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A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

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The 14th century gives us back two contradictory images: a glittering time of crusades and castles, cathedrals and chivalry, and a dark time of ferocity and spiritual agony, a world plunged into a chaos of war, fear and the Plague. Barbara Tuchman anatomizes the century, revealing both the great rhythms of history and the grain and texture of domestic life as it was lived.

714 pages, Paperback

First published September 21, 1978

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About the author

Barbara W. Tuchman

58 books1,817 followers
Barbara Wertheim Tuchman was an American self-trained historian and author and double Pulitzer Prize winner. She became best known for The Guns of August (1962), a history of the prelude and first month of World War I.

As an author, Tuchman focused on producing popular history. Her clear, dramatic storytelling covered topics as diverse as the 14th century and World War I, and sold millions of copies.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,831 reviews
Profile Image for Kalliope.
691 reviews22 followers
September 25, 2015

What an extraordinary read it is when one book is as action packed as thirty riveting novels. And if it also contains rich and erudite disquisitions and is narrated in a language as clear and flowing as water from a spring, then the volume must be given a preferential place in one’s library.

I am not too keen of including quotes in my reviews. But given the amount of material that marshals in front of one’s eyes, as colorful as overwhelming pageants and breathtaking jousts, and as dense as the tightly woven wefts and warps of a tapestry, there is no way I could attempt to give a glimpse with my own words of what Barbara Tuchman has achieved with this book.

But before I present the quote, I would like to draw attention to how shrewd Tuchman has been in the choice of her subject. As she explains in her early pages, she set herself to follow one particular character as he lived during a period in history when the actors were on the count of hundreds, and thereby keep one's focus and walk through the maze and the turmoil without getting lost.

Enguerrand de Coucy VII was a member of the French nobility at a time when ‘French’ could also mean ‘English’. Enguerrand in fact acted as both French and English as he had acquired double allegiance: to his own King and to the King and father of his wife. And this he did when the two Kingdoms were at war; a war that would last for over one hundred years. Opportunely Enguerrrand is well documented by one of the most striking chroniclers of the time, Jean Froissart. As nothing had been written about him in English before Tuchman, she had found a gold vein for her research and pen to exploit.

Here stops my explanation. It is time now for the quote. This passage is better than an the Index to offer a glimpse to that Distant Mirror that Tuchman has approached to us for our close examination.

Since he (Enguerrad de Coucy) had first marched at fifteen against the English, and at eighteen hunted down the Jacquerie, the range of Coucy’s experience had extended over an extraordinary variety of combat, diplomacy, government, and social and political relationships. As son-in-law of Edward III, holding double allegiance to two kings at war, his position had been unique. He had seen war as captain or one of the to command in eleven campaigns—in Piedmont, Lombardy, Switzerland, Normandy, Languedoc, Tuscany, northern France, Flanders, Guelders, Tunisia, Genoa; he had commanded mercenaries, and fought as ally or antagonist of the Count of Savoy, Gregory XI, Hawkwood, the Visconti, the Hapsburgs, the Swiss, Navarrese, Gascons, English, Berbers, the Republic of Florence, and nobles of Genoa. As diplomat he had negotiated with Pope Clement VII, the Duke of Brittany, the Count of Flanders, the Queen of Aragon, with the English at peace parleys, and the rebels of Paris. He had had one temperamental and extravagant wife eight years his senior, and a second approximately thirty years his junior. He had served as adviser and agent of the two royal Dukes, Anjou and Orléans, as Lieutenant–General of Picardy and later of Guienne, as member of the Royal Council, as Grand Bouteiller of France, and had wtice been the preferred choice for a Constable. He had known and dealt with every kind of character from the ultra-wicked Charles of Navarre to the ultra-saintly Pierre de Luxemburg.

If to the above adventures, narrated ever so smoothly, one is to add the excellent studies of various chapters of Material Life in late Medieval Europe, that help us to shorten the Distance of the Mirror and make reflections become what is reflected, then one can begin to imagine the sheer pleasure that this book offers to whoever decides to open up its pages and read it.

As it is often claimed, Tuchman may not be a historian of the academic breed, but in this account she has demonstrated her excellent narrative abilities that many historians and novelists would just love to command as well as she.

Profile Image for William2.
758 reviews3,080 followers
April 7, 2019
A vivid and detailed look into a lost world. The major players are The Black Death, The Hundred Years War, the sick, uproarious joke of chivalric valor, The Papal Schism, ruinous taxation, serfdom, petty feudal institutions, the utter absence of reason, murderous vengeance, horrendous peculation, brigandry, subjection of women, endless cruelty of mankind, crusade against the "infidel," and so on. A GR friend said that he was disappointed in this book because it did not offer the narrow focus and sleek thematic underpinnings of Tuchman's The March of Folly. I see his point. It should be noted, however, that Folly is a very different kind of book. Folly is a deft study of the almost systematic loss of rational method leaders experience once they are dazzled by the trappings of ultimate power. A Distant Mirror brings before the reader an almost encyclopedic survey of the late Middle Ages. Reading it is like being in thrall to an endless film loop of natural disasters, pitiless murders, and roadside accidents. Tuchman brings order to this concatenation of relentless self-woundings so that try as we might we cannot look away. If there is only one book you read on the Middle Ages it might be this one. It is not for the squeamish or those afraid of the dark. It is not a light beach- or inflight-read. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Glenn Russell.
1,376 reviews12k followers
December 15, 2016

A Distant Mirrorr by Barbara W. Tuchman is, on one level, a seven hundred page encyclopedia of the 14th century’s political, military, religious, social, cultural and economic history. Since Ms. Tuchman is a first-rate writer, on still another level, the book is a compelling, personalized account of individual men and women living through these turbulent, disastrous times, especially one Enguerrand de Coucy V11 (1340-1397), a high-ranking noble, heralded as “the most experienced and skillful of all the knights of France”. The focus on Lord Coucy is supremely appropriate since this nobleman repeatedly pops up as a prime player in many of the century’s key events.

