Norman Cohn’s Divergent Legacies: A Presentation on YouTube

On the 23rd of June, 2020, I gave a paper via remote link to an audience at the Europa Universität in Frankfurt / Oder. The talk is entitled:

Reflections on The Pursuit of the Millennium, Europe’s Inner Demons, and The War on Heresy: Six-Word Arguments to Highlight Norman Cohn’s Divergent Legacies. (The orange text is important when you peruse the Prezi frames.)

I used the Prezi below in the presentation. You can explore it on your own by going to There are many frames that I did not discuss in detail.

If you would like to read my presentation, you can find it by opening the rest of this post.

UPDATE from 27 May 2021: I have changed the title of this post (although the URL remains the same). The original post indicated that the YouTube video and other parts of the post were related to a June 2020 presentation (Vortrag) I was making at the Europa-Universität in Germany.

UPDATE from 24 June 2020: I have put the recording of my presentation on YouTube. The text below is a close but not exact transcript of the presentation.

NOTE: In the transcript below I’ve used ** to indicate points at which I’ve advanced a frame in the Prezi. These markers are not necessarily complete.

Viadrina (i.e., Europa Uni) Presentation

Hello everybody!

I’d like to start by thanking Andreas Bähr for the invitation to speak with you. I’m very glad to be able to join you, even if only remotely via YouTube and Zoom!

I’ll start my presentation with a bit of a prelude. There are a few details that are worth clarifying at the beginning.

First, it is helpful to understand that I’ll be speaking about polemics and polemical literature and polemical writers.

Polemik ist eine Gattung von Literatur gegen Feinde und andere angeblich falsch denkende Menschen. [Polemical literature is a genre against enemies and other supposedly falsely thinking people.]

Point number two: It’s also helpful to know that what particularly interests me in my ongoing research beyond this talk is how medieval and early modern polemics get translated into modern scholarship. In other words, I’m interested in how old accusations and hate literature become respectable among scholars today. I’m going to be providing you with one example in my presentation.

… An example of this translation of hate into scholarship is another term that I’m going to use a lot: AnaBaptist and Anabaptism. The common German terms are Täufer and Täufertum, but also sometimes Wiedertäufer. A basic definition is that Anabaptists are Protestants who have their roots in early Reformation, but they were unlike most Protestants because they refused to accept the baptism of children, and instead they only accepted the baptism of adults who could voluntarily choose to join the community of faith. This seems like a reasonable idea to most people today, but in the early modern world it was a dangerous idea. In fact, Anabaptism translated as Wiedertäuferei, was a serious crime in the Holy Roman Empire and in other European jurisdictions. People who were convicted of this crime were supposed to be executed. If you wonder why, all you have to do is recognize that in the world before individual rights and democratic thinking, it was very common to believe that people owed obedience God and God’s rulers on earth. This obedience was customarily organized in the first instance by local parish churches who coordinated power with secular, territorial governments. The first contact that a young person had with this apparatus of power was at the time of baptism as a child in a parish church. From the point of view of the established authorities, those Christian reformers (Anabaptists) who refused to baptize their children seemed rejecting the entire structure of good, godly order, because they refused to participate in parish churches.

I’m using the term Anabaptist in this presentation, but I’m mostly in favour of historicizing the term and otherwise rejecting it as a supposedly neutral, useful term. The reason is that it is a term borrowed from the Imperial criminal code, and I think it really distorts our historical thinking. But rejecting the term is a big project, so I will continue to use it for now.

For now just remember this: Anabaptists were those Protestants in the 16th century who baptized only adults.

The third point for this prelude is that the 24th and 25th of June this year (2020) mark the 485th anniversary of the fall of the besieged city of Münster in 1535. By the time the city was defeated the siege of Münster had lasted for 16 months (that is, from February 1534 to June 1535) – an incredibly loooong time. The siege is an episode in Anabaptist history and the history of Europe’s reformations that continues to fascinate me, as it has also fascinated many other scholars, including Norman Cohn. You’ll see that much of the Prezi is devoted to a further exploration of the history and historiography of Anabaptist-controlled Münster and the siege.

And finally for this prelude, I will note that in English it is a convention to put the titles of books in italics. I have followed this convention in my Prezi. With this in mind, you will see that the title of my presentation includes the titles of three books.

And now an overview of my talk.

