A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman

A Distant Mirror:  The Calamitous 14th Century

Barbara W. Tuchman--the acclaimed author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning classic The Guns of August--once again marshals her gift for character, history, and sparkling prose to compose an astonishing portrait of medieval Europe.The fourteenth century reflects two contradictory images: on the one hand, a glittering age of crusades, cathedrals, and chivalry; on the other, a wo...

Title:A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century
Author:
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ISBN:0345349571
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Paperback
Number of Pages:677 pages

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century Reviews

  • Aaron
    Aug 15, 2008

    I'm not quite sure how I came to read this strange and unwieldy book. It just kept popping up in my sights. For a while now, I've had a boyish fascination with the Middle Ages, intensified by a couple of years spent studying Old English in grad school, and nursed along since then with occasional books about the Black Death, the Crusades, castle building, and whatever else seemed interesting to me. Most of what I've read has been deeply thought-provoking, on the one hand, if somewhat tiresome to

    I'm not quite sure how I came to read this strange and unwieldy book. It just kept popping up in my sights. For a while now, I've had a boyish fascination with the Middle Ages, intensified by a couple of years spent studying Old English in grad school, and nursed along since then with occasional books about the Black Death, the Crusades, castle building, and whatever else seemed interesting to me. Most of what I've read has been deeply thought-provoking, on the one hand, if somewhat tiresome to read, on the other. Norman Cantor, at his best, is an exception, but even he grows drowsily academic. There are few great writers among medievalists, I've discovered. Steven Runciman, the British historian of the Crusades, is one. But Barbara Tuchman, the author of this book, is in a league entirely of her own.

    Maybe that's because she wasn't a traditional medievalist. Tuchman was an amateur historian, unaffiliated with any academic institution. She was a writer, first and foremost, who produced gigantic, painstakingly crafted books on a wide variety of subjects. Her history of the events leading up to World War I, "The Guns of August," earned her the first of two Pulitzer Prizes. (Just added to my "to read" list.) From the moment I started in on this hefty 600-pager, I was enthralled by the voice of the consummate stylist guiding me along. Perhaps that's a naive thing to say about a historical account, and perhaps it's the sort of thing that leads to a flawed understanding of historical events. Eloquence isn't everything, and plenty of important books have been the work of rough hands. But it's not so much Tuchman's command of language that draws you in as her infectious enchantment with her subject: the period of Western European history beginning with the Black Death of 1348 and ending with the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the early 1400s, all as seen through the life of a single French nobleman. "People of the Middle Ages existed under mental, moral, and physical circumstances so different from our own as to constitute almost a foreign civilization," Tuchman writes. And indeed the reflection of humanity you see in this "distant mirror" is almost unrecognizable, but all the more fascinating for that.

    Today, as I finished off the last hundred pages, I found myself reading long passages aloud, the way you do when you read Gabriel Garcia Marquez for the first time, or some other uncannily good novelist. Unlike some authors of ambitiously long and complicated books, Tuchman doesn't peter out near the end and leave the reader feeling cheated. Her culminating chapters are some of her best, and it doesn't even matter that the people and events she's describing are so old and of so little relevance to your daily life that you will probably never hear them mentioned again, not even on Jeopardy. What matters is that she makes them all alive again, more alive than they've been for 600 years.

  • Kalliope
    May 05, 2012

    What an extraordinary read it is when one book is as action packed as thirty riveting novels. And if it also contains rich and erudite disquisitions and is narrated in a language as clear and flowing as water from a spring, then the volume must be given a preferential place in one’s library.

    I am not too keen of including quotes in my reviews. But given the amount of material that marshals in front of one’s eyes, as colorful as overwhelming pageants and breathtaking jousts, and as dense as the ti

    What an extraordinary read it is when one book is as action packed as thirty riveting novels. And if it also contains rich and erudite disquisitions and is narrated in a language as clear and flowing as water from a spring, then the volume must be given a preferential place in one’s library.

    I am not too keen of including quotes in my reviews. But given the amount of material that marshals in front of one’s eyes, as colorful as overwhelming pageants and breathtaking jousts, and as dense as the tightly woven wefts and warps of a tapestry, there is no way I could attempt to give a glimpse with my own words of what Barbara Tuchman has achieved with this book.

    But before I present the quote, I would like to draw attention to how shrewd Tuchman has been in the choice of her subject. As she explains in her early pages, she set herself to follow one particular character as he lived during a period in history when the actors were on the count of hundreds, and thereby keep one's focus and walk through the maze and the turmoil without getting lost.

    was a member of the French nobility at a time when ‘French’ could also mean ‘English’. Enguerrand in fact acted as both French and English as he had acquired double allegiance: to his own King and to the King and father of his wife. And this he did when the two Kingdoms were at war; a war that would last for over one hundred years. Opportunely Enguerrrand is well documented by one of the most striking chroniclers of the time,

    . As nothing had been written about him in English before Tuchman, she had found a gold vein for her research and pen to exploit.

