The Horsemen of the Apocalypse mowed down sinners. Credit: Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty

July 15, 2021   6 mins

Half a millennium ago, people thought much more about the end of the world than we do. The early 16th century was an age obsessed with eschatology, the branch of theology preoccupied with judgement day. They were convinced they were living in the final throes of humanity, and they had a pretty good idea about what they thought would spell our downfall.

It might feel counterintuitive to look to history for insight into the end of the world — because, of course, we’re still here and the world clearly didn’t end when our ancestors thought it would. But if this past year has shown us anything, it’s that certain historic fears — of pestilence and pandemics, for instance — were not misplaced.

So, let us turn to Albrecht Dürer’s extraordinary woodcut of 1498, which depicts Four Horsemen. They ride with a wild fury. Their weapons are raised, their steeds gallop. Before and beneath them people cower and fall. They trample all in their path. The image is an illustration of the Book of the Revelation of St John, also known as the Apocalypse.

Dürer’s The Four Horsemen, from The Apocalypse.

In chapter six, it describes four horses of different colours. On a white horse rides a crowned archer who sets out to conquer. On a red horse sits a rider bearing a great sword who is granted the right to take peace from the earth. The black horse’s rider holds a pair of scales. And he who sits on the final, pale (from the Latin pallor) horse — depicted by Dürer as skeletal and wizen — has the name Death (think of Clint Eastwood’s 1985 film Pale Rider).

Dürer created his woodcut in 1498, two years before the world was expected to end. But even if 1500 failed to bring the Last Judgement, as the 16th century dawned, there were many signs to indicate that the end approached.

Let us take them in reverse order. The pale horse was disease; it was dysentery, typhus, smallpox, malaria, and typhoid fever. It was also bubonic plague that continued to reappear on average every 16 years, with a lethality rate of between 60% and 80%. It killed quickly and horribly. “Plague has no tomorrows,” wrote Guillaume Potel in 1623.

But these epidemics — though deadly and greatly feared — were known enemies. What was startling was, like Covid, the manifestation of awful new diseases. Two appeared at the end of the 15th century. The sweating sickness, which broke out for the first time among Henry Tudor’s troops before the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, produced a fever and pain all over the body, accompanied by thick, vile-smelling sweat and delirium, and all that within the space of a day. Its lethality rate was high, and it recurred repeatedly over the subsequent 60 years, before vanishing as quickly as it had come. We still don’t know what it was.

The second new disease arrived and stayed. It was the pox, which came to be known by the Latinate name of syphilis. Again, it emerged among armies — those of the French during the First Italian War of the 1490s — and it produced great agonies through deep, rotting sores all over the body. It was incurable and terrifying, and quickly associated with sexual sin. The long-term effects were lesions, ulcers, paralysis, blindness, dementia and disfigurement. In comparison with the sweat and the pox, Covid is a walk in the park — but we should fear what comes next. In December 2019, Professor Peter Frankopan wrote presciently that the biggest threat to the world in the 2020s would be a pandemic. Let’s hope it’s the one we’ve already had.

The black horse was dearth. In the 16th century, there were some awful famines, resulting from harvest failure and bad weather. Contemporaries blamed man’s gluttony: “if we in eating and drinking exceed when God of his large liberality sendeth plenty, he will soon change plenty in[to] scarceness,” wrote an anonymous pamphleteer in 1563, while John Downame in 1613 similarly concluded that drunkards and gluttons were at fault “because in time of plenty, they take too much and so abuse his creatures”, so “he bringeth upon them in the time of dearth and famine a proportionable punishment.”

Much famine, then as now, was man-made, like the eight-month siege of Sancerre in 1573 during the French Wars of Religion. The inhabitants first turned to eating their horses and donkeys, then cats, rats, and finally dogs. Six months in, people tried eating leather. When that was gone, they soaked, chopped, and boiled their books up with herbs and spices. After paper, they ate the hooves of cattle, and then they collected human excrement to eat. One family ate the ears, tongue, head, brains and entrails of their three-year-old daughter after she had died from hunger.

