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A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

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A Distant Mirror also provides a sobering frame of reference for the events in our own recent history. Granting her subjects their loyalties, treacheries, and guilty passions, Tuchman re-creates the lives of proud cardinals, university scholars, grocers and clerks, saints and mystics, lawyers and mercenaries, and, dominating all, the knight—in all his valor and “furious follies,” a “terrible worm in an iron cocoon. The book is the story of change, from the start of the 14th Century where the King, Country, and Church reigned supreme to the end of the century where the Plague, Famine, and War have brought those pillars of society and society itself to its knees.

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. Tuchman has no such issues as her tome is a vast story that unfolds through the troubled 14th Century. 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. She became best known for The Guns of August (1962), a history of the prelude and first month of World War I. I could see how the excesses of the fourteenth century set the stage for dramatic changes to follow.You can change your choices at any time by visiting Cookie preferences, as described in the Cookie notice.

He had seen war as captain or one of the to command in eleven campaigns—in Piedmont, Lombardy, Switzerland, Normandy, Languedoc, Tuscany, northern France, Flanders, Guelders, Tunisia, Genoa; he had commanded mercenaries, and fought as ally or antagonist of the Count of Savoy, Gregory XI, Hawkwood, the Visconti, the Hapsburgs, the Swiss, Navarrese, Gascons, English, Berbers, the Republic of Florence, and nobles of Genoa. The status of nobility was in “flux”, and the modern state, as we know it, did not yet exist: there was “the vassal-to-lord relationship and not citizen-to-state” [1978: 5].Alongside him in the fields the peasant woman binds sheaves wearing a skirt caught up at the belt to free her legs and a cloth head-covering instead of a hat. 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. Often, I felt that, like Connie Willis’ time traveler, I had suddenly arrived, transported through the distant mirror….

The disease (advanced by the Yersinia pestis bacteria) spread faster than fire across Europe from 1347, with victims displaying surprising symptoms that only confused and bewildered those who wanted to ascertain the cause and progress of the mysterious disease. This also meant that there were strict rules of dress in place so that people’s societal statuses could be easily discerned. I didn’t know very much about the 14th Century before I read this – although I did know enough to know that it was one of those ‘cusp’ centuries – where things that had stayed pretty much the same for a very long time were about to come up against innovations that would make their continuing virtually impossible.Of course, I knew the King Arthur legends and pretended to be a knight in shining armour like any other young boy, but reading about the insanity of this period, the rage of the Black Death that killed 30-60% of the population of Europe, the grappling for power by the French and English competitors, the epic battles. His reviews generally give valuable insights into a book and unfortunately far too often have me adding books to my ‘to read’ list that I really will probably never get around to reading – but if I ever do read any of them I will read purely due to Eric’s recommendations.

Chapter 6 tells the story of the start of the war between France and England that would last for a hundred years. 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. 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. The author makes a point that this may be due to the fact that deaths of infants were common and pretty much expected, and, this, coupled with frequent child-bearing, meant that love and attachment to children were discouraged since both would, more likely than not, prove to be meaningless in the end and only lead to the experience of sorrow upon sorrow.I am going to try to keep this review short, maybe a reaction to having just completed Tuchman's extensive opus.

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