Barbara Tuchman - The Black Plague

Barbara Tuchman
Barbara Tuchman 1912 - 1989 - Ink Drawing Erik Weems

Who is Barbara Tuchman?

Tuchman was an American writer who won Pulitzer's for the 1962 Guns of August, and the 1970 Stillwell and the American Experience in China.

She spent seven years writing A Distant Mirror, the Calamitous 14th Century. [AMAZON SELLS A DISTANT MIRROR HERE]

"Trionfo della Morte"

Francesco Traini Fresco "the Triumph of Death" at Camposanto Monumentale in Pisa, Italy.

Below is a brief excerpt from Tuchman's nearly 700 page history A Distant Mirror (published 1978). This page is from her chapter on The Black Death plague years of the Medieval age:

"A strange personification of Death emerged from the plague years on the painted walls of the Camposanto in Pisa. The figure is not the conventional skeleton, but a blackcloaked old woman with streaming hair and wild eyes, carrying a broadbladed murderous scythe. Her feet end in claws instead of toes. Depicting the Triumph of Death, the fresco was painted in or about 1350 by Francesco Traini as part of a series that included scenes of the Last Judgment and the Tortures of Hell. The same subject, painted at the same time by Traini's master, Andrea Orcagna, in the church of Santa Croce in Florence, has since been lost except for a fragment. Together the frescoes marked the start of a pervasive presence of Death in art, not yet the cult it was to become by the end of the century, but its beginning.

A Distant MirrorUsually Death was personified as a skeleton with hourglass and scythe, in a white shroud or bareboned, grinning at the irony of man's fate reflected in his image: that all men, from beggar to emperor, from harlot to queen, from ragged clerk to Pope, must come to this. No matter what their poverty or power in life, all is vanity, equalized by death. The temporal is nothing; what matters is the afterlife of the soul.

In Traini's fresco, Death swoops through the air toward a group of carefree, young, and beautiful noblemen and ladies who, like models for Boccaccio's storytellers, converse and flirt and entertain each other with books and music in a fragrant grove of orange trees. A scroll warns that "no shield of wisdom or riches, nobility or prowess" can protect them from the blows of the Approaching One. "They have taken more pleasure in the world than in things of God." In a heap of corpses nearby lie crowned rulers, a Pope in tiara, a knight, tumbled together with the bodies of the poor, while angels and devils in the sky contend for the miniature naked figures that represent their souls. A wretched group of lepers, cripples, and beggars (duplicated in the surviving fragment of Orcagna), one with nose eaten away, others legless or blind or holding out a clothcovered stump instead of a hand,implore Death for deliverance. Above on a mountain, hermits leading a religious contemplative life await death peaceably.

Below in a scene of extraordinary verve a hunting party of princes and elegant ladies on horseback comes with sudden horror upon three open coffins containing corpses in different stages of decomposition, one still clothed, one half rotted, one a skeleton. Vipers crawl over their bones. The scene illustrates "The Three Living and Three Dead," a 13th century legend which tells of a meeting between three young nobles and three decomposing corpses who tell them, "What you are, we were. What we are, you will be." In Traini's fresco, a horse catching the stench of death stiffens in fright with outstretched neck and flaring nostrils; his rider clutches a handkerchief to his nose. The hunting dogs recoil, growling in repulsion. In their silks and curls and fashionable hats, the party of vital handsome men and women stare appalled at what they will become."

The Francesco Traini Fresco painting of 1350 "The Triumph of Death."
Click to enlarge
Traini Triumph of Death
Francesco Traini was an Italian painter active between 1321 to 1365.

The image above is at the Camposanto Monumentale in Pisa, Italy.

History and distortion

"Tuchman's Law," a reference to a description of how recorded information can tend to distort actual events, is described this way in A Distant Mirror:

"The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold. Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of the disturbance, as we know from our own times. After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists. The fact is that one can come home in the evening, on a lucky day, without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena"


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Original Page January 2008 | Updated June 2014