Hawking Up Hairballs

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A Not So Distant Mirror

I recently finished reading A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman. It’s a history of fourteenth-century Europe as told by following the career of a prominent member of the French nobility, Enguerrand VII, the Sire de Coucy. He rose to the very highest levels of power in the French monarchy and he was noted in particular for his diplomatic skills.

I really enjoy the way Tuchman writes history, and this was my second reading of the book. The first was some fifteen years ago. I had forgotten much of it, and it was delightful to become reacquainted with the subject. There are so many interesting little tidbits that I found intriguing. For instance, at that time there were only a dozen cities in Europe with populations of over 50,000, and eight of them were in Italy. I wouldn’t have guessed that.

There were also some amusing tidbits. Deschamps, an epic poet and chronicler of the period, writes that he wished the fashion for head coverings at court would return to spare the feelings of the bald. (He was bald himself.) He even expressed sympathy for those that he termed the cheveux rebourses, who carried mirror and comb around with them so that they could comb their hair over their bald spots. Imagine that, there were guys with those ghastly comb-overs, even way back in the fourteenth century.

Tuchman’s book provides much to ponder on the more serious side as well. The fourteenth century was a particularly terrible time for the French common folk. It was bad enough that the nobility looked upon them as little better than domestic animals, but they were stuck in the middle of the Hundred Years’ War. Not only did that mean onerous taxation, but the tactics pursued by the armies of the time meant that the common folk were the ones to suffer. In the fourteenth century, military architecture had reached the point where it was impossible to take a fortified settlement. As a result the defending army would hole up in the fortifications and the attackers would initiate a siege. The first thing they would then do was to destroy the crops, burn the surrounding villages and farms, as well as killing and raping the inhabitants.

This got me to thinking. The ongoing conflicts in the Middle East has let to much commentary about how civilians are the victims in these modern-day wars that rely so heavily on air power and highly technological weapons. I even saw a talk on Book TV on CSPAN2 where a doctor who had worked with an NGO in various war zones said that over ninety percent of casualties in the wars of recent years were civilians. That’s way up from the estimates of World War One and Two. However, down through history the main victims of all wars have been the non-combatants. They may not have died in the wars per se, but it wasn’t uncommon for the victors to engage in orgies of slaughter. There have indeed been periods where the common folk were relatively untouched, but they are anomalous. I could elaborate, but it would require an essay of monograph length to explain it. I recommend Of Arms And Men: A History of Wars, Weapons, And Aggression by Robert L. O’Connell if you’re interested in the question.. Among other things, it addresses the historical and sociological questions of why war visits such horrible depredations upon the common folk in some eras but not in others.

Of course, the common conclusion that is often drawn from ruminations like the ones above is that war solves nothing. That is unfortunately not true. A lot is at stake for the ruling elites in wars, and a lot can be gained. That’s exactly why wars happen.


Anonymous Barbara Terry said...

I just read that book again recently myself Chuck. Guess I missed some of the comic bits you noticed, like the one about comb-overs.

One of the things I learned from the book that stood out for me was that rulers sent the military on Crusades to get them out of the country. If I remember correctly, the knights were a military class whose only activity was fighting. When they were at home they plundered their own people.

My final comment - entirely irrelevant to this topic - is to let you know how pleased I am that someone else reads Billmon. He and Digby are the two folks I read every day.

Hope you are doing well. Great blog. Fine writing.

11:29 AM  

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