Monday, January 14, 2013

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


A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman is an extraordinary history book. A chronicle of Western Europe during the 1300’s this work successfully encompasses incredibly diverse ground. Tuchman touches on a vast array of subjects to paint a vivid picture of the era. This is a book that covers political, social, military, religious, philosophical, economic and art history. The successful telling of just the political story is a remarkable feat. Though dominated by the large powers of France, England, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, Western Europe was also comprised of a multitude smaller states and cities whose leadership formed an interconnected web of relations, marriages, alliances, conflicts and betrayals. Tuchman manages to tell a very coherent history by sticking to generalities when appropriate but providing intricate details also when appropriate. 

In addition to a general history, Tuchman livens up her narrative by a following the life of one individual; the French nobleman, knight, and diplomat, Enguerrand VII de Coucy. Like many nobles of the time, Coucy warred, negotiated and socialized over an area that encompassed England, France, Germany, Italy, the Balkans, North Africa, etc. In addition the book also details the lives of a plethora of other historical characters, theologians, writers and artists ranging from Charles V of France, Edward III of England, Pope Urban VI, William of Ockham, Jean Froissart, John Wyclif, Christine de Pizan, to name just a few.

One of the main messages here was that the 14th Century in Western Europe was a very bad time and place to have lived. Tuchman identifies several sources of the suffering. This was an era of plague, brutal warfare and religious schism.

This was the age of the Black Death. Bubonic Plague raged trough Europe killing an enormous percentage of the population. In certain regions two thirds of the populace succumbed. Entire towns disappeared as a result. In addition to chronicling the pestilence, Tuchman explains how such mortality led to an obsession with death reflected in both art and culture.

The first part of the Hundred Years War as well as countless other conflicts raged in this time period. Warfare seemed a game to the nobility in this century. The typical knight would engage in conflict after conflict, sometimes switching sides, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles to join obscure wars on a whim, sometimes barely pausing to rest between conflicts.

These ceaseless wars had several damaging consequences. Oppressive and unrelenting taxation was levied upon the middle and lower classes in order to finance the endeavors. Tuchman writes,

Money was the crux. Raising money to pay the cost of war was to cause more damage to 14th century society than the physical destruction of war itself.”


In addition these conflicts were the cause of horrendous brutality that was inflicted against the populace. It was a time of extreme cruelty perpetuated both by both semi organized armies as well as bands of brigands. These lawless bands of brigands were usually composed by ex - soldiers. Armies had a habit of disbanding wherever they found themselves at the end of a campaign. Soldiers often just organized themselves into criminal bands, which set off into the countryside and terrorized the populace. At times these brigands were employed by states to assist on their unceasing warfare. These lawless and violent groups proved to be a major source of misery and instability throughout the continent.

Even friendly armies were a danger to the populace. Often the forces of a nation, as they moved throughout their own homelands would murder, rape and pillage the lands of their own people. 

This was also the time of the Western Schism. This event found the Catholic Church splitting into two parts each led by a different Pope. A Pontiff based in Rome was generally supported by England while his counterpart, based in Avignon was generally supported by France. Various wars resulted from the rupture. This rift in the religious structure of society led to greater insecurity and increased conflict in an already troubled century. Tuchman observes, 

Whatever solace the Christian faith could give was balanced by the anxiety it generated.”

In addition to all of the above Tuchman argues that this was a particularly cruel period characterized by unusually high levels of mob rule, torture, fanaticism, religious and social persecution, as well as an overall lack of empathy. She speculates that the extreme cruelty prevalent in society, was in part caused by cold and unengaged child rearing practices prevalent in Europe at the time, 

“relative emotional blankness of a medieval infancy may account for the casual attitude toward life and suffering,".

The author effectively pulls all these points together to describe a time racked by instability and thus human suffering. Despite all the chaos however, the roots of vital historic trends can be found in this era. The beginnings the modern nation state can be found in the political and social developments that occurred in both England and France. Early stirrings of dissatisfaction with the corruption and hypocrisy of the Catholic Church first appeared during these times. Of course, later in history, this eventually led to the Protestant Reformation. 

