Sunday, January 6, 2008


People of the Middle Ages existed under mental, moral, and physical circumstances so different from our own as to constitute almost a foreign civilization. As a result, qualities of conduct that we recognize as familiar amid these alien surroundings are revealed as permanent in human nature.
Barbara W. Tuchman
from "A Distant Mirror"

The first time I read that passage from the forward of Mrs. Tuchman's masterpiece, the light went on for me. It answered the question the history lover in me always asked... "why do we study this stuff?"

Poring obsessively over the details of past events is an interesting but ultimately empty pursuit, and attempting to divine the future using an analogy drawn from the past is futile. But seeing our fellow human beings today behaving in the same ways for the same reasons as their counterparts of centuries past, lends continuity - if not comfort, to our efforts at understanding our present.

Much of the material for Tuchman's book was drawn from the Chronicles of Jean Froissart. He was the voice of his era.

When reading his chronicles you have to be aware of his point of view: he was writing about the Nobility for the Nobility so do not expect commentary on the failings and foibles of the first estate. The serfs, merchants, and other riff-raff do not appear except as a faceless mass providing the backdrop for the performances of his glittering lords and ladies. Of numbers, the less said the better. Numbers existed to add scope and emotional force to his descriptions - a kind of literary shock and awe. If an army needed to be one hundred thousand strong to give his audience a proper sense of the occasion - so be it, and if it needed to be be one million strong for even greater grandeur, that was fine too.

To Froissart, numbers did not represent data, and trying to explain to a medieval chronicler that independent verification of facts was possible or even desirable would result in the utmost confusion. Numbers existed to amaze and appall, only God knew the truth, and it was hubris for mortals to try to see too deeply.

Which brings me to this article found at Instapundit
- it seems some people believe the famed Lancet study of civilian deaths in Iraq may be inflated by a factor of ten or fifteen, and our modern chroniclers are using their numbers for the same reasons as their medieval comrades.

The people who actually did the study are from Johns Hopkins and seem well intentioned - they actually went to hellish places and recorded the horrible things people do to each other. I will grant that these are better people than I.

They also have an agenda - fair enough. But the political leaders, newspapers, and television shows who uncritically trumpeted the findings of the study, deserve no such consideration. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and none such was demanded by the credulous press before an indictment of the United States was issued.

When our media and political stars use the nameless and faceless dead as stage props for their own aggrandizement - it is no compliment to consider them modern chroniclers, for like their fourteenth century brethren, they would rather have a good story than the truth.


BobG said...

I'll have to get that from the local library; it sounds interesting.
I do a lot of history reading, and am constantly amazed at how alike and how different some cultures can be.

WmEarl said...

I have noticed that the politicians throw the numbers million and billion out all the time, and they never ever have counted anything that high nor well. Until you pointed it out I thought they just didn't use real numbers in their daily work, not that they were trying to make me fear or believe any foolishness.

Mike said...

bobg, I highly recommend anything by Barbara Tuchman; she was a fine writer and a first rate historian - I think her greatness stems from the fact she was a writer of history and never a professor of history.

Sebastian said...

Hey, are you going with Breda to the 2nd Amendment Blog Bash? If so, you should register your blog too so we can keep expanding our list of blogs represented ;)