The 14th century witnessed ongoing devastation, including the little ice age, the hundred years’ war, the papal schism, the peasant’s revolt and, most dramatically, the black death of 1348-1350, which depopulated Europe by as much as half. Ms. Tuchman’s book covers it all in twenty-seven chapters, chapter with such headings as Decapitated France: The Bourgeois Rising and the Jacquerie, The Papal Schism, The Worms of the Earth Against the Lions and Dance Macabre.

Many pages are filled with the color and morbidity of the times. By way of example, here is one memorable happening where the French Queen gave a masquerade to celebrate the wedding of a twice widowed lady-in-waiting: six young noblemen, including the King who recently recovered from a bout of madness, disguised themselves as wood savages and entered the masked ball making lewd gestures and howling like wolves as they paraded and capered in the middle of the revelers. When one of the noble spectators came too close with his torch, a spark fell and a few moments later the wood savages, with the exception of the King, were engulfed in flames. Afterwards, the French populace was horrified by this ghastly tragedy, a perverse playing on the edge of madness and death nearly killing their King.

And here is what the author has to say about the young man who concocted the wood savage idea, “The deviser of the affair “cruelest and most insolent of men,” was one Huguet de Guisay, favored in the royal circle for his outrageous schemes. He was a man of “wicked life” who “corrupted and schooled youth in debaucheries,” and held commoners and the poor in hatred and contempt. He called them dogs, and with blows of sword and whip took pleasure in forcing them to imitate barking. If a servant displeased him, he would force the man to lie on the ground and, standing on his back, would kick him with spurs, crying, “Bark, dog!” in response to his cries of pain.” All of the chapters are chock full with such sadistic and violent sketches.

Speaking of the populate, there is plenty of detail on the habits and round of daily life of the common people. And, of course, there is a plethora of detail on the lives of the upper classes. Here is a snippet of one description: “In the evening minstrels played with lutes and harps, reed pipes, bagpipes, trumpets, kettle drums, and cymbals. In the blossoming of secular music as an art in the 14th century, as many as thirty-six different instruments had come into use. If no concert or performance was scheduled after the evening meal, the company entertained each other with song and conversation, tales of the day’s hunting, “graceful questions” on the conventions of live, and verbal games.”

As in any age, it makes for more comfortable living being at the top rather than at the bottom of the social scale. And all those musical instruments speak volumes about how the 14th century was a world away from the plainchant of the early middle ages. In a way, the 14th century musical avant-garde fit in well with the fashions of the times: extravagant headdresses, multicolored, bejeweled jackets and long pointed shoes. For those who had the florins, overindulgence was all the rage.

Ms. Tuchman offers ongoing commentary: for example, regarding military engagement, she cites how the 14th century nobility was too wedded to the idea of glory and riding horses on the battlefield to be effective against the new technology of the long-bow and foot soldiers with pikes. And here is a general, overarching comment about the age, “The times were not static. Loss of confidence in the guarantors of order opened the way to demands for change, and miseria gave force to the impulse. The oppressed were no longer enduring but rebelling, although, like the bourgeois who tried to compel reform, they were inadequate, unready, and unequipped for the task.” Indeed, reading about 14th century economic upheaval one is reminded of Karl Marx’s scathing observations four hundred years later.

On a personal note, my primary interests are literature and philosophy; I usually do not read history. However, if I were to recommend one history book, this is the book. Why? Because Ms. Tuchman’s work is not only extremely well written and covers many aspects of the period’s art, music, literature, religion and mysticism, but the turbulent, transitional 14th century does truly mirror our modern world. Quite a time to be alive.
Profile Image for Beata.
754 reviews1,153 followers
August 7, 2021
I should have read this totally readable thick volume much, much earlier. A most comprehensive and insightful book written in an engaging way.
I recommend it to everyone interested in the Middle Ages.
Profile Image for Matt.
935 reviews28.6k followers
April 26, 2016
My interest in medieval times is not incredibly strong; it is, in fact, relegated mostly to the hope of someday going to a Medieval Times restaurant. I’ve read Ken Follett’s two Kingsbridge novels, and I’ve been to a few Renaissance Fairs in my time (and eaten more than my share of child-sized turkey legs), but beyond that, I’ve never cared much about the Middle Ages.

I read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century not for its subject matter, but because Tuchman wrote it. The winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award, Tuchman was one of the great author/historians of her time, or any time. Her name on the cover demands attention. While A Distant Mirror didn't turn me into an expert in making barley bread or choosing the right kind of alligator for your castle moat, it was nevertheless an utterly fascinating read.

Tuchman’s focus on the 14th Century began with an interest in the Black Death of 1348-1350, which she states killed an estimated one-third of the people “living between India and Iceland.” As she explains in the Forward, Tuchman initially wanted to study the effects of such a disaster on society. In researching the answer to that question, her interest grew to include the entirety of the 1300s, “a violent, tormented, bewildered, suffering and disintegrating age.”

