Saturday, 25 January 2020

Climate Extinction rebels, heirs to Medieval Millenarians: beware

Norman Cohn’s ‘The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages’ is a fascinating but sad read[1].

Hordes of peasants would rise up expecting the New Jerusalem. They inflicted an orgy of murder on the innocent, usually Jews; then they were slaughtered by the establishment. This happened again and again in the Middle Ages. 

Taking in the scenes of flagellants surrounding churches, or the Taborites and Anabaptists setting up their own communes, or children setting off for Jerusalem, it was hard not to see connections with the Climate Extinction rebels.

Of course Extinctionists are devotees of science and their concerns are grimly real.

So they are a million miles from the mental world of the medieval Millenarians. This Cohn explains was shaped by prophesies in the Bible about the return of Christ, the Sibylline writings about the rise of an emperor-saviour, and Joachim of Fiore’s teaching about how to unlock the future of the world concealed in Scripture.

Most Extinction Rebels have probably not read the Bible, let alone the Sibylline writing or Joachim of Fiore; yet it is so easy to see connections between them and the Medieval Millenarians the wise should be wary.

End of the world, skewers morality

The perspective is opposite, but for both groups it is the end of the world that is centre stage. The Medieval Millenarians rose up to hasten its arrival; the Extinctionists are rising up to stop it happening.

If your actions are going to impact the outcome of something as drastic as the end of the world – that will skewer normal morality. There can be no compromise. The stakes are too high.

Morality was certainly skewered for the Medieval Millenarians. To hasten the end they looted, slaughtered, and some threw sexual restraint to the wind.

So far, no murderous atrocities stain the Extinctionists. But the seeds are there. Recently the Extinctionists blocked Westminster Bridge in London. This is the main artery to one of the city’s largest hospitals, St Thomas’. When asked about this, activist Savannah Lovelock said that they were “Really sorry… but we are running out of time” That’s the skewered morality: the sick can suffer, even die: it’s our cause that matters.

Whipping and gluing

The Medieval Millenarians whipped themselves. Cohn describes how the flagellants would descend on towns to whip themselves in front of the church. Thousands watched. And that was their aim. This was some of the best PR the Medieval world had ever seen. The message easy to understand: repent of your sins or your suffering will be much worse.

The Extinctionists do not whip themselves. They glue themselves to trains, aeroplanes, and boats, powered by the evil engines causing the end of the world. The less brave block the roads and bridges used by carbon spewing machines. Just like their medieval ancestors, it is all PR, and it is almost exactly the same message: repent of using fossil fuels now or face much worse suffering.

Avaratia and Luxuria

These two words crop up again and again in Cohn’s account: avarice and luxury. Whatever the particular millennium movement is, these were the marks of the ‘Anti-Christ’. So once a movement got under way, the wrath of the poor would turn against the rich and the clergy. Castles were attacked, houses ransacked, the rich were slain.

Thankfully the Extinctionists have not yet attacked rich people. But they have attacked their buildings: the Shell offices and the Stock Exchange in London; the Rockefeller Centre and, a symbol of wealth, the Prometheus Statue in New York.

This is not just anger about the climate; this is the anger of ordinary people erupting against a system that has produced an apartheid like chasm between the rich and poor. It is anger against Arvartia and Luxuria – and who knows what would have happened if the Saville Row suited directors of the Stock Exchange or Shell had appeared on those days when their buildings were being attacked. Human nature has not changed.

Communes and assemblies

Perhaps the most wretched chapters in Cohn’s book are the ones that tell the story of the Taborites of Bohemia and the Anabaptists of Munster. They make ‘Animal Farm’ look tame. Tearing down the established order where they held sway, the chant of these two sects was John Lennon’s banal ‘Imagine no possessions’: all was to be owned by the commune.

The problem was there was no commune. There was the dictatorship of a charismatic and manipulative leader, and so when the communal chests ran out more was demanded from the citizens. Punishment in Munster was ferocious – ‘Death was to be the punishment for every kind of insubordination’. Life under the aristocracy and church was no doubt oppressive; under these cults it was murderous. Both the Taborites and the Anabaptists were obliterated by the establishment, and no doubt the peasants who survived welcomed a return to normality.

While perhaps the canvas villages that sprout up during a climate change campaign have the feel of a commune, it would be absurdly unfair to draw any parallel with the Extinctionists and the Taborites and Anabaptists of Munster.


Except the worrying demand by the Extinctionists for a citizen’s assembly. In the UK many of the same naïve MPs who agreed to a Brexit referendum, have also agreed to this demand; but what they have proposed will only have advisory power. That’s not enough for the Extinctionists. They want legal authority to implement whatever the assembly decides. They want power.

At the moment this is all a lot less dramatic than the Medieval Millenarians, but the argument is essentially the same: the establishment cannot be trusted, the ‘ordinary’ people must take control. If ever such an assembly was allowed to exist, it would only be a matter of time before there was a showdown with the established powers. And if the Extinctionists won that showdown the record of history is there would be a lot of misery in store for ordinary people. That is the norm when established rules are thrown aside in favour of a big cause. Think France and her Citizen’s Assembly.

