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Signs of the Apocalypse in 15th century Germany

Many cultures have beliefs about the end of the world. In 15th-century Germany the Apocalypse would be coming if you saw a castle hanging from a thread and a giant hatching from an egg.

A new article by Tina Boyer examines two Christian traditions that developed in the Middle Ages, both of which offered a look at the end of the world, and both of which were combined in various blockbooks in Germany during the 1400s. Known as the Fifteen Signs of the Doomsday and the Life of the Antichrist, they were based on Biblical writings, but also offered a view on how medieval people believed the world might end.

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Also known as xylographica, blockbooks were popular printed works made from woodcuts of images and texts. They were read by audiences that included nobles, merchants and monks – those who had some level of education in the late Middle Ages – and were nearly always about religion, with the Apocalypse being the main theme in several works.

The works mentioned by Boyer included the Fifteen Signs of the Doomsday, which dates back to at least the fifth century. They were events prophesied to occur at the end of the world, taking place just over a two-week time period. Boyer explains that these signs were:

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  1. The sea rises above the mountains
  2. The sea resides, and the earth withers
  3. The fish in the sea lament to heaven
  4. The sea and all the waters burn up
  5. Trees sweat blood; birds assemble on the fields and refuse food
  6. Buildings collapse and trees fall down
  7. Stones fly up and smash each other; people hide up in caves
  8. Earthquakes
  9. All mountains are leveled
  10. People return from the mountains and go about as if they are senseless and unwilling to speak to each other
  11. The dead rise
  12. The stars fall from heaven and emit fire
  13. The living die so that they can rise with the dead
  14. Heaven and earth are consumed by fire
  15. But will be renewed, and all humankind shall rise together
Page from the Apocalypse, a blockbook printed in Europe between 1450 and 1500. Wikimedia Commons

The German blockbooks also included another medieval legend known as the Life of the Antichrist, which originally emerged in the tenth century. This involves another Biblical figure who is supposed to arrive during the Apocalypse, and who would use various miracles to convince people to follow him in his fight against Christianity.

The readers of these blockbooks would have been aware of events that they would consider troubling and signs that the Apocalypse might just be on its way – for example the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and the ongoing strife within the Papacy and the Catholic Church. Their worries would play into how the Antichrist was depicted. Boyer writers:

Deceit, instead of physical prowess and violence, marks the fifteenth-century Antichrist, which is an interesting shift in focus that reflects the social uneasiness of the time. Caught between doctrinal expectations and antipapal critique, the lies of the Antichrist and his insidious behavior in the blockbooks exacerbate the tenuous perception of what is real and what is a lie. The seductive powers of the Final Enemy, therefore, are of such a nature that they and he cannot be differentiated from the truth. The warning to the reader is clear: the Antichrist, who looks and acts like Jesus, can very easily lead a true believer down the wrong path.

15th century Life of Antichrist – Antichrist has Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem reconstructed – Miracles of Antichrist: he raises winds, makes the sea rise up, defoliates trees or makes dry ones green, turns water into dry land – Miracles cont’d: a giant is hatched from an egg, a deer from a stone, a castle hangs from a thread, the dead rise from their graves – Wellcome Images L0029255

The blockbooks depict some of the miracles performed by the Antichrist – they often involve some kind of reversal of the natural order, such as having water flow upstream or making a tree blossom then wither. However, there are images of three miracles that are unique to the fifteenth century: suspending a castle by a thread, a stag jumping from a stone, and a giant hatching out of an egg. These images do not make much sense to a modern audience, but as Boyer explains, they would make sense to fifteenth century Germans. For example, the castle during the Middle Ages was often seen as a “focal point of society,” which would offer protection and where those who ruled would govern from – having it hanging from a thin thread inverts this to become a precarious and fragile place. Meanwhile, the giant emerging from an egg is armoured and carrying weapons. In the Biblical tradition, giants are portrayed as evil and aligned with the devil, so the miracle performed by the Antichrist is both a wonder but also a threat of producing a danger to humankind.

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The last miracle, in which the Antichrist pulls a stag out of a stone, can be explained in the following way: the Physiologus states that stags pour water into stone crevices to kill snakes. Because the stag is a symbol for Christ, and the snakes represent Satan, it may well be that this is a simple reversal of traditional symbolism. Since the Antichrist pulls the stag out of the stone in front of witnesses, he sublimates his own existence and gains the trust of his audience. He shows that his power is the power of Christ.

Boyer adds that the miracles of the giant, castle and stag were very popular and appeared in many blockbooks from 15th century Germany. The creators of these books wanted to warn their audience of just how deceptive the Antichrist could be and that when the Apocalypse did arrive, the people had to be very wary of who was really on the side of God.

Tina Boyer’s article “The Miracles of the Antichrist” appears in The End-Times in Medieval German Literature: Sin, Evil, and the Apocalypse, edited by Ernst Ralf Hintz and Scott E. Pincikowski, and published by Camden House. Click here for more details.

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Tina Boyer is an Associate Professor at Wake Forest University – click here to view her page on Academia.edu

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