The following is the contribution of Dr. Shannon Gayk, Associate Professor in the Department of English. Dr. Gayk specializes in late medieval religious writing and art and is completing a book about what medieval religious texts might say to our modern environmental crisis.
What did medieval people think the end of the world would look like? As it turns out, some of them imagined much like we might, with rising seas, wildfires, suffering animals, and earthquakes. My recent research has focused on the surprising ecological focus of some strands of medieval apocalypticism, particularly that of the understudied tradition of the Fifteen Signs of Doomsday.
This tradition doesn’t derive directly from the Bible, but rather from apocryphal traditions. It only begins to show up in the tenth century, but by the end of the Middle Ages, it’s everywhere: in sermons and poems, depicted in stained glass windows, manuscript illuminations, and on alabaster panels. There are several different versions of the tradition, but the most common one gives the following fifteen signs (here depicted in stained glass at the parish of All Saints North Street in York).
- The sea will rise forty cubits, over the hills
- The sea will sink out of sight
- The seas will return to normal
- The fish will roar to the skies
- The sea and all its waters will burn
- Herbs and trees will sweat blood
- Buildings will fall
- Rocks will collide
- There will be an earthquake
- The earth will be made level
- People will emerge from caves and will go about as mad, not be able to speak to each other
- The bones of the dead will rise
- The stars will fall
- The living will die so that they can rise with the dead
- Heaven and earth will burn
I summarized some of my conclusions about what we might learn from this tradition in a recent webinar focused on “Disease, Death, and Therapy”:
Interested in learning more? Read the full article here (library access required).