    Here stops my explanation. It is time now for the quote. This passage is better than an the Index to offer a glimpse to that Distant Mirror that Tuchman has approached to us for our close examination.

    If to the above adventures, narrated ever so smoothly, one is to add the excellent studies of various chapters of Material Life in late Medieval Europe, that help us to shorten the Distance of the Mirror and make reflections become what is reflected, then one can begin to imagine the sheer pleasure that this book offers to whoever decides to open up its pages and read it.

    As it is often claimed, Tuchman may not be a historian of the academic breed, but in this account she has demonstrated her excellent narrative abilities that many historians and novelists would just love to command as well as she.

    Brilliant.

  • Matt Brady
    Feb 27, 2013

    The Hundred Years War, the Papal Schism, the Black Death, peasant uprisings, the death of chivalry, crusades, assassinations, tournaments, all these things and more Tuchman explores through an examination of the life of one man, Enguerrand de Coucy. Scion of perhaps the most powerful and wealthiest baronial family in France, Coucy lead a fairly amazing life. He fought wars in his homeland of France, Italy, North Africa, Switzerland and Bulgaria, lead important diplomatic missions, twice turned d

    The Hundred Years War, the Papal Schism, the Black Death, peasant uprisings, the death of chivalry, crusades, assassinations, tournaments, all these things and more Tuchman explores through an examination of the life of one man, Enguerrand de Coucy. Scion of perhaps the most powerful and wealthiest baronial family in France, Coucy lead a fairly amazing life. He fought wars in his homeland of France, Italy, North Africa, Switzerland and Bulgaria, lead important diplomatic missions, twice turned down the title of Constable of France and, for over a decade, was married to the favourite daughter of the King of England, who also happened to be his captor at the time, and died a captive of the Ottoman Sultan after the disastrous Battle of Nicopolis.

    This isn't a strict biography though, and Tuchman wanders wherever her interests take her. There's a hell of a lot of ground to cover, so this isn't as tight as, say,

    , and Tuchman will occasionally get hung up on something, but these are minor faults. Speaking of getting hung up, this book was cited by George R R Martin and the inspiration he drew from it is very apparent. Tuchman really relishes describing feasts, fetes and tournaments in incredible detail, and portrays the major and minor figures of the era with a blend of real ambiguity, grittiness and the occasional larger-than-life anecdote that any reader of A Song of Ice and Fire will find familiar. This book is littered with Barristan Selmys and Gregor Cleganes.

    I particularly enjoyed Tuchman's sneering portrayal of knighthood and the ruling class. No flower of chivalry here, Tuchman portrays people like the famous Black Prince as the brutal, rapacious, violent thugs they really were, and even her main character, who she is obviously fond of, is not spared, being described as "the least compromised of his class and kind by brutality, venality and reckless indulgence." Not exactly a glowing reccomendation.

  • William1
    Sep 27, 2013

    A vivid and detailed look into a lost world. The major players are The Black Death, The Hundred Years War, the sick, uproarious joke of chivalric valor, The Papal Schism, ruinous taxation, serfdom, petty feudal institutions, the utter absence of reason among the so-called ruling classes, murderous vengeance, horrendous peculation, brigandry, the subjection of women, the sheer endless cruelty of mankind, crusade against the "infidel," and so on. A GR friend said that he was disappointed in this b

    A vivid and detailed look into a lost world. The major players are The Black Death, The Hundred Years War, the sick, uproarious joke of chivalric valor, The Papal Schism, ruinous taxation, serfdom, petty feudal institutions, the utter absence of reason among the so-called ruling classes, murderous vengeance, horrendous peculation, brigandry, the subjection of women, the sheer endless cruelty of mankind, crusade against the "infidel," and so on. A GR friend said that he was disappointed in this book because it did not offer the narrow focus and sleek thematic underpinnings of Tuchman's

    . I see his point. It should be noted, however, that

    is a very different kind of book.

    is a deft study of the almost systematic loss of rational method leaders experience once they are dazzled by the trappings of ultimate power.

    is a survey of a lost world. As such it brings before the reader an almost encyclopedic survey of the particulars of that time, a few major ones outlined above. Reading

    is like being in thrall to an endless film loop of natural disasters, pitiless murders, and roadside accidents. Tuchman brings order to this concatenation of relentless self-woundings so that try as we might we cannot look away. If there is only one book you read on the Middle Ages it might be this one. It is not for the squeamish or those afraid of the dark. It is not a light beach- or inflight-read. Highly recommended.

