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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

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


697 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, ISBN-13: 978-0394400266

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman is an in-depth look at the chaotic 1300s in Europe, using the life of the French nobleman Enguerrand de Coucy VII as its narrative vehicle. The author chose this particular individual because he lived a relatively long life and could, therefore, stay in the story during most of the tale (Coucy was born in 1340, seven years before the Black Death began in southern Italy, and died in 1397). Additionally, he was also close to much of the action described in the book, tied to both France and England, for while Coucy was a French nobleman, he was also married to Isabella, the eldest daughter of King Edward III of England. Now, if the idea of following the life and biography of an obscure 14th Century French lord you’ve probably never heard of turns you off to the idea of this book, be not afraid, for Tuchman is an absolute master at her work and manages to make Coucy’s life deeply interesting and entertaining, while using the larger narrative to talk about every aspect of 14th Century life in griping detail.

Tuchman’s focus is the “Crisis of the Late Middle Ages”, suffered by Europe in the 14th Century. Drawing heavily on Froissart’s Chronicles, Tuchman recounts (wait for it): The Hundred Years’ War; The Black Death; The Papal Schism; bands of pillaging mercenaries; rabid anti-Semitism; popular revolts, including the Jacquerie in France; The Liberation of Switzerland; The Battle of the Golden Spurs; widespread peasant uprisings against laws that enforced the use of hops in beer; and, The Battle of Nicopolis which saw the advance of the Islamic Ottoman Empire into Europe. Yet Tuchman’s scope is not limited to political and religious events. She begins with a discussion of the Little Ice Age, a change in climate that reduced the average temperature of Europe until the 18th Century (remember that little nugget the next time some SJW tells you that climate change is “unprecedented”), and describes the lives of all social classes, from nobles and clergymen to the peasantry.

Tuchman was a truly entertaining writer, and I love how she shows her work as she goes along and grounds sources before using them by warning the reader as to how accurate and/or unbiased the source is understood to be (one terribly amusing anecdote of a brigand company shaking down the Pope for money is prefaced with the note that “it has been said of Cuvelier that ‘the tyranny of rhyme left him little leisure for accuracy’”). And while this is absolutely a history book, it reads just as fluidly and fascinatingly as a novel. I left with nothing but admiration for this book and the feeling that Tuchman had made a really large and complex subject very accessible to the lay-person.

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