The fourteenth century reflects two contradictory images: on the one hand, a glittering time of crusades and castles, cathedrals and chivalry, and the exquisitely decorated "Books of hours"; and on the other, a time of ferocity and spiritual agony, a world of chaos and the plague. Barbara Tuchman reveals both the great rhythms of history and the grain and texture of domestic life as it was lived. Here are the guilty passions, loyalties and treacheries, political assassinations, sea battles and sieges, corruption in high places and a yearning for reform, satire and humor, sorcery and demonology, and lust and sadism on the stage. Here are proud cardinals, beggars, feminists, university scholars, grocers, bankers, mercenaries, mystics, lawyers and tax collectors, and, dominating all, the knight in his valor and "furious follies," a "terrible worm in an iron cocoon."
"The gap between medieval Christianity's ruling principles and every day life is the great pitfall of the middle ages
The book is subtitled "The Calamitous 14th Century" and its not difficult to see why this is so. It saw the start of the 100 years war that came close at times to wrecking both England and France; the two most powerful monarchies in the world. It was the century of the Black Death; a plague that drastically reduced the population of Europe and for which there was no medical cure or understanding of containment. It was also the century of the great schism in the catholic church with two popes reigning and attempting to sell religion to the highest bidder to gain supremacy.
Tuchman emphasises the desolation of the period by centering her history in France, which suffered the most devastation from the 100 years war, as most of the battles were on French soil with both kings using scorched earth policies. To provide a peg on which to hang her narrative Tuchman uses the life of Enguerrand de Coucy VII one of the most influential noblemen of his times and a respected warrior/knight. He seems to have been there or there abouts at most of the events and was well documented by the chroniclers. Tuchman provides the background to the society that shaped such a man as Enguerrand and describes his duties and his obligations both to the king and his followers. As Enguerrand weaves his way through the narrative Tuchman is able to show how the events and circumstances affected him and his actions. Of course he was not present at all the events that occurred; such as the peasant revolt of 1381 in England, but Tuchman digresses easily enough to keep the narrative flowing.
By presenting a broad picture of the period Tuchman is able to discuss some issues in more detail such as; the seeming antipathy the period had for children, the status of women in society, the effects of the plague and the persecution of the Jews, the importance of pageantry in expressing the power of the monarchs, the decline of chivalry and the descent into chaos over some of the regions.
Tuchman has been accused of relying far too much on the chroniclers, particularly Froissart and she says in her forward
"I realise it is unfashionable among medievalists today to rely on the chroniclers, but for the sense of the period and its attitudes I find them indispensable. Furthermore there form is narrative and so is mine"
Tuchman as a historian is well aware of the dangers of distortion through following the chroniclers too closely. It is evident that they were biased, prone to exaggeration, relied on second/third hand information sometimes a long time after the event and when they didn't know something they were quite happy to make it up. However I think she is right to use them as she does, as nothing gets us closer to the period than their writings. Whether Tuchman over uses the chroniclers is up to each individual reader to decide.
Tuchman summarises the period brilliantly towards the end of her book:
It was a time of default. Rules crumbled, institutions failed in their functions. Knighthood did not protect; the Church, more worldly than spiritual did not guide the way to God; the towns once agents of progress and the commonweal, were absorbed in mutual hostilities and divided by class war; the population depleted by the Black Death did not recover. The war of England and France and the brigandage it spawned revealed the emptiness of chivalry's military pretensions and the falsity of its moral ones. The schism shook the foundations of the central institution, spreading a deep and pervasive uneasiness. People felt subject to events beyond their control.......
She makes the point that doom and gloom was not universal over all the region, but generally it was not one of the best times to be alive.
Tuchman has provided here an excellent narrative history and she has succeeded in fleshing this out to provide plenty of talking points. She does bring the period to life and her writing is lively and infectious. I would not hesitate to recommend this to anybody interested in the period.
Tuchman has written an engaging account that brings history home; this is an engaging book for intelligent and thoughtful readers, and a book that does let one in to the 14th century in a way few other books do. If only her detractors would write as good a book, taking account of the various analytical and factual quibbles they have with Tuchman! This is one of those books of greatly deserved if sometimes questionable influence. My conclusion: the book needs to be read and enjoyed, but I'd suggest reading it together with some of its critics.
Only a few minor points of real criticism: the maps were wrongly placed within my edition and there could have been a few more. The book could also have done with a chronology and probably genealogical tables of the French royal family in particular.
France is the setting for nearly all of the action of the Hundred Years War, an event which through its constancy remains the central focus. Tuchman selects a French knight who marries an English princess as an individual to structure her narrative around, since he is conveniently placed at all the major centres of action. She also uses events in the life of Enguerrand de Coucy to explore asides such as the lives of peasants, roles for women, etc. but it is the war's unfurling that primarily directs the action. Early, spectacular English victories created the perception of France as a land of spoils for the taking, while the French were consumed by internal disorders and too frequently prioritized glory over strategy. This war spelled the end for chivalry, Enguerrand arguably the last knight worthy of the name, as softness and immorality consumed it from within, tactics from without.
