A greater hazard, built into the very nature of recorded history, is overload of the negative: the disproportionate survival of the bad side--of evil, misery, contention, and harm. In history this is exactly the same as in the daily newspaper. The normal does not make news. History is made by the documents that survive, and these lean heavily on crisis and calamity, crime and misbehavior, because such things are the subject matter of the documentary process--of lawsuits, treaties, moralists' denunciations, literary satire, papal Bulls. No Pope ever issued a Bull to approve of something. Negative overload can be seen at work in the religious reformer Nicolas de Clamanges, who, in denouncing unfit and worldly prelates in 1401 said that in his anxiety for reform he would not discuss the good clerics because "they do not count beside the perverse men."This book is renowned, justly, less for its value as a stockpile of quantifiable facts than as a masterpiece of historical storytelling. Lawrence Stone gushes in the blurb that "What Mrs. Tuchman does superbly is tell how it was ... No one has ever done this better." As a historical autodidact and a remarkably felicitious writer, Tuchman has an intuitive grasp on narrative pace and structure; the payoff is that this large book is not only readable but utterly captivating. All this is obvious and not at all insightful, but it leads us to a question which is potentially more interesting: what kind of storyteller is Tuchman, anyway?
Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fate of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of disturbance, as we know from our own times. After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists. The fact is that one can come home in the evening--on a lucky day--without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena. This has led me to formulate Tuchman's Law, as follows: "The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold" (or any figure the reader would care to supply).
- Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century
A reader who encounters Tuchman's Law in the Foreword would be justified in expecting quite a different book than she is actually presented with. The deeper one gets into the narrative, the more clear it becomes that Tuchman is something of a student of Céline. Instead of the familiar recurrent escalation of conflict, climax, and triumphant resolution, the book relies on an unending pileup of miseries and defeats, the vain efforts of the knightly protagonists generally bringing death and ruin rather than reconstruction. Plagues and futile battles are painted in lovingly lurid colors, every decapitation and plague boil serving as another notch marking the fourteenth century's descent into Hell. Not that this is a bad thing: we have enough boring histories of well-governed states already. In fact, Tuchman's very relentlessness is what brings the age most vividly to life.
Still, no historian who formulates a Law like Tuchman's can avoid confronting such a glaring performative contradiction. With her, the confrontation takes place on the level of character. Although she announces at the outset that Enguerrand VII, Baron of Coucy, is her central hero, in reality there are two. The other is the poet Eustache Deschamps, an untiring scourge of chivalric pretensions and an exposer of public calamities. It is Deschamps who speaks from Tuchman's own position. He invariably turns up at embarrassing moments for the French aristocracy and offers his--and Tuchman's--reader a caustic epigram or an outraged verse. Though his biography remains static, he can be relied on as a stable source of cynical self-criticism for the medieval world.
Coucy is his foil. Here Tuchman might be accused of being excessively partial towards her subject; he is always wise when everyone else is foolish, businesslike when others are frivolous, firm when the rest are flighty. It is clear why it must be thus. Where Deschamps represents the late-medieval world as it was, Coucy is what it could have been: prudent, well-managed, less pompously chivalrous and more tolerant and pragmatic. The conclusion of his life's arc, sad demise in the aftermath of a fruitless holy war, reads like a damning indictment of the inability of that world to reform itself. Deschamps doesn't need to be developed as a character, because his position remains as true as ever; Coucy must be brought down to show how unreformable the age really was.
Some might object to this literary stylization, intentional or not, of someone who was doubtless a complicated and multifaceted person. In Tuchman's book, however, this device serves as a counterbalance against a much more pernicious tendency. Especially towards the end, she emphasizes the redemptive potential of the emerging early modern--Protestantism, centralization, nationalism. These words, which nominally represent real phenomena, are just as much characters brought in for purposes of narrative convenience as "hard facts." Because they have the allure of the abstract noun about them, however, they automatically inspire more trust. They tell us that we're dealing with Real History, not mere storytelling. Thanks to Enguerrand's immanent presence, the story remains a story--and no less Real History for all that.