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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 areas, and the renewal across the world of the widespread use of systematic torture as an instrument of government. It is hard to be proud of belonging to a century whose record in the history books will include mention of the Somme and Verdun, Dresden and Hiroshima, Lidice and My Lai, Auschwitz and the Gulag Archipelago, the invention of poison gas and napalm.

On the other hand, it is arguable that all this gloom and doom is based on a lack of sober evaluation of what things were like in the past and also what, given a little luck and some good management, could potentially happen in the future. So far, the nuclear holocaust has not occurred, and maybe it never will. The energy crisis is clearly soluble within fifty years or less, given the appropriate measures of conservation and innovative research. It now seems probable that the population bomb will not explode after all, and that the number of human beings in the world will stabilize at about double the current figure of four billion. It also seems that the technical know-how, if not yet the political will and administrative skill, is already at hand to feed this doubled population and so to banish at last the ancient Malthusian scourges of malnutrition and famine.

The expectation of life has been increasing rapidly in most parts of the world. Medical advances in vaccines and immunization are winning the battle against at least some of the most terrible diseases of mankind. Smallpox seems to have been finally eliminated, the first disease to be removed from the face of the earth by human action. Very few societies any longer kill people for holding unpopular ideas about Christianity, or any other religion for that matter. Children of the poor, and even women, are at last obtaining access to education and positions of authority. Literacy is spreading rapidly across the globe, and in advanced countries the proportion of the population on the edge of destitution is down to around 10 percent, as opposed to the 30 percent or more of previous times. Seen in a historical perspective, the atrocities of today seem only larger in scale, rather than different in kind, from those of earlier ages. Genocide is nothing new; the English, for example, have been doing it for centuries, to the Irish, the American Indians, the Tasmanians, the Australian aborigines, and the New Zealand Maoris. Urban violence was very much worse in the Middle Ages, and worse in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Except in Anglo-Saxon societies under the common law, torture was a normal part of judicial procedure before the nineteenth century, as well as a standard method of punishment. The slave trade of the eighteenth century was not so very different in its objectives and methods to those of the Gulag Archipelago, and the scale was almost comparable. Slaves used to be worked to death in the West Indies, where they were cheap and easily replaceable. Some eighteenth-century prisons were as horrible, and as lethal, as a modern concentration camp. Before the eighteenth century, war was commonly waged against the civilian population and lacked all ground rules for humanitarian conduct. The case of the cautious optimists about this century is thus at least worth a hearing, despite the jeremiads of our fashionable Cassandras.

If the modern end of Mrs. Tuchman’s analogy is at any rate open to question, what about the other, the “calamitous fourteeth century”? The only event which makes that century stand out as fundamentally different from any other in the last thousand years of Western history was the arrival in 1348 of the bubonic plague, which in recurrent outbreaks over half a century reduced the population of Europe and Western Asia by up to a third, and kept it there for another century. Thus its effect was about the same as that which would occur from a limited nuclear exchange between America and Russia today. Mrs. Tuchman first became interested in the fourteenth century in order to find out “what were the effects on society of the most lethal disaster of recorded history,” but she soon gave up the attempt, and only one chapter in twenty-seven is devoted to the subject. The result is rather like a production of Hamlet that allows the Prince of Denmark no more than a walk-on part. She gave up, she says, because she found that the society was equally tormented by “war, taxes, brigandage, bad government, insurrection, and schism in the Church.”

