In the Great Tradition
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.
by Barbara W. Tuchman.
Knopf. 677 pp. $15.95.
In 1948 the American Historical Association conducted a poll to identify the six greatest American historians who were no longer living. The final list included only one scholar who had received regular graduate training and held a Ph.D. degree in history. All the others were self-taught historians who had made names for themselves despite—or perhaps because of—their lack of formal professional credentials.
These days, when the historians’ world seems so completely dominated by the products of the graduate schools, it is chastening to remember the outcome of that survey. The great tradition in American history, we need to remind ourselves, is not one nurtured in our graduate seminars. Instead it has been fostered by dedicated amateur historians from George Bancroft, William H. Prescott, and Francis Parkman in the 19th century, to Henry Adams and James Ford Rhodes at the beginning of this century, down to Allen Nevins and Bruce Catton in our own day. (The name of Samuel Eliot Mori-son really belongs in this list too. Though equipped with indisputable professional credentials, he disdained the petty squabbles of academic historians and retained to the end the amateur’s excited devotion to his subject.)
Any future list of truly great American historians will include the name of another self-taught scholar, Barbara W. Tuchman. Since the publication of her first book, Bible and Sword (1956), she has shown a steadily ripening talent. My own favorite among Mrs. Tuchman’s books, The Zimmerman Telegram (1958), was as carefully plotted and as suspenseful as any detective story. Popular success came to Mrs. Tuchman in 1962, with the appearance of The Guns of August, a panoramic survey of the outbreak of of World War I. It deservedly won a Pulitzer Prize. Though lacking so clear a focus, The Proud Tower (1966) was an immensely readable “portrait of the world before the War, 1890-1914.” In 1971 Mrs. Tuchman published Stilwell and the American Experience in China, which won her second Pulitzer Prize. Now, in A Distant Mirror, she has deserted the contemporary scene to portray “the calamitous 14th century.” With more than 100,000 copies already in print, in addition to those distributed by three major book clubs, her new book may well reach a larger audience than any other serious work of history published in our time.
A Distant Mirror is a spacious portrait of an age that was at once wholly different from our own and yet, in odd and unexpected ways, curiously similar to our times. In the 14th century, as today, men lived with the possibility that the entire human race might be exterminated—then by the Black Death, which reduced the population of Europe by 50 per cent in five decades; now by atomic radiation. Both the 14th and the 20th centuries were drained by endless and usually pointless warfare, which “would develop a life of its own, defying parleys and truces and treaties designed to stop it,” and which would drag on, past the lives of its originators “into their sons’ lives and the lives of their grandsons and great-grandsons, and great-great-grandsons to the fifth generation.” Both centuries witnessed a crisis of faith, a loss of confidence in man’s “capacity to construct a good society.” “The experiences of the terrible 20th century,” Mrs. Tuchman suggests, ought to make us better able to understand the “violent, tormented, bewildered, suffering, and disintegrating” 14th century.
But Mrs. Tuchman is less concerned with tracing 14th-century parallels to our own times than with recreating the tortured complexity of life in that distant era. If the age “seemed full of brilliance and adventure to a few at the top,” to most people it offered
a succession of wayward dangers; of . . . pillage, plague, and taxes; of fierce and tragic conflicts, bizarre fates, capricious money, sorcery, betrayals, insurrections, murder, madness, and the downfall of princes; of dwindling labor for the fields, of cleared land reverting to waste; and always the recurring black shadow of pestilence carrying its message of guilt and sin and the hostility of God.
The fascination of Mrs. Tuchman’s account of the 14th century lies less in its overall design, or argument, than in its vivid recreation of scenes and details. For instance, instead of generalizing about, or lamenting over, the inequitable distribution of wealth, she juxtaposes two scenes. First she enumerates the dishes served at a royal banquet:
[R]oast 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, peacock, bitterns, and heron . . ., pasties of venison and small birds, fresh-and salt-water fish with a gravy of shad . . ., 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.
A few pages later she describes the subjects of the same ruler, ground down by taxes, oppression, war, and famine, who became so desperate for food that they “cut open bodies with their knives and ate like animals the flesh of baptized men.”
In A Distant Mirror, more than in any of her previous books, Mrs. Tuchman emerges as a gifted, often witty, aphorist. One could compile a little anthology of astute sayings from her observations on society in the 14th century, beginning with her characterization—quoted from a contemporary poem—of the knight as “a terrible worm in an iron cocoon.” After listing urine and goat dung among the medicines prescribed by 14th-century physicians, she observes: “The offensive, like the expensive, had extra value.” “Theology being the work of males,” she notes, “original sin was traced to the female.” Then she adds shrewdly: “The nastiness of women was generally perceived at the close of life when a man began to worry about hell, and his sexual desire in any case was failing.”
