The Worst of Times?

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century

by Barbara W. Tuchman
Knopf, 678 pp., $15.95

Mrs. Tuchman has written four books about twentieth-century diplomatic and military history, and has won a Pulitzer Prize for two of them, which is a remarkable achievement. The criteria used for the award of these prizes would seem to be stylistic elegance, vivid descriptive narrative, accurate scholarship, a clear point of view, and a subject of current interest to a wide educated public. The winners of these prizes have been highly respected by the profession for all these qualitites, but they have not usually been regarded as path-breaking innovators in the field of history. Very few of them, for example, have received that final accolade of the profession, nomination as president of the American Historical Association. The impressive virtues and the limitations of Mrs. Tuchman’s work seem fully to conform to this pattern.

Why has this student of the modern world suddenly decided to throw herself into the fourteenth century? She explains in the preface that she regards it as a period not dissimilar in character to our own:

After the experiences of the terrible twentieth century, we have greater fellow-feeling for a distraught age whose rules were breaking down under the pressure of adverse and violent events. We recognize with a painful twinge the marks of “a period of anguish when there is no sense of an assured future.”

The premises behind this proposition deserve some scrutiny.

In the first place, it is very doubtful whether contemporary perceptions of the two periods are comparable. Today, although things seem to be drifting out of control, we know that we possess the technical knowledge, administrative skills, and financial resources to put most of them right. What we lack is the will and the wisdom to mobilize ourselves without becoming slaves to our technology or bureaucracy. The fourteenth century had no such grounds for optimism since they did indeed lack the knowledge or resources to control their destiny; instead they looked (in vain) to God to provide the solution. We know what to do, whereas fourteenth-century man did not, which makes a profound difference, even if in practice we both turn out to be equally ineffective. If it is perception that we wish to compare, and the quotation just referred to certainly suggests that it is, then the two centuries do not bear much relation to each other.

If we are to compare reality, one may seriously question whether either century stands out in history as so unrelievedly and exceptionally black as Mrs. Tuchman makes it out to be.

First take the twentieth century. It is true that, for the first time, we possess the means to destroy civilization and to render large parts of the globe uninhabitable for long periods of time; and it is certainly possible that this catastrophe will occur because of the ambition, obstinacy, or miscalculation of a few willful people in Moscow, Washington, or elsewhere. It is true that the century has witnessed a rise in the rate of reported crimes of violence in most urban …

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Letters

Tuchman and History December 7, 1978