I'm a few pages into a book that looks very promising. My friend, historian, Steve Varvis, suggested it. And it's highly regarded. Barbara Tuchman's a Pulitzer prize winner, and in her book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, she hands us a tale that does what historians do best--she helps us live better today in light of the past. Superbly and beautifully written, the book follows the life of a single 14th century knight, Enguerrand Coucy VII: ("the most experienced and skillful of all the knights of France") and through him shows us what the 14th century was made of.
Tuchman initially wrote to learn "the effects on society of the most lethal disaster of recorded history--that is to say, of the Black Death of 1348-50, which killed an estimated one third of the population living between India and Iceland." But researching the period she found that more than this single and lethal disaster, the 14th century was itself a disaster--it "suffered so many strange and great perils and adversities that its disorders cannot be traced to any one cause; they were the hoofprints of more than the four horsemen of St. John's vision, which had now become seven--plague, war, taxes, brigandage, bad government, insurrections, and schism in the Church."
Here's a paragraph that really arouses my interest:
"Although my initial question has escaped an answer, the interest of the period itself--a violent, tormented, bewildered, suffering and disintegrating age, a time, as many thought, of Satan triumphant--was compelling and, as it seemed to me, consoling in a period of similar disarray. If our last decade or two of collapsing assumptions has been a period of unusual discomfort, it is reassuring to know that the human species has lived through worse before."
She wrote those words in the mid-1970s.
The book ought to enjoy a resurgence of interest today. Especially among us who are assaulted by the fear tactics of political and religious ideologues telling us the sky's falling on top of us. The Swiss historian, de Sismondi called the 14th century "a bad time for humanity."
The 21st century could very well be as calamitous as the 14th. But humanity survived that "bad time" well enough to have forgotten it entirely. What's more, suffering produces spiritual fire. In England alone, the 14th century produced some of the greatest spiritual teachers our history knows--Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich, and the anonymous monk who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing.
If that was true then, it's likely the Holy Spirit's up to the same mischief today. In fact, I'll bet on it.