Barbara Tuchman

A Distant Mirror The 14th Century and Today

VTR Date: December 4, 1979

Guest: Tuchman, Barbara


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Barbara Tuchman
Title: “A Distant Mirror” The 14th Century and Today
VTR: 12/4/79

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.

… And I wonder what your historical studies have led you to choose in that future history book.

TUCHMAN: For us?

HEFFNER: For us.

TUCHMAN: Well, we’ve walked on the moon in our time, which is an extraordinary accomplishment, probably one of the most in all human history. But who knows whether we’ll be thought of as the generation who walked on the moon or the generation that polluted the earth? Because both things have significance at the moment. The destruction of the physical environment that is going on all around us is not a subject for self-congratulation. Whereas I think the voyage to the moon really is more so than we have recognized. I mean, it was undertaken perhaps not for very noble reasons: to get ahead of the Soviets and make sure that American prestige would overcome Sputnik and, you know, the humiliations that preceded it and also to stimulate weapons development and missile, to get missile funding for a non-weapons reason. I think all those entered into the decision, Kennedy’s decision to put a man on the moon. But nevertheless I think it was a very exciting and extraordinary accomplishment, and we’ve forgotten it already, and done nothing with it.

HEFFNER: If a similar question had been asked of chroniclers in the “calamitous 14th century”, as you call it, do you think they would have been as hesitant about assuming that the characterization of their own century would be more rather than less positive? Are we just in a long line of people who look at the negatives?

TUCHMAN: Yes, I think we are. I think every century experiences declining and decay. Think back to the golden days, the golden age that their grandfathers lived in. it’s a very common phenomenon which I noticed when I was working on this book, that even you know, the 13th century which the 14th century looked back to as a heroic and noble age, they considered themselves already decadent as compared to their grandfather’s time. And even back in the tenth century they were deploring their own failures and inadequacies. However, I think another…You know, most of history is not any one thing. This is the trouble. It’s very hard to make it sound coherent.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “Isn’t any one thing?”

TUCHMAN: Well, because there are always contradictory trends and events in any period. There’ll be positive things and negative; there’ll be progressive things and retroactive or retro – what’s the word? When I’m on TV I always forget words.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s say “retrogressive”.

TUCHMAN: Retrogressive. And these often tend to cancel each other out. But the people of that period, you know, calamitous as it was, and troubled as they were, and distressed and disturbed, and yet they thought of what was going on as rather grand and exciting, at least those on the top. And heroic and chivalric and colorful, and it’s very hard to see your own time in any total sense or to draw…We know we are disturbed and uncomfortable and uneasy. And once…You know, but there are people who don’t agree, because once when I was, when that book came out, I was to go down to Texas because my publisher said, “Dallas it’s the place to do some program”. And they wanted to do a telephone interview before I came. And I don’t like telephone interviews. But anyway, Texas always gets its way. The fellow said, you know, why had I called it a mirror, the usual question. And I said, “Well, I thought there were similarities in our time of disintegrating institutions and a sense of forces beyond our control and standards collapsing and norms all giving way and general distress”. “Oh”, he said…”We don‘t feel that way in Texas!” (Laughter)

HEFFNER: (Laughter) That’s wonderful. And I think in a sense you really don’t feel that way.

TUCHMAN: Yes I do.

HEFFNER: About the 20th century?

TUCHMAN: Oh, gosh, yes.

HEFFNER: And yet you think in terms again, to use that expression of yours, that in human affairs as in nature decay, and you’re talking about decay as a compost for new growth. So your pessimism is touched a bit by…

TUCHMAN: Well, I don’t say it’s final. I’ve never said that. I said that I think it’s a very disturbed and disintegrating period. I think we’re all getting used to living with a set of collapsing standards. That’s what I find so…

HEFFNER: Standards? Moral standards?

TUCHMAN: Yes. Yes. And, well, physical too, and behavioral standards and standards of individual responsibility. That’s the one I find the most evident. That people are no longer really held to be responsible for their own actions or their own behavior, and they no longer even think of themselves. You know, everyone tends to blame society for everything that happens, and not consider himself a self-determining creature.

HEFFNER: That’s interesting, because in the 14th century wouldn’t you have to say that the sense of self-determination was just as minimal? One was then in one’s place, God was in his place, and we individually were. Could there have been more of a sense of individual responsibility then than now?

TUCHMAN: No. No, I don’t think there was. Except in the sense that they felt, they had the sense of sin, which was personal. But of course that could easily be taken care of simply by confession or buying an absolution which was the great convenience of that period. I don’t think we have a sense of sin anymore. We have a sense of guilt, which has increased, I believe. My own theory – you know, historians hall have theories, even if they don’t write about them – is that this period, 20th century, dating from around the very beginning, even before World War I, but mainly since, that event created such a sense of disillusion because everyone felt that so huge and agonizing an effort couldn’t be done except for making a better world, for something that would make a better world. And when it didn’t, if anything somewhat worse, I think there was a tremendous sense of disillusion in our own capacity, in man’s – “mankind” I have to say nowadays – capacity for controlling his fate. And then you get this, as a result of disillusion you get a dislike for your own kind. And you have in literature and art especially since then, you know, a view of man that is negative. We have anti-hero. We have the sort of ugly school of painting. And we don’t have, you don’t see, we don’t paint man anymore the way Michelangelo did, you know, terrific figure who could do anything. And you don’t have novels in which the hero is good and true and handsome and virile and successful and wins the lady’s heart. You know, it’s all collapsing all the time.