Certainly there was no shortage of turmoil and strife. There was the aforementioned Black Death – the bubonic plague – that caused pus-and-blood-filled buboes (inflamed lymph nodes) to appear on the groin, neck, and armpit. Millions of people died in this, one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. There was constant war between England and France, part of the so-called Hundred Years’ War, which ravaged the countryside and depleted tax bases. There was a Papal Schism, with three men simultaneously claiming that tall white hat. And to cap things off, in 1396, the Ottomans put a decisive end to the Crusade of Nicopolis.

To get an idea of the eventfulness of the 14th Century, let’s take a brief look at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. It pitted the English forces under Edward, the Black Prince, and the French under King John. The English won, and furthermore, captured King John, decapitating the French monarchy. In John’s absence, the bourgeois rose in France, and the Third Estate attempted to establish constitutional control. Meanwhile, mercenary “free companies” scoured the land, plundering and burning. It’s all the bad parts of Westeros, except there are no dragons coming to the rescue. (Conversely, I suppose, there were no dragons to make things worse). All this takes place in just two chapters (out of 27).

Tuchman presents her material with a mixture of thematic sections and chronological sections. Parts of the book are pure overview, touching on what it was like to live during the 14th Century. She describes the lives of peasants and knights and lords; she describes their faith; their clothing; their jobs; their sexual practices (apparently the chastity belt “rests on only the faintest factual support”). The writing is brilliant. Descriptive, alive, witty, and engaging. Take, for instance, her portrait of the peasant:

What was this peasant who supported the three estates on his back, this bent Atlas of the medieval world…Snub-nosed and rough in belted tunic and long hose, he can be seen in carved stone medallions and illuminated pages representing the twelve months, sowing from a canvas seed bag around his neck, scything hay bare-legged in summer’s heat in loose blouse and straw hat, trampling grapes in a wooden vat, shearing sheep held between his knees, herding swine in the forest, tramping through the snow in hood and sheepskin mantle with a load of firewood on his back, warming himself before a fire in a low hut in February. Alongside him in the fields the peasant woman binds sheaves wearing a skirt caught up at the belt to free her legs and a cloth head-covering instead of a hat.

Or try this description of the food at a sumptuous wedding:

The meats and fish, all gilded, paired suckling pigs with crabs, hares with pike, a whole calf with trout, quails and partridges with more trout, ducks and herons with carp, beef and capons with sturgeon, veal and capons with carp in lemon sauce, beef pies and cheese with eel pies, meat aspic with fish aspic, meat galantines with lamprey, and among the remaining courses, roasted kid, venison, peacocks with cabbage, French beans and pickled ox-tongue, junkets and cheese, cherries and other fruit.

I think I hear George R.R. Martin’s tummy grumbling!

The overview sections were my favorite, because I’m more interested in the essence of the 14th Century than in the timeline. That said, her chronological sections are just as engaging, displaying her rare gift for giving life to people who lived hundreds of years ago. In order to anchor her narrative, Tuchman chose a central figure to follow. This man is Enguerrand de Coucy VII. He is like Sean Patrick Flanery in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, showing up and playing a role in a remarkable number of landmark 14th Century events. Tuchman took pains in choosing him, because she wanted:

[N]ot a king or queen, because everything about such persons is ipso facto exceptional, and besides, they are overused; nor a commoner, because commoners’ lives in most cases did not take in the wide range that I wanted; nor a cleric or saint, because they are outside the limits of my comprehension; nor a woman, because any medieval woman whose life was adequately documented would be atypical.

The knock on Tuchman is that she is not a medievalist. That is, she has not devoted her life to getting someone to pay her think about Ye Olden Days. She has been criticized, for among other things, using secondary sources and relying on poor translations. Though I respect the hell out of dogged, elbow-patched professors digging through dusty primary sources, I can’t help but believe that most of this criticism is a mark of Tuchman’s commercial success. Medievalists tend to take themselves rather seriously, so it’s fairly easy to ignore their sniffing (and their dry monographs). If I’m going to have surgery, yes, I want a trained surgeon to do the cutting. But writing about medieval times is not surgery. I feel quite comfortable having a polished writer and historian – if not an expert – guide me through the subject.

Tuchman wrote this book – as the title implies – to compare the catastrophes of the 20th Century with those of the 14th. Her book is an elegant way of saying that in times like these, it’s helpful to remember there have always been times like these. And despite the many sorrows of the 14th Century, Tuchman is keen to remind us – at several points in her story – that for most people, life went on as usual.

A Distant Mirror is thoroughly engaging and consistently excellent reading. It creates its own energy; that is, is got me revved about a subject I never really cared about. Tuchman was a special writer, with that magical ability to make the past feel like the present. Critics have called her out on her anachronisms, but I don’t think it’s anachronistic to recognize that even though these people are distant, they were still human, and in that way, closer to us than we realize.
Profile Image for Hana.
522 reviews300 followers
December 25, 2018
I was a little worried at the start that 600 pages of 14th century history might be, shall we say, a bit too much. There is no denying the book is long and very detailed and at times it was a struggle, but every time I was about to give up after yet another pointless battle Tuchman would come up with a telling detail or surprising insight.

Example: the invention of chimneys in the 14th century made separate bedrooms possible and introduced notions of privacy that had never before been possible in Northern Europe and so she wove her web again, catching me for another hundred pages. There are so many wonderful reviews of this book on Goodreads that I’ll just highlight a few things that struck me as I was reading this masterpiece.

The Black Death

About only thing I knew about the 14th century when I started this book was that this was when the bubonic plague spread across Europe from Asia and I only knew this because I’ve read Connie Willis’ superb Doomsday Book in which a time-traveling historian gets stuck in 1348.