The shrill cry of children

The Crusades were launched by Urban II for political reasons; but for the masses it was all about clearing Jerusalem of infidels for Christ to return. It was a millennial movement, ‘a mass sacrifice which was to be rewarded by a mass apotheosis at Jerusalem’ and some the shrillest cheer leaders were young.

So we have the tragic debacle of the ‘Children’s Crusade’. There are different accounts, but it is clear that in the early 13th C thousands of juveniles set off for Jerusalem expecting the Mediterranean Sea to part for them, as the Red Sea did for Moses. It didn’t and most of them either died or were sold into slavery. Disaster was inevitable and one wonders why the adults let them go.

Children are also very much the shrill supporters for the Extinctionists. Indeed the unofficial leader is Greta Thunberg. Aged just fifteen Thunberg stopped going to school to protest outside the Swedish parliament. Inspired by her, about a million other children around the world have also happily given up a day at school to protest. There have even been ‘Children’s Assemblies’. The adults have not only allowed this, but they have lauded the children. So much so it would be boring to list the honours Thunberg, now 17, has received.

It is easy to see why children are at the forefront of the Extinction Rebellion: it is their future that is at stake. And of course, to be young is to protest against the establishment. Nevertheless given the magnitude of the crisis it is odd that a fifteen-year old should be lecturing the UN rather than an experienced fifty-year old. And it is disconcerting that the adults are applauding the teenagers, as if somehow, they mystically knew the answer.

Rather than having sensible answers, from the tone of Thunberg’s speeches it would seem we have an angry young girl, possibly given to hyperbole.

You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! You are failing us, but the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.

With a few changes one can imagine the same sort of invective directed against parents by teenagers setting off for the Crusade.

We are at the beginning of the end times. And all you can talk about is money…How dare you! The rest of Thunberg’s speech can stay the same.

For those who know their Bible, the sight of the young dictating to their elders will is sign of God’s disfavour:

I will make mere youths their officials;
children will rule over them.”
People will oppress each other—
man against man, neighbuor against neighbour.
The young will rise up against the old,
the nobody against the honoured.

(Isaiah 3: 4 – 5)

At the moment the children are just taking time off school: given human nature things could get worse.

And then future generations (presuming humans survive) will ask why the adults allowed this to happen.

No totalitarian leader, yet

The Extinctionists and the Medieval Millenarians have plenty in common: the end of the world, aggressive physical publicity, a rage against greed, a demand for anarchic power, the shrill voice of children.

There is though something that thankfully they do not share – yet.

Cohn’s book is full of charismatic leaders – Fulk of Neuilly, Bertrand of Ray, Konrad Schmid, Martin of Mainz, John Capek, John Zizka, Hans Bohm, Thomas Muntzer, Jan Matthys, and Jan Bockelson. They were often violent and totalitarian, rising from obscurity to lead their followers, first in an orgy of violence, usually against Jews and the clergy, and then to a suicidal end: the peasants were massacred, the leaders gorily executed[2].

No such leaders have yet stained the record of the Extinctionists. However the wise should be wary. Just as a savvy politician has successfully hijacked the Brexit movement to win power in the UK; so it is possible to see that a charismatic but unscrupulous leader could hijack the Extinctionists and take it to places its youthful idealism never dreamt of.

This wariness has nothing to do with the reality of the climate crisis. It is real and action is needs to be taken. But not by fifteen-year olds, or agile glue artists full of rage against the establishment. The action needs to be taken by established leaders who have a track record of dealing with complicated problems in a pragmatic but successful way.

And once the adults have agreed on the best way to deal with climate change without triggering economic collapse, they need to hold their nerve against the wrath of the Extinctionists. This thankfully happened in the 1960s and 70’s when the rage of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) movement was constantly haranguing political leaders. CND was very similar to the Extinctionists – the end of the world, marches, sit ins, mass arrests, the shrill voice of the young. The establishment (both left and right) held its nerve, and the West won the Cold War, not by throwing away their weapons, but by having so many that the Soviet Union gave up. After years of frantic activity the CND movement achieved nothing except waste exorbitant amounts of public money on policing. 

Let us hope that our present generation of political readers will deal with climate change decisively and makes sure the Exhibitionists are restrained. If there is weakness, then it will only be a matter of time before a charismatic manipulative leader arises from obscurity to grab power and inflict untold misery on the millions he or she will be claiming to save.

Tom Hawksley
January 2020

[2] The final leader of the Anabaptists in Munster, Bockelson, was so loathed by the Catholic authorities that, once the town had been re-captured, he was led like a circus bear round the town and then tortured to death with red hot irons with two others. Their corpses were then put in iron cages and hung from the church tower. You can still see the cages.

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