Thursday, August 26, 2010

Book Review: A Distant Mirror

This was a new experience: listening to a 600-page (small-type!) book about the 14th century in Europe (authored by Barbara W. Tuchman) as an audiobook for, oh, about 30 hours total. France was dominant during that century, and I must be too English at a biological level, because something about the French proper names in every other sentence just slides by my ears. Even with this minor aural impediment this book is a classic example of what history should do; it should show us another time and let us see ourselves in it.

The thing is, the fourteenth century may qualify for the "Worst. Century. Ever." award. The Black Death hit in the middle of the century, the Hundred Years' War was going on, and a whole bunch of kings were in power that quite frankly didn't know what they were doing. The Church was no help, having long since ossified into just another power structure in most places, and splitting into two rival "universal" churches in the Great Schism, each with its own pope. As a Christian I find this history unsettling but also very important -- if the Church made those mistakes then, how do we keep from repeating them?

Tuchman is an expert's expert and one of the best teachers I've come across. If this were a complete review I could go on for paragraphs about what she did right in this book. All the glowing comments made online about this book are true and I can't add much to them. But I'm going to talk about the one thing she missed. In the middle of the book she describes in detail a story related by a 14th-century writer named La Tour Landry about a husband whose wife was mistreated and killed by strangers, and the husband cuts up her body into twelve pieces and sends them to his friends to call them to come and attack the strangers. Tuchman uses this story to typify the 14th century -- and she is right that it tells us a lot about the 14th century -- but the story doesn't come from the 14th century. Its details (down to the twelve pieces) are taken from the story of the Levite's concubine at the end of the book of Judges, and the 14th century author must have derived them from that text, which apparently he knew better than us (I only know it thanks to Frank Spina's Weter lecture about that story a few years back!). The story is wholly appropriate to the societal breakdown and rampant evil in the 14th century -- but it was also appropriate to the time of ancient Israel before the kings, when "every man did what was right in his own eyes." Tuchman doesn't show any sign of recognizing this obscure and violent story as originally scriptural. I just wonder what happens if we realize that the 14th century is a distant mirror of the time of Israel's judges as well as our own time. It actually makes the story of the Levite's concubine make more sense to me, if there are times, awful times, in history when society really gets to that point, and if the 14th century was not entirely unique.

It's not that this book is lacking in those kind of connections, because there simply isn't room for them. This book is an incredible example of how to write history and it's the reader's job to make connections with other centuries. But this story and this type of century was already old when Jesus walked the earth, and I have to think that his life can offer us solution and salvation to even the darkest centuries that humans can devise. So in the end, this gruesome story, because it is retold in the 14th century, paradoxically gives me hope, hope that the horrible things that happen are not new under the sun, and that God is not surprised by man's depravity -- and that somehow these old, old stories and sayings can reshape us into a people who are shaped by that same God and called out from the messes we keep getting into on our own.

The book review is: excellent work of history, and the connection I made to the book of Judges is only possible because Tuchman did such a good job.

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