I’m just getting around to reading one of the finest works of history written in the 20th century–Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror. It crossed my attention, probably from a New York Times Book Review, in 1978, when it was first published, but for some reason I thought it would be a weighty tome, crammed with facts and little charm. I could not have been more wrong. Along with David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, Barbara Tuchman has my vote for producing one of the most graceful, learned, and challenging works of history I’ve ever read.
Fourteenth-century France, especially in its last decades from 1380-1400, rivals our own time for conflict, excess, natural disasters, and downright human stupidity. The Black Plague swept across Europe in periodic intervals, reducing the population by half. Comments Tuchman, though no chronicler took note, there was ample evidence of reduced population in abandoned abbeys, shuttered commerce, blighted warrens of the diseased. Still, she insists, with fewer to compete for limited food (especially problematic since a mini-Ice Age cut the growing season throughout much of Europe), many middle class sustained themselves into education. Publishers, working slowly with no printing press, produced more books, and the University of Paris attained a prominence that rivaled crown and church.
Yet what strikes me is the cult of death, epitomized by the Danse Macabre. Tuchman speculates that “macabre” derived from Maccabee and the Biblical story of a mother and seven sons in grim martyrdom. Maccabee might also have been another word for Jews who were employed in the 14th century as grave diggers. Or it may have derived from the Arabic word maqabir for cemetery. In one actual danse macabre, the young king of France, Charles VI, and a group of his followers covered themselves with resin to which they attached shreds of hemp. Then banishing all torches from the scene, they writhed and groveled as if within the grave. (Shades of these “hairy” men appear on either side of the portrait of Oswald Kiel, 1499/1506, by the Nuremberg artist Durer, attacking travelers on a forest road.)
When Charles’ brother the Duc d’Orleans and a friend entered from another carouse bearing torches, a spark fell on the writhing bodies of the dancers and within seconds almost all were in flames. The king was saved when his wife threw her skirt over him. One other dancer plunged into a huge wine cooler. All others were so severely burned that they died within days. Is it no surprise that after this, Charles VI began to experience periods of madness which lasted off and on till the end of his reign.
In art the cult of death, writes Tuchman, included tomb sculptures of the deceased as naked and scrawny from age or disease, scarcely noble. Images of Mary shifted from the pink-cheeked, loving young mother of infant Jesus to the Mater Dolorosa, wearing a crown of thorns or holding the limp body of the dead Christ across her lap–the first such Pieta was created in 1390. Charnel houses were built around the graveyard of the Innocents in Paris, piled with skulls and bones as the graveyard was dug up to accommodate more bodies. A mural of the dance of death
was created there in around 1414.
But more enduring than the Innocents graveyard, where mass internments eventually led to its disuse, were images of the dance of death or death and the maiden in which death gives the living its morbid, but very lively touch. In a period when death waited just around the corner, like a lurking rat, ready to spread the plague, fascination with horrors helped spark the living far more than would have depression or submission. Better to dance with death than sink lifeless under its mantle. Better to acknowledge its presence and thus gain a minimal control than to have it grab you unawares.