What is the equivalent in our own age? From 2019 to 2020, in part because of the pandemic, the number of undernourished people increased by 161 million, on a planet that produces more than enough food to feed everyone. In the rich West, we probably won’t die of hunger — but we may die of gluttony. The British poor, who can more easily afford processed foods than fresh produce, suffer from among the worst rates of obesity globally. And our metaphorical gluttony — for energy and convenience — prevents our action against climate change. A cataclysmic weather event or natural disaster threatens apocalypse for us as much as it did our ancestors; what distinguishes us is that they feared what they could not control, while we know what to do about it but don’t seem to fear enough to do it.

The red horse was war. The 16th century witnessed fewer than 10 years of complete peace. It was an age in which battles moved from being fought by sword, lance and halberd to cannon, arquebus and musket. In 1545, Ambroise Paré published the first book to deal with treatments for gunshot wounds and battlefield amputations. Armies grew dramatically in size and their provisioning devastated the lands through which they marched.

Warfare is less obvious today. Troops do not get billeted to our homes, nor loot and pillage our food supplies. But world peace is something that remains elusive. Judged by societal safety and security, ongoing domestic and international conflict, and levels of militarisation, the world feels like it’s getting steadily less peaceful. We no longer fear the H-bomb, nor do we expect warfare to bring about the imminent end of the world, but maybe we should.

The conquering white horse will perhaps seem most distant. It came to be associated — not as we might suspect with the European invaders of Latin America — but with revelation. People living in 1500 believed that the ultimate cause of the world’s annihilation would be God delivering on his promise of a Second Coming of Christ and a Day of Judgement (something conventionally not feared by the poor but looked forward to as a time of reckoning for those who had wronged them). Martin Luther styled himself as Elijah, a prophet sent to expose the Pope as the Antichrist and to herald the Second Coming. Protestant images, such as Lucas Cranach’s The Origins of the Antichrist, show the Pope to be a grotesque female, with enlarged labia, and being breathed into by two devils. More demons pound monks in a winepress, extracting from them the juice of damnation.

But Catholics, too, were infused by a sense of millenarian thinking. Professor Denis Crouzet’s book Guerriers de Dieu argued that French Catholics saw the Protestant heretics as the harbingers of the Last Days. Catholic preachers ascribed the pestilence and famines of the century to divine wrath that had been provoked by the Protestant apostasy. Catholics engaged in a mighty struggle with the forces of darkness when they slew their Huguenot neighbours; they were the “warriors of God” of his title.

The imminence of the end of days was confirmed by the stars, as Jesus promised in the Gospels. Great comets in 1577, 1596, 1607 and 1618 caused much fearful commentary, while astronomer Tycho Brahe, writing about the new star discovered in 1572, wrote that it has been “now finally shown to the world while it is approaching its evening”. Floods, storms, and avalanches too were all thought to foretell the approaching end of time, as observers sought out auguries of when that end might come with fear and fascination.

The Horsemen of the Apocalypse had one shared aim: they mowed down sinners. We may not use the word “sin” much, but we cannot deny that the pandemics, famine, war and so-called “acts of God” of our own time are, in large part, ultimately caused by humankind’s own avarice and selfishness.

Perhaps, in the end, it is that which may bring an end to human time itself. Perhaps we should pay more heed to the auguries of our own times: the wet markets of Wuhan, or the news that Canada registered a record, Sahara-desert like high of 49.6°C last month, that UN officials have warned that 400,000 people in Tigray, Ethiopia are now in famine… The Four Horsemen are on the horizon once again.

Suzannah Lipscomb is Professor Emerita of History at the University of Roehampton and the host of the Not Just The Tudors podcast from History Hit. She has written numerous books, including The King is Dead: The Last Will and Testament of Henry VIII and The Voices of Nîmes: Women, Sex, and Marriage in Reformation Languedoc.