A Distant Mirror

by Barbara Wertheim

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century quickly reveals that its author had a remarkable ability to assimilate bits of historical data into a lively and coherent depiction of a perplexing era. The work is a compendium of medieval lore and beliefs, not merely a biography of the sire of Coucy or a rehashing of major events and movements of his age. It gives all sorts of details about the different classes: their habits, occupations, recreations, beliefs, and superstitions. It is also packed with insightful hypotheses about the whys and wherefores of fourteenth century life, not merely in the self-conceptions recorded for posterity by those who lived it but also in what remained unsaid or simply unrecorded. For example, Tuchman ponders the fact that the writings of the age direct little or no attention to children or to the parental role of adults, then offers the tentative explanation that because the mortality rate among children was very high, they were not, on the whole, the focus of adult concern. Caring about them was simply too risky.

She also advances a theme that she would later more thoroughly develop in The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984)—the seemingly perverse inability of the wielders of power to change policy in the face of incontrovertible evidence that the policy was disastrous. For example, class arrogance, evidenced by the contempt in which knights held common foot soldiers, contributed to the rapid decline of both feudalism and chivalry, as did the foolish policies of their leaders.

Against the stubborn inflexibility of the lords temporal and spiritual, Enguerrand VII is used as a sort of wise but sadly ineffectual foil precisely because he was much closer to embodying the ideals of his age than many of his contemporaries of rank who blatantly betrayed them. He was a competent soldier and trusted diplomat, resourceful, honest, and forthright, a man who gave good counsel to his superiors, who, with unfortunate results, all too often ignored it. In an age and place not characterized by reasonable and temperate policies, he repeatedly revealed good sense, sober judgment, and a remarkable degree of selflessness. In the final analysis, because his military and diplomatic triumphs were undone by the monumental pigheadedness of his superiors, he is almost tragic.

Although nature’s devastation played a significant part in the decline of the medieval world, the most important cause, Tuchman argues, was a loss of faith, not in God but in the ruling class. Rebellion in both church and state became endemic in the fourteenth century, as princes and prelates repeatedly demonstrated the shortsightedness that Tuchman elsewhere argues has characterized the policy of governments at critical historical times.

That she has made this distant time palatable for the average reader is a credit to her great skills as a writer. She manages to balance nicely the larger concerns of international diplomacy and war with details about the routine activities of largely anonymous people, the common folk. Despite the scope of her study, she avoids tediousness, not because all her facts are of interest but because her style is charged with wit and a disarming geniality that sustains curiosity. Professional historians with such an engaging style have been all too rare.

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