Saturday, May 15, 2010

*Books to While Away The Class Struggle- A Distant Mirror Mirrored- Barbara Tuchman’s “ A Distant Mirror”

Click on the title to link to a "Wikipedia" entry for historian Barbara Tuchman.

Recently I have begun to post entries under the headline- “Songs To While Away The Class Struggle By” and "Films To While Away The Class Struggle By"-that will include progressive and labor-oriented songs and films that might be of general interest to the radical public. I have decided to do the same for some books that may perk that same interest under the title in this entry’s headline. Markin

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, Barbara Tuchman, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1978

There was a time when I liked to read virtually anything by the self-made historian Barbara Tuchman. That was back in my very early left-liberal days of the 1960s when I was much enamored of the Kennedy boys. It had been reported that at some point during the Cuban missile crisis (for the younger set, look that up on “Wikipedia”, or some other ancient source) that Jack Kennedy had read Tuchman's “Guns Of August”. The import of that reading by him was that he, supposedly, thought through her contention that the subject matter of that book, the struggle of the various bourgeois governments of Europe to play “chicken” and win before World War I, got out of hand well before the issues could have been resolved short of war. In short, that war was entirely avoidable had cooler heads prevailed. Well, I have long given up my left-liberal past and with it a move away from a dependence on the top governmental view of social and political change like that example. I have also moved away from Tuchman’s premise that merely by acting rationally bourgeois governmental leaders could, and can, solve any problem that confronts them. Still, I like to, on occasion, read her books because, whatever our political differences might have been, I know that she massed a great deal of useful information about the subjects that interested her.

That is certainly the case here with her monumental overview of the 14th century in Western Europe, as seen through the prism of one of the premier noble families of France. A family that was central to much of the political, social, economic and religious action of the century, the Coucy family. Moreover, as her title indicates, she has a thesis here as well- that the calamitous 14th century has some important lessons to tell a late 20th century audience about how to save itself before it is too late. While, as I mentioned above, Tuchman is always a good source for interesting historical data and it s always good to “learn” the lessons of history these lessons seem to be directed, once again, toward bourgeois governmental leaders. I would draw rather different conclusions and look to a different section of the population to learn those "lessons".

Well, why pick on the poor, bedraggled 14th century? For this reviewer, who has mentioned in the past that in his old age he wanted to sit back and study the role of religion in the development of Western capitalist society, especially those early protestant movements, this is an important period where the grip of the Roman Catholic Church and its far-flung bureaucracies were being challenged on many fronts by secular forces (and being defended by other such forces). For Tuchman it is one of those decisive turning points in history as well where such concepts as the rule of law, the notion of a rational elite (as exemplified by the Coucys), the beginning of the flourishing of cities and the emergence of the bourgeois element that would drive (and still drives) Western society, and in the process create nation-states out of the patchwork of duchies, archbishopric sees, counties, and all lesser forms of governance. In short, the outline for modern society that the modern reader can recognize, for good or ill.

If you are looking to delve into the seemingly never-ending fights between various nobilities, mainly in England and France, a bewildering array of very unstable alliances, the ‘skinny’ behind the two Pope (Avignon and Rome) struggle in the Catholic Church that ran riot throughout the later part of the century, or the absurdly complicated manner of solving conflict through an occasional war then this is your first stop. If you are also looking to get a glimpse at the culture, mainly high Church and chivalrous noble culture, the way the various local nobilities lived and intermarried (another cause for bewilderment, if you are not careful), the way wars were fought and who fought them and the place of such phenomena as plagues, pilgrimages, the late Crusades, and such this is also a place to stop. If you want to know everything about the several generations of Coucys, you will get that as well. And all these fairly well-written six hundred plus pages are done with the needs of an interested, but notnecessarily knowledgeable, layperson in mind. And with some very interesting illustrations, as well.

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