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

1978, Penguin edition, 597 p.

When it became clear that Melbourne’s sixth lockdown was not going to be the ‘short sharp’ affair that was promised, I decided that if I was going to live in the most locked-down city in the world, then I should use the time to do something that I had intended doing for some time: take Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror off the bookshelf and read it.

Barbara Tuchman was an American narrative historian who was born in 1912 and died in 1989. Two of her books won Pulitzer Prizes: The Guns of August in 1963 dealing with the leadup to WWI, and Stillwell and the American Experience in China 1911-1945 in 1972 (never heard of it!). I have not read either of these books, but I did read The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War 1890-1914, which I very much enjoyed. She was not an academic historian, and relished the freedom of being able to write ‘popular’ history.

Her books tend to be long at over 500 pages and this book at 597 very closely-set pages is no exception. Although I read it in hard copy, my Kobo e-reader rather discouragingly told me that it would take 23-25 hours to read, and I can testify that it did. So why did I read it, and why now? Partially because I knew that, because the rest of life is on hold, such an opportunity to spend day after day reading a book will not come again (hopefully). But secondly, because in a time of pandemic, with increasing alarm about China, the rise of right-wing extremism, climate change, the underground rumble of the terrorism threat, the debacle of the Afghanistan pull-out and the tragedy for Afghanistan women who are left, and Trump lurking – why not read about another time when the world seemed to be going to hell in a handbasket too?

The 14th Century certainly qualifies as a ‘calamitous’ century. The Black Plague cut a swathe through the world population, peaking in Europe between 1347 to 1351, but it returned in 1360–63, 1374 and 1400. The Papal Schism between 1378 and 1417 saw two competing Popes, one based in Avignon and the other in Rome, each claiming to be the ‘true’ Pope. The Hundred Years War between 1337–1453 saw generation after generation of English and French dynasties leaching the wealth from their countries to embark on a bloody game of chivalry and honour, and where royal women were seen as bargaining chips and allegiances were swapped pragmatically. There were popular uprisings in both Britain and France: The Peasants’ Revolt in England in 1381 and peasant uprisings in Rouen and Paris. Returning soldiers formed gangs of thugs, robbing and raping their way around the countryside. Meanwhile, the Ottomans were at the Danube at Nicopolis, prompting another Crusade, paid for by taxes and imposts.

The map at the start of the book shows Europe in the 14th century and although the silhouette looks the same (of course), there are no hard borders, just regions. England at the time had holdings in France and the Holy Roman Empire dominated the present countries of Germany, Belgium and Switzerland. A century is a long and rather arbitrary measurement; indeed, historians often talk of the ‘long’ 18th century etc. to avoid the tyranny of the year OO cut-off. As a way of giving focus to such a large canvass, Tuchman decided to focus her attention on the life-span of one man: Enguerrand VII de Coucy(1340 – 1395), the last of his line. His ancestral home Coucy Castle, built in the 13th century, was located in Picardy in France. At the time it was a dominating feature in the landscape with an almost impregnable donjon (although WWI took care of that). There are no images of Enguerrand, and all that we know of him comes through the chronicles of the day, particularly through Jean Froissant the medieval author and court historian. Contradictions, exaggerations, slippery dating, and flattery/disparagement warp the histories that have come to us, and accords with her wry ‘Tuchman’s Law’ : “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable to five-to-tenfold” (or any figure the reader would care to supply“. (p. xx)

None the less, Coucy was right in the centre of things. He first fought against the English at the age of 15 and he was one of 40 nobles taken hostage by the English in exchange for the release of the future King John II of France. He was in England for six years as a guest of the Royal Court (no fetid dungeon for him) and ended up marrying King Edward III’s daughter, Isabella of England. This gave him a prominent position as a negotiator and mediator between the French Crown and his father-in-law.