Wise, witty, and wonderful, A Distant Mirror is a great book, in a great historical tradition. It deserves the enthusiastic popular applause it has already received.
Yet it is safe to predict that A Distant Mirror will have, at best, a mixed reception from scholars, who have not generally been kind to Mrs. Tuchman. The prestigious American Historical Review, for example, did not find her first book worth reviewing, and its brief notice of The Zimmerman Telegram ended: “One wishes there were some way to make thoroughly reliable history as excitingly readable as this book.” Praise for Mrs. Tuchman’s literary artistry in The Guns of August was canceled by an attack on The Proud Tower as “a pastiche,” marred by the author’s “fascination with trivia and her soporific tone.” A scholarly review of her Stilwell biography contained the warning: “Despite, or because of, its broad compass, this mass-market historiography breaks certain rigorous research rules.”
In part the negative tone of scholarly comment on Mrs. Tuchman’s books is attributable to the fact that she—like so many of the other great figures in American historiography—is not a professional historian. The use of that term seems inescapable, if not a little ironic. The late Bruce Catton, who was often called an amateur historian by the teachers of history and the authors of monographs who reviewed his books, used to say, a bit impatiently, that he, more than any of his critics, ought to be considered a professional historian; unlike them, he made the writing of history his full-time occupation, from which he derived his livelihood. Mrs. Tuchman could well say the same. But she is the object of suspicion because she did not undergo structured, advanced training in historical research and does not hold a Ph.D. degree in history. Consequently she does not belong to the historians’ professional guild. Instead, with a good undergraduate education at Radclifte College, where she majored in English history, she simply taught herself how to write. When she began her first book, she said in a recent interview, “I just sat down and started it all by myself. I didn’t have any advice. . . . But you know it never occurred to me that I couldn’t do it as well as anyone else.” The fact that she has done it so well gives a special venom to the attacks made on her by academic historians.
In all fairness, though, it must be said that academic historians tend to resent Mrs. Tuchman not merely because of her success but because of her ability to set her own rules for playing the game of history. Seeking no appointment, promotion, or academic honor, Mrs. Tuchman can afford to move from field to field—from European to Chinese history, from the 20th to the 14th century. A professor who thus wandered over the historical map would be considered at best eccentric and almost certainly would be condemned as superficial. Looking for the approval of a broad reading public, and not that of a handful of her peers, Mrs. Tuchman can boldly undertake a book on the Middle Ages, even though she admits that she is “not fluent in Latin” and for some sources “must depend on quotations and excerpts in English by other historians.” No professor could afford to make that admission. Not interested in founding a new school of historical interpretation or in having her name connected with some novel thesis, Mrs. Tuchman is free to retell a story that may be entirely familiar to experts. The academic historian who follows well-trodden paths is likely to be called derivative.
I do not want to be understood as suggesting that Mrs. Tuchman has done no research, has no interest in ideas, and offers no interpretations. Those statements would all be entirely incorrect. Let me give an example of how, in a single paragraph in A Distant Mirror, Mrs. Tuchman combines fact, insight, and interpretation. First she describes a village game, where “players with hands tied behind them competed to kill a cat nailed to a post by battering it to death with their heads, at the risk of cheeks ripped open or eyes scratched out by the frantic animal’s claws.” This dreadfully specific instance is used to bolster Mrs. Tuchman’s interpretation of the 14th century as an age of singular violence. Then she skillfully connects this horrible game with her knowledge of child-raising practices in the Middle Ages and speculates: “It may be that the untender medieval infancy produced adults who valued others no more than they had been valued in their own formative years.” The paragraph is one that any academic historian could envy. My point remains, however, that Mrs. Tuchman is not fundamentally concerned with the novelty of the facts she presents and she does not particularly care whether previous historians have agreed or disagreed with her interpretation of the facts. She assumes, correctly, that both her facts and her interpretations will be fresh to the large audience to whom her work is primarily addressed.
Even though much of the academic criticism of Mrs. Tuchman’s work is niggling and self-serving, some of it points to serious problems in her historical craftsmanship. There is, for example, the matter of the narrative form, to which Mrs. Tuchman, like most other non-academic historians, is deeply attached. “Narrative is the spine of what I do because that’s the way life is lived,” she declared recently; “it isn’t lived in categories.” It was a technique that worked well in her earlier books, where the sequence of world-shaking events was enormously important. It is far less effective in a study of 14th-century society, which changed slowly and almost imperceptibly. Academic historians have devised new, non-narrative literary strategies for dealing with what Fernand Braudel has called “this almost timeless history,” but Mrs. Tuchman sticks to chronological sequence. At one point she admits that “inertia in the scales of history weighs more heavily than change,” but she refuses to face the fact that it is impossible to write a compelling narrative about inertia.
