Wednesday, 13 September 2017

A Bunch Of Fucking Idiots - Barbara Tuchmans' 'A Distant Mirror'



Barbara Tuchman, being old and strange enough to get away with it, chose to write the biography of a half-century, and everything in it, and accomplished it.

It is like a soap-opera/documentary - we have a cast of characters, and all of their passions and personalities, and the camera is flung in a moment wherever Tuchman finds interesting, into a meeting hall, a banquet, onto a battlefield, or the planning sessions for the battle, into the Popes hat and the Cardinals Councils and then back out. Lists and details drip from it like fat from a roast hog.

It is a very big hog. It has got everywhere and Tuchman is going to feed us all of it.

So there is the high-status soap-opera with Kings and councillors and insanely rich people trying to dick each other over.

There is the hero's story, as we follow Enguerrand de Coucy through the 14th century, a man who does so much in his life that the list feels like the events of a long-lived comic-book superhero, with 70 years worth of continuity crammed into thirty years of active adult life.

An adventure every week, nearly.

A man who is mainly a hero by virtue of not being an insanely stupid flaky deluded murderous narcissist.

Although he is murderous, and a bit of a narcissist, but hes not insanely stupid or flaky and in forteenth century Europe that puts him in about the top 5% of dudes with swords.

He dies at the end and the reason he dies is because a giant army of Saracens is coming over the hill, and he's already managed to spring a trap on their scouts, which is the only useful thing that any of these nobles will do against this particular giant army of Saracens, and one particular guy grabs the Big Pole and (and this is a guy who already hates de Coucy because de Coucy is a functioning non-idiot), and the guy says (to paraphrase) "Let's go! We're knights! We have to be at the front!"

And de Coucy, or someone with him, says; "Well, the Emperor, the guy we are  technically working for, says we shouldn't go, and he's an Emperor, and we are just nobles. And he's also the only person with any real experience of fighting these particular Saracens. And he thinks this is just the skirmishers with their main guys behind it, and we should send forward our infantry to dick them around, then we, being mono-focused assault-based heavy cavalry, we should go after their main guys." (I'm paraphrasing again.) "And honestly, that seems to make sense in a lot of ways. So probably we should do that?"

And this unrelenting fucking tool who has done nothing useful, either in life, or in this particular war, says; "No! They are trying to rob us of our honour! We are the flower of French Chivalry. WE HAVE TO BE IN THE FRONT."

And Enguerrand de Coucy, a man who has fought in a lot, a LOT, of actual real wars, with a wide variety of foes and has used and seen used, and had used against him, a wide variety of highly clever, sneaky, actually-useful military and political tactics, a guy who, for almost the whole of his life has been the biggest, strongest, best-looking, richest, physically bravest and, crucially, sanest and most reasonable man in the room, and who is now in his mid fifties, looks at this stupid fucking tool and says;

"Yeah. Ok. Knights. Lets do this."

And they all die. And the ones that don't, should have. And Christendom is doomed but luckily the Sultan has a  medical problem, plus Marlowes Tamburlane just got invented so he needs to go home and it turns out that the Flower of French Chivalry, even while doing something insanely and self-destructively stupid and losing badly, can still take out enough guys to make logistics and issue, so looks like Christendom isn't doomed after all.

(And de Coucy doesn't die on the battlefield, he dies in an Ottoman prison some time later.)

And that, before I've even go through the introduction, is the book in a nutshell. The smartest man in the room gets himself skullfucked because that is what a Knight does.

Anyway.

And we have the tru-life zombie-apocalypse story of the Black Death, which murders Europe by a third and leaves ruins and overgrown roads all over the continent. And which sets the scene and, even after its main appearance is perhaps the primary villain of the book, looming over everything.

And it doesn't really have Zombies. People just die. Turns out that is bad enough.

And then we have Chivalry. If this were a marvel movie, the Black Death would be the big awful CGI cosmic villain who only turns up at the start to set up the plot and Chivalry would be the one you thought might be a hero but ends up performing a face/heel turn and is the main baddy in the third act.

Presumably Tuchman knew Chivalry was the bad guy all along and just let us work it out in our own time, but maybe she worked it out too, while writing the book, and left that working out, or its shadow, in there for us to find.

If there is any book to make you want to instantly raise the red flag and kill every noble you see, its this one, and the only thing that might give you pause is that when people in the book do actually raise the red flag and do kill every noble they see, things don't really improve.


...........................................


