Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror

Sunday I spent most of Sunday doing chores, putting items up for sale online, napping and reading. In short, being very, very boring. But I finished Barbara Tuchman‘s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century which is very, very interesting.

Distant mirror

This is the second of her works I have read, the first being The March of Folly. Tuchman has a gift for writing readable history that is packed with facts, but never as dry as academic tomes of equal research and weight. Her histories are focused on the people, the characters of the time and their influence on events. Thus she makes her extremely well-researched past come alive. She does not try to extrapolate or make suppositions about them, but let them and their contemporaries speak for them and what we can know about their characters. Even with this (which the extensive research helps), they still come alive, showing that very often, real history is just as or even more entertaining than anything a fictional writer or Hollywood can dream up.

The 1300’s was the century of the Black Death, the Great Famine of 1315 to 1317, the beginning and majority of the Hundred Years War, the Papal Schism, the last push by the Islamic Turks into Europe which laid the groundwork for the Ottoman Empire, and peasant revolts in England, France and Italy. Combined with often arrogant leadership who were focused on their political and personal egos and intrigues, hung up on their antiquated and hypocritical notions of chivalry, they were unable or unwilling to cope with the changing political and social realities, the 14th century was the epitome of the apocryphal “Chinese Curse,” “May you live in interesting times.”

Tuchman explores the history / tells the story through the life of a French noble who, while not royalty, became a major player in the various international conflicts. Enguerrand (VII) de Coucy lived from 1340 to 1397 and seems to have navigated the dangerous waters of the French Court, the English and French conflict, and the Papal and Italian City states without pissing anyone off (except the peasantry). Nor does the book fixate on the nobility, but tracks social movements of the time. Apologies to Europeans who probably already know this, but she points out that the Black Death had created a labor shortage which started to give the peasantry the upper-hand, but the nobility shoved them back into their serf and serf-like roles. They shoved them hard. Between this, the unsupportable burdens of taxation, lack of protection from the sacking of towns and cities in war and roving band of mercenaries/bandits, and the Papal Schism and the avarice and corruption of the church, the people just lost faith with the institutions of society they had lived with for hundreds of years. The voices of both the downtrodden people and the disillusioned clergy began to speak out. They were put down viciously, but the seeds of the Reformation and the humanistic Renaissance were first planted in this century.

It is a fascinating story written in an engaging fashion. Much more so that most books of equal academic standing. If one is interested in this period of history, it really is a “must read.”



4 thoughts on “Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror

  1. “She does not try to extrapolate or make suppositions about them,”
    This is important to me in a history book. There seems to be a trend in publishing speculation as facts, or at least without any indication that what is written is someone’s pet theory and not universally accepted. I know there are things that we can’t know for sure but there are still plenty of solid historical resources that tell us what actually happened. As someone with limited knowledge of the subject, I don’t have the expertise to discern fact from conjecture.

    • Me too. It’s unnecessary and tempts the writer to be impartial in what research they include or dismiss and even project their own personality onto the historical people. And as you say with sufficient research, it is often unnecessary. Tuchman sticks with, “He was here, he did this, he said this.” She relies heavily in Froissart’s chronicle and when she feels he maybe biased, she notes it. She wanders into questions sometimes, but not suppositions. For instance, Coucy only had one child with his first wife, a daughter who could not be an heir of his extensive holdings. Then after her death he married a girl thirty years younger than he and spent most of his time away from her, having only one more daughter. Tuchman notes this is odd, but not speculate further. She often does not have to speculate on motivation because the historical people tell her what they are. For instance, much of the motivation for continuing the Hundreds Year war was simply pride, and she knows this because the people pushing for it said so. “For the honor of France! Blah, blah, blah.” (I paraphrase.)

  2. If this were the IMDb boards I’d be shouting COUCY WAS GAY! Tuchman would possibly reply “Maybe, but there’s no evidence”, then I’d yell HOMOPHOBE!

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