Reflections from A Distant Mirror

Things are getting pretty dicy out there. The pandemic, the creeping prospect of another civil war. Couple more horseman and we’ve got the full ensemble of apocalypse I guess? I’ve been trying to retain some historical perspective on this, and maybe even some inspiration based on how humanity has recovered from far greater upheavals in the past.

One book on my shelf stood out—the title alone looked presciently provocative—The book is, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Written by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian Barbara Tuchman in 1978, it’s still a classic. Like most of Tuchman’s exceptionally detailed work, this book is very long, over 900 pages, but in it she provides a case study of how society responds to history’s worst catastrophes.

As Tuchman states at the outset, “The genesis of this book was a desire to find out: what were the effects on society of [one of] the most lethal disasters of recorded history—that is to say, of the Black Death of 1348-1350, which killed an estimated one third of the population living between India and Iceland.” The tumult of the time went well beyond the Bubonic Plague, and featured widespread warfare, economic and political chaos, insurrection, and religious persecution. For the people who lived through this period, it must have appeared as though every seam in the fabric of society was being ripped apart. Prior generations had enjoyed relative prosperity, rising population, and a flourishing of agricultural, architectural, economic, and technological innovation. That progress stalled through the early 1300s, and was followed by over a hundred years of sustained, multi-layered misery. As the Swiss historian Sismondi summarized, “the 1300s were a bad time for humanity.” Focused on the worst of that period, A Distant Mirror offers a striking reflection of humanity’s capacity to endure.

As primitive as the Middle Ages may seem to us today, the 1100s and 1200s in particular featured a refreshing resurgence of creativity and industriousness across the West. In stark contrast to the violence and decay that dominated the rhythms of European life through the earlier Dark Ages, things finally began to turn around into the 1100s. Political power became more concentrated and violence became increasingly monopolized by lords and kings. The Middle Ages are demarcated by historians precisely as a new era when enough physical and human capital was spared from violence to support widespread investment and invention for the first time in nearly 800 years. As Tuchman highlights, “The Middle Ages were a period that brought into use the compass and mechanical clock, the spinning wheel and loom, the windmill and watermill; a period when Marco Polo traveled to China and Thomas Aquinas set himself to organize knowledge, when universities were established [from Paris to Padua], [and when] Roger Bacon [in England] delved into experimental science.”

The reason why the monopolization of violence was so important for progress was because it replaced chaos with order and stabilized European society. Medieval knights rose to become the instruments of that stability, imposing it through brute force upon an otherwise vendetta ridden, extremely tribalist population. The only way knights could command a monopoly on violence in that context was to invest an overwhelming amount of resources into arming themselves; they had to become the military tanks of the Middle Ages. On patrol or crusade, most knights encased themselves in up to a hundred pounds worth of metallurgically cutting edge armor, astride horses that were specially bred to be exceptionally powerful and fierce, and which were often armored themselves. The sheer mass of a fully-armed knight on horseback, shaking the ground wherever he rode, was almost always sufficient to intimidate civilians into order. But the man and the beast beneath all the metal were formidable enough on their own. Knights, along with their horses, were literally bred through centuries of family alliances and survival by combat to become some of the most lethal warriors the West had ever known. Compared to most other fighters throughout history who tended to train in units, knights of the Middle Ages were far more accustomed to fighting alone, in single combat. This made them vulnerable against organized armies, but often unstoppable against lone belligerents. Generation after generation of noble family lines taught their sons to use a sword and shield as soon as they had the strength to hold them, and inspired their eagerness for battle with nightly mantras. As one of the knights in Tuchman’s research boasted, “Not one of us had a father who died at home, all have died in the battle of cold steel.” This tradition of noble violence was so important to social security because, as Tuchman explains, knights were the only means by which most Europeans in the Middle Ages could find safety from all other forms of violence. Countless knights surely abused their power and tyrannized the population they were obliged to protect, but Europe nevertheless found its way out of the chaos of the Dark Ages under their protection.

