medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture
From today's New York Times
Norman Cohn, Historian, Dies at 92
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Norman Cohn, a historian who influenced a generation of historians and
social scientists with his insight that totalitarian ideologies of the
20th century, chiefly Communism and Nazism, were propelled by
mythologies associated with medieval apocalyptic movements, died on July
31 in Cambridge, England. He was 92.
The cause was a degenerative heart condition, said his son, Nik Cohn.
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
appealed to the deep, biblically inspired belief that after intense
struggle history would end, and an elect of believers would inherit
“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 Rufus Colin Cohn was born on Jan. 12, 1915, in London to a Jewish
father and a Roman Catholic mother. He began studying linguistics at
Gresham’s School in Holt, which he attended on a scholarship. He
graduated from Christ Church, Oxford, with first-class honors in
medieval and modern languages.
During World War II, Mr. Cohn was in the Intelligence Corps. Immediately
after the war, in Vienna, he interrogated members of the SS and met
refugees fleeing Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. He then lectured in
French at the University of Glasgow from 1946 to 1951. There, he began
the millennium book, which took him a decade to complete and has been
translated into at least 11 languages.
Mr. Cohn went on to teach at universities in Ireland, Britain, the
United States and Canada. In 1966, he published “Warrant for Genocide:
The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders
of Zion.” He showed how ancient myths coalesced with modern ideologies
to give prominence to a racist tract proved to be a hoax.
In 1975, he published “Europe’s Inner Demons: An Inquiry Inspired by the
Great Witch-Hunt,” which argued there was no credible evidence behind
the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries. He found precursors to
the witch hysteria in the persecution of early Christians by the Romans
His “Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of
Apocalyptic Faith” (1993) plowed deeper into the roots of belief in an
apocalyptic end of time, finding that the Iranian prophet Zoroaster laid
the groundwork for the phenomenon. Older conceptions of time, like the
Egyptian and Mesopotamian, did not lead inexorably to a final end, he said.
In 1996, Mr. Cohn published “Noah’s Flood,” which explored the flood
story in the context of scientific progress.
Mr. Cohn was married to Vera Broido, an author and daughter of Menshevik
revolutionaries in Russia, from 1941 until her death in 2004. In
addition to his son from that marriage, he is survived by his wife,
Mr. Cohn summarized his work by explaining that it was all about the
same phenomenon, “the urge to purify the world through the annihilation
of some category of human beings imagined as agents of corruption and
incarnations of evil.”
He wrote, “It occasionally happens that this underworld becomes a
political power and changes the course of history.”
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