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Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 57.2 (2002) 225-226

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Book Review

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:
Religion, War, Famine and Death in Reformation Europe

Andrew Cunningham and Ole Peter Grell. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Religion, War, Famine and Death in Reformation Europe. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2001. xiii, 360 pp., illus. $64.95 (cloth), $22.95 (paper).

In 1498, Albrecht Dürer produced a series of fifteen illustrations for an edition of the Book of Revelation. The most famous was the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which Cunningham and Grell take as the starting point for their analysis of European culture between 1490 and 1648. Dürer’s illustration, they claim, perfectly encapsulates the mood of an age that was “characterized by apocalyptic expectations, eschatological speculations and millenarian dreams” (p. 1). Europeans in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were convinced that the Last Days were near. Cunningham and Grell argue that anticipation of the Apocalypse was natural, perhaps even inevitable, for people who experienced so many wars, famines, and epidemic diseases. These traumatic events were interpreted as the signs of the Last Days foretold in the Book of Revelation. Cunningham and Grell further argue that all the crises of the period were rooted in a single demographic phenomenon: population expansion.

Their attempt to bridge disciplinary boundaries and to provide a broad overview of European culture in an age of profound transition is praiseworthy. Cunningham and Grell connect phenomena such as the Anabaptist takeover of Münster, new techniques of siege warfare, and outbreaks of plague which have traditionally been the domain of scholars working in religious, military, or medical history. The book is also written in a clear, engaging style. The authors’ interpretation of early modern culture is ultimately unsatisfying, however. In particular, the direct causal link between population increase and the prevalence of apocalyptic thinking is too great a simplification. This argument invokes a crude materialism in which the catastrophes of the age are the “real” historical events, and the ways people interpreted and made meaning of these events are mere epiphenomena. There is no sense that early modern people actively shaped the world in which they lived through their acts of interpretation. For example, Protestant Reformers are said to have “appropriate[ed] the apocalyptic mood of the age for their own propaganda purposes” (p. 20). Yet surely they helped to create this mood! Cunningham and Grell even go so far as to state that, in times of crisis, “social and economic relationships, structures and experiences get unconsciously translated into, and experienced as, events of great religious significance” (p. 200, my italics). This leads to a number of problems. For example, it leaves them unable to explain why Catholics, who experienced the same crises of war, famine, and disease that Protestants [End Page 225] did, were so much less inclined to eschatological thinking. Why did the Book of Revelation not resonate with them in the way it did for Protestants?

Because they treat apocalyptic thinking as an unconscious response to demographic crises, the authors do not explore the varied meanings and uses of eschatological images and rhetoric. Yet different texts served different purposes and the same texts were read in different ways by different people. The figures of the devil and the Antichrist, for example, were not always intended to invoke horror. They were often humorous or satirical and designed to entertain as well as edify. Cunningham and Grell’s approach thus fails to capture the full richness, complexity, and flexibility of biblical language and imagery, as well as the many ways this language could be manipulated.

In sum, Cunningham and Grell’s interpretation of early modern culture reduces religion to the clouded lens through which early modern people viewed the “real” events of their world. There is a corresponding sense of the superiority of modern people who no longer look at the world through this distorting lens and thus “see” events for what they “really...