One of the surprises for me was that the plague died down and recurred more than once throughout the terrible century “The Black Death returned for the fourth time in 1388-90. Earlier recurrences had affected chiefly children who had not acquired immunity, but in the fourth round a new adult generation fell under the swift contagion. By this time Europe’s population was reduced to between 40 and 50 percent of what it had been when the century opened.”

If you want to know what happened during the plague and why, and what it meant read A Distant Mirror. If you want to know what it felt like read the Doomsday Book. Better yet, read them both.

The Hundred Years War

Could there be anything more horrifying than the Black Death? Well, yes, actually. Chapter 6 tells the story of the start of the war between France and England that would last for a hundred years. There were more than a few idiots, but no heroes, no chivalrous knights, just ugly opportunists laying waste to their own countryside, killing for no reason, looting, and burning towns to the ground.

In fact, death in every form (famine, war, disease) stalked the 14th century and death personified as a pale horseman or as a hawk-like old hag, was a recurrent image in the art and literature of the era.

Mercenary Bands

England and France were not always fighting. So what was an unemployed knight to do? “Left unemployed by the truce the [mercenary] companies reverted to plundering the people they lately liberated."

One truce with England was immediately followed by six weeks of plunder. Forty villages were robbed and wrecked, inhabitants killed or raped, monasteries and convents burned to the ground. One French nobleman, the Sire de Coucy who plays a central role in the book, tried to rein them in, hanging culprits daily, but against “men habituated to lawless force punishment failed to bring the violence under control.”

Charles V who succeeded to the throne of France in 1364 developed a fairly effective strategy for dealing with the mercenaries, the tarde venus--pack them off to fight still more foreign wars! Repeated spasms of the Hundred Years War, a war in Italy, then more Papal wars, then war against the Berbers, and finally a last bloody Crusade would provide employment and plunder for these rapacious bands--and for some a fitting end.

Knights in Armor

This aspect of medieval times fascinated me as a child; at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art my favorite exhibit was the knights on their great chargers.

But by the 14th century the international code of chivalry was breaking down and the armor and horses were proving surprisingly vulnerable to such innovations as the long bow. Not to mention the fact that many of the knights were far from chivalrous. New strategies were called for.

Slowly, novel approaches towards war were developed. For the aborted 1348 French invasion of England, the French packed a vast prefab camp with numbered panels. “For belligerent purposes, the 14th century, like the 20th, commanded a technology more sophisticated than the mental and moral capacity that guided its use.”

There were a handful of sensible strategists and innovators: "It was in truth the non-chivalric qualities of two hard-headed characters, Du Guescline and Charles V, that brought France back from ruin.”

But old ways and old knights die hard. The final Crusade against the Turks at the end of the 14th century was on balance a catastrophe. "The crusaders of 1396 started out with a strategic purpose in the expulsion of the Turks from Europe, but their minds were on something else. The young men...born since the Black Death and Poitiers and the nadir of French fortunes, harked back to the pursuit of those strange bewitchment, honor and glory. They thought only of being in the vanguard, to the exclusion of tactical plan and common sense...."

Pageantry and the Arts

Not all was grim. For some, the century was a time of plenty—a time when the arts were reborn and new secular themes were suddenly and surprisingly in vogue.

“Ostentation and pageantry...was traditionally the habit of princes. But now in the second half of the 14th century it went to extremes as if to defy the increased uncertainty of life. Conspicuous consumption became a frenzied excess, a gilded shroud over the Black Death and lost battles, a desperate desire to show oneself fortunate in a time of advancing misfortune."

"Charles V's three brothers were all compulsively acquisitive...Each put his own interests above the kingdom's each was given to conspicuous consumption...and each was to produce unsurpassed works of art: The Apocalypse series of tapestries for Anjou; the Tres Riches Heures and Belles Heures illuminated for Berry; and the statues of the Well of Moses and the Mourners for Burgundy."

"Men and women hawked and hunted and carried a favorite falcon, hooded, on the wrist wherever they went, indoors or out--to church, to the assizes, to meals. On occasion huge pastries were served from which live birds were released to be caught by hawks unleashed in the banquet hall."

"In the evening minstrels played with lutes and harps, reed pipes, bagpipes, trumpets, kettle drums, and cymbals. “ Poetry, story-telling and drama were all wildly popular. Literature, written for the first time in the vernacular by masters from Dante to Chaucer, flowered; all was ready for the great leap to print in the next century.

The Papal Schism and Religious Reformation

The 14th century was a time of innovative and sometimes bizarre religious practices, prompted in part by the horrors of plague and wars but also by the Papal schism.

"Of all the strange evils and adversities of the 14th century the effect of the Papal schism on the public mind was among the most damaging. When each Pope excommunicated the followers of the other, who could be sure of salvation? Every Christian found himself under penalty of damnation by one or the other Pope, with no way of being sure that the sacraments of their priest were valid or a sacrilege."

Mystical sects thrived (some of them seriously weird). On the more practical front some, including a notable number of women, banded together to form communities—lay religious orders like the Beguines that provided not only spiritual solace and a chance to do good but also a not inconsiderable degree of protection and autonomy.

Left without solace, without guidance, it must have seemed to far too many ordinary people that there was nowhere sacred to turn. Scientific knowledge was growing, but “could not dispel the sense of a malign influence upon the times. As the century entered its last quarter, the reality and power of demons and witches became a common belief….Women turned to sorcery for the [some of the] same reasons they turned to mysticism. In Paris in 1390 a woman whose lover had jilted her was tried for taking revenge by employing the magical powers of another woman to render him impotent. Both were burned at the stake.”

