Saturday, October 8, 2011

Inadequate Words

In my previous post I introduced the book, A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century, written by Barbara W. Tuchman.

As I read, I continue to find statements that provide tidbits of information I haven't encountered before. I've also observed that the author presents some of her assumptions and conclusions in very broad, sweeping generalities some of which I find to be either an overstatement or oversimplification of issues and facts. Nevertheless, my head is bouncing and spinning as I process the writer's  presentation, analysis, and conclusions. I'm still in the author's foreword. 

Tuchman continues detailing the 4 hazards to researching and writing history she encountered by identifying the barrier she found to empathizing; to entering the mental and emotional values of the Middle Ages.

“ The main barrier is, I believe, the Christian religion as it then was: the matrix and law of medieval life, omnipresent, indeed compulsory. Its insistent principle that the life of the spirit and of the Afterworld was superior to the here and now, to material life on earth, is one that the modern world does not share, no matter how devout some present-day Christians may be. The rupture of this principle and its replacement by belief in the worth of the individual and of an active life not necessarily focused on God is, in fact, what created the modern world and ended the Middle Ages.” (my emphasis).

The last sentence above intrigues me. When I first read it I wasn't sure what to make of this conclusion. Is this true? Has the author really nailed the essence of the modern world? Her description of the Middle Ages is centered on the 'Christian' world. Is her reference to the modern world limited to the west, or is this a global application? At first glance this statement seems to be a very broad brush oversimplification, but it conveys a kernel of truth that I cannot dismiss. It will most certainly tint my perception as I continue to read.

The author carries on:

“What compounds the problem is that medieval society, while professing belief in renunciation of the life of the senses, did not renounce it in practice, and no part of it (medieval society) less so than the Church itself. Many tried, a few succeeded, but the generality of mankind is not made for renunciation. There never was a time when more attention was given to money and possessions than in the 14th century, and its concern with the flesh was the same at any other time. Economic man and sensual man are not suppressible.”

Really? Our culture's obsession with 'stuff' and wealth is less than in the Middle Ages? I find that extremely difficult to believe. 

With her  statement that "the generality of mankind is not made for renunciation", Tuchman provides an easy justification for man's failure to rise above his baser instincts. Furthermore, if economic man and sensual man are not suppressible, where does that leave choice, personal responsibility, and the potential of a Christ-focused, Holy Spirit filled, God honoring life?  

I think the author has too low an opinion of mankind, and she clearly fails to grasp the need for man to strive for a much higher purpose. A purpose far beyond the limits of a desperate scramble for wealth and sensual gratification.


“The gap between medieval Christianity’s ruling principle and everyday life is the great pitfall of the Middle Ages.”

The principle in the Middle Ages referred to here (see 1st quote  above) is that the life of the spirit and of the Afterworld was superior to the here and now, to material life on earth. 

Is that the primary message the world has received from the church? Is that how the world perceives the Christian religion today? What about Christians themselves? Are we focused primarily on acquiring a to  ticket heaven, on avoiding hell, or do we reach out to the world around us, working for social justice while communicating the gospel?  


Man himself was the formulator of the impossible Christian ideal and tried to uphold it, if not live by it, for more than a millennium. Therefore it must represent a need, something more fundamental… While I recognize its presence, it requires a more religious bent than mine to identify with it.”

Man was the formulator of the impossible Christian ideal? I disagree! Man is not the formulator. Christ provided the opportunity and means for man's restoration with God; he showed the way; he set the bar, man just keeps messing it up. Man has frequently & repeatedly misinterpreted the true gospel message, and seriously misrepresented and abused the same. 

The author's use of the word 'impossible' strikes me as being an example of the negative that she railed against a few pages earlier in her foreword. 'Impossible' suggests that the pursuit is a waste of time and effort; that it's pointless.

I believe the need is to have a loving, meaningful, worshipful, restored relationship with our Divine Creator, with our God. The byproduct of this relationship is universal social justice. 

I know that my response is an inadequate, oversimplified representation of the issue, but I don't want to get into a lengthy theological discourse here. That's not my purpose; I'm just expressing a hint of the mental journey this book has sparked for me.

Am I expressing myself well enough that others can follow me? I feel my words are inadequate to clearly communicate my ruminations.

And finally:

Chivalry, the dominant political idea of the ruling class, left as great a gap between ideal and practice as religion. The ideal was a vision of order maintained by the warrior class and formulated in the image of the Round Table, nature’s perfect shape. King Arthur’s knights adventured for the right against dragons, enchanters, and wicked men, establishing order in a wild world. So their living counterparts were supposed, in theory, to serve as defenders of the Faith, upholders of justice, champions of the oppressed. In practice, they were the oppressors, and by the 14th century the violence and lawlessness of men of the sword had become a major agency of disorder. When the gap between the ideal and real becomes too wide, the system breaks down. Legend and story have always reflected this; in the Arthurian romances the Round Table is shattered from within. The sword is returned to the lake; the effort begins anew. Violent, destructive, greedy, fallible as he may be, man retains his vision of order and resumes his search.”

Is it really a search for man's vision of order; or is it man's search for something, someone, bigger than himself - far beyond what he can imagine or conceive?

Has the gap between today's ideal and the real become too wide? Is our system breaking down? If so, are we doing anything about it? Do we want to?  

Where would we start?

As I reread these short passages my mind launches into so many directions that it's a challenge for me to slow things down so I can process and analyze my racing ideas one at a time. This journey is far from over for me. But it's fun.

Am I getting too excited here?

Thoughts? Comments?

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