In writing A Distant Mirror, Mrs. Tuchman might also have profited by giving serious thought to the reasons academic historians generally avoid the highly personalized, or biographical, approach. Again she is to some extent a prisoner of her previous successes. In The Guns of August and The Proud Tower she was able to sketch dazzling word portraits of individuals, who typified governments, groups, and classes. But for a study of the 14th century this method is necessarily less successful. There is no way, Mrs. Tuchman admits, to recreate the thought and character of the typical peasant—yet the huge majority of the whole European population consisted of peasants. In her book, consequently, the peasants “remain mute.” “For no other class is that famous goal of the historian, wie es wirklich war (how it really was), so elusive. For every statement on peasant life there is another that contradicts it.”
Desirous of tracing “the circumstances and the sequence of an actual medieval life,” she has been obliged to choose a figure from the nobility, Enguerrand de Coucy VII, the “most experienced and skillful of all the knights of France.” On first thought Coucy seems an admirable “vehicle”—the word is Mrs. Tuchman’s—for a narrative account of at least the nobility during the last half of the 14th century. The lord of a princely domain in northern France, he was at once son-in-law of Edward III of England and the most trusted aide of the King of France. He held commands “in eleven campaigns—in Piedmont, Lombardy, Switzerland, Normandy, Languedoc, Tuscany, northern France, Flanders, Guelders, Tunisia, Genoa.” He “commanded mercenaries, and fought as ally or antagonist of the Count of Savoy, Gregory XI, Hawkwood, the Visconti, the Hapsburgs, the Swiss, Navarrese, Gascons, English, Berbers, the Republic of Florence, and nobles of Genoa.” As diplomat he negotiated “with Pope Clement VII, the Duke of Brittany, the Count of Flanders, the Queen of Aragon, with the English at peace parleys, and the rebels of Paris.” As a leader in one of the last of the Crusades, he was taken prisoner by the Turks in the battle of Nicopolis, and he died in captivity at the end of his calamitous century.
Yet an academic historian could have alerted Mrs. Tuchman that far too little is known about Coucy, or any other individual, to make him the central figure in the story of the 14th century. No authentic portrait or statue of Coucy survives that shows his face; the one detail preserved about his physical appearance is that he became bald. Though Froissart and the other chroniclers of the Hundred Years’ War repeatedly praised Coucy as “the most gracious and persuasive lord in all Christendom,” nothing remains of his utterances or ideas. Lacking information, Mrs. Tuchman is often obliged to resort to speculation. Her pages are sprinkled with information that Coucy may have known and with events that “doubtless” he participated in. Even the ending of her story has to be conditional: “Perhaps he recognized in the Battle of Nicopolis a profound failure of knighthood and sensed in its outcome a time to die.”
More serious is the literary distortion that the focus on Coucy causes in A Distant Mirror. Though Coucy was indeed involved in nearly all the political, military, and diplomatic struggles of his age, his role was always a secondary one, and Mrs. Tuchman’s sense of proportion prevents her from exaggerating his importance. In order, then, properly to set forth the actions of her hero, she has been obliged to write a history of the Hundred Years’ War nearly as long and detailed as Froissart’s Chronicles. The result is a bit like a map of the United States drawn on a scale to show the streets of Cos Cob, Mrs. Tuchman’s town in Connecticut. At times Mrs. Tuchman herself seems to realize that her biographical narrative is getting out of hand. After hundreds of pages describing knightly festivities, banquets, and tournaments, she writes wearily, “These extravaganzas recur so regularly that astonishment fades.” So does interest.
If Mrs. Tuchman could only write narrative history with a biographical focus, the weaknesses of the last half of A Distant Mirror would be easier to accept. But, as she demonstrates in her first six chapters, dealing with the cult of chivalry, with medieval warfare, and with the Black Death, she can write superb social history without having to rely on a chronological framework and without having to drape events around a single individual. It is truly regrettable that a historian of Mrs. Tuchman’s genius has not been in close, constant communication with academic scholars, who might have helped her in reconsidering the basic structure of her book.
The moral is, I trust, obvious: academic and non-academic historians need each other. If academic historians ought to emulate Mrs. Tuchman’s sweep, grace, and insight, Mrs. Tuchman could learn something from academic historians about technique, focus, and scope. It is time to remind ourselves of the message of Allan Nevins’s presidential address before the American Historical Association: “We are all amateurs, we are all professionals.”