Norman Cohn: Scholar whose book The Pursuit of the Millennium was translated into 11 languages and earned cult status (Obit.)

Historians in the News

PROFESSOR NORMAN COHN, who died on Tuesday aged 92, was a historian, philosopher, linguist, author and expert on persecution, genocide and extermination; his seminal book, The Pursuit of the Millennium: revolutionary millenarians and mystical anarchists of the middle ages (1957), earned cult status.

Translated into 11 languages since its initial publication, The Pursuit of the Millennium became Cohn's best-known work and was acclaimed as one of the most important studies of apocalyptic ideas. In the book Cohn revealed for the first time the history of revolutionary millenarians, people who believe that the old world is about to be transformed into a new order in which the chosen few reap their reward of an earthly paradise and everyone else perishes.

Having witnessed at first hand the apocalyptic atrocities of war, Cohn wondered whether the fanatical ideas of the Nazis and Communists were exclusively a 20th-century phenomenon or whether they had more ancient roots. Both tyrannies contained the myth of a final titanic struggle against a demonised enemy - the Jews in the case of Hitler's Germany, the bourgeoisie in that of Stalin's Soviet Union.

Although working as a linguist when he returned to academic life after the Second World War, Cohn - with no training as an historian but never hidebound - embarked on a quest for the historical origins of these ideas which took him back to the Middle Ages. Armed with Latin and medieval German and French, he embarked on an 10-year investigation of sources for his book, with the aim of shedding light on the ancient collective fantasies that still exerted an influence on European culture....

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