Mahmoud Sabit at PostGlobal

Mahmoud Sabit

Cairo, Egypt

Mahmoud Sabit is a historian and an authority on Egypt’s 19th century political reforms. Sabit also works as a writer and producer of historical documentaries. Close.

Mahmoud Sabit

Cairo, Egypt

Mahmoud Sabit is a historian and an authority on Egypt’s 19th century political reforms. more »

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A Medieval Analogy for Today

Cairo, Egypt - [Pick: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman] If I had to choose one book with which to spend my vacation, I would want something escapist, but not fictional - a sort of analogy for today.

It certainly feels escapist as far as it goes. It recounts events from seven hundred years ago. Yet its definitely not fictional. I usually find non-fictional events far more fascinating than pure fiction, possibly because reality is far more strange and more fantastic than a fictional narrative. It's also informative as it profiles a human condition, and human reactions to extraordinary events, filled as it is with examples of human fortitude, and human endurance against unimaginable odds. Its entertaining. What after all are we entertained by? Intrigue, action, love, outright evil and outright good, bliss and pain in equal measure, yes it is entertaining. There are of course modern analogies: greed, piety, cruelty, compassion, deep love, and bitter hatred, in short all those personality traits that we recognize as so very human.

The 14th century is one of the most tranformative centuries Europe has experienced -- it was a century of great change before the modern era. It was the century that included the Hundred Years War between England and France. It was still England then, not Britain, because it did not include Scotland and Ireland. It was the century of The Black Death, the plague that in one decade swept fully one third of humanity away, everywhere, irrespective of creed or ethnicity. This last event so depopulated Europe that it changed the course of history, with so many lands left vacant, it had the effect of creating an amazing economic resurgence. It was a century of deep piety where a King of France, Louis IX, Saint Louis achieved sainthood, yet it was also the century of the great schism in the Catholic Church, where two Popes competed for the souls of the faithful; one Pope in Rome and one Pope in Avignon, France.

It was also an era of urban unrest and peasant revolts. Not surprisingly when seen in terms of social and economic inequality the situation is one we would today characterize as truly evil. The vast majority of the population was rural; a serf class of permanently unwashed, permanently oppressed 'Villeins' (the root of our modern word; Villain) leading short, grinding, brutal lives. At the top of the pyramid, the nobility; a hereditary ruling class enjoying most of the wealth disposing of vast estates and armies of retainers and men-at-arms anxious to cater to their every whim, every foible. It was this class of Princes and Barons that dominated events; they had a complete ascendancy over all political, military and economic policy, untrammelled by 'meddlesome' parliaments. They prided themselves as being high minded aristocratic patricians, as opposed to small minded tradesmen and clerks, their term for merchants, businessmen and lawyers. This was not exactly so; the human condition being what it is, many were also afflicted with one or another of the seven deadly sins; Pride, Avarice, Envy, Wrath, Lust, Gluttony, and Sloth. They behaved pretty much as many would behave if they held a hereditary right to unlimited power, with little or no restraint.

It was a century that involved constant warfare, a preoccupation in which the Barons and nobility participated with great enthusiasm. War and battle was different then than it is today, at that time armies were led by their feudal overlords, who included the political leadership, which also happened to be the military leadership, and they led from the front. The mechanics of 14th century warfare was a bloody business, and would seem to us as being a long series of hacking people limb from limb. We would today consider these warlords as nothing but demented axe murderers, however charming and personable they were off the battlefield.

Yes, war in the 14th century was barbaric, but war today, and our ability to extinguish entire continents with the neat push of a button, is barbarism too, and also sinister. The clinical detachment of such an action in contrast to the death and destruction that it represents seems so dishonest and so hypocritical. In comparison, the Baron's of the 14th century give the impression of being more honest, they were the political leadership, they personally risked life and limb on the battlefield, and participated closely as they did with the business of killing.

Barbara Tuchman crafts a superb picture of life in this epoch, immersing the reader in its story rather than its history. She brings it to life, from the 'villeins' in their fields, the priests in their church, the barons in their castle, and the artisans of the cities. The story is narrated through the span of the lifetime of one of its actors, Engerrand de Coucy, a leading noble of the period, and through his extraordinary life we are able to pass through this epoch like a medieval pageant.

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