Her central theme is therefore not demographic at all, but political and military, the breakdown of law and order in France caused by the repeated invasions of the English, the weakness of the French kings, the irresponsibility of the French nobles, and the ruthless terrorism of the mercenary troops of both sides, who did as much damage once the war was over, and they were unemployed, as they did when they were systematically devastating an area on behalf of one paymaster or another. But if the breakdown of law and order and plundering by roving bands of cut-throats are the tests, then the fourteenth century was no worse than the ninth to the eleventh, when Vikings were pillaging and burning around the periphery of Europe, and each noble was an independent petty warlord who terrorized the neighborhood. The Truce of God and the rise of strong monarchies had done much to curb this disorder and to bring prosperity to Europe, as is proved by the expansion of population, trade, agriculture, and the arts in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Moreover, it is loading the dice to single out France for attention, since it bore the brunt of all this savage devastation by marauding troops far more than England, Germany, or even Italy. The weight of papal financial extortion, exacerbated by the schism which created two popes, also fell most heavily on France, even though it was an Englishman, John Wycliffe, who drew the obvious conclusion that the whole ecclesiastical hierarchy of popes, cardinals, bishops, and established orders was an obstacle to true religion.

Apart from devastation of war, Mrs. Tuchman’s second major theme is the cat’s cradle of marriage alliances and treaties that formed the warp and woof of medieval high diplomacy. Her third is the code of chivalry that theoretically governed the conduct of the knightly class. She looks with a cold eye upon that bizarre mixture of idealism, honor, pride, and courage, combined with folly, hypocrisy, wastefulness, and cruelty. Her emphasis on the activities of the knightly class, to which her documentation among the chronicles leads her, is reinforced by the decision to hang the last half of the book very loosely around the career of one of its most prominent members, the enormously wealthy and powerful French nobleman Enguerrand de Coucy. The trouble is however, that Coucy remains so shadowy a figure, a mere cardboard cutout, prancing fantastically over the surface of great events. He certainly dabbled in so much war and politics that he leads Mrs. Tuchman where she wants to go, which is into the great military and diplomatic events of the age. But we know nothing about his personality, or even his appearance. We do not even know if he cared one way or the other when his extravagant English wife left him for good to go back to her father. It is hard to work up much interest in so dimly documented a figure.

If Mrs. Tuchman has loaded the dice by focusing so strongly on the misfortunes of France, she has loaded it still further by concentrating upon these three themes of the horrors of war, the absurdities of dynastic diplomacy, and the futility of the chivalric code. There is a good deal more to the fourteenth century than that and much of what is left out is positive. There is the growth of more sophisticated legalistic bureaucracy and improved record-keeping; there is the emergence of the great Italian international banking houses, which advanced the cash to finance the wars and the conspicuous consumption of kings and nobles. Representative institutions were taking hold in many places across Europe, and in England Parliament for the first time reached out for real power to limit the royal executive, and in so doing set critical precedents for the future. Although hard hit by the recurrent plagues, the universities nevertheless became stronger and better organized as great intellectual centers, thus providing a continuity in higher education that no other civilization could offer. The Schism, curiously enough, was a great stimulus to theology.

All these were institutional developments which were to have decisive effects on the long-term future of Western Europe, but they barely get a mention in Mrs. Tuchman’s somber picture of the age. Still less in evidence are the cultural developments of the time. All we are told about the context of academic scholarship is that

Aristotle was the basis of political philosophy, Ptolemy of “natural” philosophy, Hippocrates and Galen of medicine.

This hardly enlightens the inquiring reader. As for the orthodox theology of Thomas Aquinas, there is much more to it than his anti-Semitism (p. 110), his grouchy antifeminism (p. 214), and his belief that the time of Anti-Christ was imminent (p. 508), which is about all Mrs. Tuchman provides. The reader gets no hint that already in Florence by 1400 Fra Angelico, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, and Donatello were laying the foundations of Renaissance art and architecture.

The only promising new development to which Mrs. Tuchman devotes some attention is the heretical program and theology advanced by John Wycliffe, which in many ways provided a foretaste of the Lutheran Reformation of the sixteenth century. Somehow Mrs. Tuchman contrives to treat it both as a part of the general breakdown and disorder, and also as a portent of modernity, to which it has no real claim. Wycliffe certainly argued that “each man that shall be damned, shall be damned by his own guilt, and each man that is saved shall be saved by his own merit.” Mrs. Tuchman wrongly takes this statement of salvation by good works out of context, misses altogether the eleventh to twelfth century rise of the idea of the Last Judgment into which it has to be set, and claims that “here was the start of the modern world.” But it was a far cry from here to Western individualism, the tortuous evolution of which lay far in the future.

