- Paperback: 784 pages
- Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reissue edition (July 12, 1987)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0345349571
- ISBN-13: 978-0345349576
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.6 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 594 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #17,840 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century Paperback – July 12, 1987
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In this sweeping historical narrative, Barbara Tuchman writes of the cataclysmic 14th century, when the energies of medieval Europe were devoted to fighting internecine wars and warding off the plague. Some medieval thinkers viewed these disasters as divine punishment for mortal wrongs; others, more practically, viewed them as opportunities to accumulate wealth and power. One of the latter, whose life informs much of Tuchman's book, was the French nobleman Enguerrand de Coucy, who enjoyed the opulence and elegance of the courtly tradition while ruthlessly exploiting the peasants under his thrall. Tuchman looks into such events as the Hundred Years War, the collapse of the medieval church, and the rise of various heresies, pogroms, and other events that caused medieval Europeans to wonder what they had done to deserve such horrors.
“Beautifully written, careful and thorough in its scholarship . . . What Ms. Tuchman does superbly is to tell how it was. . . . No one has ever done this better.”—The New York Review of Books
“A beautiful, extraordinary book . . . Tuchman at the top of her powers . . . She has done nothing finer.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Wise, witty, and wonderful . . . a great book, in a great historical tradition.”—Commentary
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14th century France managed to combine possibly the worst of all possible outcomes. After the political and military triumphs of Philip the Fair (IV) in the early years of the century, a lengthy period of dynastic uncertainty continued throughout the period, with only the reign of Charles V to demonstrate rare competence in government.
France, probably more than any other, was a prisoner of chivalry as the Middle Ages waned. This meant that knightly valor overwhelmed simple good sense as demonstrated again and again and again during four spectacular military disasters, Crecy, Poitiers, Nicopolis and Agincourt. In each case the French were overwhelmed by the failure of their own tactics and an inability to understand the need to sacrifice glory, the knight's prerogative for the expediency of developing formations and tactics that could respond to superior English long bows and superior Turkish tactics. The Hundred Years lasted as long as it did due an insistence of the French nobility on fighting as its enemy preferred it to fight, rather than in a way likely to ensure victory.
Tuchman uses the French nobleman Enguerrand de Coucy as the prism to view the century's disasters. His father died at Crecy, he died after Nicopolis in Turkish hands. In between he married a daughter of Edward III, served the realm in diplomatic and military capacities and survived the plague that decimated Europe.
It is appropriate for Tuchman to use a member of the nobility as her "every man" as this is the class that had the greatest impact on French and English history during this period. This impact was not necessarily a positive one, with rebellions and treason being more routine than bathing. Moral guidelines are generally absent with the Catholic Church torn by the spectacle of two, sometimes three, popes during the great schism. While the Kings were sometimes mad, the nobility was generally bad.
This is a marvelous book which I forgot just how good it was, having last picked it up in 1979. The 14th century is a place worth encountering through Tuchman's prose.
One opinion I will offer: it's not necessary to have any background knowledge about Middle Ages Europe to enjoy this book, but at least a passing familiarity with culture, social structures, and terminology will make it a bit easier to comprehend. In other words, I would recommend reading one or two shorter, less involved pieces on the subject before starting this book, so that you can enjoy this master work to its fullest.
I've read this twice and predict a third time coming soon. It's fascinating how power was wielded even then. More muscle than brain, but when those were combined in one person, things really moved for them.