Friday, May 25, 2018

How to Think Medieval: Seeking Endarkenment

Over the years we've mentioned a half-dozen of Barbara Tuchman's books, I'll repost a favorite passage after the jump but first, a review of her "A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century" used as an introduction to a sweet little post that proves up the enduring insight of the first line of L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between:

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

From Coins and Scrolls:

Thinking Medieval - Seeking Endarkenment
In his hilarious and angry review of one of my favorite books, Barbara Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror", Patrick Stuart has some choice words for 14th century nobility, starting with the title; "A Bunch Of Fucking Idiots". Here are a few more quotes.
[Enguerrand de Coucy] is mainly a hero by virtue of not being an insanely stupid flaky deluded murderous narcissist. Although he is murderous, and a bit of a narcissist, but hes not insanely stupid or flaky and in fourteenth century Europe that puts him in about the top 5% of dudes with swords.  
...the entirety of the ruling class subscribes to an insane Chivalric cult which, not only do most of them not really follow, but, even when they do follow it, it doesn't work... 
Lists of insanity like the one above, are not rare in 'Distant Mirror'. 
Over and over, in the classic arm-waving despair of someone encountering Tuchman's idol-demolishing, beautiful, brutal, and sharp writing, Patrick resorts to "insanity" as an explanation for excesses and failures of the 14th century nobility.

Sadly, he's wrong.

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

What Is Insanity? 
The best we can come up with for a definition is "abnormal mental or behavioral modes". It's not insane to cut down a tree, drag it into your house, and cover it with candles, provided you do it near Christmas and not in June. It's not insane to to pray; it might be insane to pray to Barbra Streisand. The community defines "normal", with a bit of wiggle room.

Here's an early modern example, right when the world seemed to start to make sense. It might seem insane to us that George Spencer, a troublesome one-eye old servant in Connecticut, was tried and executed in 1642 for the crime of bestiality after a one-eyed pig was born in his village. It might also seem insane that both the pig and his own retracted confession were called as the two witnesses required to convict him. But by the standards of the community and the times, the only insane person was that godless trouble-making pig-fucker, George Spencer.

The Nature of the World 
We live in an enlightened era. Our mental toolboxes are full to bursting with evidence-based reasoning, with precedent, with doubt, and with logic. We hold many truths to be self evident. We stand on the shoulders of intellectual giants and we think this plain of shoulders is ground level.

If you want to think medieval, chuck your entire toolbox out the window and start from scratch. You need to un-learn rationality, un-learn concepts you've been steeped in since childhood. It's the opposite of a koan. Seek endarkenment.

Part 1: Forget
-Science. Almost all of it. 

-Medicine too. First aid you can keep, but everything else must be swept away. 

-Equality. A dangerous, almost unthinkable concept in practice. A fine ideal, when paired with religion, but not one you have to worry about. 

-Matter. Forget that stone and flesh are made of the same kind of thing (atoms). Think of each thing as a distinct entity, not as a changed form of an existing substance. 

-Weather. It's scary and unpredictable now, and we have radar and satellites.

-Foreigners. I can read about far-away places in a book or look up a street-view picture of a city on the other side of the world. I live in a multicultural city. I'm not so much tolerant as apathetic, but that's good enough (and might even be better; tolerance implies tension). Anyway, forget all that. Ignorance and fear all around. 

-The Theory of the Mind. Forget the subconscious. Forget hormones and the effect of diet, head wounds, and sleep. 

-Progress. The medieval thinker knows there is a better world; they'll go there after death, probably. Don't worry about this one, and certainly don't try to change it.

Part 2: Remember
Do you remember elementary school? Do you remember how important your school supplies were? Do you remember the almost magical power of a marker, or a pair of scissors, or a shiny new pencil case, or a lunchbox? How deeply an insult could wound?

Take that feeling of importance and apply it to everything....

In 2017's "Back When I Had The Ability To Tell A Story—'Europe: Media Face Fines for Improper Use of 'Great Britain'" we saw something that may have been a trial run for today's roll-out of GDPR:

Apparently with the activation of Article 50 the Slovaks can no longer use the term "Great Britain."
Henceforth it's "Pretty Good Britain"....

... The "Pretty Good" line is not original to me.

Some years ago I worked with a Moroccan guy named Raissoulli and upon meeting him asked if he was related to Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli, the turn of the 20th century kidnapper and brigand known in some parts of the territory between the Atlas mountains and the Mediterranean as "The Great Raisuli".

Raissoulli said yes, he was indeed a great-grandson of Raisuli but sadly he didn't think he had inherited any of the piratical swagger, 
"I'm not the Great Raissoulli, maybe the Pretty Good Raissoulli though".

If interested, the autodidact historian (and two time Pulitzer prize winner) Barbara Tuchman wrote a short account of one of Raisuli's crimes/exploits. It begins:

"Perdicaris Alive or Raisuli Dead"
Barbara Tuchman American Heritage, August 1959
Reprinted in "Practising History", Papermac, 1995

On a scented Mediterranean May evening in 1904 Mr. Ion Perdicaris, an elderly, wealthy American, was dining with his family on the vine-covered terrace of the Place of Nightingales, his summer villa in the hills above Tangier. Besides a tame demoiselle crane and two monkeys who ate orange blossoms, the family included Mrs. Perdicaris; her son by a former marriage, Cromwell Oliver Varley, who (though wearing a great name backward) was a British subject; and Mrs. Varley. Suddenly a cacophony of shrieks, commands, and barking of dogs burst from the servants' quarters at the rear.
Assuming the uproar to be a further episode in the chronic feud between their German housekeeper and their French-Zouave chef, the family headed for the servants' hail to frustrate mayhem. They ran into the butler flying madly past them, pursued by a number of armed Moors whom at first they took to be their own household guards.
Astonishingly, these persons fell upon the two gentlemen, bound them, clubbed two of the servants with their gunstocks, knocked Mrs. Varley to the floor, drew a knife against Varley's throat when he struggled toward his wife, dragged off the housekeeper, who was screaming into the telephone, "Robbers! Help!," cut the wire, and shoved their captives out of the house with guns pressed in their backs.

Waiting at the villa's gate was a handsome, black-bearded Moor with blazing eyes and a Greek profile, who, raising his arm in a theatrical gesture, announced in the tones of Henry Irving playing King Lear, "I am the Raisuli!"...
The story was also made into a movie starring Sean Connery, The Wind and the Lion.