A Distant Mirror is an excellent book. It makes me want to read more history. It’s hard for me to “review” it, per se. It’s not like eating dinner, where the goal is for the dinner to taste good, and I can assess whether it tastes good, compare to the best and worst dinners of my past, and sum it up as four stars.
Instead it’s more like the title of the book itself suggests. The Middle Ages are a mirror, and we can look in that mirror to see ourselves, to see our own era from a different angle. This book provides the mirror, but if I learn something from reading the book, does that tell me more about the Middle Ages, the mirror, or the present day?
Such an alien time. The Black Death kills about a third of Europeans from 1347-1351. Enormous debates about why it happened and what should be done. Let’s convene the greatest doctors and politicans of the age. Everyone’s analysis is just completely terrible. Maybe the plague is caused by some theological error by the Pope. Maybe it’s the fault of the Jews. Maybe it’s caused by Jupiter being in a certain position. (That seems to have been the consensus of the French medical establishment.) Maybe we’re praying in the wrong way. Everyone involved, every side of the debates, was just completely wrong. Not even possessing the right mental framework to find the answer. There are zero documents from the time mentioning anything about rats or fleas in conjunction with the plague.
How could any intelligent observer of the time have been more correct? It defies my imagination to think of any plausible way. In some sense nihilism would have been more accurate than any of the prevailing belief systems.
Besides the plague, the endless wars. I used to think of the Hundreds Years’ War as like, a big war that lasted a hundred years. Learning more, it doesn’t feel like that at all. It feels more like the Middle Ages were just a mish-mash of constant little invasions and fighting here and there. Before 1430 there was no standing army in France. Lots of small armies of a few thousand people form up and disband for various reasons. All the time some city is threatened by some army, they hire a mercenary group or have a local put together an army, the threat goes away, and the newly formed army just starts wandering around extorting other cities. It might be my own inability to comprehend the politics of the time, but it just seems like chaos. Later historians sliced off one quasi-logical chunk of the chaos and called it the Hundred Years’ War.
The wars do not feel controlled. I know war always gets out of control, but the fighting units of the time seem only somewhat subordinate to the country they are fighting for. Armies get formed and operated by some individual person. Maybe for a while they fight for the King of France. But frequently there is a problem of, these mercenary-ish armies got formed up to defend against something, but now we don’t have anything to pay them for, and the King cannot simply order them disbanded. That isn’t how it’s done. The default is for them to turn into criminal gangs wandering around demanding money from the cities they pass by.
A nobleman owns territory in both England and France due to marriage, and then England and France go to war. What should he do? Ah, the perfect solution is to raise an army and go off and invade Italy. This way he has a noble excuse for neutrality. Everyone seemed happy with that solution, impressed by his chivalry.
The way wars are conducted also seems like everyone constantly overestimates their knights. Fighting sieges without bringing siege weapons, because the most important thing is the nobility of your knights. The enemy is stuck in a position where your archers can slaughter them all, but instead you keep the archers behind your knights and have your knights charge, because that is the noblest form of battle. The English destroy the French because their archers are superior, but instead of prioritizing the development of archers as the main military goal, the French don’t seem to bother. Or they bother, but do it poorly. Nothing like, hey let’s pay a good salary for good archers. No, instead let’s ban non-archery sporting events for a while, to encourage the peasants to practice their archery more.
A thousand years earlier, the Romans had half a million people in their army. Trained, made up of common people, run by military experts rather than aristocrats. All that mentality had become lost over time.
Religion, too. Was the Pope in Avignon or the Pope in Rome the true channel to God? If you wanted to be forgiven for a terrible sin like murder or blasphemy, which Pope did God want you to pay your forgiveness money to? Clearly it was one or the other and the greatest good would come if the world could just figure out which Pope was the true one, so that you didn’t have to pay off both of them just to be sure of salvation.
What does all this tell me about the modern day? It makes me wonder, how could someone looking back from the year 2650 think about our time and think, it’s funny how they had all these intense debates when both sides of the debate were just totally wrong. Not even paying attention to the most important dimensions. No ability to reach the correct answer from the state of the discourse.
In the 1300’s there are small, tiny hints at the uprising of democracy. But they are crushed and would not rise again for hundreds of years. Groups of people briefly saying, hey maybe we shouldn’t be ruled by a heriditary nobility, maybe we should have… something else? They didn’t have the time to figure things out before getting slaughtered and put back in their places.
I am grateful to be living in the Pax Americana. I hope it lasts as long as it can. One truth that holds constant throughout the ages of history is that war has a terrible cost in human lives. I don’t think we are living at the end of history, and I don’t think the Pax Americana will last forever. Totalitarianism seems to be on the retreat, but what if we have only seen the first, initial, malformed examples of what it can do, like the doomed stirrings of democracy in the Middle Ages? I don’t really want to know what comes next, what moral beliefs of our time will turn out to be quaint fictions, what hopes of mine will forever prove impossible for humanity.
So this hasn’t been a book review, really, right? I can only indirectly recommend this book, by showing a bit of how it has made me reflect, what it has made me think about. I do recommend it, though. A Distant Mirror, by Barbara Tuchman.
If nothing else, it has driven home how there are much worse things than coronavirus.