Given these limitations, let us now look at the very substantial merits of Mrs. Tuchman’s book. She has done an amazing job in mastering her sources and in getting a feel for the quality of aristocratic life in the fourteenth century, as described by Froissart and the chroniclers. She is entranced, but not deceived, by surface appearances, and her basic theme (although the phrase would not drop from her elegant pen) is the very convincing one that the fourteenth century suffered from a severe case of what we now call “cognitive dissonance.” Rarely has the gap between the ideal and the real been so large. Knights talked about chivalry, but regularly practiced treachery, murder, rape, and rapine. The pope walked up and down reading his breviary to the background accompaniment of the screams of cardinals being tortured to extract confessions about a suspected plot against him. The Church preached poverty and chastity, but the high clergy openly wallowed in opulent luxury and endowed their bastards with the spoils of fat clerical livings, while the poor friars enjoyed an apparently deserved reputation as habitual seducers of married women. Kings talked loftily about just wars, but took care to hire and browbeat lawyers and theologians to invent a case for them.

Once war began, it was very far from a chivalric affair. After the disasters of Crécy and Poitiers, even the foolish French knights learned their lesson and avoided a pitched battle for a generation. War consisted of the rape and massacre of the defenseless civilian population, the pillage of all movables, the destruction of villages, crops, and cattle, the killing of prisoners, the sack of towns. War was designed to win booty and to force the enemy to pay huge sums in return for cessation of the destruction: it was a system of calculated blackmail by threat of genocide.

Many pages of Mrs. Tuchman’s book consist of vividly evocative passages about these and other atrocities. She tells how Philip the Fair of France smashed the Order of Templars so as to lay hands on their fabulous wealth.

The Templars, many of them old men, were racked, thumbscrewed, starved, hung with weights until joints were dislocated, had teeth and fingernails pulled one by one, bones broken by the wedge, feet held over flames, always with pauses in between and the “question” put again each day until confession was wrung or the victim died.

Her pages are filled with descriptions of dripping blood, severed heads and limbs, piles of corpses, hideous tortures, brutal executions. She comments that “accustomed in their own lives to physical hardship and injury, medieval men and women were not necessarily repelled by pain, but rather enjoyed it.” She is fully aware that the humanitarian movement against cruelty was still 400 years in the future, awaiting the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.

There are also other set pieces, crammed with lavish detail about the grotesquely extravagant feasts and ceremonies which accompanied peace negotiations, or the dynastic marriages that endlessly shifted young girls around the chessboard of Europe as pawns in the diplomatic art of constructing political alliances. When the emperor visited the king of France, he was feasted on

thirty pair of such dishes as roast capons and partridges, civet of hare, meat and fish aspics, lark pasties and rissoles of beef marrow, black puddings and sausages, lampreys and savory rice, entremet of swan, peacocks, bitterns, and heron “borne on high,” pasties of venison and small birds, fresh- and saltwater fish with a gravy of shad “the color of peach blossom,” white leeks with plovers, duck with roast chitterlings, stuffed pigs, eels reversed, frizzled beans—finishing off with fruit wafers, pears, comfits, medlars, peeled nuts, and spiced wine.

There are many such gaudy passages, sometimes about food, sometimes about clothing, sometimes about ceremonial; they stun the reader with the precision and intimacy of the detail. Mrs. Tuchman has tried to make sense of all this waste by advancing the theory that

conspicuous consumption became a frenzied excess, a gilded shroud over the Black Death and lost battles, a degenerate desire to show oneself fortunate in a time of advancing misfortune.

