One or two political commentators, ruminating on the remarkable emergence of Jeremy Corbyn from obscurity to national prominence, have called to mind the wonderful historical work of the late Norman Cohn entitled The Pursuit of the Millennium. At the time of the Crusades a great many movements arose, fired by an irrational belief in a utopian vision, and often putting their faith in an imaginary messiah. A tramp sleeping rough in the woods would be identified as a long lost hero of a crusade and carried shoulder high and quite bewildered into town to be crowned King. Lavished with all kinds of luxury for a few months, the imaginary messiah was invariably denounced as a charlatan and forced to flee. Of the many such tales Cohn related in his book, the one which has lodged itself in my memory is of the rise and fall of the messiah he called the "Pseudo-Baldwin."
When the Crusaders captured Constantinople ( Istanbul ) in 1204 they made one of their number, Baldwin IX, Count of Flounders as Emperor of a large area around the city. In less than a year Bulgarians invaded and put him to death. Back in Flanders Baldwin’s daughter Joanna became Countess but she could not resist the power of Philip Augustus of France and the lands she hoped to rule were annexed by the French. This domination was resented and when Philip died in 1223 the scene was set for an uprising. " At this point, " Cohn wrote "the age-old phantasy of the Sleeping Emperor reappeared in a form adapted to the hour."
In the popular imagination the slain Baldwin became superhuman "half demon half angel". A belief arose that he had not been killed at all but had been serving a penance imposed on him by the Pope for some terrible misdeed, living as a wandering beggar and hermit. Now he was close to expiation of that penance and would soon be back amongst his people. This belief grew when a stranger appeared announcing Baldwin’s imminent return. Sure enough a begging hermit appeared looking the part with his long hair and flowing beard. Tracked down to a hut he had made of branches in a forest in the region of Valenciennes, France, close to the border of what is now Belgium, he revealed that he was the long lost Baldwin and that he had a year to go on his penance. Cohn wrote: " Great crowds streamed out from Valenciennes to see him and in April 1225 brought him back to the town on horseback, clad in scarlet robe, amidst scenes of wild jubilation."
Not everyone was convinced. Joanna, Baldwin's daughter, demanded to see the man who was said to be her father. But the Pseudo Baldwin refused her invitation and instead gathered an army together to take over her territories by force. By now a Christ-like figure people fought for a lock of his hair, a scrap of his clothing or a chance to sip his bathwater. He was crowned not only Count of Flanders and Hainaut but Emperor of Constantinople and Thessalonica.. The poor worshipped him believing he would bring them riches. He began to believe that he really was an Emperor and when King Louis VIII of France invited him to visit he accepted. This was his downfall. Louis had agreed a treaty of alliance with the banished Countess Joanna who knew very well this was not her father but an imposter. In conversation with the Pseudo Baldwin it soon became apparent that he could remember nothing about events that the real Count of Flanders would have known. He was, in reality, a serf by the name of Bertrand of Ray from Burgundy, who had gone on a Crusade as a minstrel and was a notorious imposter. At his audience with King Louis he realised he had been unmasked and he made a run for it. But the Pseudo Baldwin was no longer a wandering hermit but de-throned Emperor and he was soon captured and hung.
This is just one of many such stories told in Cohn's book. Why should these medieval tales be evocative of the the elevation of humble Corbyn to the front rank of politics? He is not an imposter, of course, but there is something of the "Sleeping Emperor" about him, a long lost soul who has suddenly and miraculously come back to life. The belief that he might turn the clock back and create the kind of utopian Britain left-wingers dreamed of in the 1980s has a touch of the " pursuit of the millennium" about it. And there is a feeling that his celebrity will be short lived and it will not be long before he is denounced as a liability by his own followers and returned to his position as a recalcitrant, humble backbencher: "hung out to dry" as the saying goes.