Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Mirror, Mirror...




I'm just finished with Barbara Tuchman's 1978 book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century. The book is a rather exhaustive look at the life and times of the French nobleman Enguerrand de Coucy (1340-1397). Rather than a biography per se of Coucy, Tuchman uses his unusually well-documented life (for the time) as a backbone for a more general survey of life in the 1300s. 

A book like this one is a reminder that if history feels stuffy and boring then we're doing it wrong. Tuchman is particularly good at illustrating how daily life has changed in the 700 years since Coucy, concentrating on what was involved in a person's daily life--what they wore, what they ate, what courtship was like, how they made their money--and examining the hierarchical social network that was perhaps the defining feature of life. Exploring these differences big and small makes the book almost like an exercise in time travel: the people of the time are fully recognizable to us, but the trials that face them and their reactions to them are of a very different period. That little spark of recognition seems the perfect gift of history.

As it happens, our man de Coucy was a rare beacon of enlightenment and gentility--well, within reason; he did after all spend much of his life doing his sovereign's business, which was not always rainbows and puppies. But he displayed less brutality and more largesse and magnanimity than most of his contemporaries. And he seems to have been especially gifted at diplomacy, accomplishing quite an impressive list of thorny negotiations where good outcomes were achieved and all sides felt and spoke highly of him. By the end of his life he had garnered a deep and widespread admiration that was rare for the time.

I'm particularly struck to see how brutal life was in the 1300s (and certainly before and for quite a while after). People, whose lifespans were already short and very uncertain, were routinely killed for all manner of infractions real or imagined, for things that by today's standards just don't seem very offensive. And not just killed, but tortured and their hacked-off bits and massacred carcasses put on barbaric display. Royal policies were not uncommonly enforced by the threat of death and torture for anyone who spoke out against them--thought crime. Nobles were allowed to kill common people without much accountability, and tales abound of torture and cruelty practiced as a kind of rich man's sport.

And--surprise!--the church was right there in the dirt. 14th Century France was almost monolithically Catholic, at least in written history, and the institution reflected every weakness and folly of the wider society in which it lived, routinely meting out barbarity and committing every conceivable crime in pursuit of very human desires: sex and luxury and power and wealth. (Far from demonstrating the holy and supernatural, it provides a perfect proof of the absence of supernatural intervention in this brutal life.) Those not of the fold--Jews and Muslims--were routinely persecuted and slaughtered by the faithful, as were any who failed to toe a very whimsical line of obedience (like "witches" or "infidels," often deemed such so as to make their torture and murder legal or ethical). Maybe that's to be expected, since people were--usually with the church's insistence--completely uneducated and class-bound and they lived lives rife with fear and prejudice. But even I am a little surprised at how base and brutal and violent the very upper reaches of the church leaders were. Indeed, it was almost universal. (Speaking of absolute power and absolute corruption... Christopher Hitchens used always to urge us to remember exactly how the church has behaved throughout history when there were no restraints on its power. They may come with their cap in hand now, he'd say, but remember how they've behaved when they thought they could get away with it). 

The organized church vied for power over the masses with the royal houses who nominally controlled the country--usually themselves claiming divine sanction--but these authorities seemed always to be in flux and the whole business, looked at up close, was ugly and violent and brutal. I found the papal schism of 1309-1417 to be particularly entertaining (though for those who lived through it it may have lacked entertainment value), as theft and murder and brutality on a massive scale was carried out on behalf of two very mortal men, each claiming to have a singular mythically-sanctioned dominion over everyone else. The hypocrisy looks comical now. The lower classes--of course--found themselves under the chance control of one or the other of the warring factions, while the other side's marauding bands burned and raped and pillaged the "infidels." Ordinary people lived in terror of being made heretics or of their prayers not being heard or of dying without having received "proper" last rites, etc., etc. The unwashed were constantly told absolute and terrifying things--by people whose confident assertions hadn't the tiniest whiff of legitimacy but certainly played to their grab for power.

Religion poisons everything indeed. (But we're all better now, right?) How horrible is a world without science.

With the almost indiscriminate killing and the ravages of constant war and the horrors of the plague (as mentioned before) and other infectious diseases, one wonders how we managed not to dwindle right out of existence. And indeed by the end of the 14th Century, the plague had reduced Europe's population by almost half.

Barbara Tuchman is masterful. Her command of language is perfection itself for this kind of writing--she's like the Jane Austen of history. I'm now trying to add her other works to my to-read pile.  Her linguistic skills are enhanced in this case by the narrator Nadia May (a.k.a. Wanda McCaddon), who might have the perfect, authoritative English spoken voice.  (Judging by her massive catalog of works, I'm clearly not the first to conclude thus.) This is especially fortunate, in that this book covered some 27 hours of audio time. It's entirely to Tuchman's credit that I wished it were more.

3 comments:

CyberKitten said...

Excellent. I'll look out for it if its still in print. I have several books in and around that period coming up which might interest you (both fiction and non-fiction). It was indeed a suprisingly violent time to live in. Realising that just on an intellectual and even emotional level shows just how far we have come and just how secure our lives are today compared to back then.

wunelle said...

Ain't that the truth? But I think we need accounts like this to see how far we've come--and toward what we seem to be backsliding. This is the world without science and the civilizing effects of secular governance.

I think I essentially knew the basic milieu of the 1300s, but the immersion from this book was fantastic.

dbackdad said...

There are several historical books that both of you have recommended that I'm going to have to pick up. I've been reading a bit too much that looks forward lately. Perhaps, I need to look back.