You can see by my title that I’ll be speaking about a historiographical subject. Three books are the focus of my presentation, and you’ll notice that a fourth book by Bruno Latour plays a big role in my thinking (even if only in the background). However, this presentation is first and foremost about the intellectual legacy of one scholar, Norman Rufus Cohn.

My main purpose for this presentation is to highlight what for me is very clearly a deep and fundamental conflict at the heart of Cohn’s two most important and influential books, PotM and EID. I will also consider some of the implications of this conflict, which I call a divergent legacy. Cohn’s influence on the British medievalist, R.I. (Bob) Moore provides a useful vehicle for discussing Cohn’s positive and negative legacies.


To help make my points and add what I hope is a fun twist, I’m going to adapt Ernest Hemmingway’s six-word story challenge. In the Prezi, I have used orange text to make my 6-word arguments easy to see. I have also used the recurring two-sided face of the ancient god Janus from Bruno Latour’s book Science in Action to simplify my points about Cohn’s conflicting and divergent arguments.


Here’s an example:

Cohn’s two most famous and important books are The Pursuit of the Millennium and Europe’s Inner Demons. Both books cover roughly the same period of time from the 11th through the 16th centuries in Europe. My argument is that Cohn wrote his first book to show that polemicists who demonized heretics were right, but in Europe’s Inner Demons (his third book) he showed how polemicists who demonized heretics helped create a deep and long-lasting state-sponsored tradition of persecution – the persecution of minorities. In the one book he believed polemicists; but in the other book he exposed them. This is quite a stark difference!


It’s useful to say a little bit about Norman Cohn’s life and scholarship. The first of five important pieces of information to know about him is that his first book, The Pursuit of the Millennium, became an incredible success as soon as it was first published in 1957. Here are a few examples: The 2nd edition of 1961 included endorsements from Bertrand Russell and Hugh Trevor-Roper, and the 3rd edition of 1970 added endorsements from Isaiah Berlin and Christopher Hill. These men are among the very most influential public intellectuals in post-war, 20th-century British life. As a testament to the book’s powerful influence, the Times Literary Supplement (an important publication in the English-speaking world) placed Pursuit on its list of top 100 books published between 1945 and 1995. It has been translated into at least 10 languages, including German. Remarkably, there have been three separate German translations.

Given this incredible success, it is not at all surprising that when people think about Norman Cohn, they almost always think immediately of The Pursuit of the Millennium. This popularity has helped spread Cohn’s central argument in this book: that is, to show the dangers posed by self-deifying, millenarian prophets who apparently encouraged the poor and dispossessed masses to create utopias in the here-and-now through violence against minorities and established elites.

Here’s a second important point that is crucial for my presentation: Almost all of the evidence that Cohn used to support his central argument was taken from anti-heretical, polemical, orthodox sources that were aimed at exaggerating the dangers of leaders of religious minorities who opposed the established political and ecclesiastical order. He even made clear at multiple points that he was aware of the complications and problems of trusting polemical sources. But he trusted them because he thought they confirmed his central argument about the dangers that freelance prophets supposedly posed for civilization.

A third important point about The Pursuit of the Millennium is that Cohn insisted on making the claim that dangerous medieval apocalyptic prophets set the social-psychological foundations for 20th-century totalitarianism. The claim is most clearly stated in the subtitle to the 2nd edition of 1961, but it is a claim in all three editions of the book. The trouble is, Cohn only asserted this point, but he did not provide any serious evidence for the connection between medieval prophets and modern dictators. He seems to have relied on the work of other scholars, most notably Eric Voegelin, who had made a similar claim in the early 1950s.


Here’s a fourth important point: It seems to me that between 1957 and 1975 something significant changed in Cohn’s attitude toward the history of heresy in the middle ages, and its significance for modern history. I’ll repeat my presentation’s main point: in The Pursuit of the Millennium Cohn contributed to the vilification of medieval heretics, but in Europe’s Inner Demons he emphasized how governmental and church officials exaggerated the dangers of heretics and witches in order to promote campaigns of repression against them. The result of these campaigns are historical documents created by powerful polemicists – the very kinds of documents that Cohn trusted as evidence of the dangers of heretics when he wrote and revised The Pursuit of the Millennium – and that he refused to trust in Europe’s Inner Demons. Therefore, in a nutshell (as the English saying goes) the tension between the two books is about how to work with polemical sources.


