Written by Vladimir Moss



     As the year 1000 approached, when many Western Christians were expecting the reign of the Antichrist, the End of the World and the Second Coming of Christ, the question of the survival of legitimate monarchical authority became ever more pressing. For with the removal of that authority, according to the prophecy of St. Paul (II Thessalonians 2.7), would come the Antichrist – and the monarchy, at any rate in the Frankish lands to the west of the Rhine, was in a very parlous state as the “true” Carolingian line died out and virtual anarchy ruled. Signs of millennial fever were certainly increasing. Thus in 991, at a Council in Rheims attended by English as well as French bishops, Arnulph, bishop of Orleans, said that if Pope John XV had no love and was puffed up with knowledge, he was the Antichrist…[1] And in 992 Abbot Adso, now in his eighties, set sail for Jerusalem, no doubt in order to witness the apocalyptic events that were about to take place there.[2]

     And yet paradoxically, if we exclude the chaos in West Francia, by the year 1000 the monarchical principle had never looked in better health. A survey of the world in the year 1000[3] gives rise to the thought: just as the year 2000 has witnessed the apex of democratism in political thought, so the year 1000 witnessed the apex of its opposite, monarchism. The monarchical regimes that dominated the ancient world were of two main kinds: autocracy, based on the symphony between Church and State and exemplified first of all in Byzantium, and despotism, based on the fusion between Church and State.

     By the year 1000 the Byzantine autocratic model of statehood – that is, of “symphonic” relations between an autonomous Church and State - had triumphed well beyond the boundaries of the Eastern Orthodox Empire. Thus it was the rule also in the most powerful states outside Byzantium: East Francia (modern Germany), England and Kievan Rus’. Even in those parts of the West where normal government had broken down in many places, such as West Francia (modern France), the ideal was still alive. Thus in the mid-tenth century Abbot Adso of Montier-en-Der wrote to Queen Gerbera, the Saxon wife of the Frankish King Louis IV: “Even though we see the Roman Empire for the most part in ruins, nonetheless, as long as the Kings of the Franks who now possess the Roman Empire by right shall last, the dignity of the Roman Empire will not completely perish because it will endure in its kings. Some of our learned men say that one of the Kings of the Franks will possess anew the Roman Empire. He will be in the last time and will be the greatest and the last of all kings. After he has successfully governed his empire, he will finally come to Jerusalem and will lay aside his sceptre and crown on the Mount of Olives. This will be the end and the consummation of the Roman and Christian Empire…”[4]

     On Christmas Day, 1000 or 1001, Hungary under Stephen became the last member of the family of European Orthodox kingdoms, together with  Norway under Olaf Trygvasson, Olaf of Sweden, Bohemia under Wenceslas, Denmark under Harold Bluetooth and Poland under Mieszko in the tenth century…[5] Autocracy now ruled from the England of Ethelred the Unready to the Georgia of Bagrat III, with the exception only of the Baltic lands (Lithuania did not become Christian until the fourteenth century), Finland, Iceland and the Islamic half of the Iberian peninsula. Writing about the “outer” regions of Europe, Chris Wickham writes: “Kings and princes were in every region more ambitious around 1000 than they had been around 750: they often ruled wider areas, or at least were aiming at wider hegemonies, and sometimes had more elaborate structures to underpin that rule as well; they were often more relevant to local societies, too, thus ruling more deeply as well as more widely… Overall,… the trend to wider and deeper political power seems to have been based on two sorts of developments. The first was the development of aristocratic power, and therefore of the possibility of hierarchies of political dependence extending from kings and princes down into the localities. The second was the development of techniques of rule and of control, usually (except in Spain and Ireland) borrowed from neighbouring powers, more specialized royal officials, a more complex and more top-down judicial system, the ability to demand military service from the population, the ability to exploit manpower to build fortifications of different types, and, in newly Christianized areas, the development of tighter official hierarchies of the church…

