Sunday Pages: "A Distant Mirror"
A book by Barbara W. Tuchman
Those of us who become intensely riveted by what happened long long ago—“history buffs,” in the parlance of our times—have certain periods we find more interesting than others. It’s a matter of personal taste, arbitrary, different for each individual, like how some people prefer purple to yellow, or can’t stand Garth Brooks.
For example, a history buff friend from the coin world, who is half my age, wrote her thesis on the Late Bronze Age Collapse of 1200-1150 BCE, an event I had never even heard of until a month ago when I wrote about The Iliad for “Sunday Pages.” My knowledge of history begins about when Caesar Augustus becomes emperor, in 27 BCE; everything before that blurs together in my mind, because, for whatever reason, I find the last two millennia of recorded history much more compelling than the three that came before—and even then, only a sliver of those 2,000 years, concerning certain events from a very limited part of the world, pique my interest. Constantine, yes; Napoleon, no. Russia, yes; Spain, no. The Byzantine Empire, yes (obviously); the Italian city-states, no. The Thirty Years’ War, yes; the Hundred Years’ War, no. And so on.
I’ve read countless books, fiction and non-fiction both, about the Civil War, which can be looked at from so many different angles (Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, slavery, Lee and Grant, the battles themselves, the grim aftermath), all of them intellectually and emotionally stimulating, but I could care less about the Revolutionary War, with its risible mythologies, its list of battles (Lexington, Concord, who cares?), and its desperation to present itself as some noble fight for liberty and justice, and not the stubborn refusal of a bunch of obscenely rich, white, slave-owning oligarchs to pay taxes. Both of the world wars are fascinating, but as a subject of study, the Great War, with its entangling alliances and assassinated archduke and ensemble cast of flawed characters whose petty insecurities exacerbated the hostilities, appeals more to my novelist’s brain. This preference surely informed my enjoyment of The Guns of August, the masterpiece by Barbara W. Tuchman, which I wrote about recently.
As it turns out, Tuchman’s areas of historical interest, happily, correspond neatly to my own. And so I am currently reading another of her books, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, which concerns the Great Plague, about which I’ve read numerous books. As with the Roman Empire, and the Civil War, and especially the First World War, the pandemic of 1347-50 was a monumental, course-of-history-altering event. In the case of the Black Death, that event was not caused by human folly, which is to say warfare, but by contagion—an external, unpredictable Act of God that was irreconcilable with the prevailing Christian belief system of the time. Everything changed after that. Modern property law dates to the years of the Black Death, when generations of men died so quickly that the usual rules for inheritance became useless. Before the pandemic, there were frequent famines, because the population had outgrown its ability to feed itself; after, with one in three Europeans suddenly dead as if by the snap of Thanos’s fingers, that was no longer a problem, and humanity thrived. A new way of thinking about the world, rooted more in science than religion, developed because people began to reject the fixed theological notions; if God were real, why would He allow such a thing to happen? There is no Renaissance without the Black Death. I could spend all day contemplating the ramifications of that single sentence.
You may ask, “Why do you want to read about such a horrible period? Things are pretty lousy in the here and now. Wouldn’t you rather think about happier things?” My answer is that in history I find hope.
I have only just begun A Distant Mirror, but, to show what I mean, I want to share some passages from Tuchman’s excellent foreword:
A greater hazard [than empty spaces in the record], built into the very nature of recorded history, is overload of the negative: the disproportionate survival of the bad side—of evil, misery, contention, and harm. In history this is exactly the same as in the daily newspaper. The normal does not make news. History is made by the documents that survive, and these lean heavily on crisis and calamity, crime and misbehavior, because such things are the subject matter of the documentary process—of lawsuits, treaties, moralists’ denunciations, literary satire, papal Bulls. No Pope ever issued a Bull to approve of something. . . .
Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of disturbance, as we know from our own times. After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists. The fact is that one can come home in the evening—on a lucky day—without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena. This has led me to formulate Tuchman’s Law, as follows: “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold” (or any figure the reader would care to supply).
It is true that Tuchman’s law may not apply to the deplorable criminal behavior of FPOTUS, but overall, her point stands.
The best books are journeys of exploration, not proclamations. The author undertakes a project not to lecture but to learn. In the first sentence of the foreword, Tuchman tells us that A Distant Mirror was inspired by her curiosity about how society was impacted by the Black Death, which in three years killed off a third the population of Europe. Then she writes:
Although my initial question has escaped an answer, the interest of the period itself—a violent, tormented, bewildered, suffering and disintegrating age, a time, as many thought, of Satan triumphant—was compelling and, as it seemed to me, consoling in a period of similar disarray. If our last decade or two of collapsing assumptions has been a period of unusual discomfort, it is reassuring to know that the human species has lived through worse before.
She wrote that in 1978, so the “last decade or two” encompassed, among other things, the JFK assassination, the Vietnam War, the antiwar protests, the civil rights movement, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and RFK, the 1968 Democratic Convention, Watergate, the fall of Saigon, and the energy crises, rampant inflation, and general “malaise” of the Carter years—“unusual discomfort” for sure, arguably more unusual and less comfortable than the Trump/pandemic era we have all suffered through these last seven years. But Tuchman is right. As a species, we humans have lived through worse.
We survived the Black Death; we will survive the Orange Menace.
The Five 8 returned from hiatus on Friday. Our guest was the Gen Z activist Victor Shi:
And we offered up a little ditty on the difference between the two candidates:
Photo credit: Exhibit depicting a miniature from a 14th century Belgium manuscript at the Diaspora Museum, Tel Aviv. The museum note says “The citizens of Toumai bury their dead during the black death. Miniature from manuscript, Belgium, 14th century.”
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