  • Hana
    Oct 29, 2013

    I was a little worried at the start that 600 pages of 14th century history might be, shall we say,

    . There is no denying the book is long and very detailed and at times it was a struggle, but every time I was about to give up after yet another pointless battle Tuchman would come up with a telling detail or surprising insight.

    Example: the invention of chimneys in the 14th century made separate bedrooms possible and introduced notions of privacy that had never before been possible

    I was a little worried at the start that 600 pages of 14th century history might be, shall we say,

    . There is no denying the book is long and very detailed and at times it was a struggle, but every time I was about to give up after yet another pointless battle Tuchman would come up with a telling detail or surprising insight.

    Example: the invention of chimneys in the 14th century made separate bedrooms possible and introduced notions of privacy that had never before been possible in Northern Europe and so she wove her web again, catching me for another hundred pages. There are so many wonderful reviews of this book on Goodreads that I’ll just highlight a few things that struck me as I was reading this masterpiece.

    About only thing I knew about the 14th century when I started this book was that this was when the bubonic plague spread across Europe from Asia and I only knew this because I’ve read Connie Willis’ superb

    in which a time-traveling historian gets stuck in 1348.

    One of the surprises for me was that the plague died down and recurred more than once throughout the terrible century “The Black Death returned for the fourth time in 1388-90. Earlier recurrences had affected chiefly children who had not acquired immunity, but in the fourth round a new adult generation fell under the swift contagion. By this time Europe’s population was reduced to between 40 and 50 percent of what it had been when the century opened.”

    If you want to know what happened during the plague and why, and what it meant read A Distant Mirror. If you want to know what it

    like read the

    . Better yet, read them both.

    Could there be anything more horrifying than the Black Death? Well, yes, actually. Chapter 6 tells the story of the start of the war between France and England that would last for a hundred years. There were more than a few idiots, but no heroes, no chivalrous knights, just ugly opportunists laying waste to their own countryside, killing for no reason, looting, and burning towns to the ground.

    In fact, death in every form (famine, war, disease) stalked the 14th century and death personified as a pale horseman or as a hawk-like old hag, was a recurrent image in the art and literature of the era.

    England and France were not always fighting. So what was an unemployed knight to do? “Left unemployed by the truce the [mercenary] companies reverted to plundering the people they lately liberated."

    One truce with England was immediately followed by six weeks of plunder. Forty villages were robbed and wrecked, inhabitants killed or raped, monasteries and convents burned to the ground. One French nobleman, the Sire de Coucy who plays a central role in the book, tried to rein them in, hanging culprits daily, but against “men habituated to lawless force punishment failed to bring the violence under control.”

    Charles V who succeeded to the throne of France in 1364 developed a fairly effective strategy for dealing with the mercenaries, the

    --pack them off to fight still more foreign wars! Repeated spasms of the Hundred Years War, a war in Italy, then more Papal wars, then war against the Berbers, and finally a last bloody Crusade would provide employment and plunder for these rapacious bands--and for some a fitting end.

    This aspect of medieval times fascinated me as a child; at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art my favorite exhibit was the knights on their great chargers.

    But by the 14th century the international code of chivalry was breaking down and the armor and horses were proving surprisingly vulnerable to such innovations as the long bow. Not to mention the fact that many of the knights were far from chivalrous. New strategies were called for.

    Slowly, novel approaches towards war were developed. For the aborted 1348 French invasion of England, the French packed a vast prefab camp with numbered panels. “For belligerent purposes, the 14th century, like the 20th, commanded a technology more sophisticated than the mental and moral capacity that guided its use.”

    There were a handful of sensible strategists and innovators: "It was in truth the non-chivalric qualities of two hard-headed characters, Du Guescline and Charles V, that brought France back from ruin.”

    But old ways and old knights die hard. The final Crusade against the Turks at the end of the 14th century was on balance a catastrophe. "The crusaders of 1396 started out with a strategic purpose in the expulsion of the Turks from Europe, but their minds were on something else. The young men...born since the Black Death and Poitiers and the nadir of French fortunes, harked back to the pursuit of those strange bewitchment, honor and glory. They thought only of being in the vanguard, to the exclusion of tactical plan and common sense...."

    Not all was grim. For some, the century was a time of plenty—a time when the arts were reborn and new secular themes were suddenly and surprisingly in vogue.

    “Ostentation and pageantry...was traditionally the habit of princes. But now in the second half of the 14th century it went to extremes as if to defy the increased uncertainty of life. Conspicuous consumption became a frenzied excess, a gilded shroud over the Black Death and lost battles, a desperate desire to show oneself fortunate in a time of advancing misfortune."

