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Tuchman and History

In response to:

The Worst of Times? from the September 28, 1978 issue

To the Editors:

It is saddening to find Lawrence Stone, who surely ranks as one of the most distinguished academic historians in this country, denigrating the work of a superbly talented colleague on the grounds that she is not likely to become President of the AHA or win other professional accolades [NYR, September 28]. After all many outstanding historians never became President of the AHA, whereas, as Stone surely knows, any number of mediocrities have—which tells us more about the AHA than about Tuchman.

Tuchman has ventured into a difficult and hotly contested field. Her work will be subject to scholarly criticism, as is the work of all scholars. But Stone objects less to her possible failures of scholarship than to her failures of interpretation and emphasis. And he lulls his readers into the easy acceptance of his own authority in matters of interpretation. He speaks for professional science against amateur storytelling. He does not make clear that other “scientific” professionals might strongly contest his own views.

Stone reserves his major criticisms of Tuchman for her allegedly fallacious comparison of the crisis of the fourteenth century with that of the present day and for her calling it a crisis at all. The analogy with the present cannot be justified since today, as against six centuries ago, “although things seem to be drifting out of control, we know that we possess the technical knowledge, administrative skills, and financial resources to put things right.” We do, Stone allows, evoking raised chins and stiffened backbones, appear to lack a will adequate to the tasks that confront us. But the decisiveness he seeks seems to lie in the sphere of individual duty and self-discipline—those trademarks of bourgeois personality—rather than in the sphere of social process. Thus, he insists that the “energy crisis is clearly soluble within fifty years or less, given the appropriate measures of conservation and innovative research.” So why that tempest in a teapot in the Middle East? And why are appropriate measures of conservation so notoriously hard to sell to the American public? Some might ponder the role of imperialism abroad and social alienation at home, or even wonder if fundamental questions of social and economic relations are not at issue. But Stone views our society as an unqualified advance over previous societies, and from those happy heights of unfolding progress he comfortably ascribes our success to our technology and our failures to our character. Between the machine and the individual, social relations and political organization somber. And the insistence on lack of will masks the more than likely possibility that our system of beliefs, our reasons for mustering will, may themselves be in crisis—as Tuchman perceptively suggests from her own point of view. Heaven forbid that we should explore those features of any human social existence which binds us to the men and women of the fourteenth century with their benighted belief in God and other ghosts.

Stone doubts that the fourteenth century constituted an era of crisis in its own right. Aside from the plague, he maintains, little distinguished it from the prevailing misery of previous history in general. Here again, Mr. Stone fails to alert his readers that opinions on the matter diverge. Many reputable historians of diverse viewpoints argue that the fourteenth century witnessed a systematic crisis of the economy, society, the polity, and the life of the mind and spirit. Some of those who hold such views are Marxists. For Marxists recognize in the fourteenth century a major, although not everywhere decisive, crisis of the feudal system, and, in its aftermath, new signs of capitalism. But Marxists are not alone in this view—consider, e.g., so distinguished an economic historian as Harry Miskimin. The events of the fourteenth century did encompass major political crises, protracted warfare, a schism in the Church, new forms of popular piety and despair, and the breakdown of the prevailing intellectual orthodoxy, among other things. Whether a historian attempts to weave these phenomena into an integrated interpretation labeled crisis depends on a good deal more than the observance or rejection of scientific norms.

Perhaps I should apologize to Tuchman for bringing to her defense a Marxist perspective to which she does not subscribe. Other perspectives could have done the job. But she insists upon seeing the crisis of the period as one of constituent social groups; she studies seriously the effects of the politics of ruling groups on the structural outcome of social and economic dislocation and hence the shape of subsequent possibilities; and she admirably presents the material so as to engage the imagination, mind, and conscience of the broader culture. These achievements represent exactly what Marxists think history should be. And if she is correct about the perilousness of our own situation, as I sorrowfully believe her to be, then those who, like Mr. Stone, adhere so deeply to the natural superiority of the capitalist world would appear to have much more to learn from her than they know.

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

Department of History

University of Rochester

Rochester, New York

Lawrence Stone replies:

Careful reading of Professor Fox-Genovese’s letter leaves me uncertain whether she actually read Mrs. Tuchman’s book or whether she has been stimulated by some remarks in my review to express her sense of anguish about feminism, capitalist society, and the Amerian Historical Association. At all events, in her rush to ideological judgment, she has lumped together a number of things which I think it is very important to keep separate.

  1. The historical house has many rooms. One small one is reserved for works which, in methodology, conception, or information, mark a major advance in historical thinking. This is a category with which Mrs. Fox-Genovese should be familiar, since her husband’s books are generally recognized as belonging there. The second, larger but still fairly small, is reserved for works of what the French call “haute vulgarisation,” of which Mrs. Tuchman’s new book is a fine example. These are very well written, very intelligent studies which bring the historic past to a mass audience—without any breach of the normal canons of scholarship. But they usually make no contribution of their own to the advance of understanding. This was a point which my lengthy exposure of the superficiality of Mrs. Tuchman’s methodology tried to demonstrate. Her book has many solid virtues, but profundity is not one of them. Although the same author may sometimes write one book in the first category and another in the second, the distinction remains a crucial one.

  2. There is a radical difference between the perceptions of a society, like that of the fourteenth century, which did not understand what had hit it, and had no recourse but to pray to a God that failed; and of a society like ours which knows what is wrong, already has, or can devise, the technology to deal with it, but may lack the ideological drive, social cohesion, and political leadership to do what is necessary. I see no evidence that Marxist societies are doing any better than capitalist ones in this respect.

  3. History is complicated, and no society or period is irredeemably a disaster. Mrs. Genovese may be unimpressed by fourteenth-century cultural achievements like Chaucer or Perpendicular architecture, or the tentative beginnings of the Renaissance. But is she aware that medieval economic historians (including Marxists) are agreed that by 1400 the bulk of the population, at least in countries like England which were not devastated by war, enjoyed a higher standard of living than perhaps ever before in the history of the world? There were, of course, one third fewer of them than in 1368, and they died like flies. But the “Golden Age of the Peasantry” had already begun, since as the population declined faster than the economy, GNP per capita and the price of labor rose.

  4. A distinction must be made between different types of academic communities. Professor Fox-Genovese takes me to task for failing to warn my readers that other scholars may not agree with me. But it is the essence of the scholarly community in a bourgeois liberal society that no one speaks for anybody but himself, and that this is taken for granted. It is only in Marxist-Leninist societies that a statement by a senior academician may carry the full weight of the judgment of the Party, with severe sanctions for anyone who dares to disagree.

  5. A distinction must be made between different types of academic institutions. Those in a liberal bourgeois society, like the AHA, genuinely aspire to confer honors exclusively for academic merit, whereas a similar body in a Marxist-Leninist society officially places ideological conformity above scholarly merit. Since human beings are fallible, mistakes are made by the former bodies; mediocrities sometimes get more than they deserve, and personal, sexual, or political prejudice occasionally keeps out a person of distinction.

  6. Outside Marxist circles, hardly anyone believes any more in “scientific history,” or indeed uses the term. We have all read our E.H. Carr, and are acutely aware of the subjectivity of historical judgment and the fragility of historical evidence. We deal in no more than tentative, provisional, hypotheses. The only possible exception to this generalization are the self-styled “cliometricians,” whose self-confidence currently knows no bounds.

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