At the beginning of the 1300s—the pinnacle of Middles Ages prosperity—France appears to have been the most well developed and powerful kingdom in Europe. The superiority of its knights in both martial prowess and chivalry was a primary factor. Their code of conduct was famous throughout Europe, attracting English, German, and Spanish knights to learn their manners and techniques. In particular, French knights helped to ensure that international commerce was secure, which enriched France and enabled the French aristocracy and clergy to invest in projects of unprecedented scale, from Gothic cathedrals to Universities. As Tuchman writes, “Above all, the University of Paris elevated the name of the French capital, surpassing all others in the fame of its masters and the prestige of its studies…Its faculty at the opening of the 1300s numbered over 500…[and] it was a magnet for [Europe’s] greatest minds.” But, within only a few years of peaking, the bright fortunes of medieval France, along with the rest of Europe, began to darken once more.

For hundreds of years, European knights had formed a veritable steel wall against the forces of chaos that threatened to plunge Europe back into misery, but suddenly these iron-clad nobles appeared nearly as vulnerable as commoners. Europe’s 14th century decline started with a particularly cold winter in 1303—so cold that the Baltic Sea froze over that year. Generations of unseasonably cold and wet weather followed, initiating what historians have come to call a Little Ice Age. The West’s climate shift became so harsh that Norse settlements in Greenland vanished, those in Iceland almost entirely died out, and famine reverberated across Scandinavia as crops withered in freak summer frosts. As winter weather hit earlier and dragged on longer and longer, Europeans grew desperate. By 1315, Tuchman writes, “crops failed all over Europe, and famine… became familiar to all. The previous rise in population had already exceeded agricultural production, leaving people undernourished and more vulnerable to hunger and disease. Now, reports spread of people eating their own children [and hanged convicts].” Civil unrest erupted everywhere, and neither knights nor other members of the nobility could do much to contain it. Europe’s multi-layered medieval nightmare had begun.

Squeezed for dwindling tax revenue by a corrupt clergy, European mobs gathered en masse to assault Church tax collectors and terrorize local bishops. In 1326, one unfortunate bishop in London was even beheaded and his body was left naked in the street. Society began to break down under the strain of hunger, cold, and a corrupt political system unable to cope. Desperate for money, the King Philip of France scapegoated the knights themselves, raiding their temples, confiscating their property, and arresting every senior knight in Paris in 1307. He formally charged the knight’s order with heresy, reporting to the Pope that the French knights indulged in bestiality, conspiracy with the Devil, and desecration of the cross. Hundreds of knights were tortured into confessions and burned at the stake, which had the predictable consequence of horrifying the peasant masses and further undermining faith in law and order. Soon enough, Philip died and a contest over succession to the French throne boiled over in 1337, touching off a full-blown war that took on a life of its own and lasted for over a hundred years. All of this before even a whiff of Bubonic Plague had entered Europe.

Who were these people who began to suffer so terribly nearly 700 years ago? Was their world so different that we can’t commiserate, their struggle so primitive that their resiliency can’t inspire us? Let’s pause to reflect on their day-to-day experience for a moment.

Medieval Europe was illuminated only by sun and fire. Although nobles had candles and torches, most commoners couldn’t afford such luxury. When the sun set, most people simply couldn’t see well enough to do anything, so they went to bed. They got up with the sun the next morning. They slept a lot longer in winter than in summer. Most people made a habit of sleeping in two shifts; first sleep for a few hours, then up to mend clothes by the feel of their hands, eat some bread they’d set aside, tend the livestock if the moon was out. Second sleep for another four or five hours before dawn. Actually, there weren’t any hours to speak of, per se, since almost no one had a clock. Some towns had sun dials, some administrators had hour glasses, but the mechanical clock as we know it was only just making its appearance in church towers among Europe’s wealthiest parishes.

There was industry back then, however—thousands of wind and water mills made of wood and wrought iron, and all manner of muscle powered machinery for grinding, sawing, hammering, weaving, and laundering. It would be hundreds of years before anyone thought to harness steam. Muscle still moved almost everything. There were no guns, although a handful of Europeans had begun to hear rumors of gunpowder and great weapons of war that used it. Primitive artillery would appear on the battlefield within a generation or two. For a little while longer, though, swords and knives and lances and bow-and-arrow and hand-to-hand combat were still the primary forms of violence.