HEFFNER: Do we have an ugly school of history-writing too?

TUCHMAN: Yeah. I think so. In one sense. I wouldn’t call it ugly, but I would call it irresponsible in a sense. Because people don’t take enough pains to make a good story. They’re so afraid of criticism of whatnot that they put everything in. You know, and they do a lot of very fine research, but then they throw it all in and they come out with these 900-page books or 1,500-page books in which the work has to be done by the reader if he wants to find a good story, and it’s very difficult.

HEFFNER: Why is that? Is that a reflection of an absence of faith in one’s judgment, so judgments aren’t made, but catalogues are?

TUCHMAN: I think that’s a very good description of it. There is a lack of faith in one’s own capacity to exercise judgment. I mean, history is, any art is the exercise of the artist’s judgment, whether it’s plastic arts or literary arts. The artist is – and I call, in my opinion, historian, at least eh historian of narrative history, the kind I try to write, is an artist more than he is a scientist.

HEFFNER: Charles Beard said that, “All history, recorded history, is an act of faith”. And he was attacked for that because presumably history is history. Written history is a record of what happened, what was. But I gather you much more subscribe to the notion that we can’t really identify what was, and we write as we believe, and that it is all an act of faith. Is that a fair…

TUCHMAN: No, I don’t think that’s fair. I wouldn’t call it an act of faith, because I think you can identify what happened. But when you’re telling it you have to select, you have to distinguish between the significant and the insignificant. And that’s where you’re exercising your own judgment.

HEFFNER: Mrs. Tuchman, do you truly believe that we can, that you as a historian, other historians can identify what happened?

TUCHMAN: Well, I think you can certainly try. And yes, I think you can. You sometimes come up against contradictions, and two sources that will say different things about the same event, or even contradictory things. Then you have to again exercise your instinct and your feel and your knowledge of the sources for that particular moment or period or event, and you choose which you think is the correct one. That’s the function of the historian.

HEFFNER: But isn’t that the act of faith in making that choice?

TUCHMAN: No, I…You’ll allow me to disagree with you.

HEFFNER: Please.

TUCHMAN: I think it is, if I may say so, an act of, the result of training and of your knowledge of the subject. You don’t come in cold, and you don’t start choosing when you just begin on a subject, but you’re working and working and working away in a group of sources, and you begin to get a feel of who’s right and who’s phony.

HEFFNER: Well, believe me, I wasn’t advocating or suggesting that Beard had recommended a kind of genie’s involvement in history-writing. But I think of the revisionist historians, and I wonder whether A Distant Mirror, your picture of the 14th century, doesn’t to some extent revise former theories, former assumptions of the facts of the matter of the 14th century, different acts of faith, if you will, different beliefs, different choices. No?

TUCHMAN: Well, this book doesn’t particularly, I don’t think, revise any theories of the 14th century. It’s not a revisionist history. It’s an attempt to pull together…You see, most medievalists, academic medievalists, no longer give you a picture of a whole society, because they are focusing in on very small areas: monasticism, or castles, or forks and knives, or whatever it may be. And it’s very difficult to find a book written in the last 25 years that gives you any sense of the whole. And that’s what I was trying to do. When I found originally, I thought I would look at this period because of the Black Death as the major disaster, so far as we know, in recorded history. And since at the time I was thinking about it we faced or we might expect a similar thing, not in the sense of plague, but the bomb, I thought it would be interesting to find out what was the result, what was the impact on society. And that’s why I went to look at the 14th century. But then it became interesting per se. And I just wanted to try and tell what it was like.

HEFFNER: Now, in your books on Stilwell and the China Experience, The Zimmerman Affair Telegram, or The Coming of World War I, were you there just putting things together in that way, or were you more likely to be reinterpreting…

TUCHMAN: No, I don’t think so.


TUCHMAN: I was just putting things together. Zimmerman, I discovered, I just came across a reference to that in someone’s memoirs, and I…it rang a bell of some kind. And when I looked into it I found no one had written it. That’s a, you know, that’s a gift from God when that happens, and it’s very, very rare. And that’s why I did that, just because I was first with it. The Guns, I felt, that 1914 was really the moment when the clock struck for our century, the beginning. And I was trying to find a way of doing, writing a book on that moment. And I never did come up with the right entry until I was introduced to an editor, or he wanted to meet me because he wanted me to do a book on the first month of the First World War. It was his idea. And his name was Cecil Scott. He was then at McMillan. And that’s how that came about. Then The Proud Tower, which is the book I enjoyed most doing, was the result of The Guns because then I wanted to find out what kind of society this terrible even had come from, because I felt sure that anything as devastating as World War I had into come out of a golden age, as people like to think of the Edwardian period. And Stilwell, well, that was something that had lain in my mind for 20 years, because during World War II I worked on the Far East desk of the Office of War Information. And I used to do the bulletins on the Burma Campaign, which got me interested in Stilwell. But really the point of it was what had been the American experience in China, because this was the time of the Vietnam War, and it was so clear – at least so clear to me – that we had not learned our lesson.

HEFFNER: Well, in terms of China, when I look back to one of those very early volumes, the Notes From China, you said in your introduction or preface to it, you said, “This is what I vowed I would never do: put ephemeral journalism between covers of a book”. And I wondered when I read that, why. Is written history between the covers of a book that much more certain?

TUCHMAN: Oh, no. That was for another reason.


HEFFNER: It was at that point in our conversation that time ran out on THE OPEN MIND. This is Richard Heffner. I’d like to know what you think about our subject, and I hope that you’ll join me again next week on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.