opinionated. Of mystical persuasion, they argued that God permeated everything, even that which is evil — even human filth. The term that was used to describe them may have been the Dutch loan-word randen, which means to talk nonsense, or the related german loan-word ranzen, meaning ardent horny and passionate. Either way, they became known to history as the Ranters and the Puritan Richard Baxter bemoaned their tiresome mix of ignorance, self-righteousness and classlessness that might be familiar to anyone who has spent time on Twitter;

“There could never a sect arise in the world that was a louder warning to professors of religion to be humble, fearful, cautious and watchful: Never could the Word be told more loudly, whither the spiritual pride of ungrounded Novices in Religion tendeth; and whither Professors of Strictness in Religion may be carried in the stream of sects and fashions.”

The textile merchant Gerrard Winstanley had a dim view of the Ranters, and dismissed them for their “general lack of moral values or restrain in worldly pleasures”. Gerrard Winstanley himself had received a vision of an ideal of a communist earthly paradise which cast the devil as responsible for the evils of private property and trade by introducing the sin of “selfishness” into the world. Where did this evil come from? In Winstanley’s view, the primal communist utopia was not placed in the remote mists of time (perhaps with the pre-Roman Celts) but in the England that existed just prior to the Norman Invasion, in 1066. The Normans, he said, brought “the curse of bondage, sorrow, and tears”. He warned the wealthy “shall be turned out of all, and their riches given to a people that will bring forth better fruit, and such as they have oppressed shall inherit the land.” His followers, the “True Levellers”, set about founding a number of agrarian, egalitarian communities across England. Their habit of digging up common land to plant food earned them the name “The Diggers” and although considered a problem at first, a government investigation dismissed them as “crack-brains”

Yet the most sinister Puritan extremists had the ear of Cromwell himself and were deadly serious about establishing the Rule of the Saints (Providing of course that they were the Saints). The Fifth Monarchists took their name from the prophecy of Daniel that four great monarchies would precede the rule of Christ – the Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian and Roman. They saw themselves and God’s divine instrument to bring an end to “Roman” rule and establish this eternal theocracy. Their leader Thomas Harrison was a buoyant chap by all accounts, and thought highly of himself; described by one contemporary as;

“Of such vivacity, hilarity and alacrity as another Man hath when he hath drunken a cup too much; but naturally also so far from humble thoughts of himself, that it was his ruine”

Being of silver tongue, Harrison lobbied Cromwell to abolish the Rump Parliament as a first step to establishing the Rule of the Saints. Given the sheer number of millennialist in his new army and fearful of a coup, he gave in to their wishes on April the 20th 1653. In its place he established a new assembly of religious enthusiasts; a “Parliament of Saints” made up of officers from his army. It amounted to a half-hearted echo of the Council of Elders established in Münster.

Despite these wins, the Fifth Monarchists remained frustrated that events were not unfolding fast enough and pushed Cromwell further to abandon the Court of Chancery, insistent that the laws of the old world must be totally swept away for the everlasting kingdom to be established. Cromwell vacillated and procrastinated, unwilling to rush things. Annoyed at their lack of progress the Fifth Monarchists took to the streets with preaching and pamphlets in an attempt to swing public opinion. Cromwell, however, grew weary of their extremism, inability to compromise and total lack of pragmatism. By December, Harrison and his “furious simple people” had been ejected from the vortex of power and would be made further furious when Cromwell appointed himself Lord Protector.

“Wilt thou have Oliver Cromwell or Jesus Christ reign over us?” The Fifth Monarchists complained as they went underground and furiously printed off pamphlets denouncing their revolution betrayed. They began to spread rumours of ominous prophecies and of natural disasters, acts which accelerated their persecution. Leading preachers were charged with sedition and sent to the Tower, and Harrison was stripped of his position, banished to Staffordshire, and eventually hanged, drawn and quartered for regicide after the restoration in 1660. But the Fifth Monarchists were not quite finished. A barrel-maker called Thomas Venner took over their leadership and decided the mount a rebellion in London with 50 of Cromwell’s former men, and despite daring attempts to kidnap the Mayor of London, the uprising was quickly crushed and Venner met the same fate as Harrison. And so ended the attempts to establish New Jerusalem in England.

Ideas of an earthly Kingdom of Heaven following an imminent apocalypse are deeply embedded in the Christian psyche, but for centuries years were largely contained in the disputes of theologians. In enabling mass literacy the dream of an earthly world-to-come spread deep into the popular imagination, to be interpreted and misinterpreted, relayed and reconfigured by generations of everyday artisans and peasants. Uprooted from the ascetic struggles that constrained the monks and would-be Saints from indulging in sin, they took root in the minds of those far too willing to yield to earthly pleasures. Print also indefinitely extended the lifespan of doctrinal squabbles, creating an almost fractal breakdown of the Protestants into more and more obscure sects.

Print’s tendencies towards the systematisation of knowledge were at once powerful but for the faithful, ultimately intellectually suffocating. The Church’s remarkable ability to fluidly adapt and absorb a vast diversity of traditions under one universal faith during the medieval era was compromised by print, which drew it towards rigid dogmas, limited its ability to adapt and made it more sensitive to the existence and management of heresies. As the mind of Europe underwent this metamorphosis, the millenarian dreams of an ideal society changed too. The rediscovery of antiquity was the second force stirred into life, releasing a torrent of lost works back into the public consciousness and the news of the New World opened the possibility of an imagined blank slate on which to build a new type of society. Over the centuries, what emerged from this vast confusionem of knowledge, poetry, brilliance, fanaticism and madness would crystallise into yet new cosmologies, and with them, dreams of earthly utopia that knew no bounds.

To Be Continued…

UX Architect who studies the history of ideas.