The impressive thing about this book is how seamlessly Tuchman has woven together such an enormous amount and variety of material together. I cannot even begin to touch upon all of the people, states and incidents that are detailed and explored here. After reading this work I feel that I have a lucid picture of what once seemed like a hopelessly obscure time. 

In addition Tuchman is a really good writer who uses metaphor and incisive analysis to stimulate the reader. The way that she describes all of the political and social twists and turns make this a very entertaining book. This work is a great read for anyone interested in this period or in the story of Western Civilization in general.


I have read a couple of other good books specifically about the Bubonic Plague. The Great Mortality by John Kelly is a riveting and informative account of the Black Death and its devastating effect upon Europe. 

In the Wake of Plague by Norman F. Cantor is not really an account of the plague itself. Rather it is a scholarly account of the political, economic and legal aftereffects and consequences of the plague. Though I enjoyed Cantor’s book very much, I only recommend it for serious history geeks such as myself.



40 comments:

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Froissart's history is very much worth reading, too. And I will bet a bit easier to follow having read Tuchman first.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - Tuchman makes multiple references to Froissart in this work. She has generally high praise for his work. I would have thought that a modern translation would be a little dry.

Ryan said...

The Great Mortality is the best I've ever read on the subject of the plague.

I love this era of history specifically this century. So much happened in this 100 year span, it's difficult to express the importance it had on the fermentation of Western Europe and the coming Renaissance.

I haven't read this one yet. I'm going to pick this up ASAP. Thanks for the tip.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ryan - Indeed it was such an important time but an eventful time. The little European states and principalities were so packed together and contentious that it is so hard to keep even the major events straight. This book goes a long way toward clearing confusion.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

No, Froissart's awesome. Or at least the awesome parts are awesome. Come to think of it I have only read an abridgment - maybe a third of the whole, maybe less. Whatever is in the Penguin Classics edition. I should try to read the rest someday.

Tom Cunliffe said...

Absolutely fascinating becuse it's an era which is not written about very often. A time of endless wars and high taxation eh? Sounds rather familiar. It must have been horrendous for the little people

Caroline said...

Very fascinating. It's an era I'm interested in but would really not have wanted to live in... Plagues and epidemics tend to turn people into fanatics. Add superstition ... Creepy but interesting.

Brian Joseph said...

Hello Tom C - I too thought about today's political situation concerning taxation and wars. It has been an issue throughout human civilization!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - I must really give Froissart a try!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Your comment made me think of the supposed ancient curse, "May you live in interesting times" :)



Harvee Lau said...

Calamitous is a good word to use in the title. Glad I did not live in those "interesting" times.

Sharon Henning said...

Really good review. I love reading these kinds of books.

It is very sad how conflicting power mongers caused so much misery for the common person although at the same time one has to look at where civilization came from not where we are now.

The medieval ages were more orderly than the barbaric hordes they rose from.

Of course we see our own era as better off but even a cursory glance at current events shows that for much of the world, things haven't changed so much.

Miguel said...

This sounds like a fascinating history book, Brian; thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - The plague really put the icing on the cake and made a bad situation calamitous.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I think that you raise a really good point. Medieval times, as bad as they were really were better then many of the past ages. I believe that this is true of our own time if one looks at the big arc of history.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Miguel - It is definitely interesting if one is interesting in European history.

JaneGS said...

Oh wow! Thanks a lot, now I want to drop everything and read this book...of course, it's been on my shelves unread for years, but it sounds perfect for my current interests. Great review, Brian--you've really whetted my appetite.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jane!

I know the feeling of having books sitting around forever that I really want to read!

Based upon your tastes I really think that you would like this one. I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

Michelle @ The True Book Addict said...

Great review! I'm thinking I may own this book. I have a ton of non-fiction on my shelves that I really need to get to. This sounds like one I should read. If I don't have it, I will be looking to add it, or at least check it out at the library.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Michelle - I thought that I was the only who was not sure which books that I owned or not! If you do read this I would love to hear your take on it.

