RogerBW's Blog

A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman 05 March 2015

1978, popular history. Tuchman recounts the history of France and some nearby countries in the latter part of the Fourteenth Century, with particular focus on the nobleman Enguerrand de Coucy.

Well, that's knackered my reading stats for the year. This is not only a long book, but one that deserves to be read slowly and with some consideration, and it's taken me something like three weeks to finish, where I normally get through a book in two or three days.

This is a grim recounting of a grim time, though Tuchman is often at pains to point out the more positive aspects of life that happened in between the wars, plagues, and so on. By the nature of bad news, it is over-represented in chronicles:

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).

Clearly this is a popular history book, and I shouldn't expect it to be anything else. It's often terribly frustrating, though: it's a great long lump of a book often going into extremes of corroborative detail (the size of the royal baby-blanket), and a shorter one would have given me the main narrative without all the side issues. (And I could really have done with a bit more consistency in naming, or a crib; someone is "the Duke" in one sentence and "Charles" in the next, and with such a huge cast of significant people of whom half seem to be called Louis or Charles it's sometimes hard work to keep track of them.)

But at the same time I wanted the book to be much longer, going into the various sources exhaustively, because there's never quite enough context to determine what one might regard as trustworthy. For example, we can read that during the Black Death Gilles li Muisis wrote that

swearing and gambling had so diminished that manufacturers of dice were turning their product into beads for telling paternosters.

and we know that the writer was an abbot in Tournai, but we have no tools for deciding whether this is a reliable chronicle. Did he have an axe to grind, and if so in which direction? Are there surviving accounts that say "sale of dice" in one year and "sale of beads" from the same man in the next? Later, one Nicolas de Clamanges complains of people in church

keeping vigil with lascivious songs and dances, while the priests shot dice as they watched

…well, should we trust him? It's in a tract called De Ruina et Reparatione Ecclesiae, so he's probably biased – but is this claim, indeed are other claims in that tract, attested elsewhere or not?

Those are my principal frustrations. But if one can get past them, this is a fascinating book, working from a perspective that my limited English school history rarely mentioned (the Black Prince and John of Gaunt don't come off well here at all), and going into a level of detail I hadn't previously explored. I've often felt that any subject can be interesting if written about by an enthusiast, but I now have even more contempt than I did for the school history which made this stuff boring.

There's both stasis and mobility here: a recurrent theme is the stasis of the knights' desperate clinging to the traditions of chivalry in an age where the bloke on the horse wasn't the ultimate battlefield weapon any more, as Poitiers and Crécy and Agincourt showed to those with eyes to see, as well as the stasis of war in which a castle couldn't be conquered, but had to be starved out. But there's also the mobility of new forms of warfare (not yet gunpowder to any great extent, but pikemen, archers and crossbowmen all being terrifyingly powerful on the rare occasions they were used effectively); and the rise of national feeling that meant a conquered territory could no longer simply be made part of a different kingdom, because now its inhabitants knew they were French. There's the shift from warriors to soldiers that begins here, with many French defeats culminating in the disaster of Nicopolis, and the eventual realisation that it was unworkable to carry on with divided command: not so much in the matter of cowardice, but there had to be someone on the battlefield who could tell a hot-headed nobleman to stay back with everyone else rather than charging his men ahead into glory, piecemeal defeat and death.

Although the parallels aren't made explicit, Tuchman was clearly sometimes thinking of the First World War, an influence over most of her books, and one can see echoes of the generals trying the same old thing again and again even after it had been shown not to work, and of the utter destruction visited on the land even by supposedly friendly troops who simply regarded pillage as one of the rights of being at war. The gradual loss of confidence in ability to build a society, and rise of fascination with death, is perhaps a greater stretch to tie into the malaise of the 1920s, though it may have been a closer mirror to Tuchman's position in the 1960s and 1970s.

Some of the most important material is near the beginning, discussing the mediæval mindset. While I don't agree with Tuchman's conclusion that parental love for small children is a universal which was uniquely removed during this period, and so I can't agree that said lack of parental love was the proximate cause of the general indifference of pretty much everyone in this period towards causing suffering and death, it's clear that there was such indifference (perhaps instead it was because suffering and death was so all-pervasive that adding a little more seemed like no great sin). And the lack of what we'd now call impulse control that runs throughout this history may well show up in part because children were expected to be able to take something like adult roles from the age of seven or so, and might be leading armies or married by the age of twelve. There seems to have been no formal division later in life: a squire would be knighted, a woman would be married, but on a battlefield being a king was considered more important than being an experienced war-leader, and the former felt no need to listen to the latter.

All in all, it's perhaps a little stodgy at times, but I'd have no hesitation in recommending this book to anyone who's not already familiar with the period, and not put off by the length.

When I started this book I had no particular intention of running another fantasy RPG (I normally prefer futuristic, contemporary or at least twentieth-century settings). Now I feel a certain sense of enthusiasm about the idea. But that's another post for another day, or maybe a podcast segment.

(Read after a recommendation by Agemegos on the Steve Jackson Games forums.)

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  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 02:08pm on 06 March 2015

    Interesting review of a book I've not read, and unlikely to just because time and the other stuff that consumes one's life and all. Still some interesting perspectives. I would posit that there was no less love of children only a more pragmatic understanding that life was uncertain in ways that a modern reader from a first world country would find hard to accept.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 02:13pm on 06 March 2015

    Makes sense to me. It's always tempting to think of one's own time, society, etc., as "more civilised" than earlier eras, and in many ways this is true, but it's then an easy error to think of the people of the past as stupid when they were mostly, without the option, ignorant.

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