Medieval Traditions about the Site of Judgment
Hall, Thomas N.
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 10 (1993)
In his cryptic answer to a disciple’s question “What shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the consummation of the world?” Christ issues the ominous remark that “of that day and hour no one knoweth, no not the angels of heaven, but the Father alone” (Matthew 24:36; cf. Mark 13:32), a statement that has provoked endless speculation about the time of Christ’s return and the signs that will announce it. Chronologies of the second coming and of Judgment form a staple of Christian eschatology and are so widely reflected in medieval art and literature that it might be said that medieval eschatology as a whole is dominated by questions of time and history. Chiliastic beliefs in a messianic interregnum, prophecies of a Last World Emperor, patterns of decline and renewal, the progressive shortening of time, the number and sequence of the signs of Doomsday, the chronicling of Christ’s return in terms of world ages and the cosmic week these are among the themes that recur with greatest frequency in medieval discussions of the last things, and all are centrally concerned with time. Much rarer is it to encounter the question of where the last events are to take place, but this is not to say the issue was never a cause for discussion, since the problem of the location of Judgment figures repeatedly in medieval sources given to a faithful and complete account of the end of the world. In the medieval West, generally speaking, there were two dominant, carefully formulated answers to the question of where Judgment will occur, as well as aberrant and idiosyncratic developments of each, all relying on scriptural foundations. Tracing the histories of these answers can tell us much about the erratic and unstable character of medieval eschatology and can alert us to the doctrinal allegiances of many important texts. In the limited survey that follows, I would like to review the origins and dissemination of these traditions and comment on their relation to a broader problem in medieval eschatology, namely the role of exegesis in supplying answers to unanswerable questions.