Thursday, August 09, 2007

Norman Cohn 1915 - 2007

I was sorry to read the obituary of Norman Cohn today.

Norman Cohn was a very fine historian who wrote a superb book, one of my favourites, The Pursuit of the millennium, in 1957. This chronicled the various millennium cults which sprung up in the middle ages and particularly around the quattrocento, and the medieval heresies and revolutionary movements which found favour in such febrile times.

The Guardian obituary notes:

As Cohn himself pointed out, all his work was fundamentally concerned with the study of the same phenomenon: "the urge to purify the world through the annihilation of some category of human beings imagined as agents of corruption and incarnations of evil".

We seem to have learned so little since the medieval times of which Cohn wrote. The obituary also quotes him:

"There are times," Cohn wrote, "when this underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people who thereupon take leave of sanity and responsibility. And it occasionally happens that this underworld becomes a political power and changes the course of history."

Somehow, one wouldn't be surprised to be told that such a time was approaching.

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