- Youth and Chivalry

"Prowess was not mere talk, for the function of physical violence required real stamina. To fight on horseback or foot wearing 55 pounds of plate armour, to crash in collision with an opponent at full gallop while holding horizontal an eight-foot lance half the length of an average telephone pole, to give and receive blows with sword or battle-axe that could cleave a skull or slice off a limb at a stroke, to spend half of life in the saddle through all weathers and for days at a time, was not a weaklings work. Hardship and fear were part of it. "Knights who are at the wars .... are forever swallowing their fear," wrote the companion and biographer of Don Pero Nino, the "Unconquered Knight" of the late 14th century. "They expose themselves to  every peril; they give up their bodies to the adventure of life in death. Mouldy bread or biscuit, meat cooked or uncooked; today enough to eat and tomorrow nothing, little or no wine, water from a pond or a butt, bad quarters, the shelter of a tent or branches, a bad bed, poor sleep with their armour still on their backs, burdened with iron, the enemy an arrow-shot off. 'Ware! Who goes there? To arms! To arms!' With the first drowsiness, an alarm; at dawn, the trumpet. 'To horse! To horse! Muster! Muster!' As lookouts, as sentinels, keeping watch by day and by night, fighting without cover, as foragers, as scouts, guard after guard, duty after duty. 'Here they come! Here! There are so many  - No, not as many as that - This way - that - Come this side - Press them there - News! News! They come back hurt, they have prisoners - no, they bring none back. Let us go! Let us go! Give no ground! On! Such is their calling."


..............................................


Turns out you can fuck two countries with one war.

First you get all your main belligerent scumbags, hop over the channel and threaten someone to fight.

Then, no-one comes out from behind their city walls because they don't think they can win, so you decide to make them come out.

So you ride around the countryside fucking things up. And by that I mean burning, killing, stealing, probably raping, though thats rarely directly mentioned, and generally ruining stuff.

Bu they still won't come out and, in addition, its now winter and you have ruined everything, so you are starving to death.

So is everyone else, but they live here. You can just leave.

So you go home.

And you need to pay for all the murdering you did, not morally, just financially, so the King says; "Don't worry, we'll raise taxes on the peasants. To pay for all the peasant-killing you did."

And thats the 100-years war. Ordinary people either being murdered, robbed and raped by Knights, or being taxed to death to pay for Knights.

And this is that war fought intelligently, on the French side at least, by the only competent King they had, who eaked out a strategic win with clever delaying tactics.

"Why does he have to do that?" You might ask. "Doesn't he have the Flower of French Chivalry? Doesn't he have  extremely well-resourced mono-focused shock-assault heavy cavalry who do nothing but train and wank themselves off about doing exactly this sort of thing? And doesn't he have more of them than the English_"

Yes he does have that but, unfortunately, there is a crucial flaw with that.

Because the Flower of French Chivalry are functionally fucking retarded.

And I am not joking. They lose multiple major combats in almost identical ways, then they luck into a non-retarded king, who forces them to act near-sensibly for a generation, and they win. Then the king dies, his son is mad half the time. The uncles are fuckwits and the whole culture goes right back to doing exactly the same thing.


.....................................


- The Papal Schism

"... Anti-papism now pervaded Florentine politics in a wild swing of the perpetual feud of Guelf and Ghibelline. Described in exasperation by a later French Governer of Genoa, this ancient roil kept Italians at each other's throats out of inherited, witless animosity.

'For with no other quarrel of land or seigneury, they have only to say, "You are Guelf and I am Ghibelline; we must hate each other," and for this reason only and knowing no other, they kill and wound each other every day like dogs, the sons like the fathers, and so year by year the malice continues and there is no justice to remedy it ... And from this come the despots of this country, elected by the voice of the people, without reason or right of law. For as soon as one party prevails over the other and is the stronger, then those who see themselves on top cry "Long live son-and-so!" and "Death to so-and-so" and they elect one of their number and kill their adversary if he does not flee. And when the other party regains the advantage, they do the same and in the fury of the people, from which God protect us, all is torn to pieces.'

...........

To one chronicler it seemed "as if these times are under the rule of a planet which produces strife and quarrelling." In an Augustinian monastery near Siena, he recorded, "the monks murdered their Prior with a knife," and in a neighbouring abbey, after intramural fighting, "six brethren were turned out." Because of the quarrelling among the Carthusians, the General of the order came and moved them all to other houses. "It was no better among kinsfolk by blood .... The whole world was fighting. In Siena there was no one who kept his word, the people disagreed with their leaders and agreed with no one, and truly the whole world was a valley of shadows."

.........................................


Part-way through the century, the Catholic Church, already insanely bloated with corruption and materialism, decides, like some kind of holy bacteria, to divide.