    "Charles V's three brothers were all compulsively acquisitive...Each put his own interests above the kingdom's each was given to conspicuous consumption...and each was to produce unsurpassed works of art: The Apocalypse series of tapestries for Anjou; the Tres Riches Heures and Belles Heures illuminated for Berry; and the statues of the Well of Moses and the Mourners for Burgundy."

    "Men and women hawked and hunted and carried a favorite falcon, hooded, on the wrist wherever they went, indoors or out--to church, to the assizes, to meals. On occasion huge pastries were served from which live birds were released to be caught by hawks unleashed in the banquet hall."

    "In the evening minstrels played with lutes and harps, reed pipes, bagpipes, trumpets, kettle drums, and cymbals. “ Poetry, story-telling and drama were all wildly popular. Literature, written for the first time in the vernacular by masters from Dante to Chaucer, flowered; all was ready for the great leap to print in the next century.

    The 14th century was a time of innovative and sometimes bizarre religious practices, prompted in part by the horrors of plague and wars but also by the Papal schism.

    "Of all the strange evils and adversities of the 14th century the effect of the Papal schism on the public mind was among the most damaging. When each Pope excommunicated the followers of the other, who could be sure of salvation? Every Christian found himself under penalty of damnation by one or the other Pope, with no way of being sure that the sacraments of their priest were valid or a sacrilege."

    Mystical sects thrived (some of them seriously weird). On the more practical front some, including a notable number of women, banded together to form communities—lay religious orders like the Beguines that provided not only spiritual solace and a chance to do good but also a not inconsiderable degree of protection and autonomy.

    Left without solace, without guidance, it must have seemed to far too many ordinary people that there was nowhere sacred to turn. Scientific knowledge was growing, but “could not dispel the sense of a malign influence upon the times. As the century entered its last quarter, the reality and power of demons and witches became a common belief….Women turned to sorcery for the [some of the] same reasons they turned to mysticism. In Paris in 1390 a woman whose lover had jilted her was tried for taking revenge by employing the magical powers of another woman to render him impotent. Both were burned at the stake.”

    Among the clergy there were those who became obsessed with witchcraft, demonology and heresy—fueling the fires of the Inquisition. Yet at the same time a novel view of religion was emerging; a vision that empowered the individual’s search for God and meaning. The Bible was translated into the vernacular for the first time. Wyclif and others were challenging the power of the clerics. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century was a natural consequence of default by the Church in the 14th—and the desperate searching of those who felt abandoned by both divine and earthly powers.

    Charles V of France succeeded for a time in his war aims against England, but at the cost of a ravaged and exhausted country. Punishing taxes and mercenary bands oppressed the ordinary peasants and the growing middle class. The stage was set for rebellion.

    Tuchman always knows how to give a nuanced view. In the chapter entitled 'The Worms of the Earth Against the Lions' I was just about to cheer wholeheartedly for the weavers of Ghent until I read of the way they in turn oppressed the lower class fullers; and my sympathy was with commoners of Anjou demanding tax relief until "In a frenzy of triumph and unspent wrath, the people rushed to rob and assault the Jews, the one section of society upon whom the poor could safely vent their aggression.”

    By the late 1380s defeats in battle, widespread economic malaise, and disenchantment with government had seized Europe. Both England and France were ruled by minors and prey to factions, but the seeds of effective rebellion and reform would lie dormant for many decades more.

    Tuchman’s ability to paint vivid pictures of a far-away time and place is astonishing. Often, I felt that, like Connie Willis’ time traveler, I had suddenly

    , transported through the distant mirror….

    In a dangerous world night was not a time to be abroad. Even in Paris in the 14th century, “At sundown the curfew bell rang for closing time, work ceased, shops were shuttered, silence succeeded bustle. At eight o'clock, when the Angelus bell signaled bedtime, the city was in darkness. Only the crossroads were lit by flickering candle or lamp placed in a niche holding a stature of Notre Dame or the patron saint of the quarter.”

    There were also fascinating bits of social history like these:

    "In everyday life women of noble as well as non-noble class found equality of function, if not of status, thrust on them by circumstances. Peasant women could hold tenancies and in that capacity rendered the same kinds of service for their holdings as men. In the guilds, women had monopolies of certain trades....The chatelaine of a castle more often than not had to manage alone when her husband was away."

    Although marriage was a sacrament, divorce was frequent and, given the right strings to pull, easily obtained...”lawyers are said to 'make and unmake matrimony to money' and a man might get rid of his wife by giving the judge a fur coat....marriage litigation filled the courts of the Middle Ages.”

