Predicting the end of the world is never easy.
At least, that's what Johannes Stoeffler quickly came to realize. Born in 1452 in which is now Germany, Stoeffler excelled as a scholar and later established himself as the parish priest for his native town of Justingen. In addition to his religious duties, Stoeffler became famous for his learning in such diverse fields as astronomy, mathematics and astrology as well as designing and constructing complex astronomical instruments, clocks, and orreries. He also wrote a manual on the construction and use of the astrolabe and corresponded regularly with some of the leading intellectuals of the 15th century.
In 1499, when Stoeffler confidently predicted that a universal flood would cover the world on February 24, 1524, people paid attention. Stoeffler based his prediction on the various planetary conjunctions that would happen in that year. While only six planets were known at the time, almost all of them (including the sun) would be in conjunction in the constellation of Pisces and, given that this was the sign of the fish, it surely meant that the world would be drowned. While he was hardly the only doomsday prophet of his time, he was certainly the most prominent. By 1507, Stoeffler occupied the first-ever chair of astronomy and mathematics at the University of Tubingen and was eventually elected rector in 1522.
As the dreaded prophecy date drew closer, more and more people heard about the prediction. Not only was Stoeffler a respected academic, but he was also an advisor to royalty which made him a credible source. More than one hundred pamphlets were written about the impending catastrophe and the panic set in. Property in valleys, along river banks, or on the sea coastline was sold at a loss (the fact that there were still willing buyers didn't seem to reassure anyone). Although some skeptics suggested that the planetary conjunction wouldn't be as fatal as predicted, the fear of impending doom still persisted. English astrologers, not wanting to be upstaged by their European counterparts, announced that the universal deluge would occur on February 1, 1524 (and the first rainfall would occur in London, of course).
While 1524 proved to be an unusually dry year, the preparations for a flood continued. In London, true believers built an elevated fortress at the Priory Church of St. Bartholomew the Great and equipped it with two months worth of provisions. On February 1, more than twenty-thousand Londoners abandoned their homes and gathered on surrounding hillsides to wait for the rain to come. When the predicted universal deluge proved to be a wash (sorry, couldn't resist), everyone just went home again. To cover their embarrassment, English astrologers announced that their calculations were out by one hundred years and that February 1, 1624 was the true date for the Apocalypse.
In continental Europe, meanwhile, February 24 drew closer and preparations continued to be made despite the debacle in England. Boat builders became rich as landowners and nobles prepared emergency arks for their own survival. Local merchants played up the Apocalypse angle by stocking their shelves with a variety of emergency supplies and prepared to do brisk business. River banks across Europe were dotted with new boats laden with all the food and water they could safely carry.
Of the various known arks to be built, the most ambitious was by a German count named von Iggleheim who constructed a luxury, three-story ark for his friends and family. At the crack of dawn on February 24, von Iggleheim boarded his ark and had his servants drag assorted supplies up the gangplank. Crowds had gathered, mostly out of curiosity, although some of them were having fun at von Iggleheim's expense. The jeering stopped when the rain started however. While it wasn't a particularly impressive rainstorm as such, it was enough to panic the crowd. Hundreds were killed in the stampede that followed and then they turned their attention to von Iggleheim's ark and the other ships nearby. When von Iggleheim refused to allow any of them aboard, he was dragged off his ship and stoned to death by the crowd. The panic only ended when the rain stopped (though the corpses still remained).
When 1524 eventually proved to be one of the driest years on record, Johannes Stoeffler shamefacedly revised his calculations and concluded that the Great Flood would come in 1528. Nobody really took notice when the new date passed without incident. He died in 1531 (of plague, not drowning) and is mainly remembered for his accomplishments in astronomy and mathematics. Stoeffler's example hardly stopped new predictions of apocalypse however. During the 17th century, astrologer and Rosicrucian Johann Jacob Zimmerman became famous for announcing that the Apocalypse would occur in the fall of 1694 and that the Pennsylvania wilderness would be the best place to observe the world's end. With forty fellow enthusiasts, he made arrangements with the Governor of Pennsylvania to build a small settlement which he named the "Society of the Women of the Wilderness" (despite the fact that most of his followers were men). The proposed settlement would allow Zimmerman's followers to live a utopian existence of quiet contemplation while waiting for the end. Sadly, Zimmerman died unexpectedly before he could accompany his supporters as they left Rotterdam. The planned community went ahead under the leadership of Zimmerman's second-in-command, Johannes Kelpius. The settlement, near what is now Wissahickon Creek, Pennsylvania, is still the stuff of local legend and managed to survive the non-ending of the world in 1694. The settlement only dissolved with Kelpius' death fourteen years later.
Although you would think that people would have become leery of apocalyptic prophecies by this time, you would be mistaken. Virtually every new generation seems to spawn another prophet of doom proclaiming the imminent end of the world. Even Isaac Newton wrote a treatise offering his own estimation of when the world would end (it was published after his death). Famous prophets of the 18th and 19th century included such notables as Joanna Southcott with her box of prophecies and Mary Bateman with her Hen of Doom. Well into the 20th century, apocalyptic prophecies continued to be announced linked to spirit messages and/or celestial signs. Now that the dreaded 2012 date approaches, the latest apocalypse craze is unfolding but it will hardly be the last.
In the meantime, an ambitious new project is underway in the state of Kentucky. Organized by creationist group, Answers in Genesis (and heavily funded by the state of Kentucky), the proposed theme park will feature a full-scale replica of Noah's Ark. While the creationists behind this project are obviously unaware of poor Count von Iggleheim's tragic fate, it would probably be a good idea for them to hope for clear weather.
Dr. Vitalli is a practicing psychologist from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He also writes "Provendentia" (http://drvitelli.typepad.com/providentia/), a blog about psychology in today's world.