Among the clergy there were those who became obsessed with witchcraft, demonology and heresy—fueling the fires of the Inquisition. Yet at the same time a novel view of religion was emerging; a vision that empowered the individual’s search for God and meaning. The Bible was translated into the vernacular for the first time. Wyclif and others were challenging the power of the clerics. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century was a natural consequence of default by the Church in the 14th—and the desperate searching of those who felt abandoned by both divine and earthly powers.

Peasant and Middle Class Uprisings

Charles V of France succeeded for a time in his war aims against England, but at the cost of a ravaged and exhausted country. Punishing taxes and mercenary bands oppressed the ordinary peasants and the growing middle class. The stage was set for rebellion.

Tuchman always knows how to give a nuanced view. In the chapter entitled 'The Worms of the Earth Against the Lions' I was just about to cheer wholeheartedly for the weavers of Ghent until I read of the way they in turn oppressed the lower class fullers; and my sympathy was with commoners of Anjou demanding tax relief until "In a frenzy of triumph and unspent wrath, the people rushed to rob and assault the Jews, the one section of society upon whom the poor could safely vent their aggression.”

By the late 1380s defeats in battle, widespread economic malaise, and disenchantment with government had seized Europe. Both England and France were ruled by minors and prey to factions, but the seeds of effective rebellion and reform would lie dormant for many decades more.

Ordinary Life

Tuchman’s ability to paint vivid pictures of a far-away time and place is astonishing. Often, I felt that, like Connie Willis’ time traveler, I had suddenly arrived, transported through the distant mirror….

In a dangerous world night was not a time to be abroad. Even in Paris in the 14th century, “At sundown the curfew bell rang for closing time, work ceased, shops were shuttered, silence succeeded bustle. At eight o'clock, when the Angelus bell signaled bedtime, the city was in darkness. Only the crossroads were lit by flickering candle or lamp placed in a niche holding a stature of Notre Dame or the patron saint of the quarter.”

There were also fascinating bits of social history like these:

"In everyday life women of noble as well as non-noble class found equality of function, if not of status, thrust on them by circumstances. Peasant women could hold tenancies and in that capacity rendered the same kinds of service for their holdings as men. In the guilds, women had monopolies of certain trades....The chatelaine of a castle more often than not had to manage alone when her husband was away."

Although marriage was a sacrament, divorce was frequent and, given the right strings to pull, easily obtained...”lawyers are said to 'make and unmake matrimony to money' and a man might get rid of his wife by giving the judge a fur coat....marriage litigation filled the courts of the Middle Ages.”

Who knew? Certainly not me!

But above all Tuchman’s gifts are her sweeping vision and the poetry of her writing through which we glimpse the wheel of time and human fortunes slowly turning:

"Yet change as always was taking place….Monarchy, centralized government, the national state gained in strength...Seaborne enterprise liberated by the compass was reaching toward the voyages of discovery that were to burst the confines of Europe….Times were to grow worse over the next fifty odd-years until at some imperceptible moment, by some mysterious chemistry, energies were refreshed, ideas broke out of the mold of the Middle Ages into new realms, and humanity found itself redirected."