The two churches can no longer get on with each other. Now we get two Popes. One of these Popes is certainly the AntiPope, which sounds cool as shit, but no-one can decide which Pope that is.

One Pope is certainly effectively insane, but that does not restrain his supporters. The other Pope is corrupt and French.

So now, in Europe, the people who have survived the plague, and who have survived the war, and who have been taxed for the war, also have dual competing churches to worry about. And sometimes even parallel Bishops running parallel services in the same places, and no fucking idea which one is the AntiPope and which is the real Pope.

Numerous Cardinals on both sides have ideas about fixing this, unfortunately, almost exactly as soon as someone is elected Pope, they realise that, actually, they are the real Pope, and the other one is the AntiPope, which means that all the plans they had to fix this shit when they were a Cardinal are actually going to have to wait because the most important thing right now is to DESTROY THE ANITPOPE.

And this goes on, and it does not end in the century of the book.

Various religious reformers spring up and their ideas, at least to start with, are stuff like; "Maybe the priests should be able to read?" and "Can the Bishop maybe not be a 12 year old kid?"

These reformers are actively supressed by all existing authorities as a threat to decency and public order.

Then people start to have some reaaaaalll craaaazy ideas like; "Maybe the Pope isn't like a real thing? I mean, there are two of them and they are both terrible. Maybe its just a guy in a hat?"

And as to where that lead we can now see.


...............................................


- The Fiction Cracks

"Unhappily, Coucy figures also in a more spirited lament on the subject of baldness, in which Deschamps pleads for the return of head-coverings at court to spare the feelings of the bald, among whom he names himself and twelve great lords, including the Sire de Coucy. That baldness should be the only specific detail of his physical appearance to reach posterity is a sad trick of history, even if he was in good company. The Count de St. Pol, the Sire de Hangest, Guillaume de Bordes, bearer of the Oriflamme at Bourbourg, and other great knights and distinguished servitors of the late King were among the "skin-heads". Less fortunate were the cheveux-rebourses- that is, those with little hair who carried combs and mirrors to keep their few strands combed over the bald spot. What is puzzling is that uncovered heads, a sign of shame, could have at any time become a fad - unless they were adopted as a kind of anti-chic by the dandies of the time in their craving, complained of by the preacher John Bromyard, "to devise some new piece of foppery to make men gaze at them in wonderment anew."

................................................


A thing here being, not just Knighthood, and the fact that the entirety of the ruling class subscribes to an insane Chivalric cult which, not only do most of them not really follow, but, even when they do follow it, it doesn't work, but also the relentless, stupidly destructive and maintained even in the face of destruction lunatic luxury of the ruling class.

That is; the zombie apocalypse happens, just without zombies, so now everything looks like Detroit,  World War One happens, except this time it lasts 100 years and mainly kills civilians, the Papal Schism happens, which isn't really like anything from the modern world, but is bad, and the Mexican Cartels happen, because the soldiers from the omni-war and the ruined peasants and the plague survivors end up living in the wrecked hinterlands and preying on whatever and whomever they can. And the ruling classes best idea to deal with this is; 'hey, hire those guys'. So the cartels are now the police force.

And in the suburbs of Paris you can literally be eaten by wolves in the night.

And on top of that, the ruling class are living like Kardashians.


..................................................

- The Gilded Shroud

"At such evenings grand seigneurs liked to preserve the old custom of lighting rooms by means of torches held by servants, instead of wall sconces, because it satisfied a sense of grandeur. They built their "follies," of which the most elaborate were the mechanical practical jokes devised by Count Robert of Artois at the chateau of Hesdin. Statues in his garden squirted water on visitors when they walked past or squawked words at them like parrots; a trapdoor dropped the passerby onto a feather-bed below; a room, on the opening of the door, produced rain or snow or thunder; conduits under certain pressures "wet the ladies from below." When the chateau passed into the possession of Philip of Burgundy, the devices were kept in working order by a resident artist."

.......


"Thirty double courses of meat and fish alternated with presentation of of gifts after each course. under the direction of the brides brother, Gian Galeazzo the younger, now seventeen and father of a two-year-old daughter, the gifts were distributed among Lionel's party according to rank. They consisted of costly coats of mail. plumed and crested helmets, armour for horses, surcoats embroidered with gems, greyhounds in velvet collars, falcons wearing silver bells, enamelled bottles of the choicest wine, purple and golden cloth and cloaks trimmed with ermine and pearls, 76 horses including six beautiful little palfreys caparisoned in green velvet with crimson tassels, six great war-horses in crimson velvet with golden rosettes, and two others of extra quality named Lion and Abbott; also six fierce strong alunts or war-dogs, sometimes used with cauldrons of flaming pitch strapped to their backs, and twelve splendid fat oxen.

