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Doomsday


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Early Christians expected Doomsday to occur when the world was 6000 years old; since Creation was then reckoned at 5200 BC (not at 4004 BC, the date proposed in the 17th century), Doomsday was due around AD 800. Bede, writing in the 720s, criticised rustici, ‘country folk’, for frequently asking him how many years were left before the sixth millennium ended (De Tempore Ratione, cited in Thompson, 1996: 32). However, there is no evidence of millenial panic in 1000 or 1033.

Doomsday is of course inseparable from the concept of the Second Coming and the establishment of a just and godly world. These ideas have strong political implications; they were conspicuous in England during the Civil War and Commonwealth, but after the Restoration lost all prestige (Thomas, 1971: 140–6). Doomsday preoccupations periodically recurred at the level where popular religion and folklore meet, causing anxiety about ‘signs’ such as comets and earthquakes. There was panic in 1794 when a currently famous prophet, Richard Brothers, announced that God would destroy London by earthquake on 4 June 1795, and again in 1881, because of a fake prophecy attributed to Mother Shipton.

Some, thinking it important that their corpses should be complete and intact, ready for resurrection on Doomsday, arranged for their amputated limbs to be buried with them (Folk-Lore 11 (1900), 346; 18 (1907), 82; 19 (1908), 234; 21 (1910), 105, 387), or even their teeth. Gibbetting, burial in quicklime, and anatomical dissection, were viewed with horror on the assumption that they would prevent resurrection, and hence salvation (Richardson, 1987: 28–9).

One curious notion occasionally recorded (and parodied by Swift in Gulliver's Travels, part I, chapter 6) was that the earth would turn upside down on Doomsday. One person, a Major Labellière, was indeed buried head down on Box Hill (Surrey) in 1800, allegedly so as to be the right way up on Doomsday; whether this really was his motive is uncertain. The same is said (almost certainly falsely) about the burial of a Mr Hull in a tower on Leith Hill (Surrey) in 1772; of a miller on Highdown Hill (Sussex) in 1794; and of the Revd J. H. Smyth-Piggot, leader of an unorthodox sect, buried in a garden at Spaxton (Somerset) in 1927. Some who hear and repeat these rumours take them seriously; for others, they are jokes.

See also NUMBER 666.J. F. C. Harrison, The Second Coming: Popular Millenarianism (1979). For discussion of the year 1000, and the growth of modern beliefs about the millennium, see Damian Thompson, The End of Time: Faith and Fear in the Shadow of the Millennium (1996).

J. F. C. Harrison, The Second Coming: Popular Millenarianism (1979). For discussion of the year 1000, and the growth of modern beliefs about the millennium, see Damian Thompson, The End of Time: Faith and Fear in the Shadow of the Millennium (1996).


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