End Times

And so, in the Year of Our Lord 1988, word comes from California that the cryptic doggerel of a 16th-century Frenchman still packs a dramatic punch.

It would seem that Michel de Nostredame, doyen of the epic visionaries, mentions in one of his stanzas the coming of a tumultuous time, when a great land will convulse and civilization will crumble.

This May, in sunny and susceptible Southern California, a goodly number of folk were convinced the time was at hand, on or about Friday the 13th, and that the epicentre of the convulsion would lie somewhere along the San Andreas Fault.

People were reported to be stocking up on canned food and bottled water. The Griffith Observatory installed a public hotline, to inform the curious and calm the hysterical. The 1981 film documenting Nostredamus’s predictions, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, was being rented in L.A. at a rate of 2,000 orders per week. Travel agents registered an increase in out-of-town bookings, although this may have had more to do with cheaper air fares than musty prophecies, and People magazine noted that George Hamilton and Joan Collins were taking no chances. Both arranged to be elsewhere at the appointed hour.

The deadly rumblings failed to materialize, of course, making it easy to dismiss the agitation as yet more evidence of California’s fruitcake sensibility. But on the other hand, the flurry of anxiety itself might well be a portent of things to come.

Ours is a society already morbidly fascinated by the prospect of its own demise: in film, theatre, novels and journalism, the end of civilization-as-we-know-it has become a narrative staple.

In 1939, the future may have looked like the New York World’s Fair – a gleaming, wondrous place – but by 1988, in a world of AIDS and atom bombs and holes in the ozone layer, it’s beginning to look alarmingly like the Mad Max movies. The popular suspicion, in the phrase of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., is that things are going to get unimaginably worse, and never get better again.

So who can blame the Californians for being jittery about convulsions of the earth? Given things as they are, who isn’t? A mere dozen years from the turn of the millennium, the portents are not good.

As the calendar clicks down to the numerological coincidence of three big zeroes, it doesn’t take much to imagine Yeats’ rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem. There’s every likelihood that the prophecy-panic in L.A. is just the beginning, and that from now on things are about to get very weird indeed.

Which is why it’s important to remember that ours is not the first age to be gripped by a sense of impending doom. In fact, (coincidence upon coincidence) exactly 400 years ago almost the whole of Christendom was swept by the fear that the world was about to end, any minute now.

Strangely enough, the fears weren’t entirely groundless.

In 1588, two great European powers stood on the brink of war. It was a war that would be fought over a new continental hegemony, and every nation had a stake in its outcome.

The war was precipitated by two familiar incidents: a political assassination, and a proxy conflict that got out of hand.

The assassination was the beheading of Mary Stuart, the Catholic queen of Scots. Her death set in motion events that allowed the Dutch rebellion against the Spanish empire – an uprising supported by Elizabeth I – to grow into a full-scale confrontation between Spain and England.

The culmination was what the Spanish called the Enterprise of England, the attempt to invade and conquer Britain via the Armada – a tactical and technological venture of unprecedented ambition.

Simply because nothing on the scale of the Armada had ever been attempted, foresight was in short supply. Even the most senior naval tacticians of the day failed to anticipate how the sea engagements would be actually fought.

At the outset, it was thought the two navies would stand off from one another by hundreds of yards and lob shot back and forth. The onus would be on having the heaviest and most accurate cannon. In fact, incapacitating a 300-ton ship built of oak timbers required sailing just out of grappling range and blasting away with broadsides while raining small arms fire on the enemy crew. The onus was on manoeuvreability and rate of fire.

No one had foreseen how many cannon balls might be fired in a major engagement, with the result that both sides kept running out of ammunition.

Hence, for all the planning and preparation, the battles of August 1588 unfolded in a way no one anticipated. New and untested technical capabilities, in conjunction with profound shifts in the prevailing political and economic order, made the future opaque.

Which is not to say that the popular culture of the time wasn’t alive with speculation about what it might hold. On the contrary, as the year 1588 dawned, virtually the whole of western Europe was consumed by the terror that the world was about to end.

Two things fed the fears. The first was a series of unnerving astrological conjunctions. The second was the numerology of the Revelation of St. John. Together, they gave everyone the willies.

Decades before, the great mathematician Regiomontanus – the man who made astronomical tables for Columbus and an entire generation of navigators – had drawn up an astrological chart for 1588.  The heavens, he foretold, would feature a nasty series of eclipses and alignments, which led him to conclude (in Latin verse translated by American historian Garrett Mattingly): ”If, in this year, total catastrophe does not befall, if land and sea do not collapse in total ruin, yet will the whole world suffer upheavals, empires will dwindle and from everywhere will be great lamentation.”

This was not cheery – particularly when coupled with the scriptural interpretations of Phillip Melancthon.

Those who studied the Bible believed that history since the birth of Christ was divided into cyclical permutations of multiples of 10 and seven, each cycle punctuated by some tremendous event, with everything coming to a horrendous close in 1588. Melancthon pointed out that Luther had defied the Pope in 1518, and from thence it was just 10 times seven years until the Last Judgment.

These predictions were greeted with either enthusiastic horror or disgruntled disdain. The common folk were fairly mesmerized by the idea, and for years there had been tavern songs in German, Dutch, French and English, detailing Melancthon’s dire warnings. The authorities, on the other hand, were appalled by the masses’ gullible capacity to believe the worst.

In Spain there was a continual harangue from the pulpit denouncing astrology and impious prognostication. In France, it was the rabble-rousing preachers who were spreading the impiety, and Henry III tried ineffectually to get them to stop. In England, to prophesy the sovereign’s death, even indirectly, was high treason, and the Privy Council suppressed any printed material supporting the predictions. Instead, the Stationers’ Company authorized almanacs that amounted to extended diatribes against the popular folly.

It was only in rebellious Holland that the printers were free to encourage the craze for catastrophe. Amsterdam churned out almanacs to make the masses’ hair stand on end. There would be tempests and raging floods, hail in midsummer and darkness at mid-day; blood would rain from the skies and the earth would writhe and there would be monstrous births.

All of this has to be seen in its context. In 1588, Europe was about to shrug off the last vestiges of the Dark Ages. The feudal order was giving way to mercantile empires. The Protestant Reformation was a direct challenge to the authority of the Holy See and had triggered a series of religious wars across the continent. Political power was shifting from the church to a prototype of the nation-state. The conditions were being laid for the Scientific Revolution to come, and the very underpinnings of rationality were uncertain. New technology had made new forms of conflict thinkable.

In the midst of all this, a numerological coincidence provided the occasion for a public rehearsal of the future in its worst-possible-case scenario. What actually came about (particularly for the Spanish) was almost as bad.

One doesn’t wish to overstate the parallels between the Elizabethan age and our own, but it would be equally foolish to ignore the lessons of the past. Faced with an uncertain future, people tend to ward it off by acting it out in advance.

Our own culture has been doing that for 40 years, and the mid-May madness in California was just one small set piece in a grand drama that reaches its finale 12 years hence.

“Fasten your seatbelts,” said Bette Davis in All About Eve. “It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”eg

  • Ottawa Citizen September 17, 1988