The meats and fish all gilded (with a paste of powdered egg yolk, saffron, and flour sometimes mixed with real gold leaf) paired suckling pigs with crabs, hares with pike, a whole calf with trout, quails and partridges with more trout, ducks and herons with carp, beef and capons with sturgeon, veal and capons with carp in lemon sauce, beef pies and cheese with eel pies, meat aspic with fish aspic, meat galantines with lamprey, and among the remaining courses, roasted kid, venison, peacocks with cabbage, French beans and pickled ox-tongue, junkets and cheese, cherries and other fruit."

......................................................

Lists of insanity like the one above, are not rare in 'Distant Mirror', they arrive first like bells tinkling through the text, and then like sad strings, and ultimately like a brutal, unending, relentless drumbeat of ruthless luxurious insane stupidity. They are as overwhelming in the text as their original presence was intended to be in reality. It is one of the main things some people tend to dislike about the book, this relentless and consuming piling up of detail. But the detail, whether of horror, luxury, madness or violence, and its overwhelming and almost deadening nature, is part of the intended effect I think.

The luxuries are attended to in times of plenty, because they can be (almost) afforded, but in times of scarcity or of moral or military failure, they are attended to withe even more feverish intensity. They are symbols of status and power and status and power are the only things nobles have. So, when things are going well, your noble will tax you to pay for his insane diamond cortege, but, when things have gone totally to shit, your noble will tax you even more, for even more insane luxuries, because they cannot be seen not to have them.

After the battle of Nicopolis, which ends the book and is Tuchmans final knife in the face of chivalry. This is the manner in which the few surviving noble fuckwits were retrieved;


.....................................................

- Hung Be the Heavens with Black

"Repayment of debts amounting to 100,000 ducats which they had incurred for living and travelling expenses since their release, together with the cost of the journey home in appropriate splendour, required nearly again as much as the ransom. The Duke and Duchess of Burgundy did not wish their son to travel through Europe and make his appearance in France looking like a fugitive. The Duke scraped every resource, to the point of reducing the pay and pensions of Burgundian  officials, to supply his son with a magnificent retinue and provide gifts for all concerned. Dino Rapondi came to Venice with an order on the Dukes treasury for 1500,000 francs and spent the winter arranging transfers of funds, of which repayment to the merchants of the Archipelago came last. Three years later the Seigneur of Mitylene was still owed the entire sum he had loaned, and a three-cornered transaction among Burgundy, Sigsmund, and the Republic of Venice was not settled for another twenty-seven years. These difficulties did not inhibit the Dukes style of living. In 1300 he bought from Dino Rapondi two illuminated books for 6,500 francs, in the next year, two more for 9,000 and 7,500 apiece."

.....................................................


So I pass through curiosity, amusement, sadness, rage, and then despair, and I am left with the same question I think Tuchman either began with, or developed while writing the book. Why do we do stupid things?

European society simply didn't work very well during the period of this book. Like always, there are some nerds on the sidelines saying stuff that will one day turn out to be prophetic, and, like always, the great mass of people, both rich and poor, are massively more intent on the driving power of their daily lives.

Is it fear? Is it the pain of the loss of the plague narrowing the mind? Is it a terrible failure of imagination? (I haven't read The Guns of August but after this I am not surprised that Tuchman covered a subject which seems in many ways similar, the massive failure of another great top-heavy society consumed by another great and deranged male warrior cult).

The very poor and the very rich both seem to be consumed by ideas and in great need of them. The poor because they cannot lift their heads from the ground and need an idea to keep them upright, the rich because they are essentially pointless and disconnected from reality. They can't do work. They don't want to stop being rich. What else is there?

Status and an idea. Live for the idea, die for the idea.

It unquestionably true that almost no-one in the nobility ever acted like the idealised version of a Knight in their stories but its also unquestionably true that they were all willing to die in order to retain their belief that that is what they were.

And even if they were too dumb to realise they were going to lose, de Coucy wasn't, and he probably knew what was going to happen, and did it anyway, and I think that is Tuchmans point.


.......................................