    Who knew? Certainly not me!

    "Yet change as always was taking place….Monarchy, centralized government, the national state gained in strength...Seaborne enterprise liberated by the compass was reaching toward the voyages of discovery that were to burst the confines of Europe….Times were to grow worse over the next fifty odd-years until at some imperceptible moment, by some mysterious chemistry, energies were refreshed, ideas broke out of the mold of the Middle Ages into new realms, and humanity found itself redirected."

    Four and a half stars, with a half star off because all the battles and political machinations really were a bore, at least for me. Content rating, PG for all the death, destruction, blood and disease.

  • Glenn Russell
    Mar 21, 2014

    r by Barbara W. Tuchman is, on one level, a seven hundred page encyclopedia of the 14th century’s political, military, religious, social, cultural and economic history. Since Ms. Tuchman is a first-rate writer, on still another level, the book is a compelling, personalized account of individual men and women living through these turbulent, disastrous times, especially one Enguerrand de Coucy V11 (1340-1397), a high-ranking noble, heralded as “the most experienced and skillful of

    r by Barbara W. Tuchman is, on one level, a seven hundred page encyclopedia of the 14th century’s political, military, religious, social, cultural and economic history. Since Ms. Tuchman is a first-rate writer, on still another level, the book is a compelling, personalized account of individual men and women living through these turbulent, disastrous times, especially one Enguerrand de Coucy V11 (1340-1397), a high-ranking noble, heralded as “the most experienced and skillful of all the knights of France”. The focus on Lord Coucy is supremely appropriate since this nobleman repeatedly pops up as a prime player in many of the century’s key events.

    The 14th century witnessed ongoing devastation, including the little ice age, the hundred years’ war, the papal schism, the peasant’s revolt and, most dramatically, the black death of 1348-1350, which depopulated Europe by as much as half. Ms. Tuchman’s book covers it all in twenty-seven chapters, chapter with such headings as

    ,

    ,

    and

    .

    Many pages are filled with the color and morbidity of the times. By way of example, here is one memorable happening where the French Queen gave a masquerade to celebrate the wedding of a twice widowed lady-in-waiting: six young noblemen, including the King who recently recovered from a bout of madness, disguised themselves as wood savages and entered the masked ball making lewd gestures and howling like wolves as they paraded and capered in the middle of the revelers. When one of the noble spectators came too close with his torch, a spark fell and a few moments later the wood savages, with the exception of the King, were engulfed in flames. Afterwards, the French populace was horrified by this ghastly tragedy, a perverse playing on the edge of madness and death nearly killing their King.

    And here is what the author has to say about the young man who concocted the wood savage idea, “The deviser of the affair “cruelest and most insolent of men,” was one Huguet de Guisay, favored in the royal circle for his outrageous schemes. He was a man of “wicked life” who “corrupted and schooled youth in debaucheries,” and held commoners and the poor in hatred and contempt. He called them dogs, and with blows of sword and whip took pleasure in forcing them to imitate barking. If a servant displeased him, he would force the man to lie on the ground and, standing on his back, would kick him with spurs, crying, “Bark, dog!” in response to his cries of pain.” All of the chapters are chock full with such sadistic and violent sketches.

    Speaking of the populate, there is plenty of detail on the habits and round of daily life of the common people. And, of course, there is a plethora of detail on the lives of the upper classes. Here is a snippet of one description: “In the evening minstrels played with lutes and harps, reed pipes, bagpipes, trumpets, kettle drums, and cymbals. In the blossoming of secular music as an art in the 14th century, as many as thirty-six different instruments had come into use. If no concert or performance was scheduled after the evening meal, the company entertained each other with song and conversation, tales of the day’s hunting, “graceful questions” on the conventions of live, and verbal games.”

    As in any age, it makes for more comfortable living being at the top rather than at the bottom of the social scale. And all those musical instruments speak volumes about how the 14th century was a world away from the plainchant of the early middle ages. In a way, the 14th century musical avant-garde fit in well with the fashions of the times: extravagant headdresses, multicolored, bejeweled jackets and long pointed shoes. For those who had the florins, overindulgence was all the rage.

    Ms. Tuchman offers ongoing commentary: for example, regarding military engagement, she cites how the 14th century nobility was too wedded to the idea of glory and riding horses on the battlefield to be effective against the new technology of the long-bow and foot soldiers with pikes. And here is a general, overarching comment about the age, “The times were not static. Loss of confidence in the guarantors of order opened the way to demands for change, and miseria gave force to the impulse. The oppressed were no longer enduring but rebelling, although, like the bourgeois who tried to compel reform, they were inadequate, unready, and unequipped for the task.” Indeed, reading about 14th century economic upheaval one is reminded of Karl Marx’s scathing observations four hundred years later.

