Modes of Apocalypticism in the Early Modern World: Cosmography, Cartography, Empire

AHA Session 135
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Chelsea (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
Jay Rubenstein, University of Southern California
Jay Rubenstein, University of Southern California

Session Abstract

The word “apocalypse” in its core meaning refers to an uncovering, disclosure, or revelation of knowledge, and in religious contexts to the prophetic, providentialist belief in the inevitable coming of an End Time. In some versions of the prophecy, the narrative concentrates on a coming of final battle between the forces of good and evil which then brings history to its conclusion. In a second view, the process, terminating in unified godly rule in a universal and harmonious empire, is conceived as more pacific and gradual. Although the word “apocalypse” originates in Greek and is especially associated with its appearance in the “Apocalypse of John” in the New Testament, the holding of apocalyptic expectations has been a recurring feature in the history of the world since ancient times, especially among peoples whose understanding of history begins with divine Creation. The latter include Jews, Christians and Muslims, among whom divers interpretations of the providential narrative have emerged over time, and in some instances continue into the present. In no period were such apocalyptic views more prevalent than the early modern era. One thread treated the wars and political upheavals of the period as providential struggles pointing as signs to the inevitable triumph of God at the End. A second envisioned the Last Days more sanguinely as a time of recovery, renewal, peace, enlightenment, and the establishment of godly rule. This panel explores this latter thread as it was manifested in discourses of empire, in cartographic representations of the terrestrial globe, and more generally in the advancement of knowledge of the heavens as well as the earth. The session will kick off with Mayte Green-Mercado’s paper focused on diplomatic exchanges in the contested territory of the 15th-century Mediterranean that treated apocalypticism as a form of political discourse, or more precisely, as a diplomatic language that aimed to articulate a universalizing idea of empire. John Jeffries Martin’s presentation, taking Columbus’s voyages as the starting point, treats the place of imperial aspirations and varied scriptural traditions of providentialism among Christians, Jews and Muslims in motivating the development of new knowledge of the terrestrial globe promoting hopes for world peace. David Harris Sacks, centering his discussion on Bacon’s use of the apocalyptical prophecy in Daniel 12:4, considers the history of early modern “discovery” in the context of Europe’s early modern religious wars, focusing on Bacon’s emphasis on newly uncovered geographical knowledge as the harbinger of the “augmentation of all sciences” and integral to the advancement of empire and godly rule. Charly Coleman serves as Chair and provide a comment. Specializing in the intersections between religion and Enlightenment thought, most recently focusing on economic theology, Coleman brings the perspective of 18th-century intellectual and religious history to the sessions discussion of earlier modes of apocalypticism.
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