Four and a half stars, with a half star off because all the battles and political machinations really were a bore, at least for me. Content rating, PG for all the death, destruction, blood and disease.
Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 3 books5,630 followers
August 6, 2018
My grandmother had this book on her shelf for years and I read it as a kid and loved it. Of course, I knew the King Arthur legends and pretended to be a knight in shining armour like any other young boy, but reading about the insanity of this period, the rage of the Black Death that killed 30-60% of the population of Europe, the grappling for power by the French and English competitors, the epic battles...it was a mind-blower and still is. I visited many of the sites since living here in Paris that Tuchman mentions in her book and loved having the context to understand why they were standing...or not. An incredibly vibrant and realistic view of this critical and bloody century in Europe.
By the way, I have been up to see the castle of Chaucy which is the epicenter of this book and, unfortunately, there is precious little to see - the chateau was demolished during the World Wars of the 20th C.
Profile Image for Maziyar Yf.
529 reviews278 followers
July 8, 2022
بی گمان قرن چهارده میلادی ، یکی از هولناک ترین سده های زندگی بشر بوده ، قحطی ، شیوع طاعون یا مرگ سیاه ، جنگ های 100 ساله بین فرانسه و انگلیس ، جنگ های صلیبی ، جنگ اروپاییان با ترکها ، ناامنی ، قتل و غارت ، آزار و اذیت یهودی ها ، انشعاب در کلیسا ، شورش فقیران و کارگران بخشی از حوادث خونبار این قرن بوده اند .
واضح است که چنین سده پر حادثه ای از چشمان تیز خانم تاکمن دور نمانده ، او در این کتاب به صورت مفصل نگاهی انداخته به زندگی مردمان آن سالیان دوردست ، تاکمن تنها به تاریخ کاری نداشته ، او آداب شهسواران ، پادشاه و دربار ، پاپ و کادینال ها ، اشراف و آیین آنها ، معماری و آثار هنری و زندگی را در قرن چهارده دنبال کرده است .
البته خانم تاکمن منحصرا به اروپا پرداخته و کاری به آسیا نابود شده از هجوم چنگیز و تیمورلنگ نداشته است ، اروپای فئودالی ، جایی که پادشاه به کمک اشراف و زمینداران بزرگ حکفرمایی می کرده اند و فرانسه و انگلستان بیشترین حجم کتاب را دربر گرفته اند .
نکته مهم کتاب ارجح بودن قوم و قبیله به کشور بوده ، در حقیقت افراد بیشتر خود را متعلق به قوم می دانستند و مفاهیمی مانند ملیت ، کشور و پرچم در طی این دوران بود که کم کم جان گرفت و به یک حقیقت و اصل تبدیل شد . نویسنده با تیزهوشی خاص خود یکی از اشراف بلند پایه فرانسه به نام آنگران دوکوسی را دنبال کرده و از این راه رابطه دوکوسی با شاه ، طبقه اشراف ، کاردینال ها و البته مردم عادی کوشیده نگاهی جامع و دور از طبقات اجتماعی به انسان قرن چهارده بی اندازد .
کوسی که تاکمن او را عالیجناب می خوانده و از او به عنوان با تجربه ترین و ورزیده ترین شهسوار فرانسوی یاد می کرده ، سمبل و نشانه عقل و خرد و میانه روی در فضای آن دوران بوده است ، اوهمچنین داماد پادشاه انگلستان بوده اما در لحظه حساس به وطن بازگشته و تابعیت انگلیسی خود را پس داده است ، کوسی مرد مذاکره بوده وتنها زمانی به جنگ می پرداخته که گفتگوها دیگر چاره ساز نبوده . او در بیشتر اتفاقات مهم آن دوران هم حاضر بوده و هم نقشی نسبتا اساسی داشته است .
بخش مهمی از جنگهای 100 ساله در قرن چهارده با پیروزی قاطع انگلستان همراه بوده ، انها شمال فرانسه و بندر بسیار مهم کاله را در دست داشتند ، در حقیقت این دوره از جنگها برای فرانسویان فاجعه آمیز بوده ، انگلیسی ها به تدریج اما پیوسته در فرانسه پیشروی کرده و حتی پاریس و اورلئان را تصرف کرده بودند ، اما در قرن پانرده با ظهور دختری 18 ساله به نام ژاندارک فرانسوی ها را متحد کرده و انگلیسی ها به تدریج از فرانسه بیرون رانده شدند . این جنگهای خونین و طولانی اگرچه قحطی و ناامنی فراوان برای فرانسویان همراه داشت اما پس از این جنگهاست که فرانسه به عنوان یک کشور مطرح شد ، فئودالیسم ضعیف شد و ناسیونالیسم به وجود آمد .
اما بزرگترین شوربختی مردمان قرن چهارده ، مرگ سیاه یا طاعون بود که بارها در آسیا و اروپا شیوع پیدا کرد و از مسکو تا لیسبون را درگیر کرد و تلفات چند ده میلیونی به جا گذاشت . اگر چه به گونه ای معجزه آسا میلان یا کراکو گرفتار طاعون نشدند اما شهرهای مهم اروپا مانند ونیز ، فلورانس ، جنوا و ناپل در ایتالیا ، پاریس و لیون در فرانسه ، مادرید ، والنسیا و بارسلون در اسپانیا ، فرانکفورت ، پراگ و وین و حتی لندن آلوده طاعون شدند . تلفات این همه گیری وحشتناک در اروپا را بین 40 – 60 درصد جمعیت کل قاره (بین 60 تا 80 میلیون ) پیش بینی می کنند . طاعون پیامدهای بسیاری برای اروپاییان داشت ، شاید مهمترین آن ترویج خرافات بود ، مردم خواهان مجازات قاتلین مسیح یعنی یهودیان شدند و موج های یهود کشی در سرتاسر اروپا به راه افتاد . یهودیان از فرانسه ، انگلستان و اسپانیا اخراج شدند . بیشتر آنها به مجارستان و لهستان رفته و در آن جا ساکن شدند .همچنین دسته های عزاداری و ریاضت کشها و متعص��ین مذهبی خواهان توبه و استغفار ملت و بازگشت به کلیسا و دعا برای ظهور حکومت مسیح شدند .
اما طاعون در میان خواص باعث ایجاد شک در نقش مذهب ، کلیسا ، حکومت شد ، شک به تدریج به موج پرسشگری تبدیل شد و این موج زمینه را برای عصر روشنگری ، رنسانس و خروج انسان از قرون وسطی آماده کرد .همچنین با کم شدن نیروی کار، کارگران در فلورانس ، لندن و پاریس دست به تظاهرات و اعتصاب زدند و خواهان افزایش دستمزد خود شدند . در حقیقت پس از طاعون رعیت داری در اروپای غربی کاهش اما در شرق اروپا افزایش یافت .
اروپاییان در میان جنگ و عوارض آن و مالیات ، کشمکش های بی امان و فاجعه بار ، جادوگری ، خیانت و طغیان ، قتل ، جنون و بازگشت مداوم سایه شوم طاعون پیاپی گرفتار آمده بودند . در چنین شرایطی انتظار اصلاح آدمیان را نمی توان داشت ، آگاهی از پلیدی به رفتارهای زشت آنان دامن می زد . بنا به گفته خانم تاکمن مردم خود را دستخوش رویدادهایی می دیدند که از اختیارشان بیرون بود ، همچو تخته پاره های کشتی شکسته ای بر آب ، این جا و آن جا ، بازیچه ی امواج جهانی خالی از عقل و عزم بودند . زندگی آنان در دورانی می گذشت که رنج می برد و تقلا می کرد بی آنکه یک گام به پیش بردارد .
اما حتی در چنین دوران تباه و سیاهی ، تغییر بسیار آرام و زیر پوست جامعه در شرف وقوع بوده ، همان سالی که آنتوان دوکوسی در اسارت ترکها بوده و روی وطن خود را دگر ندیده و در غربت جان داده ، در همان سال یوهان گوتنبرگ به دنیا آمده . هر چند فاجعه و بلایای قرن چهارده ، ادامه دار بوده و تا نیمی از قرن پانزده هم امتداد یافته اند ، اما سرانجام در شمال ایتالیا امواج کم نور رنسانس دمید ، و خود را به آهستگی بر سرتاسر قاره نمایاند . بنا به سخن خانم تاکمن گویی قالب قرون وسطی شکسته شد و انسان خود را در راهی نو یافت .
باربارا تاکمن این کتاب سترگ و با شکوه را در سال 1978 به نگارش در آورده ( اگر چه که ترجمه فارسی آن توسط حسن افشار تقریبا 50 سال بعد از انتشار به دست خواننده فارسی زبان رسیده ) در قرن بیستم ، قرنی که همانند قرن چهارده جنگهای بی حاصل بنیاد و زندگی نوع بشر را به لرزه در آورده و بیماری آنفولانزای اسپانیایی شبیه به طاعون تلفاتی چند ده میلیونی به جا گذارده بود . قرنی که سایه جنگ اتمی زندگی انسان را به صورتی کامل تهدید می کرده . در چنین شرایطی کتاب خانم تاکمن با برشمردن انبوه پلیدی ها و سیاهی های قرن چهارده و تشابهات آن با قرن فعلی و قرن گذشته خواننده را به تغییر و بهبود شرایط امیدوار می کند .
Profile Image for Janet Roger.
Author 1 book243 followers
February 24, 2023
One way to get a grip on some history is to take on the personalities of the day. Read around Richard III and - love him or hate him - along the way you’re not only going to get into the foreground detail of the Wars of the Roses, you’ll begin making some sense of the backstory of the Plantagenet dynasty.

