Dr William Ullathorne, the first Catholic Bishop of Birmingham, was once asked to recommend a book about humility. He thought about it for a minute, then said judiciously: ‘My own is the best.’ A couple of years ago, I published a general history of millenarianism, and if anyone had asked me to recommend a book on the subject I would probably have responded as immodestly as the good bishop. But here comes Eugen Weber with a study of apocalypses down the ages which – he says through gritted teeth – it at least as good as any of its competitors.
More to the point, it is refreshingly different. That is because Weber, author of a much admired history of France in the 1930s, relies heavily on French-language sources. The result is a hugely entertaining sequence of apocalyptic visions which, while every bit as preposterous as their better-known American counterparts, are doused in the subtle perfume of Gallic fantasy. Thus we hear, for example, from the Parisian society hostess-cum-prophetess Baroness Julie von Krüdener (1764–1824), who declared in 1814 that the world was ‘dancing on a volcano’: soon, she added, masters would wash vegetables for their supper and fetch water from the well while ‘all the servant girls will walk about in silken dresses’. Only in France could the apocalypse feature fresh vegetables and haute couture.
In fact, constructing apocalyptic images of the future has been a French national pastime for centuries – and, it must be said, they’re pretty good at it: in 1414, the great scholar Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly ruled out the immediate arrival of the Antichrist on the grounds that he was not