Monday, May 01, 2006

NO END OF HISTORY. Just finished A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman’s history of Western Europe in the 14th Century. Tuchman wrote beautifully and can make any half-attentive reader feel like a history buff for a couple of days at least. I still found parts of it slow going. To supply human detail to her great, turbulent tapestry, Tuchman takes time to explicate several particular intrigues and power struggles. Many of these are rich, as when Jean de Montfort, Duke of Brittany, kidnaps his houseguest, the Constable of France, over a ridiculously small matter:
…Laval cried, "What are you doing? Do not harm my brother-in-law, the Constable!"

"Mount your horse and go from hence, Monfort answered him. "I know what I have to do"… At that moment another of Clisson’s party, Jean de Beaumanoir, hurried up in anxiety. Monfort, who hated him too, pulled his dagger and, rushing upon him as if possessed, cried, "Beaumanoir, do you wish to be like your master?" Beaumanoir said that he would honor him. "Do you wish, do you wish to be just like him?" the Duke cried in a fury, and when Beaumanoir said yes, Montfort screamed, "Well, then, I will put out your eye!"…
The resolution of the case takes months and scuttles a planned invasion of England. I do get a kick out of it, but these clowns were pulling this sort of shit all the time, and after a while it’s just depressing.

Of course, all Europe seems to have been treading the same muddy, bloody circles throughout: ginned-up wars are prosecuted by companies of knights who freely pillage every town in their way, including those in their own country; popular uprisings, driven to the last extremity by this disastrous mismanagement, go berserk and are suppressed mercilessly; the Church flits the papacy from Rome to Avignon and back, taxing the hell out of the people to funds its follies, causing more knightly expeditions and a general dissipation of the Faith. And of course there was the Plague.

It is a blessed relief to get to the epilogue, and the first stirrings of something more like what we recognize as civilization. (I don’t think I realized before what a boon to society was the formation of standing armies.)

Survey-course history, of the sort some of us got in school, is mostly reassuring, in that we are led along thick lines (albeit smudged in places) from the primordial muck to the relatively enlightened present. Americans have a further advantage in that we’ve compressed a lot of action into the last few pages of history, which gives it vigor and a sense of propulsion; even in the Howard Zinn version, we can imagine that another growth-spurt of enlightenment might be up around the corner. But I get a chill whenever I am forced to consider that humankind can slog weary decades through muck before recovering its instinct for higher ground, and that such instincts, under duress and disuse, may be bred out of both animals and men.

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