    On a personal note, my primary interests are literature and philosophy; I usually do not read history. However, if I were to recommend one history book, this is the book. Why? Because Ms. Tuchman’s work is not only extremely well written and covers many aspects of the period’s art, music, literature, religion and mysticism, but the turbulent, transitional 14th century does truly mirror our modern world. Quite a time to be alive.

  • Matt
    Nov 02, 2015

    My interest in medieval times is not incredibly strong; it is, in fact, relegated mostly to the hope of someday going to a Medieval Times restaurant. I’ve read Ken Follett’s two Kingsbridge novels, and I’ve been to a few Renaissance Fairs in my time (and eaten more than my share of child-sized turkey legs), but beyond that, I’ve never cared much about the Middle Ages.

    I read Barbara Tuchman’s

    not for its subject matter, but because Tuchman wrote it.

    My interest in medieval times is not incredibly strong; it is, in fact, relegated mostly to the hope of someday going to a Medieval Times restaurant. I’ve read Ken Follett’s two Kingsbridge novels, and I’ve been to a few Renaissance Fairs in my time (and eaten more than my share of child-sized turkey legs), but beyond that, I’ve never cared much about the Middle Ages.

    I read Barbara Tuchman’s

    not for its subject matter, but because Tuchman wrote it. The winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award, Tuchman was one of the great author/historians of her time, or any time. Her name on the cover demands attention. While

    didn't turn me into an expert in making barley bread or choosing the right kind of alligator for your castle moat, it was nevertheless an utterly fascinating read.

    Tuchman’s focus on the 14th Century began with an interest in the Black Death of 1348-1350, which she states killed an estimated one-third of the people “living between India and Iceland.” As she explains in the Forward, Tuchman initially wanted to study the effects of such a disaster on society. In researching the answer to that question, her interest grew to include the entirety of the 1300s, “a violent, tormented, bewildered, suffering and disintegrating age.”

    Certainly there was no shortage of turmoil and strife. There was the aforementioned Black Death – the bubonic plague – that caused pus-and-blood-filled buboes (inflamed lymph nodes) to appear on the groin, neck, and armpit. Millions of people died in this, one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. There was constant war between England and France, part of the so-called Hundred Years’ War, which ravaged the countryside and depleted tax bases. There was a Papal Schism, with three men simultaneously claiming that tall white hat. And to cap things off, in 1396, the Ottomans put a decisive end to the Crusade of Nicopolis.

    To get an idea of the eventfulness of the 14th Century, let’s take a brief look at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. It pitted the English forces under Edward, the Black Prince, and the French under King John. The English won, and furthermore, captured King John, decapitating the French monarchy. In John’s absence, the bourgeois rose in France, and the Third Estate attempted to establish constitutional control. Meanwhile, mercenary “free companies” scoured the land, plundering and burning. It’s all the bad parts of Westeros, except there are no dragons coming to the rescue. (Conversely, I suppose, there were no dragons to make things worse). All this takes place in just two chapters (out of 27).

    Tuchman presents her material with a mixture of thematic sections and chronological sections. Parts of the book are pure overview, touching on what it was like to live during the 14th Century. She describes the lives of peasants and knights and lords; she describes their faith; their clothing; their jobs; their sexual practices (apparently the chastity belt “rests on only the faintest factual support”). The writing is brilliant. Descriptive, alive, witty, and engaging. Take, for instance, her portrait of the peasant:

    Or try this description of the food at a sumptuous wedding:

    I think I hear George R.R. Martin’s tummy grumbling!

    The overview sections were my favorite, because I’m more interested in the essence of the 14th Century than in the timeline. That said, her chronological sections are just as engaging, displaying her rare gift for giving life to people who lived hundreds of years ago. In order to anchor her narrative, Tuchman chose a central figure to follow. This man is Enguerrand de Coucy VII. He is like Sean Patrick Flanery in

    , showing up and playing a role in a remarkable number of landmark 14th Century events. Tuchman took pains in choosing him, because she wanted:

    The knock on Tuchman is that she is not a medievalist. That is, she has not devoted her life to getting someone to pay her think about Ye Olden Days. She has been criticized, for among other things, using secondary sources and relying on poor translations. Though I respect the hell out of dogged, elbow-patched professors digging through dusty primary sources, I can’t help but believe that most of this criticism is a mark of Tuchman’s commercial success. Medievalists tend to take themselves rather seriously, so it’s fairly easy to ignore their sniffing (and their dry monographs). If I’m going to have surgery, yes, I want a trained surgeon to do the cutting. But writing about medieval times is not surgery. I feel quite comfortable having a polished writer and historian – if not an expert – guide me through the subject.