People drank water if they lived in the country with access to clean flowing streams and springs. Mostly beer and cider if they lived in towns and cities, with just enough processing and alcohol to make it potable. Nobles enjoyed wine with every meal. No one had ever heard of coffee, nor tea, nor tobacco, nor chocolate…nor potatoes. Sugar, from beets, was a rare treat. Honey from local bee keepers was more common. Most people ate lots of cabbage and eggs, oats and bread, butter and chicken. Kids drank fresh milk that they squeezed from cows and goats themselves. Country folk ate turtles and frogs and whatever fish they could catch from lakes and rivers. The aristocracy enjoyed much more meat than everyone else owing to their exclusive hunting rights.

Most women started having babies around age 15 and gave birth to between 4 and 8 children over the course of their fertility. Noble women frequently gave birth over ten times with wet-nurse support. Most children died. The average number of offspring that survived in Medieval Europe was around 3 per couple. This wasn’t as devastating to parents 700 years ago as it might be to us. Death was common—people saw it all the time, from their earliest memories on. Parents assumed that some of their children would die. It was normal, part of the order of things. God’s will. If children survived to age seven they were considered adults and expected to work just as hard. Lifetimes overall were compressed in the Middle Ages, for most people simply didn’t live very long. About half the population was younger than 21, at least a third were younger than 14. Disease, hunger, violence, and accident, respectively, were the leading causes of death. Cancer, heart attacks, and strokes were virtually unknown. So was obesity.

Practically everyone was obsessed with God, assumed the world was about 6,000 years old, and convinced that the devil was clear and present danger. Magic was taken for granted. Superstition ruled the rhythms of daily life. Reading glasses were a coveted novelty, but only among church scholars. Almost no one else could read. The farthest most people could travel in a day was about 30 miles on horseback, about half that on foot. Towns and cities smelled like sewage, manure, and fire smoke. Tooth decay was ubiquitous. Most people had fleas.

Children played with homemade dolls and figurines. Tag and hide and go seek were popular. Medieval Europeans loved flowers. Both women and men wore them, made gifts of them, arranged them on tables for fragrance and color.

People tended to hate lawyers and love doctors.

Despite their faith in God, the educated of the Middle Ages were incessantly curious about the quirks of his divine plan. Where did fire come from, and where did it go when blown out? Why did the sun tan a man’s skin, but bleach fabric? Was the seat of the soul in the head or the heart? Would new wars ever stop happening? What were blind people’s dreams like? Historians have encountered these questions in documents dating from the period.

People lived in died without much comfort. They were bored and itchy and cold much of the time. But, they were determined to provide for their families and to live with grace, and the necessities of daily survival gave them a sense of purpose throughout the seasons.

The textures and smells and dimensions of their world were very different. What they thought, how they thought, the mental furniture that adorned their world was very different. But, that world was still utterly human. Medieval Europeans shared our capacity for pain and hope and love and longing. Their laughter sounded the same. Their music was beautiful, and always live. They were hot tempered, but extremely loyal. They were rambunctious, but their manual skills were magnificent. Their world was formidable, but so were they. For all their flea-bitten ignorance, we can still relate to these people of 700 years ago, and they can certainly still inspire us with their sheer will to persevere. Compared to the turbulence they faced in the 14th century, our troubles in the 21st are tame.

The Hundred Years War, which raged across northwest Europe from 1337 to 1453, practically bankrupted the nobility of France and England. And, as Tuchman writes, “Raising money to pay the cost of war was to cause more damage to 14th century society than the physical disruption of war itself.” At the beginning of the war, England and France were not yet nation states—people did not consider themselves French or English in the modern, nationalistic sense. In fact, French was still spoken across much of south east England among aristocrats. Instead, populations on both sides identified with specific family lineages fighting for supremacy over territory that extended from modern day Scotland to the borders of Belgium and Switzerland. It was the war itself that compelled the French and English to evolve more modern looking, national identities, principally as a way to finance their unending violence against each other. To overcome the martial dominance of France’s feudal knights, English factions leaned more and more heavily into raising large armies of professional mercenaries armed with longbows and pikes. In response, French factions slowly but surely replaced knights with professional armies of their own. All sides became locked into an arms race, as the boom of artillery reverberated across European battlefields for the first time. In this crucible of conflict, French and English society became militarized, fundamentally restructuring French and English bureaucracy around the new economic necessities of huge, standing state armies. The unprecedented cost of maintaining standing armies equipped with artillery forced France and England to overcome internal division, consolidate political power, and effectively nationalize their administrative and financial operations. The modern nation state as we know it was born in order to facilitate the mass death of Europeans by Europeans. And, our historical subjects of 700 years ago, trying to keep their kids alive and bring some color into their homes with wild flowers each spring, somehow kept going through it all.

