Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Barbara Tuchman began her study of fourteenth century Europe to learn what impact the Black Death (1348-1350) had on medieval society. She soon discovered that the great plague was but one of the calamities that afflicted the ill-fated century, and she expanded her research into other major upheavals, including the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, the Great Schism in the Catholic church, the rise of religious dissent, and the decline of feudalism and chivalry.

To give her resulting study a locus, she chose a representative historical figure, Enguerrand VII, as her nominal subject. The last dynastic sire of Coucy, Enguerrand was an important player in the diplomatic maneuvering in the second half of the century, but because he was neither king nor emperor and thus was of limited interest to medieval chroniclers, many of the details of his life are at best sketchy. At various points in her history, Tuchman can only make provocative guesses as to Enguerrand’s role or even his whereabouts.

His life provides only the warp of the author’s intricate and splendid historical tapestry. The woof is made up of major events in Western Europe, especially Anglo-French relations and the power struggles within France and the Church. These are treated chronologically and for the first third of the book do not directly involve Enguerrand. He was, after all, only a child when the Black Death spread through Europe, so Tuchman only records the...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Tuchman deals with the fourteenth century honestly, recognizing that the shakers and movers of the time were almost exclusively male. She does, however, give greater concern to the role women played than most works centering on the political history of the Middle Ages. She pays considerable attention to a few important women—the headstrong Isabella, for example, and Catherine of Siena—and in places depicts the lot of ordinary women as they trudged through perilous times toward anonymous graves. She does not suggest, however, that women were particularly victimized in a world that largely excluded them from power and influence.

Her importance to the cause of women lies more in her achievements in a field dominated by men than in the focus of her various works. Her success as a popular historian did not win her much notice in academic departments, despite the fact that two of her works—The Guns of August (1962) and Stilwell and the American Experience in China (1971)—garnered Pulitzer Prizes.

This lack of validation was in part due to the fact that she lacked the necessary academic credentials. For all of her great skill as a researcher and writer, in her career she remained only on the fringes of formal scholarship, holding no academic appointment. Although she studied history and literature at Radcliffe College, she took nonteaching positions as researcher, correspondent, and free-lance journalist. Along the way she also was married and reared three children, proving that a resourceful and talented woman could meet traditional expectations and still gain great distinction in a field with definite biases against even those women having the formal credentials for admission to its inner circles. For more than two decades, Tuchman produced important works on diverse historical periods, solidly researched and brilliantly written, and in the process she outclassed most of her formally trained counterparts.

A Distant Mirror

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

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...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Blamires, Alcuin, ed. Woman Defamed and Woman Defended. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1992. This anthology excerpts medieval texts from anti-and pro-feminist writers from Ovid to Chaucer and John Gower. It is an excellent sourcebook for those who wish to study and document the widespread ambiguity toward women in medieval thought.

Gies, Frances, and Joseph Gies. Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages. New York: Harper & Row, 1987. This study surveys the reformulation of marriage codes and practices through the early, high, and late Middle Ages, showing the evolution of family concept and the significance of blood ties in the social, cultural, economic, and political spheres.

Gies, Frances, and Joseph Gies. Women in the Middle Ages. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1980. Presented in two parts, this study first gives the historical and cultural context for the lives of specific women dealt with in the second part. All classes are represented, from Blanche of Castile to the hypothetical wife of Piers Plowman. The work is an excellent introduction to the role of women in medieval society.

Hanawalt, Barbara A. The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. This study offers a detailed account of the morals and mores of the common folk in medieval England, drawing provocative parallels to the present age. It provides an intimate look at people usually ignored in histories of the period.

Herlihy, David. Opera Muliebria: Women and Work in Medieval Europe. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990. A survey of the work done by women of all classes from Roman times through the fifteenth century, this study focuses attention on how their sense of duty and dignity was threatened by the exclusiveness of medieval guilds.

Labarge, Margaret W. A Small Sound of the Trumpet: Women in Medieval Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. A major study of the role of medieval women of all classes, from queens to women on the “fringe” (prostitutes and felons), with a geographic focus on France, England, the Low Countries, and southern Germany.