Tuesday, October 22, 2013

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

A Distant Mirror is Barbara Tuchman’s detailed study of the Fourteenth Century. It ostensibly follows the life of one Enguerrand de Coucy VII, one of the less detestable nobles of the French court, who was frequently employed by the crown on both martial and diplomatic missions. But his life is merely an anchor for the book, which might otherwise drift among the many topics of the time. In truth, the Fourteenth Century itself, more specifically Fourteenth Century France, is the real focus. This period was one of exceptional upheaval, where cultural illusions were being destroyed.

The Hundred Years War had just begun, bringing with it unrelenting suffering and ruin. Over the period of its prosecution, this conflict ended the idea of Europe as a unified culture; a concept initiated during the period of Europe-wide resistance to Islamic incursions of earlier centuries. In its place was left the first stirrings of national identity.

The Schism in the Church, presenting one pope in Avignon and one pope in Rome, revealed to the public that this institution was little more than a context where the seemingly un-Christian motives of power and greed smothered the humble message of Jesus. The existence of two contradictory authorities in a once unified Church, alongside the apparent disagreement between words and deeds, allowed room for questioning of clerical authority and the insinuation of new ideas (most notably those of John Wyclif).

Equally important during this time was the unmasking of Chivalry, once thought of as a code of honor. Knights and nobles, who were supposed to uphold the values of humility and protection of the weak, were openly contradicting those precepts through their behavior. By taxing the poor to flaunt personal luxury, by carrying on various wars where vainglory and pillage appeared the goals and by assembling companies of brigands who robbed the countryside, the aristocracy was revealing to everyone that Chivalric words were simply a cover for selfish pursuits.

The last of the four factors in this disillusioning band of War, Schism and Chivalry was Plague. Periodic recurrences of the Black Death during this century exacerbated fear and chaos, causing the further breakdown of society. People of the time saw, and were encouraged to see, the Plague as retribution from an angry god for sinful living.

Peasants, artisans and merchants, disgusted by the greed of the religious and temporal authorities to whom they had once uncritically submitted, initiated several violent rebellions. Though the outcome was always defeat, periodic revolts were a fixture in the 14th Century landscape.

A Distant Mirror is not an easy read. The difficulty is as much a problem of the often depressing topic as it is a problem of the author’s writing style. Tuchman has a passion (some might say obsession) for detail. Whether sorting the various parties and motivations in a political situation, or describing the extravagances of a wedding, Tuchman maintains an academic’s dedication to presenting as much of the chronicle as possible. Every jewel-encrusted comb is given a verbal endoscopy. While this unrelentingly thorough approach helps to preserve a history, it does not make for light reading. But it does make for rewarding reading. One will arrive, in the end, immensely well-informed about many of the personalities, cultures and issues, in 14th Century Europe.

Tuchman, Barbara W. A Distant Mirror. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1978.

For a review on a history of the Bubonic Plague in the 14th Century, see:

For a review on the life of 14th Century mercenary knight John Hawkwood, see: