I tend not to read non-fiction very often, but Barbara W Tuchman’s 1978 history of the 14th century, A Distant Mirror, is one I’ve been intending to read for years. It looked like such a long book, and I’d heard that it was also a very detailed one, so I knew I would need to pick the right time to read it – and that time came at the beginning of April this year. It took me all of that month to read it, but I actually found it a much easier read than I’d expected, due partly to the style of Tuchman’s writing and partly, of course, to the 14th century being so fascinating!
I couldn’t possibly list everything that this book covers, but here are some of the topics it explores: the Hundred Years’ War, the conflict between England and France usually dated as beginning in 1337 and ending in 1453 and including the Battles of Crecy and Poitiers; the Black Death which ravaged Europe and then reared its head again and again throughout the rest of the century; the Papal Schism which resulted in a split within the Catholic Church; and the Peasants’ Revolt in England and the similar uprising, the Jacquerie, which occurred in France. A lot of destruction, disaster and devastation, but the book is subtitled The Calamitous 14th Century, after all, and – as Tuchman points out – it tends to be the negative rather than the positive which survives in historical records. It is not really necessary to have any prior knowledge of any of these things before you begin, as Tuchman does take the reader through everything you need to know and more.
In an attempt to pull all of these different threads together, Tuchman uses the life of a French nobleman, Enguerrand de Coucy, as a central point of focus. There are a few reasons for her choice of this particular historical figure: not only did he live through most of the major events of the 14th century (being born in 1340 and dying in 1397), but his noble status means that he appears in historical records and sources, and as the husband of Isabella, daughter of Edward III of England, he had close connections with both the English and the French. When I first started reading, I really liked the idea of seeing the century from one man’s perspective, but actually this aspect of the book wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped. There are whole chapters where Enguerrand is barely mentioned, and others where I felt that too much attention was given to him and his actions when other people or incidents might have been more interesting.
Of course, as well as Enguerrand de Coucy, we do hear about lots of other historical figures of the period – such as Charles the Bad of Navarre, whose horrific-sounding death sticks in the mind! I enjoyed reading about some of the notable women of the time, including the poet Christine de Pisan; Marcia Ordelaffi, left to defend the city of Cesena in her husband’s absence; and in particular, Jeanne de Montfort (Joanna of Flanders), who also proved herself more than capable in moments of crisis:
When Charles de Blois besieged Hennebont, she led a heroic defence in full armour astride a war-horse in the streets, exhorting the soldiers under a hail of arrows and ordering women to cut short their skirts and carry stones and pots of boiling pitch to the walls to cast down upon the enemy. During a lull she led a party of knights out a secret gate and galloped a roundabout way to take the enemy camp in the rear, destroyed half their force and defeated the siege.
War is, understandably, a major theme of the book, as is religion, but Tuchman also covers almost every other aspect of 14th century life you can think of, from food, clothing and housing to music, literature and entertainment. She often goes off on a tangent, for example starting with a description of a visit by the Holy Roman Emperor to the French court then digressing to talking about miracle plays and how they were performed. There are interesting discussions of medieval artwork and why there were so few pictures of children, of the decline of chivalry and the changing role of the knight, and all sorts of odd snippets of information – did you know that during one of France’s failed attempts to invade England they tried to transport an entire portable wooden town across the sea to house the invaders in when they landed?
The book’s title, A Distant Mirror, suggests the mirroring of 14th century events by more recent ones, and Tuchman does draw some parallels with her own century, the 20th, particularly with reference to the two World Wars:
For belligerent purposes, the 14th century, like the 20th, commanded a technology more sophisticated than the mental and moral capacity that guided its use.
She also compares World War I and its effect on society with the devastation caused throughout medieval Europe by the plague:
An event of great agony is bearable only in the belief that it will bring about a better world. When it does not, as in the aftermath of another vast calamity in 1914-18, disillusion is deep and moves on to self-doubt and self-disgust.
However, I’m sure links and similarities could be found between any two periods in history if you looked for them, so I would have liked more specific examples and analysis of why the author considered the 14th century in particular to be ‘a distant mirror’.
I know this sort of long, detailed, in-depth account is not for everyone, especially if you’re not as interested in medieval history as I am, but I enjoyed it and felt that I got a lot out of it. If anyone else has read this book, I would love to know what you thought.