In an earlier post I discussed the mistaken notion that people in the year 1000 expected the world to end. Here I discuss a real medieval belief that the world was about to end--in the year 1260.
Why 1260? you may well ask. Back in the early thirteenth century, an Italian priest called Joachim of Fiore tried to calculate the age of the world based on the Old Testament, as people have done both before and since. His calculations gave a shorter time span than most people's calculations, 1,260 years from the Creation to the birth of Christ. This period he called the Age of the Father. Logically, then (medieval people were always logical, even though we may not always accept the premises from which they argued), there should be another 1.260 years for the Age of the Son.
(Incidentally, BC/AD dating did not begin until five or six centuries after the birth of Jesus, when a monk tried to translate the Roman dating system everyone in the West had been using into a Christian one. Scholars now think he was close but off by a few years, which is why you will generally see Jesus's birth as dated to about 4 BC, based on the years when Herod was king. Medieval people did not worry about this.)
Joachim of Fiore died well before the year 1260, so it is unclear exactly what he expected to happen then, but he did say that that year would mark a major change, the beginning of the Age of the Holy Spirit. In the 1250s, a number of people read his work, and by the time 1260 rolled around panicked crowds assumed the end was at hand.
With only a short time left to atone for their sins, great masses of people took off cross-country, weeping and wailing and flagellating themselves, that is beating themselves with whips. The bishops declared that this was a heresy, but they had to say it in a quiet voice, because so many people believed it--including some of the bishops. Mostly the bishops kept their heads down and hoped the madness would soon pass off.
When 1261 dawned and nothing had happened, most of the flagellants quietly went home and back to whatever they had been doing before. Some of the leaders of the bands announced loudly that it was their piety and prayer that had preserved the world from ending, but this was widely disregarded.
The only group to proclaim the reality of the supposed big change of 1260 was the Spiritual Franciscans. The Franciscans, founded by Francis of Assisi in the early thirteenth century, had initially followed radical poverty, where the friars lived solely by begging and owned nothing--they could not even save a piece of bread over from one day to the next. But after Francis's death in 1226, many of his successors decided this was an impossible way to run an Order and started creating exceptions and building houses for the friars. Those who held out for Francis's original vision called themselves Spiritual Franciscans.
In 1260, they declared that their day had come, that they were the "dusty-footed preachers" whom Joachim of Fiore had vaguely suggested would appear during the Age of the Holy Spirit. For them, the world really had ended, even if no one else noticed, and they were now in charge. This was declared a gross heresy, and over the next two generations the Spiritual Franciscans were determinedly exterminated. The Franciscan Order today still follows a life of simplicity and love for all of God's creation, but the radical extremes of the Spirituals have been quietly forgotten.