Barbara Tuchman

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Barbara Tuchman with William L. Shirer (left) and John Eisenhower (right) in 1971

Barbara Wertheim Tuchman (January 30, 1912February 6, 1989) was an award-winning American historian and author.

See also:
The Guns of August


Stilwell and the American Experience in China (1970)[edit]

  • History is the unfolding of miscalculations.
    • p. 132
  • Whatever the fiasco, aplomb is unbroken. Mistakes, failures, stupidities and other causes of disaster mysteriously vanish. Disasters are recorded with care and pride and become transmuted into things of beauty. Official histories record every move in monumental and infinite detail but the details serve to obscure.
    • Tuchman, on British accounts of Second World War in Burma.
  • Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. UK: Oxford University Press, 1975. p.175
  • on the Bengal Famine Inquiry Commission 1943 in Stevenson, Richard. Bengal Tiger and British Lion: An Account of the Bengal Famine of 1943. United States: iUniverse, 2005.

A Distant Mirror (1978)[edit]

  • 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. This has led me to formulate Tuchman's Law, as follows: "The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold" (or any figure the reader would care to supply).

  • Economic man and sensual man are not suppressible.
    • p. xix
  • That conflict between the reach for the divine and the lure of earthly things was to be the central problem of the Middle Ages.
    • p. 6
  • Money was the crux. Raising money to pay the cost of war was to cause more damage to 14th century society than the physical destruction of war itself.
    • p. 81
  • Survivors of the plague, finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered. God’s purposes were usually mysterious, but this scourge had been too terrible to be accepted without questioning. If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings. Minds that opened to admit these questions could never again be shut. Once people envisioned the possibility of change in a fixed order, the end of an age of submission came in sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead. To that extent the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.
    • p. 123
  • Left to face a hungry winter robbed of their hard-earned harvests, the people experienced their own warrior class not as protectors but ravagers.
    • p. 141
  • The system was aided by the Church, whose natural interests allied it more to the great than to the meek.
    • p. 173
  • When commerce with Moslems flourished, zeal for their massacre declined.
    • p. 202
  • Doctrine tied itself into infinite knots over the realities of sex.
    • p. 213
  • When reproached for spending too much time with books and clerks, Charles answered, “As long as knowledge is honored in this country, so long will it prosper.”
    • p. 239
  • Against men habituated to lawless force, violent punishment failed to bring the violence under control.
    • p. 273
  • What counts is not so much the fact as what the public perceives to be the fact.
    • p. 291
  • For most people reform meant relief from ecclesiastical extortions.
    • p. 327
  • Perhaps by this time the 14th century was not quite sane. If enlightened self-interest is the criterion of sanity, in the verdict of Michelet, “no epoch was more naturally mad.”
    • p. 332
  • If all were equalized by death, as the medieval idea constantly emphasized, was it not possible that inequalities on earth were contrary to the will of God?
    • p. 375
  • Business, like a jackal, trotted on the heels of war.
    • p. 389
  • To put on the garment of legitimacy is the first aim of every coup.
    • p. 399
  • The social damage was not in the failure but in the undertaking, which was expensive. The cost of war was the poison running through the 14th century.
    • p. 412
  • For belligerent purposes, the 14th century, like the 20th, commanded a technology more sophisticated than the mental and moral capacity that guided its use.
    • p. 426
  • In the midst of events there is no perspective.
    • p. 454
  • What is government but an arrangement by which the many accept the authority of the few?
    • p. 455
  • To admit error and cut losses is rare among individuals, unknown among states.
    • p. 459
  • Voluntary self-directed religion was more dangerous to the Church than any number of infidels.
    • p. 487
  • The real reason for his attitude lay deeper. Essentially, Gloucester and the barons of his party were opposed to peace because they felt war to be their occupation. Behind them were the poorer knights and squires and archers of England, who, unconcerned with rights or wrongs, were “inclined to war such as had been their livelihood.”
    • p. 490
  • If it is not profitable for the common good that authority should be retained, it ought to be relinquished.
  • Governments do not like to face radical remedies; it is easier to let politics predominate.
    • p. 523
  • Modern historians have suggested that in his last years he (Richard II) was overtaken by mental disease, but that is only a modern view of the malfunction common to 14th century rulers: inability to inhibit impulse.
    • p. 534
  • On being shown a relic said to be a bone of St. Elizabeth, he (Sigismund) turned it over and remarked that it could just as well be that of a dead cobbler.
    • p. 542
  • Chroniclers habitually matched numbers to the awesomeness of the event.
    • p. 554
  • Vainglory, however, no matter how much medieval Christianity insisted it was a sin, is a motor of mankind, no more eradicable than sex. As long as combat was desirable as the source of honor and glory, the knight had no wish to share it with the commoner, even for the sake of success.
    • p. 577
  • The ills and disorders of the 14th century could not be without consequence. Times were to grow worse over the next fifty-odd years until at some imperceptible moment, by the some mysterious chemistry, energies were refreshed, ideas broke out of the mold of the Middle Ages into new realms, and humanity found itself redirected.
    • p. 581
  • As the era of the sword was ending, that of firearms began, in time to allow no lapse in man’s belligerent capacity.
    • p. 585
  • The emphasis on sorcery reflected accusations by the authorities more than it did actual practice. Being threatened, the Church responded by virulent persecution.
    • p. 590
  • The Hundred Years' War, like the crises of the Church in the same period, broke apart medieval unity.
    • p. 594

Quotes about[edit]

  • the question remains: aside from a great writer, or a writer-historian of Barbara Tuchman's stature, who can draw an accurate picture of the situation and not enrage those who were there? Who can highlight the distress of both sides, without betraying either one?
    • Shulamith Hareven "No One Asked the Medics" in The Vocabulary of Peace: Life, Culture, and Politics in the Middle East (1995)
  • During October 1962, John F. Kennedy frequently cited Barbara Tuchman’s celebrated bestseller August 1914, published a few months earlier. Tuchman’s account is disputed by some modern scholars. On one point, however, her view seems incontrovertible. None of the belligerent powers wanted the big war they got. But Austria-Hungary and Germany willed a small one, to crush and dismember Serbia, and some German generals were eager to seize an opportunity to humble Russia before her rising military might became overwhelming. The players lost control of events, with consequences for Europe that proved calamitous.

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