This is an interesting idea, but it does not quite fit the facts, which are that this kind of extravagance can be found at least since the twelfth century, and running on into the eighteenth and beyond. Veblen had a better explanation to offer in The Theory of the Leisure Class.

There is no doubt that Mrs. Tuchman is a brilliant descriptive writer. But sometimes, when trying to give a picture of ordinary life, the “pointillist” method at which she excels turns into a potpourri of unconnected facts. For example:

Monkeys were common pets. Beggars were ubiquitous, most of them crippled, blind, diseased, deformed, or disguised as such. The legless dragged themselves along by their arms by means of wooden stumps strapped to their hands. Women were considered the snare of the Devil, while at the same time the cult of the Virgin made one woman the central object of love and adoration. Doctors were admired, lawyers universally hated and mistrusted. Steam was unharnessed, syphilis not yet introduced, leprosy still extant, gunpowder coming into use, though not yet effectively. Potatoes, tea, coffee, and tobacco were unknown; hot spiced wine was the favorite drink of those who could afford it; the common people drank beer, ale, and cider.

Every one of these statements is true, but each would require a lengthy commentary to make it meaningful, and few of them relate to the others. The basic weakness of this method—what I suppose Clifford Geertz would call “thin description”—is here cruelly exposed.

Mrs. Tuchman covers an amazing amount of ground, while maintaining an equally amazing level of stylistic elegance and verve. She tells us, always accurately, about the weather, the level and means of sanitation, the absence of privacy, the growth of anti-Semitism, the relation of parents to children and of men to women, attitudes toward sex and love, the sources of energy, the limitations of technology (the loom and the cogged gear-wheel, but not the fore-and-aft sail), the speed of communications. She has read the chronicles, looked carefully at the manuscript illuminations, and drawn her conclusions. Her comments are always sensible, often very shrewd, and she is scrupulous never to claim to know more than her sources tell her.

But her world is by and large the world of Froissart, of nobles and battles and feasts and chivalry, and she has not much to say about bourgeois and peasants, and virtually nothing about such mundane subjects as administration, the machinery for collecting taxes, or the rise of a bureaucracy. It has to be admitted that even her lively pen cannot breathe much life into the posturings of those preposterous and murderous kings and nobles. The whole last section of the book, in which Coucy drifts off on a crusade against the Turks, takes part in the well-deserved rout of the Christian army at Nicopolis, is captured, and dies in prison, is something of an anti-climax.

Mrs. Tuchman’s historical method does not enable her to work far beneath the surface, to explain why the late medieval church was in such decay, why changes in military technology and in financial and administrative practice led to the rise of the mercenary companies and the tactics of destroying the civilian population, why the peasants and townspeople so often rose in such futile revolt, why people were generally so cruel to enemies and indifferent to their families, why the French nobles behaved like suicidal idiots on the field of battle at Crécy, Poitiers, and Nicopolis. Yet these are all matters which two generations of medieval scholars have labored to elucidate. Since she does not know too much about the eleventh, twelfth, or thirteenth centuries, she has no yard-stick even to be sure that things were really getting worse.

Mrs. Tuchman’s book is marred by the very narrow and elitist choice of central themes, the abandonment of the original plan to examine the psychological effects of the Black Death, the neglect of the more positive aspects of the age, and the intellectual shallowness of the “thin description” technique. But it also has great merits. It is beautifully written, careful and thorough in its scholarship, extensive in the range of topics peripherally touched upon, and enlivened by consistently intelligent comment. What Mrs. Tuchman does superbly is to tell how it was, to convey a sense of time and place, of what it was like to be a great French nobleman in the late fourteenth century. No one has ever done this better. For the reader who is not interested in the deeper questions I have mentioned, the book offers the most interesting and illuminating work available about life in the fourteenth century. It well deserves the success that almost certainly awaits it.


Tuchman and History December 7, 1978

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