It’s the same with Barbara Tuchman’s terrific idea of approaching the war and politics of 14th century Europe, through just one man - Enguerrand de Coucy - whose lifetime fits so perfectly with the story she wants to relate. It’s a stroke of near-genius, and one that brings an intricate account to sparkling life. There is, after all, so much to tell. The towering, imperious Enguerrand is her path to a sweeping review of international power struggle, intrigue and bloody conflict; the persecutions and plagues, dynastic marriages, petty bickering and shattering squabbles of a bare-knuckle century. In this landscape, no-one escapes the fallout when great names act.

The history grips like a vice. The writing of it in A Distant Mirror is magnificent. Read anything at all that Barbara Tuchman puts her pen to
Profile Image for Max.
347 reviews336 followers
June 17, 2016
The Four Horsemen had their way in the fourteenth century. Tuchman portrays a brutal decadent European society terrorized and demoralized by the plague, war, violence and deprivation. She focuses on France, England and the Italian city-states from 1350 to 1400. The religious leaders were hypocritical and profane; the aristocracy was arrogant and venal. Kings, nobles, popes and prelates accumulated fantastic wealth at the expense of everyone else for whom it was the worst of times. The century marked the decline of the Roman Catholic Church’s power, the feudal system and the myth of the chivalrous knight.

The plague killed 1/3rd of the people of Europe between 1347 and 1350. Thereafter, outbreaks recurred regularly. Those afflicted died agonizing deaths although many succumbed quickly. People became unhinged with most believing God was punishing them. Many scapegoats were targeted. Jews were rounded up and executed or driven off to Eastern Europe. Stories of Jews poisoning wells and killing Christian children for their blood (blood libel) became firmly established. Christians lost faith in the Church as priests too hid in fear or charged exorbitant fees to perform last rites. If God had caused the plague or at least didn’t seem to care, what was the point of the Church? Its vast wealth was resented deeply by many. Pope Clement VI had even started the selling of indulgences. When the plague subsided in 1350 fear was replaced by gloom. A pessimism ensued which would last into the next century.

The fight between secular kings and the Papacy was a key conflict of the 14th century. Money and power were at stake. In 1303 King Philip IV of France in conjunction with the anti-papist Italian army captured Pope Boniface VIII, who not surprisingly, soon was dead. Philip felt the many Church fees collected in France were rightfully his. The Pope said Philip was subject to him. The Pope lost. The next Pope, Clement V, set up shop in Avignon and worked hand in glove with Philip. Popes ruled from Avignon from 1307 to 1377 with ever increasing domination by the French kings, which was deeply resented outside of France.

Pope Gregory XI returned the papacy to Rome greatly surprising his benefactor, Charles V of France. Gregory shortly thereafter died. The cardinals in Rome elected Urban VI who they believed they could easily control to stay in Rome. Soon they realized he was crazy. They declared it a mistake and elected Clement VII. But Urban wouldn’t quit and soon Clement found it advisable to relocate in Avignon. Now there were two Popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon, with the Christian world split in its support of the two. Thus began the Papal Schism which lasted until 1417 dividing the Christian world. With two Popes issuing orders, selling indulgences and church offices, and with people blessed by one condemned by the other, the legitimacy of the Church was greatly diminished. The Church would never regain its pre-fourteenth century power and prestige.

The seeds for the reformation were being sown. In England in the 1370’s and 80’s John Wycliffe began openly criticizing the great wealth and ostentation of the Church and formed a following known as the Lollards who carried his message on after he died. Wycliffe translated the bible into Middle English believing the faithful should approach God directly bypassing the priests. His movement foreshadowed the English break with the Church 150 years later.