Tuchman does almost nothing explicit to draw the parallels between the 14th and 20th centuries that she proposes are there. She does not need to. The Hundred Years War contrasts with the World Wars, Black Plague with Spanish Flu (and Covid, if you stretch a bit). The 14th century had its own unpopular wars, political and religious scandals, and horrific acts of anti-Semitism. Should a time machine hurl you randomly into the past, pray you do not land here. A church fallen into usury and schism, random taxation to the point of starving its people and destroying their livelihoods, no recourse to justice or the law, no protection from attack by violent roving bands, unpredictable recursions of the plague, a dearth of heroes or hope ... The common people saw no ray of light in any direction, nor indication how one might come. If they rose up in violence, as they tried multiple times, they were put down like dogs or worse. In place of Cold War gloom they awaited the end times, but with the hope of something good to come afterwards. There was no other hope to cling to.
As always after reading a book like this, the details begin to fade. I'll retain my impression of an age of chaos, when Western civilization was at lowest tide since the fall of Rome. In her epilogue, Tuchman briefly covers the 15th century in as many pages to demonstrate how a stumbling end to the Hundred Years War, a resolution to the schism, the dawn of the printing press and the age of exploration slowly began to point the way out of these doldrums. I wish she'd had the lifetimes necessary to carry this on as a series, or that I could find a similar layperson's overview of every historical century. Perhaps there are for most, but I'd wager this one to be a standout entry.
a specialist in 14th century England. In Proud Tower Tuchman said all statements about how wonderful things were before WWI were written after WWI, but when she wrote Distant Mirror she forgot the same applied to the 100 Years War.
She was writing at the height of the AIDS panic. What she learned was that, like our own era, "its disorders cannot be traced to any one cause...plague, war, taxes, brigandage, bad government, insurrection, and schism in the Church. All but plague itself arose from conditions that existed prior to the Black Death and continued after the period of plague was over."
When Tuchman described the era as a distant mirror in 1979, I doubt if any of us had an inkling how even more apt the description would be now. It was "a violent, tormented, bewildered, suffering and disintegrating age, a time...of Satan triumphant." Yet, she draws hope because although our own time seems in a similar state of collapse, "the human species has lived through worse before."
Tuchman notes that other historians saw parallels with their own era. James Westfall Thompson saw the early 20th century reflected in the "economic chaos, social unrest, high prices, profiteering, depraved morals, lack of production, industrial indolence, frenetic gaiety, wild expenditure, luxury, debauchery, social and religious hysteria, greed, avarice, maladministration, decay of manners."
The author offers many examples of commentary from the period itself in which contemporaries express concern, even dismay, over the disintegration of values as they recalled them from an earlier, better time.
Bread and circuses was as much a part of the 14th century as it was in Rome or the industrialized media-rich countries of today. Although, then as now, there was a lot more circus and not much bread.
The Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV visited Paris in December to January 1377-1378. It took the author seven pages (308-315 in my edition) to describe the lavish spectacle of processions, banquets and dramatic entertainments presented by his nephew the French king, Charles V to welcome/impress the royal figurehead.
When the rulers were not squandering the fortunes of small nations in profligate displays, they burdened the citizens with onerous taxes for war. Tuchman allows that, "The cost of war was the poison running through the 14th century...The funds...were squeezed from the people of France for a cause which could in no way, present or future, benefit them."
She quotes a tailor, Guillaume le Jupponnier, who, when he'd had too much wine, dared voice his resentment, "...Do you think they got honestly what they have? They tax me and re-tax me and it hurts them that they can't have everything we own. Why should they take from me what I earn with my needle?..."
The author follows the life and fortunes of a nobleman named Enguerrand de Coucy VII who lived from 1340 to 1397. As she presents his involvement in some of the most significant events of this period, he appears to be a remarkable, even admirable man. His bravery, leadership, honor and integrity shine in contrast to the actions of the kings, emperors, and popes to whom he sold his respectable services.
By the end of the book, when this seemingly honorable man died in squalid circumstances, I was saddened. But, like our own time, people of true honor are never the policy makers. They are merely the servants of what are sometimes (often?) depraved and corrupt powers.
This book was fascinating and depressing. The Rennaissance seemed to send Western Europe in a new direction. But, the continual repetition of what happened in our 600 year distant mirror seems to predict a grinding slog of more of the same for quite some time to come. And that is depressing.
The Black Death 1348-1350 killed an estimated one third of the population of humanity from Iceland to India. In the first paragraph of the foreword the author sets out this event as the primary theme of her book. Intertwined with that story is a biography of Enguerrand de Coucy VII. He was one of the most powerful barons of France in the mid to late 14th century and an important political and military leader. The chronicle of his very active life helped set the tone for the book. Society and government went through significant changes as the decay of feudalism was leading to the rise of the nation state. The Reformation was bubbling up in the teachings of Wycliffe and Hus. A shift in military technology took place as the armored knight was consistently defeated by the working class longbow men.
