Barbara W. Tuchman is one of our most distinguished historians, being the author of such previously acclaimed works as The Zimmermann Telegram, The Guns of August, The Proud Tower, and Stilwell and the American Experience in China. She has twice been awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
The extent of the seven years of research for A Distant Mirror is partially indicated by a seventeen-page selective bibliography of sources and by the thirty-four pages of reference notes, both gathered at the end of the volume. The book is divided nearly in half by sixteen chapters in Part One which predominantly relate the conditions of life in the first three quarters of the fourteenth century in France, and the twelve chapters of Part Two which follow the military exploits of Sire Enguerrand de Coucy VII. The author has found it best to concentrate on the details of one person’s life and so provide multiple perspectives. The device is a good one because as we read of armies, battles, wars, crusades, and uprisings, we also appreciate how events shaped one life during those times; we can the better judge and empathize with conditions of a time which the intervening six hundred years may have made relatively inaccessible to us.
Europe in the fourteenth century seems remote, owing primarily, as the author explains in the foreword, to a scarcity of reliable facts, figures, and dates with which to reconstruct the times. For the Middle Ages, the data we do have are inexact, partial, biased, exaggerated, and contradictory. Any objective observer needs to weigh the descriptions and accounts carefully in order judiciously to assess probabilities. Such is the eminently fair attitude Barbara Tuchman has employed in producing a very reasoned and readable re-creation of the 1300’s.
This work’s subtitle is “The Calamitous 14th Century” and the adjective is easily justified by noting such major calamities as: the Hundred Years War between England and France, begun in 1337, which, besides its destruction and strife, continued the political upheaval of the century; the removal of the Papacy to Avignon in 1309, and then the eventual schism in 1378 which divided loyalties of the ruling class as well as of the religious leaders; and the Black Death in 1348 which killed one third of the population of Europe and recurred approximately every twelve years thereafter for the rest of the century. In sum, all authority must have seemed to be defective and the curse of the plague to condemn all human effort.
These three major disturbances are very well described in the first part of the work. In the political arena, we are given interesting facts about the important nobles, as well as being instructed in the governing principles of the time. For example, it was a salient operating fact of politics that intermarriage among the nobles of any area of Europe was exclusively for purposes of political aggrandizement. Thus, specifically, the central figure of this book, Enguerrand de Coucy VII of France, was married to the daughter of Edward III of England because Coucy was a very important nobleman with extensive properties and income. The most important political theory of those days had to do with the concept of chivalry. Soldiering was made fitting for nobles by a creed which exalted their mission. They became knights with the high ideals of bringing aid to the oppressed, safeguarding the virtue of women, overcoming terrible foes, and doing all for a high religious cause. As with all war propaganda, however, time after time we are shown that in the battles neither side was more moral, neither was more courageous, neither gave more genuine service to the chivalric codes than the other. Furthermore, the winning of battles was more a result of chance than anything else; and the outcome of most of the fighting was largely inconclusive. Nevertheless, we receive a strong general impression: warring, pillaging, and ruthlessness were never more rampant than in the fourteenth century. It was almost a necessary condition of human life.
In the disturbances within the Catholic Church during the fourteenth century, not only was there no clear leadership or order among the prelates, but the spiritual meaning of religion was either abandoned or neglected in favor of material and political benefits for the clergy. Like the nobility, the clergy lived by oppressing the common people. Both ruling classes taxed the people excessively and constantly, to the point of causing minor revolts. Furthermore, the church became so thoroughly materialistic that it sold everything from small bones supposed to be the relics of some saint to special dispensations for the forgiveness of almost any sin. Religion was a business as well as a “government.” So it was that the nobles attempted to give high moral purpose to what was essentially a base human instinct for aggression, while the clergy was busy turning high moral purpose into oppressive avarice of its own. The results were the same in both cases: the lower classes suffered greatly.
With the physical destruction accompanying the plagues, the chaos of the century must have seemed complete, and indeed Barbara Tuchman says that common people were sure that the wrath of God was upon them and that they were doomed. Details of the first epidemic, called the Black Death, which lasted two years, 1348-1350, include the facts that the disease was bubonic plague and, as we now know, was carried by rats from the ships and then to human beings by way of fleas that infested the rats. The symptoms were horrible, including the black sores that gave the plague its name. Death...