- Nicopolis

"Knighthoods zealot, Boucicaut at age twelve , had served as the Duc de Bourbon's page in the Normandy campaign, at sixteen was knighted at Roosebeke, at 24 held the lists at St. Ingelbert for thirty days, the most admired exploit of his generation. Two years later, in 1391, he was created Marshal. Unable to endure repose, he had gone twice to fight with the Teutonic Knights in Prussia and, afterwards, to the East to ransom D'Eu in Cairo and visit Jerusalem. In honour of an episode in Tunisia when the Saracens were supposedly stopped from attack by the descent from Heaven of two beauteous women in white bearing a banner with a scarlet cross, he created an Order of the White Lady with the stated purpose of providing defenders of the gentle sex whenever needed. He was the epitome, not the norm, of chivalry, and could well have expressed (although the words are those of Jean de Beuil, a knight of the next century) what it was that inspired his kind in an age of personal combat:

'How seductive is war! When you know your quarrel to be just and your blood ready for combat, tears come to your eyes. The heart feels a sweet loyalty and pity to see one's friend expose his body in order to do and accomplish the command of his Creator. Alongside him, one prepares to live or die. From that comes a delectable sense which no one who has not experienced it will ever know how to explain. Do you think that a man who has experienced that can fear death? Never, for he is so comforted, so enraptured that he knows now where he is and truly fears nothing.'"


.........................................


The longer I think about it and the more I hold it in my head, the more apt the title 'A Distant Mirror' becomes. When absorbed in any particular detail or element then nothing could feel more alien or other than the time described and my own. But my time springs directly from the time described, and the engines of humanity haven't changed. All those needs and structures are still inside us, it is simply that the plague, the wars, the faith and its shattering, the hierarchy and its madness, throw that skeleton of humanity into sharp relief, like those digital maps where the hills are extra tall and the valleys extra deep.


"On hearing of Anjou's death, a tailor of Orleans named Guillaume le Jupponnier, when "overcome with wine," burst into a tirade in which can be heard the rarely recorded voice of his class. "What did he go there for, this Duke of Anjou, down there where he went? He has pillaged and robbed and carried off money to Italy in order to conquer another land. he is dead and damned, and the King St. Louis too, like the others. Filth, filth of a King and a King! We have no King but God. Do you think they got honestly what they have? They tax me and re-tax me and it hurts them that they can't have everything we own. Why should they take from me what I earn with my needle? I would rather the King and all kings were dead than that my son should be hurt in his little finger."

The record of the tailors case states that his words expressed "what others dare not say." After arrest and imprisonment, he was pardoned by the Govoner of Orleans.

11 comments:

  1. This was insanely thorough. About halfway through I thought, "I don't even need to read this now, as I've learned all about it through Patrick." Then I finished the review and went, "Nah, I definitely need to read this now." Next book on my list for sure.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you very much for this article/post.

    ReplyDelete
  3. You're really going to enjoy Tuchman's other works then. I'd recommend "The Proud Tower" or "The March of Folly" next, and look forward to another rant-review-general-arms-in-the-air-despairing.

    ReplyDelete
  4. You make me want to re-read the book. What stuck with me on first reading was the accounts of the peasants' "games", which honestly sounded like something Orcs would force captive Elves to do for sport.

    ReplyDelete
  5. "Unable to endure repose, he had gone twice to fight with the Teutonic Knights in Prussia and, afterwards, to the East to ransom D'Eu in Cairo and visit Jerusalem. In honour of an episode in Tunisia when the Saracens were supposedly stopped from attack by the descent from Heaven of two beauteous women in white bearing a banner with a scarlet cross, he created an Order of the White Lady with the stated purpose of providing defenders of the gentle sex whenever needed."

    Sounds like he took advantage of the DM's desire to run some "one-off" modules outside of the regular campaign, but still rolled followers at Name Level.

    Anyway, this book sounds super-interesting, even without any motive more ulterior than entertainment in learning the things men did.

    ReplyDelete
  6. In my year long activity on italian ucronic communities i always avoided to be involved in discussions or work on 14th and 15th century. It was a guts thing, but now i umderstand there was a reason

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Is that this uchronic; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uchronia ?

      Delete
    2. Yep. Im part of the Italian uchronic board (in Italy se had an ortographic reform in the '800, so i write ucronia, with no h, or ortografia, with f for ph).
      I write almost only about late antiquity and modern age.

      Delete
    3. Is the Guelf and Ghibelline stuff still something that distresses people when it comes up?

      Delete
  7. because the enemy is a disease called the middle class...

    which is why middle class heal thyself wont happen.

    The middle class happens when the temple system happens... red flag raised? in the one party state the middle class is the party. fake red flag.

    So all the middle class revolutions are going to fail. One of the few times it wasn't a middle class fake revolution was the uprising of the Communards. And they were betrayed by... yep the middle class which is a disease as in a mental illness.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I love reading history for just this reason. Seeing how people thought and lived "back in the day" is always a shock.

    ReplyDelete

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.