The author paints out all of these themes and many others with a broad brush and then fills in the picture with a myriad of details that fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The details tell of hours of research, the author sitting in the middle of stacks of open books with a notepad in her hand.
Descriptions of rich women wearing costumes that were so wide they had to go through a doorway sideways. Festivals and carnivals where the poor were in charge making bawdy fun of the rich and powerful. Churchmen who purchase their offices and then stumble and mumble trying to read a service.
The plague came in two forms, bubonic and pneumonic, and either one killed in a matter of days. There were numerous cures a few of which were as fatal as the plague. One city did keep the incidence down by a program of strict quarantine. Once one person in a house showed any symptoms all of the members of the house were locked inside to die. The drop in population meant that workers were scarce and could command higher wages. Whole villages went fallow because there was no one to work the fields. One response to the plague were the flagellants. They began to rival the church and were quickly put down.
The church still held great power. The schism of two Popes meant more venality was needed to support two Holy Sees. The schism did great damage to the legitimacy of the church as some rulers played off one Pope against the other.
France and England fought so much they called it the Hundred Year's War. England still ruled in Bordeaux and Calais and Guienne were ceded to England in 1360. The French lost a series of battles because they insisted on fighting in armor on muddy fields in constricted spaces. The English soldier used his longbow or a pike and defeated the flower of chivalry. The last great battle was Nicolopis where the Ottomans defeated the might of Europe with the help of their Balkan subjects.
I could go on and on but the author does a much better job. Barbara Tuchman was an historian to her fingernails. It was a career she chose and worked at for decades. She wrote good literature that made history interesting for millions. The fact that she was not an academic freed her from the specialization that is a requirement in academic life. She put a number of very good books on the shelf in her career and this was one of her best.
I had read the Gunst of August many years ago an immediately became a fan, but am only now enjoying the leisure to read more of this great author's works, which bring history so well to the layman.
In this book she takes one (significant) noble family in France and tells the story of the effect of the Black Plague on Europe. In the process she integrates social, economic, military religious and political history into one whole. Will and Ariel Durant would have been proud!
I am not a medievalist, nor the son of one. So I will abstain from any attempt to evaluate her scholarship. But writing is something I know a bit about; if you care about your writing skills, read this book for a marvelous example of how to do it.
In the Foreword Tuchman wrote she wanted to approach the story through the frame of a single life. She didn't want to choose royalty, as by definition they're an exception, but the life of a commoner would neither be well-chronicled nor give enough of a range, nor was she tempted to hang her book on the life of a clergyman, so she framed the book by choosing as a focus Enguerrand, Lord of Coucy (1340-97), a French nobleman who had the King of England as a father-in-law and died on Crusade in what is now Turkey. This doesn't read like a biography at all though. Although we get more of Coucy's story than a chronicle of his age might justify, this is a book much wider in scope than a biography would allow. And frankly, the rather rational Coucy comes across as a rather bland figure in this pageant of the High Middle Ages. This was an era that included the Black Death, peasant revolts, brigandage, Papal schism, and several decades of the Hundred Years War between England and France. This was an age that saw the faint glimmers of the Protestant Reformation in such figures as Wycliff and Hus and a flowering of great literature by Petrarch, Boccaccio and Chaucer and great mystics such as St Catherine of Sienna and Thomas Kempe.
The title implies that we can better see our own times through the reflection of this bygone age. If so, Tuchman doesn't draw the comparisons for us. She described it as a time of flux and change when the "fiction" of chivalry was broken down by the disruptions brought by the Black Death. Of the entire book, I certainly found the account of the plague, "This is the End of the World" the most riveting part of the book. There were parts I did find a slog (why I'm docking a star) as it seemed at times Tuchman was determined to leave no detail of dress or feasts unlisted. But if this is a mirror to our age, I can't say I can see the resemblance. Instead what comes through to me is how alien is this far distant time in its values and structure. Especially if you're not familiar with the Middle Ages, reading this is like reading science fiction--and it's a good corrective to the prettified view of the era we get reflected back in high fantasy. And that's why this book gets high marks. Because you can't read this and not get a sense of the spirit of the age, from high to low, clergy and scholar and merchant and knight and mercenary in all its blood-soaked, anti-Semitic, misogynist glory.
Tuchman mentions at the beginning of her forward that the preceding two decades had uncomfortably collapsed assumptions: that would have been 1958 to 1978. Practically forty years later, has that trajectory of collapse been reversed? Gun violence is in the news - but it sure seems like our level of violence doesn't reach even close to that of the 14th Century!
The period covered in this book was the decline of chivalry, the mounted warrior. Our period of industrial warfare still seems solidly on its legs, but perhaps that will prove to be a view distorted by our perspective, with our blindness to our future. Will aircraft carriers soon become as useless as lances?
So much of our modern world was formed in response to the disintegration of the preceding world. As this modern world in turn disintegrates, again a new world will be patched together from the pieces, as a way to respond to the crises of our day. Tuchman provides a wonderful mirror in which to start to see the shape of such a trajectory.