     “Broadly, the more of these developments a ruler had access to, the more stable his power was, and the more ambitious he (in Rus’, once, she) could be. Political aggregation was perhaps greatest in Rus’, and also, in a smaller compass, Bulgaria, Denmark and Asturias-Leon; it was beginning, however, to crystallize in Croatia, Bohemia, Poland and maybe Norway by the end of our period as well, in a less stable and more contested way, and also (the obscurest of all) in Scotland. In Wales and Ireland, however, and also Sweden, royal ambition did not yet have an adequate infrastructural development behind it, and the expansion of kingdoms promoted instability more than solid bases for government (this was partly true of Bohemia and Poland as well); and in some places, on the Baltic coast or in Iceland (as also sometimes in Norway) such expansion was successfully resisted for some time…”[6]

     In all the Orthodox lands we find strong kings allied to independent Churches. These included not only the well-established empires of New Rome in the East and the German-Italian Holy Roman Empire in the West, but also such newly-established kingdoms as Norway (Olaf Trygvasson, Olaf the Saint), Sweden (Olaf Skotkunning), Poland (Boleslav the Great), Hungary (Stephen the Great) and Russia (Vladimir the Great). Despotism in the strict sense is nowhere to be found – not even in Rome... Iceland’s Althing preserved a form of pre-liberal democratism[7], while France was already breaking down into feudalism.

     The whole of this vast area was not only monarchical in governance, but also Orthodox Christian in faith (although backslidings did take place, for example in Denmark). And so the year 1000 represented the peak of the influence both of Orthodox autocracy and of Orthodox Christianity in world history so far. As Wil van den Bercken writes: “In the eleventh century, when with the exception of the Finns and the Baltic peoples all the European peoples had adopted Christianity as their national religion, Christian Europe had formally become a historical reality.” [8] Moreover, in all those nations the Christianity was Orthodox. It would not be until 1054 that Western Christianity fell into the heresy of Roman Catholicism and under the despotic rule of the papacy…

     Despotism, meanwhile, ruled throughout Asia and Northern Africa, including the Islamic lands from Morocco to northern India, and the Hindu-Buddhist-Confucian lands from southern India to China and Japan.  

     The fusion of politics and religion is clearly evident in Japan. As J.M. Roberts writes: "The keys to the continuity and toughness of Japanese society have been the family and the traditional religion. The clan was an enlarged family, and the nation the most enlarged family of all. In patriarchal style, the emperor presided over the national family as did a clan leader over his clan or, even, the small farmer over his family. The focus of family and clan life was participation in the traditional rites, the religion known as Shinto, whose essence was the worship at the proper times of certain local or personal deities."[9]

     In 645, according to the Taika Reform Edict, the emperor, who was from the ruling Yamato elite and claimed to be descended through the first emperor Jinmu from the sun goddess, acquired absolute power and claimed ownership of all land in the kingdom. As W.M. Spellman writes, "he also reaffirmed his status as Shinto high priest, thereby combining supreme religious authority with new-found political primacy on the classic pagan god-king model. In reality, however, the Taika Reform Edict did little to alter the status of powerful and semi-autonomous aristocrats in the countryside, of whom the most important were the Fujiwara…"[10]

     Even the Jews had a quasi-monarchy in the form of their Exilarch in Baghdad-Babylon. But in 1040 this power came to an end. The only independent Jewish State since the fall of Jerusalem, Khazaria, fell in 966-967 to Sviatoslav of Kiev. However, it survived in a weakened form until the Mongols finally swept it away, eliciting a mass migration of Khazars to Eastern Europe that created the Yiddish-speaking communities that were to have such a destructive impact on Tsarist Russia.[11] 

     This fairly sharp contrast between Orthodox and Autocratic Europe, on the one hand, and pagan and despotic Asia and North Africa, on the other, confirms the thesis that there is a more than coincidental correlation between Orthodoxy and Autocracy, on the one hand, and paganism and despotism, on the other. Orthodoxy flourishes under authoritarian political rule, but does not allow that rule to subsume the authority of the Church, which sanctifies and supports the king while remaining independent of him. Pagan rulers, on the other hand, almost always ascribe quasi-divine honours to themselves. Thus the Japanese emperors traced their ancestry back to the sun goddess, the Khmer rulers of Cambodia in this period were “the embodiment of Shiva, spirit of the ancestors and the earth and the fount of fertility”[12], and the Fatimid Islamic ruler Al-Hakim – who destroyed the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem - believed that he was god incarnate.[13] The sharp contrast between Orthodox and Autocratic Europe, on the one hand, and pagan and despotic Asia and North Africa, on the other, began to break down only with the appearance of the heretical papacy, whose rule was despotic and semi-pagan. 