After his wife’s death he married Isabelle, the daughter of the Duke of Lorraine and threw his loyalties completely behind the French throne. In the schism between the popes, he took France’s side and was involved in campaigns in Italy against the Roman Popes’ allies. He was involved in putting down the Flemish uprising, and when the idea of a crusade against the Ottomans at Nicopolis was raised to try to heal disunity caused by the papal schism, he took a leading role. It was his last battle. Taken prisoner by the Ottomans, he died of bubonic plague in Turkey while waiting for a ransom to be paid.

By having one person as her focus, Tuchman solved the problem of narrowing her field, although her choice of subject was constrained. She could not choose a king or queen because they are, by their nature, exceptional; commoners and women were not documented; and clerics or saints were outside the limits of her comprehension. This limited her to a male member of the nobility. Nonetheless, by choosing one particular person as the vehicle of her narrative:

Apart from human interest, this has the advantage of enforced obedience to reality. I am required to follow the circumstances and the sequence of an actual medieval life, lead where they will, and they lead, I think, to a truer version of the period than if I had imposed by own plan.

p.xvi

However, even without this narrowing spotlight, this is still a vast canvas, stretching across regions and alliances. I couldn’t keep up with the detail – there is just too much – and I decided to just go with broad impressions and enjoy the story as it was right on that page, without trying too hard to connect it with other events. It is very much chronologically driven, with one thing happening after the next, and if there was a broader argument, I couldn’t detect it.

Despite the title ‘A Distant Mirror’, it is difficult to find our own reflections here, beyond the physical, corporeal connection of being embodied humans. As she points out:

Difficulty of empathy, of genuinely entering into the mental and emotional values of the Middle Ages, is the final obstacle. The main barrier is, I believe, the Christian religion as it then was: the matrix and law of medieval life, omnipresent, indeed compulsory. Its insistent principle that the life of the spirit and of the afterworld was superior to the here and now, to material life on earth, is one that the modern world does not share, no matter how devout some present-day Christians may be. The rupture of this principle and its replacement by belief in the worth of the individual and of an active life not necessarily focused on God is, in fact, what created the modern world and ended the Middle Ages.

p.xxi

However, this was not lived out in practice. As she warns us

There never was a time when more attention was given to money and possessions than in the 14th century, and its concern with the flesh was the same as at any other time. Economic man and sensual man are not suppressible. The gap between medieval Christianity’s ruling principle and everyday life is the great pitfall of the Middle Ages.

p. xxi

This is writ large in the huge, obscene disparities in wealth between the nobles, with their castles and tournaments and feasts and display, and the peasantry. The principle of chivalry as the dominant political idea of the ruling class is just as inscrutable to us today. Both mentalities confirm that as 20th and 21st century readers, we are not medieval and that this mirror, perhaps, will always remain opaque to us.

Because she focuses on the life of one very well-connected noble, her emphasis is mainly at the elite level, which is mostly what the sources gave her to work with. ‘The people’ get rather less attention, and the parts of the book that I enjoyed most were where she digressed to give small details as illustration. For example, the habit of displaying people in effigy on their sarcophagus as a 33 year old, no matter how old they were when they died (because Jesus was said to die at 33) gave way to showing them old, thin and decrepit as the Cult of Death advanced over the century. I found the chapter on the Black Death particularly interesting, as it was so indiscriminate in its toll. But overall, the book deals more with statecraft and rivalry, more than social conditions.

Did I feel any better about our current world by the time that I finished? Not really. But, believe me, if a time machine lands on my front lawn, I’m not choosing the 14th Century to visit.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: My own bookshelves where it has sat for years. Purchased 2nd hand

2 responses to “‘A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century’ by Barbara Tuchman

  1. I started reading this at the beginning of our first lockdown, but the print was so small and lockdown lethargy hit harder in the first one for some reason, so it’s still waiting by my bed…so bravo for getting through it, small print and all those many, many pages.

    • Please don’t wish another lockdown on us in order to finish it! Although I think you’d be hard-pressed to read this book WITHOUT an enforced period of reading. I would never have finished it if I read it in small bites, like I usually do.

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