Why did Cohn change his perspective, his argument, and his use of sources? My suspicion (but only a suspicion) is that his experience directing the Columbus Centre at the University of Sussex between 1963 and 1980 was a factor, although I do not know this with certainty. The Centre’s research program focused on the historical roots of persecution and genocide. During his tenure as the Centre’s director Cohn wrote Warrant for Genocide about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as well as Europe’s Inner Demons. Both books focus on official, government-sponsored campaigns to demonize minorities.

My fifth point is that Cohn insisted that his two most popular books, Pursuit and Inner Demons, were NOT fundamentally in conflict at all. ** Here’s the key sentence from the “Preface” to Europe’s Inner Demons: “Fundamentally, both books are concerned with 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.”

It’s important to add something I didn’t say in the presentation: For all of his life Cohn was a passionate and consistent opponent of anti-Semitism! But I should also add that his strong opposition to anti-Semitism is no excuse for his muddled opposition to the demonization of medieval heretics.

This quotation from Cohn says nothing about who did the persecuting and who were the victims of persecution. What Cohn did not admit in this comparative discussion of Pursuit and Inner Demons is that the two books reversed the roles of persecutors and victims. In Pursuit Cohn trusted the enemies of heretics, who he described as victims of heretical violence, but in Inner Demons Cohn emphasized that heretics were primarily victims and government officials and churchmen were their persecutors. What a contrast! How could Cohn not admit to it?

I can’t say for sure why Norman Cohn refused to reconsider the arguments and methodology of The Pursuit of the Millennium after he had written Europe’s Inner Demons – or at least admit to the fundamental tension between his earlier and later work. ** What is clear, however, is that late into his long life Cohn continued to repeat the wildest and most problematic claims of Pursuit.

I think it’s worth caring about Norman Cohn’s legacy for at least 3 reasons.  The first reason concerns the ethics of research and is related to a theme I mentioned at the beginning of my talk: that is, the way that early modern polemics get translated into modern scholarship.  I’m a specialist in the history of the so-called “Anabaptists” (Wiedertäufer), ** and I think they are fascinating because of the hatred they attracted. For example, modern Lutheran historians have tended to repeat Martin Luther’s hate-filled attacks against the Anabaptists, and modern Catholic historians have tended to repeat anti-Protestant claims about Anabaptists and other supposed heretics. ** This image from a mid 16th-century anti-Protestant woodcut is a good example of the polemical Catholic claim that Anabaptists were among Christ’s Protestant enemies.

How does Norman Cohn fit into this story of anti-Anabaptist hatred? This question is worth asking, because Cohn was not a church historian, and in most cases it was church leaders who cared enough about Anabaptists to hate them in the 20th century. Cohn did come from a mixed Catholic and Jewish family, but I think most people who know about him would agree that it is best to describe him as a secular scholar of religious cultures. He’s not the sort of person who should have hated long-dead, 16th-century Anabaptists. Nonetheless, he accepted partisan, 16th-century Protestant and Catholic anti-Anabaptist literature as good evidence of the dangers of Anabaptism. The last main chapter of Pursuit – in other words, the crowning chapter that is meant to give the book a strong finish, and one of the most often cited chapters of the book, in fact – is about the period of Anabaptist rule at Münster between 1534 and 1535, and that chapter relies upon and popularizes ** the polemical story of Anabaptist madness that the Catholic polemicist Hermann von Kerssenbrock composed in the 1560s and 1570s. In effect, what Cohn did in the last chapters of Pursuit was to rejuvenate a centuries-old, hate-filled story. This is sloppy and bad scholarship. What’s more, it is also merely one of many examples from The Pursuit of the Millennium of how Norman Cohn, a supposedly critical secular humanist scholar well-trained in the careful use of sources, accepted and retold obviously biased old church histories. In other words, Cohn gave new secular, scholarly respectability to old religious polemics and hate. Many readers since 1957 have thought that they can trust the old warnings against apocalyptic prophets and other so-called fanatics because a careful scholar (Norman Cohn) who cites many, many primary sources in many languages has evaluated these warnings and found them to be trustworthy. This is really what lots and lots of smart and serious people who have been attracted to Cohn’s stories in The Pursuit of the Millennium have thought. From this point of view: Old prejudices are worth repeating as though they are reliable knowledge because an authoritative researcher has approved them. Scholarship really does depend on trust. The trouble with The Pursuit of the Millennium is that it confirmed the pre-existing anti-Anabaptist prejudices of many Protestant and Catholic readers in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, and as a result these otherwise smart readers put aside their critical thinking skills. ** …  I’ve already written about Cohn’s retelling of the myth of Anabaptist madness, and anyone who is interested in Anabaptist history can find out more by exploring the Prezi I have made for this presentation. …