     Characteristic of all these European and Asian monarchies – Christian, Islamic and pagan – was an intense religiosity. The modern idea that religion should be separated from the State would have been incomprehensible to almost any man in the year 1000. The religiosity of these monarchies was not incompatible with striking artistic, technical and economic achievements. Thus the great cities of Constantinople, Cordoba, Baghdad and Bukhara were at their peak at this time, as was the Sung empire in China.


     The most important corollary of the religious monarchism of Europe and Asia in the year 1000 was the belief it incarnated that, as John Man writes of Sung China, “state and society, administration and education, could be united, and take civilization forward to a new level”.[14] The major tendency of modern democratic civilization has been the opposite: the belief that state and society must be disjoined. Of course, one cannot deny that the conjoining of state and society can be to an evil end; and some of the states of this period, such as Al-Mansur’s in Spain or Al-Hakim’s in Egypt, were aggressively antichristian. (In 1009 Al-Hakim destroyed the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, creating the nominal cause of the First Crusade.) But it is no less unreasonable to suppose that state and society cannot in any circumstances be conjoined for the good. Certainly, the Christian monarchies of the period compare favourably, from a Christian point of view, with the disjointed, secularized democracies of today.

     The unity enjoyed by these monarchical societies gave each citizen a purpose in life higher than his own narrowly personal interests. This purpose, in such a religious age, could only be religious. That is why changes of regime which did not involve changes of religion – as when the Muslim Turks took control of Bukhara from the Muslim Samanids in 999 – caused less upheaval than might have been expected. Correspondingly, the most savage wars of the time – as between the Muslims and Hindus in northern India, or between the Muslims and Christians in the Iberian peninsula – were invariably religious. The scourge of modern states, ethnic rivalry, was less of a problem in an age that took multi-ethnic empires like the Roman and Muslim for granted.[15] (Indeed, St. Stephen, King of Hungary (+1038), is reported to have said: “A country of one language and one set of customs is feeble and fragile”.) Much more problematic was the idea of religious pluralism, because it threatened society’s unity of purpose. Hence the anti-Jewish pogroms in the Rhineland in 1002 and in Limoges in 1010 – it was not the different nationality of the Jews that exacerbated the Christians so much as the clear contradictions in faith and life between the Jews and the Christians.

     Since religion was so important to these peoples, when they did change religion, they tended to convert en masse. The most important and striking example of this is the conversion of the vast territory of Russia from paganism to Orthodoxy under St. Vladimir. Some western historians, puzzled by the speed of the process in Russia and noting one or two violent incidents, have come to the conclusion that it was all the result of coercion. But they fail to take into account, not only the grace of God, but also the cohesiveness of tribal societies, and therefore the unanimity or near-unanimity of their decision-making, and the genuine respect and awe in which the views of the tribal leader or king were held, which naturally led to their decisions being accepted as God-inspired. Thus the Kievans reasoned, as the Chronicler records: “If it had not been good, then our prince and boyars would not have accepted it”.

     Even democratic Iceland converted from paganism to Christianity at this time with scarcely any opposition once the opinion of one wise man, the Lawgiver Thorgeir, became known. For, as Tom Holland writes, “All the Icelanders assembled on the Thingvellir, Christian as well as pagan, duly agreed to accept his judgement on what the faith of Iceland should be; and Thorgeir accepted the fateful charge. ‘He lay down and spread his cloak over himself, and lay all that day and the next night, nor did he speak a word.’ Then abruptly, on the following morning, he sat up and ordered the Icelanders to accompany him to the great Law Rock – and from there he delivered them his verdict. Men were still be permitted to eat horseflesh; to expose unwanted children; to offer sacrifices, provided that it was done in private. In every other respect, however, they were to submit themselves to the laws of the new religion. Whether in cold water or warm, all were to be baptized. The inhabitants of Iceland were to become a Christian people.”[16] 