In a single afternoon in the summer of 1346, over 4,000 French knights and crossbowmen were slaughtered by the English army in a battle on the north coast of France. Dozens of battles like this would erupt for decades to come, transforming large swaths of northwest Europe into swamps of spilled blood and foul-smelling decay. Compounding the misery for commoners, professional soldiers pillaged towns on the fringe of battle as a matter of protocol. Given the weakness of nascent national military budgets, they had little choice. As Tuchman explains, “Above all, war was made to pay for itself through pillage. Booty and ransom were not just a bonus [anymore], but a necessity to take the place of arrears in pay and to induce enlistment. The taking of prisoners for ransom became a commercial enterprise. Since kings could rarely raise sufficient funds in advance, and collection of taxes was slow, troops in the field were always ahead of their pay.” And yet, despite the sustained catastrophe of Europe’s first state-sponsored war, the end of the world hadn’t even started yet. It would arrive on ships from the Black Sea barely one year later, carrying flea-infected rats plagued with the Black Death.

The pandemic that plowed through Europe in the middle of the 1300s was caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, transmitted by fleas originating in Asia. From fleas to rats to humans, the disease vector was swift and deadly. As Tuchman explains, the bubonic plague spread in two forms, “one that infected the bloodstream, causing buboes and internal bleeding, and was spread by contact; and the second, more virulent pneumonic type that infected the lungs and was spread by respiratory infection. The presence of both at once caused the high mortality and speed of contagion. So lethal was the disease that cases were known of persons going to bed well and dying before they woke, of doctors catching the illness at bedside and dying before the patient.” By 1348, the Black Death had spread to France, Spain, Italy, England, Switzerland, and Hungary. It was in Ireland, Scotland, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Prussia, Denmark, and even Iceland by 1349. Effectively, all of Europe within 2 years. It killed so many so fast wherever it landed that survivors were left in shock, convinced they were stuck in a nightmare, disbelieving that their world could actually have collapsed so quickly. Ghost ships haunted dozens of ports. Off the coast of Norway, for example, a cargo ship full of wool and dead crew members drifted for months before running aground near Bergen in the fall of 1349. Twenty-five million people died. A third of Europe’s population. But that doesn’t tell the whole story because death rates were highly uneven. In some towns, only a handful of people died. In others, literally everyone died.

In 1300, Florence, Italy was one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the world. Up to 100,000 people lived within its medieval walls, and enjoyed the very best banks, commerce, and culture that Europe had to offer. After 300 years of sustained progress, practically everyone took prosperity for granted—just like we do today. But, within only fifty years, a series of biblical catastrophes decimated the city. The rise and dramatic fall of Florence epitomized European suffering in this period. First came bankruptcy. Through the early 1340s, over leveraged Florentine financiers suffered a wave of defaults, throwing the cities economy into chaos. Crop failures coincided with the banking industry’s collapse, contributing to widespread workers’ riots that erupted in 1347, less than one year before the Black Plague made its appearance. Then in 1348, at practically the very same moment the plague struck, so did one of Italy’s worst earthquakes in history. The geological upheaval was so violent that houses collapsed as far away as Germany and Greece. These unrelenting hammer blows of apocalypse flattened Florence, reducing this once shining urban gem to a charred morgue. By 1349 some 80% of Florence’s population had died, and many survivors simply moved on. In the aftermath of the great earthquake and the plague, visitors would find livestock and horses roaming wild in the streets and block after block of burned out homes where untended fires had spread unchecked. Having run out of room to bury them and with few survivors left to do the work in any case, blackened corpses grotesquely distorted by bubonic welts were strewn everywhere. Florence’s fate was particularly rough, but few other big cities fared much better.

