A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

A Distant Mirror:  The Calamitous 14th Century

"Wise, witty, and wonderful . . . A great book, in a great historical tradition." —CommentaryThe 14th century gives us back two contradictory images: a glittering time of crusades and castles, cathedrals and chivalry, and a dark time of ferocity and spiritual agony, a world plunged into a chaos of war, fear and the Plague. Barbara Tuchman anatomizes the century, revealing...

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Title:A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century
Author:Barbara W. Tuchman
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Edition Language:English

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century Reviews

  • Kalliope

    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.

  • William1

    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.

  • Glenn Russell

    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.

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