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.