Home > History, Literature, Religion > Not a Mirror But a Window: The Unfamiliar 14th Century

Not a Mirror But a Window: The Unfamiliar 14th Century

It’s a common enough approach to contemporary history writing to focus, at least for framing purposes, on the similarities, echoes, and lessons that the events of the past provide in relation to our current social, cultural, and political reality. There is an emphasis on what history can tell us about how we live now, and about how we may live in the near future. But though the past never leaves us, it is also its own creature. The core contexts, perspectives, base assumptions, and fundamental realities of life in other eras as documented and imparted in historical non-fiction and fiction are not simple mirrors on our own modern world, however distant. History is a window that looks upon a landscape of human civilization that is often unfathomably alien to our own experience, and gazing through that frame has intellectual value beyond application to current conditions.

This effect is discernable in both a seminal novel and a sweeping one-volume history of 14th Century Europe: Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Both texts may seem like square peg examples to slot into the round hole of an argument about the bedrock unfamiliarity of history. Eco’s debut novel, his best-known and later adapted for the screen with Sean Connery and Christian Slater, transposes the quintessentially 20th-century literary genre of the detective story to a 14th Century Benedictine monastery in the Italian Alps, drawing liberally on contemporary academic theory and semiotics as well as on sensationalist subject matter. Tuchman’s magisterial history, which utilizes French nobleman Enguerrand VII de Coucy as a central figure at once representative of his time and place and oddly exceptional, draws an implicit titular comparison between the horrors of the Black Death, the Hundred Years’ War, and the Battle of Nicopolis and the mass disasters of the 20th Century.

But both books are, in their own peculiar ways, about the notable peculiarity of the 14th Century, about its fundamental alterity in comparison with our own time. Stacked around Eco’s murder mystery, and indeed intimately related to it, are detailed descriptions of fanciful nameoftherosemedieval art depictions of the Apocalypse, accounts of countercultural quasi-monastic dissent movements, digressions into theological debates about the nature of good and evil and faith and doubt, as well as more esoteric clerical matters. The Name of the Rose is invested at least partly in the demystification of the Middle Ages, but any text with historical accuracy in mind will dispel the ren faire mist of chivalry and noble romance with a strong, stiff breeze. The cloistered monastic world of Eco’s story and characters, not insular exactly but certainly encircled and communal and intensely scholarly, is of a different sort of milieu than the fantasy of swordplay and courtly love anyway.

Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror takes up the banner of demolishing the chivalric myth, however, and does its job thoroughly. The France of Enguerrand VII de Coucy (who lived from 1340 to 1397) was denuded by roving, foraging, pillaging armies and, during the frequent truces between the French and the English, by military companies of the discharged soldiers, who operated as brigands or mercenaries, depending on the profit opportunities offered by each option at any given time. In the absence of a standing national army or effective security or police force, the protection of the land and the populace fell to the nobility. Indeed, war and defence (along with diplomacy) were their only serious useful functions in society, and the basis of their privileges of land ownership, influence with the crown, and exemption from taxation.

But again and again in this period, the nobility of France had proven either unwilling or unable (or both) to fulfill their duty in protecting the people, and the people rose in mass revolt on both sides of the channel (in France, the Jacquerie; in England, the Peasant’s Revolt) at least partly in protest of this broken covenant. The denuding of the countryside by war, brigandage, plague, and excessive taxation did not stop the King and his nobles from engaging in lavish pageantry, aristocratic pursuits like falconry and the tournaments that were the era’s prime sporting spectacles. Neither did the Church, also exempt from taxation and increasingly absorbed in the buying and selling of ecclesiastical services and even salvation itself that would lead directly to the permanent schism of the Protestant Reformation, offer sufficient succour or comfort.

Tuchman recognizes that it is the poor who always suffer most in times of turmoil, and that the failure of society’s institutions holds dire consequences for society’s most vulnerable. These are deep-seated truths applicable to many adistantmirrorperiods in history, our own included, but the weight of their primacy is not an impossible burden to the lives of those people. Tuchman summons kaleidoscopic detail of quotidian life and belief, women’s experiences, fashions, theatrical innovations, military systems, engineering practices, religious dogma and practice, and of course the large-scale political developments that fill the chronicles that are her primary sources. But the peasants and poorer classes did not simply live admirably amidst great suffering. They lashed out at those weaker than they were in terrible pogroms against the Jews in their communities, persecutions often encouraged by the clerical and lay authorities that wished to redirect ire from their own heads but not against the grain of popular sentiment. As Eco’s Sherlock Holmes-esque monastic detective Brother William puts it at one point in The Name of the Rose, “When your true enemies are too strong, you have to choose weaker enemies.”

It’s probably most accurate to state that The Name of the Rose and A Distant Mirror paint particular but robust portraits of 14th Century life in Europe while also respecting and mainting the distance and alterity of that era of history relative to our own. The monks of Eco’s novel see their scholarly achievements burn away to nothing, kindled by their intellectual pride and rational certainty. The French knights of Tuchman’s popular history see their glory and prestige dashed against the rocks of an ill-conceived conflict with little-understood Muslims from the Middle East. These texts contain lessons for both sides of our contemporary political spectrum, but the worlds they spring from and the forces both great and small that catalyzed them stand on their own, apart from our experience and perhaps our understanding. Great texts can balance these seemingly contradictory implications, and The Name of the Rose and A Distant Mirror achieve that balance beautifully.

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Categories: History, Literature, Religion
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