A second reason for my interest in Cohn’s legacy is that, despite my deep concerns about the ethically questionable impact of The Pursuit of the Millennium, I acknowledge and am fascinated by the various ways that writers have been inspired by the very popular book. Among the many examples are Marxists of different stripes such as Christopher Hill and Raoul Vaneigem who accepted much of Cohn’s history of apocalyptic prophets, but instead of seeing these prophets as threats to European civilization they saw them as counter-cultural heroes. In other words, these authors accepted the outline of a subject but not the negative valuation of that subject. If anyone would like to learn more about this kind of inversion of values, ** I can recommend Greil Marcus’s history of The Sex Pistols, the English punk rock pioneers whose lead singer (Johnny Rotten) was born with the name John Lydon. At this point it is helpful to know that Jan van Leiden is the name of one of the main leaders of Münster during the siege of the 1530s. Jan van Leiden famously claimed to be a king, and many polemicists have lampooned him as a false and dangerous leader. In the 1930s and 1940s it was fashionable to compare Hitler to Jan van Leiden. In Lipstick Traces Greil Marcus throws that comparison into disarray. For Marcus the historical equation is not Norman Cohn’s older suggestion that Jan van Leiden (the so-called false, monster-king of the Anabaptists at Münster) prefigured Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, but a rather more harmless and playful connection (Jan van Leiden prefigures Johnny Rotten, the leader of The Sex Pistols). Just as a side note, you will learn from Lipstick Traces that Norman Cohn’s son, Nik Cohn, is one of the most important music journalists of the late 20th century and Nik Cohn’s writing about rock music history shows the influence of his father’s fascination with medieval prophets. These few examples should be enough to explain that my interest in The Pursuit of the Millennium extends beyond ethical and scholarly criticism of the book itself and into a broader exploration of recent popular culture.

A third reason for why I think it is worth paying attention to Norman Cohn’s work is that I see in the two divergent threads of Cohn’s legacy a very clear embodiment of what Bob Moore has called “the war on heresy among the scholars.” First, here’s some background: You might have heard of the medieval heresy of Catharism. According to most histories of medieval heresy, Cathars first emerged in the High Middle Ages (around the same time as the Franciscans). These Cathars were not really Christians. Instead, they were dualists who believed in two gods, a good god and an evil god. In addition to having teachings about God that were fundamentally at odds with Catholic teachings, Cathars also had their own sacraments and their own unique leadership structure. In other words, the Cathars were a coherent, well-organized counter-religion that challenged medieval Catholicism in a powerful way. According to these standard histories of Catharism, it is little wonder then that Catholics organized military campaigns Cathar strongholds in southern France in the 13th century. These crusades were bloody and involved much cruelty. No right-thinking historian today would approve of such violence. But many historians do try to understand Catholic hatred of Cathars, which seems to make sense from a medieval point of view, because of the profound challenge to Catholic ideas and authority that the Cathars posed. The Catholic war on Cathar heretics might not be justified in today’s moral terms, but it is understandable, if we think historically. At least, these are the kinds of claims that are often made in textbooks about heresy and the Cathars in the middle ages.

Bob Moore is an expert on medieval heresy and the persecution of heretics, and he used to accept this standard history of Catharism. However, he has been influenced strongly in recent years particularly by French and Australian research that has reevaluated the sources that are supposed to provide evidence for the existence of Cathars as a coherent counter-religion. Moore’s new book, The War on Heresy, is partly about the Catholic anti-Cathar crusades in France, but it is also about much more than this. Moore puts the anti-Cathar crusades into the broader history of persecution of heretics. One of the main themes of Moore’s research since The Formation of a Persecuting Society has been to trace the rise and course of a European culture of official persecution against heretics and minorities. In other words, Moore has been building upon the scholarly legacy that Norman Cohn helped promote in Europe’s Inner Demons. In The War on Heresy Moore goes further to argue that as part of the campaigns against heretics, Catholic officials and medieval Catholic chroniclers also wrote legal documents and historical accounts that created a trail of sources for the existence of Cathars, their theology, and their unique leadership structure. The problem is: These sources were almost always justifications for Catholic violence, and they exaggerated the Cathar threat to Catholicism, as well as the coherence of Catharism as a counter-religion. Moore argues that because the evidence for Catharism depends so fundamentally on polemical sources, the standard history of a coherent dualist counter-religion in the heart of Christendom has to be rejected. In other words, Catharism was an invention of Catholic enemies.