Throughout Europe, survivors of the Black Death simply ran out of places to put the all dead bodies. “When graveyards filled up, corpses in Avignon were were thrown into the Rhone River… mass burial pits were dug…until they [too] overflowed. Everywhere reports speak of the sick dying too fast for the living to bury… the dead lay putrid in the streets for days at a time.” It was a vision of hell, literally, most Europeans were convinced. These were people, just like us, having enjoyed an equivalent stretch of optimism, peace, and progress, suddenly facing an absolutely terrifying catastrophe they could not comprehend and over which they had absolutely no control. And, they were not just afraid of death. Medieval Europeans were horrified at the prospect of dying without receiving their last rights, condemning them to an eternity of agony in fire. Driven mad by fear, parents abandoned sick children, husbands and wives fled each other only to die alone, and mobs roamed in murderous rage, scapegoating Jews and foreigners. Numb with post traumatic stress, numerous chroniclers at the time recorded the widespread conviction that humanity was damned. As one monk from Siena, Italy wrote, “And no bells tolled, and nobody wept no matter his loss because everyone expected death….And people said and believed, This is the end of the world.”

Many people in Europe really did think that the world was ending, and they behaved accordingly. Farmers stopped cultivating their fields, and didn’t bother to plant new harvests. People stopped tending their livestock and their homes, and workers abandoned their jobs. Dikes and dams eroded, flooding lowlands. Wind and water mills wore down and broke. Trash and sewage spilled about everywhere. The formerly frugal feasted on food stores, and wasted beer in debaucherous benders. Looting and vandalism became so common as to go virtually unnoticed. People became reckless, death drunk, convinced that God had forsaken them and resigned to act like the hellions he’d apparently cursed them to be. Overall, Europe was a wreck. Between the Little Ice Age, a huge earthquake, the Black Plague, ceaseless war, and social breakdown on every front, the continent’s total population declined by nearly 50 percent between 1340 and 1400. Some cities nearly disappeared altogether, and re-encroaching forests swallowed dozens of towns whole. For survivors who did not go mad, the reason for society’s downfall demanded scrutiny. As Tuchman put it, “survivors…could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered. God’s purposes were usually mysterious, but this source had been too terrible to be accepted without questioning. If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings. Minds that opened to admit these questions could never again be shut.”

The terror of the Black Plague never really went away. After crashing across Europe between 1348 and 1350, the initial wave of infection subsided only to resurface in a more sporadic series of deadly aftershocks that lasted through the end of the century. In the meantime, the Hundred Years War picked up the slack in misery, as increasingly deadly battles and wanton violence against civilians became entrenched throughout northwest Europe. Most of the knights were gone—killed in battle, killed by plague, or simply bankrupted. Their medieval monopoly on violence had unraveled, their entire way of life became outmoded by the emergence of state-sponsored armies armed with artillery, which victimized civilians as a matter of course. The knights had been far from a perfect police force, but they had effectively enforced stability and security. With most of them gone, anarchy replaced chivalry, and after all the misery Europeans had already suffered, the absence of knights motivated many to fundamentally reimagine their relationship to authority. Ancient assumptions about right and wrong, about good and evil, and about who was in a position to decide between the two finally began to fracture. As Tuchman put it, “the result of plague, war, oppression, and incompetence was a weakened acceptance of the system, a mistrust of government…[and] an awakening sense that [moral righteousness] could be challenged.”

