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Matthew Paris' flawed prediction of the end of the world

Dr Philippa Hoskin, Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Fellow Librarian, reflects on Matthew Paris' flawed prediction of the end of the world.

When passing through difficult times it is impossible to predict what the future might look like – although that doesn’t stop people from trying. Matthew Paris, monk of St Albans Abbey and writer of one of the most famous chronicles of the thirteenth century (Parker CCCC MS 16 & 26), made one of the most embarrassing sorts of errors that an historian or political commentator can make. He used evidence he had collected over twenty years to predict the imminent end of the world –and then had to pick himself up again when he was proved wrong.

Matthew was not alone in believing that the world was coming to an end: in the first half of the thirteenth century there were many such predictions. Matthew chose the date 1250, persuaded by a combination of observations about the natural world and the social and political state of humankind. His work recorded unusual weather events – terrible storms and droughts – and other apparently miraculous phenomena including rivers flowing backwards, visions of ships in the sky and sea monsters in English rivers. He also noted the fulfilment of prophecies: the attacks of the Tartars, earthquakes, eclipses and meteors, the deaths of princes and popes, the lives of men and women of great holiness but also the rise of great wickedness and terrible heresy. All of these he used as evidence, that the end was nigh. 1250 was, he thought, the culmination of the worst fifty years since the time of Christ.

Bringing his life’s work to a conclusion he pens this verse:
"Matthew, here your toils are o'er
Stop your pen and toil no more
Seek not what the future brings
What comes next brings other things"

When Matthew realised that he was wrong, he had to start again – although he seems to have waited over a year to do so. But it was his job to record the events of his day – local, national and international. He chose (as commentators and pundits tend to) to pass over in silence the inaccuracy of his former predictions and began his next entry very simply, "In 1251, the thirty-fifth year of the reign of King Henry the Third, the king spent Christmas at Winchester". And for the next nine years, until his death, he continued to write about political life and financial affairs, still retaining his fascination with extreme weather events and strange and miraculous occurrences.
Fortunately for future generations, Matthew realised that despite its flaws, his work still had value and instead of concealing his errors he let them stand, serving as a reminder that we, too, can get beyond our errors and that in the work of others we must look for value even amidst mistakes.

Image: CCCC ms 16 f. 246r