     And so these societies combined two characteristics which, from the modern point of view, cannot be combined: the “collectivist” belief that men can and should freely choose its supreme end together, and the “individualist” belief that the supreme end can be revealed to one particular man.  For if wisdom comes from God, "it is much more natural to suppose," as Vladimir Trostnikov says, "that divine enlightenment will descend upon the chosen soul of an Anointed One of God, as opposed to a million souls at once".[17] Scripture does not say vox populi - vox Dei, but: "The heart of the king is in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever He will" (Proverbs 21.1).

September 6/19, 2019.

[1]See John Eadie, “The Man of Sin”, in Greek Text Commentaries: On Thessalonians, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1877, 1979, p. 341.

[2] He died on the way. See Tom Holland, Millenium, London, 1999 p. 129.

[3] John Man, Atlas of the Year 1000, London: Penguin Books, 1999.

[4] Adso, Letter on the Origin and Time of the Antichrist.

[5] Stephen’s father Geza was baptized in 995 and died in 997. “The rest of Europe,” writes Louth, “was amazed at the transformation of Hungary into a Christian country. As the chronicler Ralph Glaber put it: ‘The people of the Hungarians, who previously were accustomed cruelly to prey upon their neighbours, now freedly give of their own for the sake of Christ. They who formerly pillaged the Christians… now welcome them like brothers and sisters.’” (op. cit., p. 252.

[6] Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000, London: Penguin, 2009,pp. 505-506.

[7] Things, or parliaments, were a characteristic of many Viking lands. Cf. the Tynwald, or Thingwald of the Isle of Man, which has lasted from the eleventh century to the present day, and the Veche of Novgorod.

[8] Van den Bercken, Holy Russia and Christian Europe, p. 115.

[9]Roberts, History of the World, Oxford: Helicon, 1992, p. 371.

[10] W.M. Spellman, Monarchies, 1000-2000, Trowbridge:  Reaktion, 2001, pp. 57, 58.

[11] See Schlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People, London: Verso, 2009, pp. 210-229.

[12] Man, op. cit., p. 102.

[13] Man, op. cit., p. 75. Which is what the Druse of Lebanon still believe him to be. In fact, Al-Hakim was one of the closest of all forerunners of the Antichrist. Not only did he proclaim himself to be god: he destroyed the Temple of God, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, in 1009.

[14] Man, op. cit., p. 91.

[15] “National identities,” writes Wickham, “were not widely prominent in 1000, even if one rejects the association between nationalism and modernity made in much contemporary scholarship. We must recognize that some such identities did exist. One can make a good case for England in this respect (the dismal years of the Danish conquest in the early eleventh century produced a number of texts invoking a version of it). Italians, too, had a sense of common identity, although it hardly reached south of Rome (of course, that is pretty much still true today), and did not lead to a desire for political unity. Geographical separation, such as that provided by the English Channel and the Alps, helped both of these, as it also did the Irish, who were capable of recognizing a version of an Irish community, however fragmented Ireland really was. In the parallel case of Byzantium, what gave its inhabitants identity was simply the coherence of the political system, which was much greater than any other in Europe at that time; Byzantine ‘national identity’ has not been much considered by historians, for that empire was the ancestor of no modern national state [not the Greek? (V.M.)], but it is arguable that it was the most developed in Europe at the end of our period. By contrast, France, Germany and Spain (either Christian or Muslim) did not have any such imagery. The Danes may have had it, but in Scandinavia as a whole there is good evidence for it only in Iceland. The Slav lands were still too inchoate to have any version of identity not specifically tied to the fate of ruling dynasties” (op. cit., pp. 4-5).

[16] Holland, op. cit., p. 212. Cf. Man, op. cit., p. 40; Gwyn Jones, The Vikings, London: The Folio Society, 1997, pp. 266-270.

[17] Trostnikov, "The Role and Place of the Baptism of Rus in the European Spiritual Process of the Second Millenium of Christian History", Orthodox Life, vol. 39, N 3, May-June, 1989, p. 34.

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