What we can learn from today’s parallels to the 14th century: Max Hastings

In this compelling piece, Max Hastings draws parallels between the tumultuous 14th century and contemporary global challenges. Reflecting on Barbara Tuchman’s insights from “A Distant Mirror,” Hastings explores common threads: societal breakdown, violence, and the impact of weak institutions. The haunting resonance extends to the present, warning against dismissing essential values. As echoes of the past manifest in current geopolitical struggles, the call to cherish truth, justice, and accountable leadership becomes more critical than ever.

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By Max Hastings

A history student told me recently that he loves researching the 20th Century but can’t see the point of the Middle Ages. I responded that it can be a big help to understanding our own times — very troubled times — to view them in the context even of the remote past.

In 1978, the great American historian Barbara Tuchman published a book entitled A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. She portrayed the experience of France and England — the US, of course, had not yet been invented — through an era that makes our own, at least in Western Europe and most of North America, seem a haven of peace, prosperity and justice.

A contemporary wrote that those times were almost overwhelmed by many “strange and great perils and adversities.” Drastic climate events frightened humans. The Baltic froze in two winters, and there were repeated seasons of extreme cold, storms and rain. Icelanders could no longer grow corn. In 1315, crops failed in many regions, precipitating famine.

The Catholic Church, sole provider of such meager welfare relief as then existed, was riven. Rival pontiffs presided in Rome and Avignon, though both were conspicuously corrupt: Clerical forgiveness for almost every sin was available for purchase.

At mid-century, the so-called Black Death, a pestilence carried by rat-borne fleas, killed an estimated one-third of population between Iceland and India. Villages were abandoned, tillage relapsed to wilderness, towns and cities became drastically reduced.

Warfare was endemic, most conspicuously the so-called Hundred Years’ War between the “Goddams” of England, as they were known in France, and the king ruling precariously in Paris. This was waged only intermittently, being interrupted by truces. But once the rival monarchs had raised more money to muster new armies, they locked in battle once more.

Beneath the overarching national contest, there was regional strife between local lords, which wrought even more widespread misery among peasants and merchants. The French moralist Jacques de Vitry wrote: “Ye nobles are like ravening wolves. Therefore shall ye howl in hell…who despoil your subjects and live on the blood and sweat of the poor.”

Even when neighboring nobles resolved differences, their soldiers persisted in brigandage, because this was their only skill. Those same men who were deemed the heroes of England’s great victories at Crecy, Poitiers and, later, Agincourt “beat and maim and slay the people for to have their wives and goods…[They] sometimes come before the [law courts] in such guise with great force whereby the justices be afraid and not hardy to do the law.”

Today’s US and Europe are inconceivably healthier, more prosperous, stables and even safer than they were eight centuries ago. But swathes of the globe closely recall the condition described by Tuchman. Hundreds of millions of people subsist and suffer in places where the gun is king, where the strong prey upon the weak.

When I travelled the world as a foreign correspondent, among the most vivid sensations I often experienced was that of encountering a teenager armed with a Kalashnikov. I always knew that such a figure could kill me without remorse or retribution.

To those of us fortunate enough to live today in societies where civilians are denied guns — where law still prevails — such a threat sounds remote. But if one scratches a pitiful living under the Taliban in Afghanistan, across vast regions of Africa, in Central America and parts of Brazil, mortal peril is a constant even among the middle class, and even in the internet age and at the season of Oscar presentations.

A constant between such societies and 14th Century Europe is their dominance by men of violence. Its pursuit is the most profitable activity accessible to the younger males. Imagine growing up today in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, tribal areas of Pakistan and much of central Asia. 

The only non-violent career options are those of subsistence farming and small trading. Far more empowering is to become, instead, a warrior. Millions choose a career in which their only responsibility is to kill or be killed – much like many of the men of 14th Century Europe. Their lords, the knights of Europe, prided themselves on courtly conduct to their own kind, but their treatment of the weak and vulnerable exposed them as barbarians. Almost all real-life Sir Lancelots were merciless oppressors.

Some served under the banners of kings. Many more, however, fought for some local lord or mercenary commander. The Free Companies were forerunners of today’s PMCs- private military companies, mercenary organizations, such as operate in every 21st Century war zone. Vladimir Putin has just launched a new one called the Africa Corps.

There are many reflections above which are worth our heeding in that distant mirror, as Tuchman called it. Gunpowder then generated a revolution in warfare, as profound in its time as that being imposed today by electronics and remote weapons.

The diaries, letters and records of the 14th Century lay bare the horrors created by a breakdown of law and order. Weak administrations, at both national and local levels, caused boundless misery. Those of us who inhabit ordered societies should realize how ghastly is the plight of millions who live beyond the shield of justice. Nigeria, for instance, is one of the most important and densely populated countries in Africa, but many of its inhabitants are doomed to lifelong victimhood.

Many peoples of medieval Europe experienced the decline or outright collapse of respect for their institutions — the monarchy, the Church, the law. Tuchman wrote in 1978 that many historians avoided study of the 14th century, “because it could not be made to fit into a pattern of human progress”: The autocratic order was failing.

Today we see the West in deep trouble, especially in its confrontation with its Russian and Chinese foes, because the democratic order struggles to meet the needs of voters in many of the societies in which it holds nominal sway.

It seems increasingly apparent that the most conspicuous beneficiaries of the retreat from US hegemony, notably in the Middle East, will not be any nation-state but instead non-state actors such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Italians of the 14th Century would readily recognize such people, and their consequences, wielding armed might without bearing responsibility for administering functioning societies.

Perhaps the foremost message of the 14th Century experience is that we must continue to cherish faith in worthy leaders, principles, values, the concept of truth. If we dismiss these things, we become prey to follies, failures, charlatans, and – ultimately — to anarchy.

The likes of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Narendra Modi and Victor Orban display a contempt for the integrity of their own nations’ justice systems that seems terrifying. The universe dominated by religious fantasy and superstition inhabited by the peoples of the 1300s seemed remarkably remote to us a few decades ago. Yet today we see millions of deluded Americans embrace the ravings of QAnon, which are at least as damaging as those of mediaeval soothsayers.

Law and order are fundamental. If these are overthrown, as they were in the Western Europe starkly depicted by Tuchman, and as they are today forfeit across an alarming proportion of the globe, then human happiness is forfeit, for all save tyrants and the perpetrators of violence.

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