Moore’s thesis is controversial. ** Evidence of this controversy is the collection of essays from 2016 entitled Cathars in Question. I will emphasize that I find Moore’s case in The War on Heresy  to be very convincing. And if he is right, then the standard history of Catharism is another example of what I call the translation of medieval and early modern polemics into modern scholarship.

Moore’s last chapter of The War on Heresy is entitled “The War among the Scholars.” The chapter considers why it might be that so many generations of serious and excellent scholars have failed to read polemical sources with the critical reflection that should be the hallmarks of all good historical research. Moore’s question about the failure of generations of scholars to do source-critical work is an especially fascinating one when applied to Norman Cohn.**  To use Moore’s metaphor of war, Cohn engaged passionately in the intellectual battles of the middle ages because he believed that medieval culture shaped modern culture in profound ways. The trouble is, Cohn fought rhetorically on both sides of the war on heresy. In other words, Cohn was at rhetorical war with himself – but this was a struggle he never acknowledged. This fundamental tension at the heart of Cohn’s legacy explains why those scholars who build upon Cohn’s ideas in The Pursuit of the Millennium rarely mention Europe’s Inner Demons, and also why those who have been inspired by Europe’s Inner Demons rarely mention The Pursuit of the Millennium.

How was Cohn able to maintain this deep tension at the heart of his work? How was he able to expose the demonization of medieval heretics in 1975 without admitting that he himself had contributed to the demonization of heretics when he wrote and later continued to promote The Pursuit of the Millennium? He accomplished this balancing act by carefully dividing the subjects he wrote about in the two books. For example, the Anabaptists who he portrayed so vividly as villains in Pursuit would have and should have been a subject of at least some discussion in Europe’s Inner Demons. But I can’t find one mention of them. Instead, Cohn focused Inner Demons on the demonization of Waldensians and Cathars, subjects about which he had written very little in Pursuit.

Here’s my conclusion: In his various books, Norman Cohn was certainly not shy of taking moral stands. Largely because of Cohn’s willingness to write about the dark history of European persecution, William Lamont concluded his eulogy to Cohn with the statement that “Cohn spent a lifetime on thinking with demons, and we have been immeasurably the richer for it.” My view is more complicated. I think that The Pursuit of the Millennium has set back scholarship in a very bad way. Rather than being a book ahead of its time that charted new research territory (a variation on Lamont’s claim), that 1957 study gave medieval and early modern polemics new life and new audiences and new authority. In other words, Cohn wasn’t charting new research territory but rather recycling a framework of interpretation that was at least 800 years old, and that had most recently been reiterated in Voegelin’s New Science of Politics in 1952. Cohn knew what he was doing, and because of this I argue that his legacy from The Pursuit of the Millennium is a shameful one for the reasons that Cohn himself outlines in Europe’s Inner Demons. I think it’s really too bad that Norman Cohn never recognized or acknowledged the problems at the heart of his divergent and conflicted intellectual legacy.

I think that reflections on Cohn’s divergent legacies are important beyond the study of his work on its own. Histories of all kinds are torn and divided by deep, internal contradictions. Not only the history of medieval heresy, but also Reformation history and the history of European (and global) Christian confessionalism are torn by systematic, interpretative tensions and problematic inheritances of the sort that are fundamental to Norman Cohn’s divergent legacies. This kind of subject is what I am working on at the moment!

I’ve got a big question for everybody here: Can you think of a scholar whose legacies are full of deep tensions like Cohn’s? I have a few other suggestions. One is Max Weber, the very famous so-called “father of sociology”. A second suggestion is Bruno Latour, the French anthropologist and philosopher whose book Science in Action I reference several times in this talk. Latour is a hero of mine, but in the last 20 years he has become a fan of Eric Voegelin’s political thought, and from my point of view Voegelin’s work is embarrassingly bad scholarship.