A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century” (1978)
by Barbara W. Tuchman
Knopf, 678 pp.
After forty years with an all-volunteer army, not many of us know sons and daughters who have fought and died in Iraq or Afghanistan. The 6,518 killed during a decade of a war on Terror do not dent our consciousness. The number slightly exceeds those who died on 9/11, but it’s only .004 of the $1.3 million who have died serving the United States Armed Forces since 1776. The heavy tolls came in the Civil War, the First and Second World Wars, in Korea and Vietnam.
Each year, we celebrate, honor, and remember those fallen soldiers on Memorial Day, on the last Monday in May. There are parades, political speeches, drum and fife bands, food, and festivals. This year friends posted the Gettysburg address on Facebook. A very few read the names of the fallen who served with their sons in Helmand Province, signaling honor and respect.
Alan Jabbour, a great fiddler, was a folk archivist at the Library of Congress. His wife is a photographer. After retirement, the Jabbours have conducted field research on what used to be called “Decoration Day.” They have noted that the tradition of Decoration Day, which is still observed in the Southern Appalachian mountains, contains a profound religious element. Decoration Day is a day for landscaping cemeteries, placing flowers at grave sites, giving speeches, listening to music, having a picnic, and prayer.
But beyond description and tradition, what is this holiday? In no small part, Memorial Day is a cult of the soldier. It celebrates the deceased as heroes, brave patriots, and our honorable representatives. We project our ideals, our hopes, and our fantasies onto these dead souls we did not know.
Tuchman’s book “A Distant Mirror,” like Memorial Day, is a celebration of dead souls we did not know but that somehow speak to us. What do they say?
The 14th century, as depicted by Tuchman, was the final disillusionment with the Age of Chivalry that dominated the middle ages. It’s when it all came apart. The level of dissonance between the teachings of the Church, the ideals of feudal society, and the reality of life reached a breaking point. Historian Lawrence Stone, in his 1978 review in the New York Review of Books, put it this way:
“Rarely has the gap between the ideal and the real been so large. Knights talked about chivalry, but regularly practiced treachery, murder, rape, and rapine. The pope walked up and down reading his breviary to the background accompaniment of the screams of cardinals being tortured to extract confessions about a suspected plot against him. The Church preached poverty and chastity, but the high clergy openly wallowed in opulent luxury and endowed their bastards with the spoils of fat clerical livings, while the poor friars enjoyed an apparently deserved reputation as habitual seducers of married women. Kings talked loftily about just wars, but took care to hire and browbeat lawyers and theologians to invent a case for them.
Once war began, it was very far from a chivalric affair. … War consisted of the rape and massacre of the defenseless civilian population, the pillage of all movables, the destruction of villages, crops, and cattle, the killing of prisoners, the sack of towns. War was designed to win booty and to force the enemy to pay huge sums in return for cessation of the destruction: it was a system of calculated blackmail by threat of genocide.”
This drama of hypocrisy played out against a backdrop of the hundred years war between the English and French kings for the French crown, the installation of French popes in Avignon, the resulting schism in the Church, the Black Death, which killed perhaps a third of humanity from India to Iceland in the second half of the 14th century, and the final, lackluster but still deadly, crusades.
What message do these dead souls hold for us? The image that is reflected on this distant mirror comes into focus in Tuchman’s book: “This is folly!” The human failings, the lack of legitimacy in the power structure, the self-serving nature of the wars, the oppression and devastation that all this warfare imposed on society, but above all, the emptiness of the idealism that sustained it, are plain for all to see from this vantage point. We can do ever so much better.
We can do better, yet the year of 1978, when Distant Mirror was published, is not so far removed from the carnage of World War I, World War II, the Russian Gulags, the Chinese cultural revolution, Korea, and Vietnam. In Cambodia, the killing fields were in full bloom. The book was published at the height of a cold war between the United States and Russia that featured a nuclear arms race. There was anxiety over a potential nuclear Armageddon. Three Mile Island, Helen Caldecott, and the Beyond War movement were just around the corner. In other words, we were in the thick of it.
And in the thick of it, when we celebrate Memorial Day, we are apt to lose sight of folly. On March 8, 1983 President Reagan delivered his “Evil Empire” speech before an assembly of the National Association of Evangelical Christians. The wide-ranging speech included the usual recitation of American exceptionalism, that America is the world’s last and best hope, and included a homey variation on “better dead than red.”
“Let us be aware,” said Reagan, “that while they preach the supremacy of the State, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world.”
We fight for God and country. We are the salvation of the world. The state, which would declare its supremacy over man, is evil. Today, in the wake of communism’s collapse, we have replaced Islam as the new evil power that would declare its supremacy over man and aims for the eventual domination of all peoples on earth, but it amounts to the same thing. When we honor those fallen sons and daughters in Helmand province, is it our ideal of fighting this evil that we honor?
When we celebrate Memorial Day and look in the mirror to see what ideals, hopes, and fantasies are reflected there, do we see a palimpsest of the calamitous 14th century shimmering there? As the Marcus Turner song has it:
Some may wonder what’s to fear and
Say there is no danger here
But there has never been a time
When soldiers have not been at war;
And you may well prefer abstention,
But I feel compelled to mention,
You had better pay attention
When the boys are on parade.
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