History Rats Out

When we read a story, any story, we want to know who the narrator is. This is our key to finding out what he, she, or they have at risk. Characters who have nothing to lose or gain tend to be uninteresting or, worse, smug.

We are relieved to learn of characters with some inherent defect, fear, or agenda. Often introduced to us in subtle ways, this information enhances the sense of why we are reading, for which of the characters we are rooting, and what kinds of troubles they are likely to attract.

We know, for instance, that pride goeth before a fall, fear has to be confronted, grudges need to be abandoned. We know what to expect, while at the same time hoping – dare I say demanding – to be surprised in some artful way. This is all part of the preliminary interview, our way of qualifying a narrative, very much the way a banker qualifies us before signing off on the loan.

When we shift to history, another great dynamic informs our choices; we are looking for ways to breathe life and agenda into the narratives with which we were so shamelessly and brutally ambushed during our middle and high school years. Some of us carry scars beyond our university days, even into middle age, reminding us of the texts and instruction and various forms of required reading that lobotomized our interest in a particular era, the people who lived in that era, and world-shaking events that emerged from persons who lived then.

Geoffrey Chaucer (approx. 1343-1400) yanked me into the so-called Middle Ages in spite of the history books, largely because of the epic reach of “The Canterbury Tales,” which established the vernacular English language as a feisty and gritty competitor to French and Italian. “The Tales” may have on some subliminal level reached my younger self because of two exquisite portraits, “The Wife of Bath” and “The Pardoner.” There was no mystery about the raucous and bawdy escapade of “The Miller’s Tale” nor, as my interest in poetry grew, my appreciation for “The Tale of Melibe,” in which Chaucer, portraying himself as one of the pilgrims, begins a story that is interrupted early on “nae more, by Godde’s word…thy drasty rhyme is not worth a…” well, you get the picture. These pilgrims not only made me regard their poet creator as a historian, they gave me an unquenchable curiosity about the times in which they lived.

What a grand companion to the Middle Ages is Barbara Tuchman’s (1912-1989) “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.” Were you to begin scanning through the caviling reviews for “A Distant Mirror,” you’d discover, as Brian Fagan has with any number of his archaeological and anthropological adventures, the distress sound of an academic with a slow leak. How dare a non-mediaevalist dare to tread upon the holy ground of my research. Oh, please! Mediaevalists were quick to find faults, equally slow to offer praise at the work done on this chronicle of Europe being overrun by Rattus rattus, the small mediaeval black rat that lived on ships, not to forget the heavier brown sewer rat. These rodents and their frequent-flier passengers, the flea, carried the bacillus of the Black Plague. Both flea and rat covered a great distance, biting at humans and animals, spreading a growing disaster.

Some historians were quick to point out some of Barbara Tuchman’s tendencies to generalize without proof, to overstate, and to make conclusions without convincing enough platforms. She also surmised possible feelings of persons and social types without sufficient fact. Fair enough, but also fair is the observation that Tuchman was a skilled dramatist, a gifted researcher. As I was pulled into the timeframe by a collection of tales, she was drawn to her subject by the growing sense that the 14th century bore uncanny resemblances to the 20th. Now, along I come with the observation that the 14th century bears uncomfortable similarities to our own, the 21st.

“The genesis of this book,” she writes, “was a desire to find out what were the effects the on society of the most lethal disaster of recorded history – that is to say the Black Death of 1348-50, which killed an estimated one third of the population living between India and Iceland.” She goes on to add three horses to the image of the Four Horses of the Apocalypse. These are plague, war, taxes, brigandage (outlawry),bad government, insurrection, and schism in the Church. “All but the plague itself rose from conditions that existed prior to the Black Death,” Tuchman said, “and continued after the period of the plague was over.”

At the outset of the 14th century, there was France and there were all the other countries, fiefdoms, feudal and tribal boundaries. The passage of time was bringing among other things the resilience of mankind along with the civilizations men and women were born into. Enormous edifices were erected to protect against raiders, to store food, to divert water. Choices had been made that would affect lifestyles; some hunters and gatherers had given up following herds and keeping tracks of fruits and nuts, opting instead to stay in one place the better to plunk seeds into the ground and wait around for the results.

Through all the energy and flux, France, as Tuchman aptly observed, was the place to be: “Her superiority in chivalry, learning, and Christian devotion was taken for granted, and as traditional champion of the Church, her monarch [Louis IX] was accorded the formula of ‘Most Christian King.’ The people of his realm considered themselves the chosen objects of divine favor through whom God expressed his will on Earth.” You had to be there.

As all successful attempts to bring scholarship to life require – see the excellent syntheses and informed speculations of Brian Fagan – “A Distant Mirror” needed a humanizing force that paralleled the Black Death. Enter Enguerrand de Coucy VII. For that matter, consider as a sort of ensemble cast the Enguerrand de Coucys I through VI, each of whom was a knight-at-arms, an owner of significant property, and a consummate politician. The adventures of I through VI, leading up to the last and perhaps most accomplished of the family line, allow Tuchman room to discuss social, political, and Church-related themes in lovely array, allowing you to feel that you were indeed there, with the 14th century cascading about you.

Against the backdrop of Rattus rattus, the Church, the English, arguments about taxation, and The Crusades (anti- and pro-rhetoric sounding amazingly similar to discussions of surge, staying the course, and supporting the troops), de Coucy VII emerges as the most skilled and experienced of all the knights of France, “a member of the most powerful family in Picardy. His lineage, nobility, position in the realm…his private wars, religious convictions, military expeditions for France, and finally the fatal crusade against Bajazet I [the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1354-1403] all make his life a paradigm for the fortune and fate of the second estate – if one individual can ever truly represent a class,” Tuchman offers. “His death symbolized the end of a dying world.”

Tuchman’s eye for the three d’s – drama, detail, and devotion – to the subjects at hand, make this a rousing and evocative adventure, offering lasting insights to a time and place that informs our present culture. There is no mistaking her honor and integrity as a devoted guide to the past, her Foreword an understated monument to the difficulties she had with regional dialects, the whims of spelling conventions, and the self-serving approaches of scribes, copyists, and record keepers of the time.

For a good spot of fun after reading “A Distant Mirror,” Google some of the reviews and history course syllabi, noting their warnings, as if to say, “this is well written and ventures opinions.”

If our high school and frosh/soph history texts have a shelf life comparable to a tub of yogurt, “A Distant Mirror” whets our appetite for the past.