In 1841, a Scottish journalist named Charles Mackay produced a sizeable tome dedicated to chronicling the effects of crowd psychology, and the popular delusions this madness could create. The result was an extensive look at historical events driven by mass fervour, with a vast collection of subject-matter. He covered witch-hunts, the crusades, haunted houses, economic bubbles and plenty more – but for us here probably the most interesting section is that which covers Prophecies. These prophecies, particularly focussed on the 1,000 years prior to the book’s publication, often had to do with the apocalypse, as seen with the recent fears of 2012, Nostradamus and Y2K.
Quite how factual Mackay’s accounts are has been a point of argument, but he certainly gives an interesting introduction to the topic. For your curiosity and pleasure, here’s a summary of some of the most interesting details of the prophecies chapter:
Extraordinary Popular Delusions: Prophecies
The end of the first millenium
10th Century: In the lead to the first millennium AD, Christendom was seized by an epidemic of terror. Fanatics appeared in France, Germany, and Italy preaching that the Earth’s thousand year lifespan prophesied in the Apocalypse were about to expire, and that the Son of Man would appear in the clouds to judge the godly and the ungodly. The delusion appears to have been discouraged by the Church, but it spread rapidly among the people.
In the year 999, a huge army of pilgrims headed East, believing Jerusalem to be be where the judgement would take place. They sold their goods and possessions and lived upon the proceeds in the Holy Land. Buildings left behind fell to ruins. It was thought useless to repair them, when the end of the world was so near.
During the thousandth year the number of pilgrims increased. Phenomenons of nature alarmed them. Thunder-storms sent them to their knees, mid-march. Meteors in the sky made people weep and pray. Comets were thought to foretell the speedy dissolution of this world.
Believing the world to be coming to an end, these pilgrims gave up everything, and left their world to waste. Who knows what became of them all after the year 1000 rolled quietly by.
The Great Plague
During the great plague, spread through Europe from 1345 and 1350, fanatical prophets were given especial attention, in all the principal cities of Germany, France, and Italy, predicting that within ten years judgement day would come (again along with the Second Coming).
No little consternation was created in London in 1736 by the prophecy of the famous Whiston, that the world would be destroyed in that year, on the 13th of October. Crowds of people went out on the appointed day to Islington, Hampstead, and the fields intervening, to see the destruction of London, which was to be the “beginning of the end.”
The Coming of Comets
At a later time of the plague in Milan, in 1630, the people listened to the predictions of astrologers and other impostors. A large comet had appeared in 1628, and some insisted that it predicted a bloody war; others maintained that it predicted a great famine; but most people, basing their judgement on the pale colour of the comet, thought it predicted pestilence. The fulfilment of their prediction earned them a lot of respect while the plague was raging.
In the year 1832 the continent of Europe was gripped by alarm, especially in Germany, as many feared a comet, whose appearance was predicted by astronomers, should destroy the earth. The danger to the world was greatly discussed. Many people stopped working, and neglected their businesses, during that year, purely out of fear that this terrible comet would destroy the world.
In the year 1761, London was shaken by an earthquake, and people prophesied a third, which would bring total destruction. The first shock was felt on the 8th of February, and threw down several chimneys in the neighbourhood of Limehouse and Poplar; the second struck on the 8th of March, and was chiefly felt in the north of London, and towards Hampstead and Highgate. So, naturally, the 3rd quake was predicted for the 5th of April.
A chap called Bell, a soldier in the Life Guards, ran madly around the streets telling people this prediction. As the day approached, the excitement became intense, and great numbers of people fled to the villages, awaiting the doom of London. Islington, Highgate, Hampstead, Harrow, and Blackheath, were crowded with panic-stricken fugitives, who paid exorbitant prices for accommodation to the housekeepers of these secure retreats. Others, who couldn’t afford that, camped in surrounding fields.
The greater part of the fugitives returned on the following day, convinced that the prophet was a false one; but many judged it more prudent to allow a week before going back to London. Bell lost all credit in a short time, and was quickly considered a madman. He tried some other prophecies, but nobody was deceived by them; and, in the space of a few months he was confined in a lunatic asylum.
For these and more tales of popular fervour throughout the ages, you can find the whole Memoirs available online – they’re fascinating to read, if only to show you that the sort of 2012 panic people spout these days have been around for a very long time.