    Tuchman wrote this book – as the title implies – to compare the catastrophes of the 20th Century with those of the 14th. Her book is an elegant way of saying that in times like these, it’s helpful to remember there have always been times like these. And despite the many sorrows of the 14th Century, Tuchman is keen to remind us – at several points in her story – that for most people, life went on as usual.

    is thoroughly engaging and consistently excellent reading. It creates its own energy; that is, is got me revved about a subject I never really cared about. Tuchman was a special writer, with that magical ability to make the past feel like the present. Critics have called her out on her anachronisms, but I don’t think it’s anachronistic to recognize that even though these people are distant, they were still human, and in that way, closer to us than we realize.

  • Max
    May 31, 2016

    The Four Horsemen had their way in the fourteenth century. Tuchman portrays a brutal decadent European society terrorized and demoralized by the plague, war, violence and deprivation. She focuses on France, England and the Italian city-states from 1350 to 1400. The religious leaders were hypocritical and profane; the aristocracy was arrogant and venal. Kings, nobles, popes and prelates accumulated fantastic wealth at the expense of everyone else for whom it was the worst of times. The century ma

    The Four Horsemen had their way in the fourteenth century. Tuchman portrays a brutal decadent European society terrorized and demoralized by the plague, war, violence and deprivation. She focuses on France, England and the Italian city-states from 1350 to 1400. The religious leaders were hypocritical and profane; the aristocracy was arrogant and venal. Kings, nobles, popes and prelates accumulated fantastic wealth at the expense of everyone else for whom it was the worst of times. The century marked the decline of the Roman Catholic Church’s power, the feudal system and the myth of the chivalrous knight.

    The plague killed 1/3rd of the people of Europe between 1347 and 1350. Thereafter, outbreaks recurred regularly. Those afflicted died agonizing deaths although many succumbed quickly. People became unhinged with most believing God was punishing them. Many scapegoats were targeted. Jews were rounded up and executed or driven off to Eastern Europe. Stories of Jews poisoning wells and killing Christian children for their blood (blood libel) became firmly established. Christians lost faith in the Church as priests too hid in fear or charged exorbitant fees to perform last rites. If God had caused the plague or at least didn’t seem to care, what was the point of the Church? Its vast wealth was resented deeply by many. Pope Clement VI had even started the selling of indulgences. When the plague subsided in 1350 fear was replaced by gloom. A pessimism ensued which would last into the next century.

    The fight between secular kings and the Papacy was a key conflict of the 14th century. Money and power were at stake. In 1303 King Philip IV of France in conjunction with the anti-papist Italian army captured Pope Boniface VIII, who not surprisingly, soon was dead. Philip felt the many Church fees collected in France were rightfully his. The Pope said Philip was subject to him. The Pope lost. The next Pope, Clement V, set up shop in Avignon and worked hand in glove with Philip. Popes ruled from Avignon from 1307 to 1377 with ever increasing domination by the French kings, which was deeply resented outside of France.

    Pope Gregory XI returned the papacy to Rome greatly surprising his benefactor, Charles V of France. Gregory shortly thereafter died. The cardinals in Rome elected Urban VI who they believed they could easily control to stay in Rome. Soon they realized he was crazy. They declared it a mistake and elected Clement VII. But Urban wouldn’t quit and soon Clement found it advisable to relocate in Avignon. Now there were two Popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon, with the Christian world split in its support of the two. Thus began the Papal Schism which lasted until 1417 dividing the Christian world. With two Popes issuing orders, selling indulgences and church offices, and with people blessed by one condemned by the other, the legitimacy of the Church was greatly diminished. The Church would never regain its pre-fourteenth century power and prestige.

    The seeds for the reformation were being sown. In England in the 1370’s and 80’s John Wycliffe began openly criticizing the great wealth and ostentation of the Church and formed a following known as the Lollards who carried his message on after he died. Wycliffe translated the bible into Middle English believing the faithful should approach God directly bypassing the priests. His movement foreshadowed the English break with the Church 150 years later.

    War between England and France was another key conflict of the fourteenth century. A desire to invade England was one reason Philip needed the church money. But the English King Edward III attacked first. Edward claimed to be the rightful French King but his real goal was to add mainland provinces to his domain. Thus in 1340 began the Hundred Years’ War. The war started badly for the French led by Philip VI with a humiliating defeat at Crecy in 1346. Overconfident French knights charged mindlessly into English infantry whose archers wielded the very effective English longbow. The English longbow with the power to drive heavy arrows accurately came of age at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Much faster to reload than the French crossbow, the longbow proved a decisive advantage, particularly as deployed by the far more organized and disciplined English army.