Rachel Bradford said...

This sounds like an excellent history. I'm interested in the period, especially books that delve into culture (as this one seems to). I've always found culture (and plagues!) more interesting than war as far as history goes. That is, I'm interested in the cultural causes and impacts of war, but not so much in strategy/battles.

This book looks like something I'd really enjoy.

seraillon said...

Brian -

I've had this one on my TBR list for going on 20 years now, and I'm grateful to you and your fine post for bringing it back to my attention. I was always impressed by Tuchman's reputation as an autodidact, and look forward to reading her work.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - It is amazing just how well rounded a historian Tuchman is. There is a fair amount about battles and evan strategy in this book. There is also a lot about culture. But there is also a lot about how the warfare of the time influenced culture.

I think that ultimately you would enjoy this even if you were bored with some short segments.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Serrallion - Indeed Tuchman has a great reputation. I believe that she has done much scholarship on World War I but I have not read anything other then this book.

Guy Savage said...

I have never heard a negative thing about this book, and I've come across many people who've read it--that doesn't include me.

Never heard of the Knight you mentioned before.

Have you read Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year? I love that book. It reads as though it's non fiction, an eye witness account which it couldn't be. Great stuff!

Brian Joseph said...

I have not read Defoe's book. I will try to add it to my TBR.

Coucy was a minor historical character at best. Tuchman chose to chronicle his experiences since there was ample historical material and since his travels and experiences were vast and somewhat comprehensive. It allowed her to include a personal narrative in the book.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

Interesting book - what terrible times! It's always fascinating to read about history and how it influenced the arts. I admit to not having read any books about the plague as my interests lay more towards the 17th and 18th century.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - I think that may of us would say that much of out focus has been later centuries and also on antiquity. It seems, at least in my mind the tears between the fall of the Roman Empire and the 16th century are somewhat shrouded.

I agree about history and art and believe that it works both ways, art also influences history!

Guy Savage said...

Brian: I think you can get it free for the kindle

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - Thank!

I looked it up on Project Gutenberg and I can get it free. I think that I will download it!

Richard said...

Have wanted to read this for years, Brian, but have yet to get around to it. Thanks for the enthusiastic recommendation and reminder!

BookBelle said...

“Whatever solace the Christian faith could give was balanced by the anxiety it generated.”

Well, bingo! Nothing much has changed in religion then.

I could never commit to reading history the way you do right now but I do see myself rocking away my old age with books like this. I seriously thought it would be the Bible, but now I'm thinking it needs to be history books.

As usual, a most excellent review.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Richard - It seems that this book has been on many people's TBR. I stumbled on it somewhat randomly. It is more famous that I initially thought.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Belle - There is so much interesting to read. I think that both the Bible as well as history are worthwhile. They can be difficult however. I would say with history that one should find what is intereting to them. There are so many directions that one can go,

I agree about religion. In some ways it has had an enormously positive impact, but is has also created so much conflict and strife.

Parrish Lantern said...

Will mirror the comments that this seems a fascinating read, it reminds of a book about the Medici's(series of 2)I read a while ago but whose authors name escapes. Great post & congrats on the year.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Parish - Thanks for the good word! The Medici's were certainly a fascinating family. I think that one would learn a lot reading about them.

Séamus Duggan said...

This is one of my favourite books, let alone history books. Tuchman engages with the story and characters while painting incredibly vivid historical tableaux. I'd also recommend The Journal of a Plague Year, although it is based during a later outbreak. It was certainly an influence on Camus and it's mixing of history and fiction still feels modern.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Seamus - Gut also had really good things to say about The Journal of a Plague Year. I really must give it a try.

I assume that top some extent it influenced Camus's The Plague? I really thought that was an extraordinary book.

Séamus Duggan said...

Hi Brian - Yes, I meant that it influenced Camus' The Plague and after initial confusion realised Gut is just Guy in disguise. I'm looking forward to browsing your blog which looks v. interesting, by the way.

Brian Joseph said...

Ha, Ha! My horrendous typing! My apologies Guy for mangling your name!