31 Days, 31 Books
In the 1970s, Barbara Tuchman concluded that we were living in really bad times. She had established her credentials as a perceptive and yet readable historian in her book The Guns of August, which is about the political and military blunders that led to the outbreak of World War I. In a series of other fine books, such as The Proud Tower, Stilwell and the American Experience, and The Zimmerman Note, she proved to be a writer with the ability to both tell a story well and to re-engage the study of history into its roots as moral philosophy.
But the United States in the 1970s was two-thirds of the way into a calamitous century with nothing but prospects for more disasters, wars, political upheavals, and moral breakdowns. Like the sons of Isaachar in the Old Testament, she sought to understand the times. The best mirror for the calamitous 20th century was, in her opinion, the 14th century.
Barbara Tuchman wrote one of the best books on Medieval history ever. Titled A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, this strawling book of some 700 pages covered almost every imaginable area of social and cultural history, the key political and military struggles of the century, and the religious impulses that both salved and savaged the people of that age. The 14th century witnessed the on-going strife between England and France in the 100 Years War. The 14th century witnessed the horrors of the Black Plague. The 14th century witnessed the breakdown of the Roman Catholic Church caused by the papacy being held captive in Avingnon, France for quite a while and then the Papal Schism. According to Catholic theology, the Pope represented Jesus Christ on earth. He was Christ’s Vicar. Not only were there recurring incidents of tremendously corrupt Popes, but during the time of the Great Schism, there were usually two different claimants to the title of Pope. When a council of church leaders met to resolve the problem, they deposed both “Popes” and appointed a new Pope. The result: There were now 3 different men all claiming to be wearing the “shoes of the Fisherman, Peter.” No wonder that so many were so able to accept Martin Luther’s careful criticisms and cutting humor about the Papacy.
Why such a book in a blogging venture featuring books about the Reformation? Barbara Tuchman’s book is one of the best works chronicling the political, cultural, moral, and religious conditions in Europe prior to the Reformation. From the perspective of the 14th century, Europe looked exhausted, corrupted, wasted, and in irreparable decline. Subsequent history should have been all about the further decline and dissolution of Christian Europe. After all, wars abounded between the monarchs of Europe. The Black Plague had taken out one-third of the population. The opulence of the church, witnessed by its extravagant building programs and high living styles of the clergy, and the divided leadership of the church, and the moral debasement of the church all portended of an end to Christendom within a generation or two.
God, however, in His Wisdom and Providence, had a different outcome in mind. The seeds of Reformation were being sown. Gerhard Grote, whose parents both died from the Black Plague (Bubonic Plague), and for a time he sought to spend his considerable inheritance on wine, women, and song. Then he was converted to Christ. The conversion was total and radical. He began gathering a following of other believers who sought to share life in common and give all to Christ. They ministered in all types of ways, but particularly, they saw the need for schools. They set up schools for the poor and for those wanting to learn of Christ and Christian culture. The schools were called “Brethren of the Common Life” schools, and among the young scholars who attended were Martin Luther, John Calvin, Philip Melancthon, and Martin Bucer.
There were morning stars of the Reformation appearing here and there. We mainly remember John Wycliffe and Jan Hus. The Medieval culture was breaking down in many ways, but all these changes were making way for a new age. It was a while before the changes began happening on a wide-spread scale. Reformation is not only from God, but it happens on God’s timetable.
This blog is featuring lots of books this month. A Distant Mirror calls for some time and dedication to get through. During the times that I have read and taught through it, I have often wished that it were about a 100 or so pages shorter. Tuchman is an excellent writer, but most of us get overwhelmed in the vast number of details and historical events of the late Medieval period. Nevertheless, this book contains some vital precursors of what God was soon to do in Europe. It is a book filled with terrible things that are all pointing to future good things. That too is the ongoing story of Reformation.