    The war continued with another humiliating French defeat. This time Edward III's son, Edward Prince of Wales, faced the French King Jean II at Poitiers in 1356. Again believing in chivalry, Jean used his knights to lead the charge just as Philip VI had done at Crecy with the same result. Jean II was captured and his forces fell apart and scattered. The Prince of Wales took Jean back to England along with other captured nobles and the enormous booty he had seized. Jean and the prisoners were held for ransom. France entered anarchy. In 1357, the merchant class tried but failed to impose its will on the Dauphin, Jean II’s son, with a violent end. Then in 1358 a peasant group, the Jacquerie, led a revolt and after even more carnage and looting they were brutally put down by the nobles. More pillaging, killing, raping and hostage taking ensued from mercenary Free Companies made up of former soldiers, mostly Englishmen who did not want to give up their way of life when the military campaigns ended. Armies of the time lived off the land so these men were used to taking anything and everything they wanted. Brigands from all over Europe joined them and they spread terror all over France, Italy, England and adjacent territories.

    The free Companies were for hire and employed extensively in the Papal wars in Italy. With the Papacy removed to Avignon, Rome fell into decay. An effective Papal force could not be managed from so far away. Similarly the English could not hold onto the mainland territories they had won by managing them from England. Their conquered subjects began identifying as French in response to the brutal treatment of their English overlords. The Papacy’s location in France exacerbated the English anger against the French. It also diminished the legitimacy of the Church in England.

    In the years after Charles V death in 1380, France was struck by yet another series of violent revolts led by the merchant class and supported by the peasants sick of high taxes and declining incomes while the rich got richer. The heir, Charles VI was only twelve. The Dukes were in charge and taxed everybody and everything to finance wars to expand their territories. A similar story took place in England where Richard II, only 13 in 1380, was likewise guided by the recently departed Edward III’s relatives. They similarly taxed commoners to the hilt to raise money to acquire new fiefdoms. A huge peasant’s revolt ensued making it all the way to London. Both in France and England the revolts were put down brutally. Throughout the fourteenth century peasants in both France and England were being transformed from serfs to tenant farmers. This transformation from the feudal system enabled the lords to squeeze the peasants mercilessly by charging rents for everything while no longer bearing any responsibility for the peasants’ wellbeing.

    Another example of the folly of the knight’s search for glory is the Barbary Crusade in 1391. Five thousand mostly French with some English knights encased in their head to toe plate armor attacked the Berber stronghold of Mahdia in Tunisia. The Berbers held fast behind their walls while sending out harassing parties that avoided direct combat. Eventually the knights tired of the suffocating heat gave up and went home. Of course it was the commoners through heavy taxation who as always paid for this ill-conceived effort. At least, the knights might have learned their limits in Mahdia, but they were soon to repeat. This time they were decimated at the hands of the Turks at Nicopolis in 1396. Knights from around Europe took part in this Crusade, again driven by vainglory. While the losses were heavy on both sides, arrogance and overconfidence led to the defeat of the crusaders. Once again the heavy fourteenth century plate armor constricted more than it helped against a disciplined mobile opponent. Although both sides executed prisoners without compunction, the Turks saved important nobles, as was the practice, for ransom. They returned home in humiliation, an appropriate end to their mythical prowess and a disastrous century.

    The lessons of the fourteenth century were not lost on the monk, Honore Bonet. In his book written in 1387,

    , he asked “Whether this world can by nature be without conflict and at peace?” answering “No, it can by no means be so.” The 14th century’s toll of countless wars, rampaging mercenaries, ruthless governance and mindless preoccupation with glory and indulgence of those in power left France and England in serious decline. The killing, dislocation and destruction combined with recurring plague epidemics reduced the population of Europe to half its 1347 count by the end of the century. The tradition of chivalry of the knights was shown to be hollow, the knights themselves to be petty, the Church to be a charade and its leaders self-serving. The Middle Ages were coming to an end as its religious and feudal traditions were undermined. Somehow, miraculously, in the next century the Renaissance was able to spring from this morass.

    Tuchman’s account of the period is very detailed and a bit daunting to follow. One must take in score after score of kings, nobles, popes, prelates and others and their complex relationships as well as Middle Ages political geography. Tuchman chronicles much more than major events. She carefully crafts pictures of the everyday lives of those at every level of society. These portraits are well done and provide a fascinating look into a time far removed from our own. So despite the unsettling bleakness of the fourteenth century, reading Tuchman’s book is well worth the effort. I could see how the excesses of the fourteenth century set the stage for dramatic changes to follow.

    also provides a sobering frame of reference for the events in our own recent history.


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