Many European’s responded to the calamitous 14th century by becoming depressed, deranged, self-loathing. Some took advantage of the chaos and bullied their way into new positions of power. Some retreated deeper into their bibles and monasteries, convinced that life was only good for meditating on death. But, there were others who responded quite differently. There were others who became more… intrepid, more secular, more practical. There were merchants who embarked on bolder business ventures, and traded in markets much farther away. One Italian merchant that Tuchman documents, for example, left over 100,000 documents of correspondence with agents in France, Spain, England, and Tunisia. Once rare, this scale of international commerce came to define European trade over the course of the 1400s. There were artists who pioneered more realistic styles, reflecting the unique features and flaws of individuals instead of dwelling on the generic ideal of man. Wax death masks became popular to preserve the precise likeness of the dead, corpses began to outnumber angels in paintings, and tapestries depicting decay into the earth outnumbered those depicting souls ascending to heaven. There were poets who played more boldly with language, they took more chances with character development, they tested audiences with more audacious comedy and more graphic tragedy. There were cartographers who removed monsters from the corners of their maps, and invested more heavily in accurate depictions of coastlines and channel markers. There were universities that decided to renew their missions and tighten up their curricular standards to end the custom of selling degrees to rich students unwilling to study. The biggest motivator for all of these examples of heightened attention to detail was undoubtedly the cultural guilt that defined the era of the Black Death—most people assumed that the plague was God’s punishment for relaxing the standards of religion. But, the re-invigorated rigor of Christianity sharpened people’s focus on many other topics too.

More than anything, three generations of nonstop war, plague, and corruption left Europeans focused on the flaws of established order. As Tuchman summarizes, “They lived through a period which suffered and struggled without visible advance, [and they] longed for a remedy…Loss of confidence in the guarantors of order opened the way to demands for change… the oppressed were no longer enduring but rebelling.” The rebelliousness unleashed by the calamitous 14th century was not purely political. Leading European thinkers increasingly defied orthodoxy to explore new ways of understanding the world and their place within it. Since established authority had failed so miserably, where was true wisdom to be found, they wondered? Where was true inspiration? Maybe ideas from other ages were worth rediscovering. First in Italy, then everywhere else, European scholars grew obsessed with the writings of the ancients. Book collectors spent lifetimes searching for lost manuscripts. Petrarch, Giovanni Boccaccio, Poggio Bracciolini, and others led a new generation of philosophers, artists, and wealthy patrons to embrace what historians have come to call secular humanism. Secular humanism rejected the medieval obsession with religious dogma and prized human potential here on earth instead. Secular humanists pushed for more widespread literacy and civic engagement, and they promoted the rational reasoning of ancient Greeks. As the plague had proven, life was short and arbitrary, and so secular humanists rejected Christian taboos related to bodily pleasure. Citing ancient Greeks like Epicurus, they argued against Christian fundamentalists that passion, materialism, and the avoidance of pain were natural and worthy of celebration—rather than obsess about heaven and hell, secular humanists insisted that the pursuit of earthly beauty and pleasure could make this life a heaven of its own. These provocative ideas swept many of Europe’s brightest individuals into a new mass movement of artistic, architectural, literary, and philosophical revival, initiating what we can now recognize in hindsight as the Renaissance. Not everyone let go of bitterness for the sake of hope. But enough people did.

The future of Europe would be as bloody and contentious as ever, and Europeans’ rapid recovery of economic and technological power between the 1400s and 1600s would enable them to begin exporting much of that misery to the rest of the world. Yet, through a century of unyielding desperation, some Europeans were driven to discover a far greater potential hiding in humanity. Facing the worst in themselves throughout the 1300s, they glimpsed what might be best in the human spirit. They would fight for that vision for centuries to come—they would fight for it against themselves, against the provincial tyranny of competing theocracies, against the forces of greed fueled by rising global dominance, against incessant bigotry and tribalism, against the fear and uncertainty that undermines every generation’s confidence in the better angels of human nature. It is a fight that carries on through our own generation over six hundred years later. If our ancestors could muster the strength for it amid the wreckage of the late Middle Ages, we certainly can today. Because, despite all our setbacks, all our failures, all the chaos of nature beyond our control, we can, we should, be proud of our historical process. We should be proud of our history at least in part because we need a reason to keep fighting for progress. But more importantly, no matter what revisionists or propagandists or grifters might want us to believe, we have made unbelievable progress, there is more good to be found among us today than there ever has been before, more than people of the Middle Ages could dream of. As the truth of history overwhelmingly demonstrates, the best of humanity can endure the worst.

I’m Brad Harris. So Long.

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