War between England and France was another key conflict of the fourteenth century. A desire to invade England was one reason Philip needed the church money. But the English King Edward III attacked first. Edward claimed to be the rightful French King but his real goal was to add mainland provinces to his domain. Thus in 1340 began the Hundred Years’ War. The war started badly for the French led by Philip VI with a humiliating defeat at Crecy in 1346. Overconfident French knights charged mindlessly into English infantry whose archers wielded the very effective English longbow. The English longbow with the power to drive heavy arrows accurately came of age at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Much faster to reload than the French crossbow, the longbow proved a decisive advantage, particularly as deployed by the far more organized and disciplined English army.

The war continued with another humiliating French defeat. This time Edward III's son, Edward Prince of Wales, faced the French King Jean II at Poitiers in 1356. Again believing in chivalry, Jean used his knights to lead the charge just as Philip VI had done at Crecy with the same result. Jean II was captured and his forces fell apart and scattered. The Prince of Wales took Jean back to England along with other captured nobles and the enormous booty he had seized. Jean and the prisoners were held for ransom. France entered anarchy. In 1357, the merchant class tried but failed to impose its will on the Dauphin, Jean II’s son, with a violent end. Then in 1358 a peasant group, the Jacquerie, led a revolt and after even more carnage and looting they were brutally put down by the nobles. More pillaging, killing, raping and hostage taking ensued from mercenary Free Companies made up of former soldiers, mostly Englishmen who did not want to give up their way of life when the military campaigns ended. Armies of the time lived off the land so these men were used to taking anything and everything they wanted. Brigands from all over Europe joined them and they spread terror all over France, Italy, England and adjacent territories.

The free Companies were for hire and employed extensively in the Papal wars in Italy. With the Papacy removed to Avignon, Rome fell into decay. An effective Papal force could not be managed from so far away. Similarly the English could not hold onto the mainland territories they had won by managing them from England. Their conquered subjects began identifying as French in response to the brutal treatment of their English overlords. The Papacy’s location in France exacerbated the English anger against the French. It also diminished the legitimacy of the Church in England.

In the years after Charles V death in 1380, France was struck by yet another series of violent revolts led by the merchant class and supported by the peasants sick of high taxes and declining incomes while the rich got richer. The heir, Charles VI was only twelve. The Dukes were in charge and taxed everybody and everything to finance wars to expand their territories. A similar story took place in England where Richard II, only 13 in 1380, was likewise guided by the recently departed Edward III’s relatives. They similarly taxed commoners to the hilt to raise money to acquire new fiefdoms. A huge peasant’s revolt ensued making it all the way to London. Both in France and England the revolts were put down brutally. Throughout the fourteenth century peasants in both France and England were being transformed from serfs to tenant farmers. This transformation from the feudal system enabled the lords to squeeze the peasants mercilessly by charging rents for everything while no longer bearing any responsibility for the peasants’ wellbeing.

Another example of the folly of the knight’s search for glory is the Barbary Crusade in 1391. Five thousand mostly French with some English knights encased in their head to toe plate armor attacked the Berber stronghold of Mahdia in Tunisia. The Berbers held fast behind their walls while sending out harassing parties that avoided direct combat. Eventually the knights tired of the suffocating heat gave up and went home. Of course it was the commoners through heavy taxation who as always paid for this ill-conceived effort. At least, the knights might have learned their limits in Mahdia, but they were soon to repeat. This time they were decimated at the hands of the Turks at Nicopolis in 1396. Knights from around Europe took part in this Crusade, again driven by vainglory. While the losses were heavy on both sides, arrogance and overconfidence led to the defeat of the crusaders. Once again the heavy fourteenth century plate armor constricted more than it helped against a disciplined mobile opponent. Although both sides executed prisoners without compunction, the Turks saved important nobles, as was the practice, for ransom. They returned home in humiliation, an appropriate end to their mythical prowess and a disastrous century.

The lessons of the fourteenth century were not lost on the monk, Honore Bonet. In his book written in 1387, The Tree of Battles, he asked “Whether this world can by nature be without conflict and at peace?” answering “No, it can by no means be so.” The 14th century’s toll of countless wars, rampaging mercenaries, ruthless governance and mindless preoccupation with glory and indulgence of those in power left France and England in serious decline. The killing, dislocation and destruction combined with recurring plague epidemics reduced the population of Europe to half its 1347 count by the end of the century. The tradition of chivalry of the knights was shown to be hollow, the knights themselves to be petty, the Church to be a charade and its leaders self-serving. The Middle Ages were coming to an end as its religious and feudal traditions were undermined. Somehow, miraculously, in the next century the Renaissance was able to spring from this morass.

Tuchman’s account of the period is very detailed and a bit daunting to follow. One must take in score after score of kings, nobles, popes, prelates and others and their complex relationships as well as Middle Ages political geography. Tuchman chronicles much more than major events. She carefully crafts pictures of the everyday lives of those at every level of society. These portraits are well done and provide a fascinating look into a time far removed from our own. So despite the unsettling bleakness of the fourteenth century, reading Tuchman’s book is well worth the effort. I could see how the excesses of the fourteenth century set the stage for dramatic changes to follow. A Distant Mirror also provides a sobering frame of reference for the events in our own recent history.
Profile Image for Peiman.
352 reviews77 followers
October 20, 2022
قرن چهاردهم قرن عجیب و جالبی بوده پر از اتفاقاتی که تحمل هر کدوم به تنهایی برای هر ملتی خیلی سخت خواهد بود. این کتاب روایت گر تاریخ قرن 14 در اروپا هست. روایتی که بر پایه ی دو کشور انگلستان و فرانسه استواره و مسحیت و پاپ در اون نقش پر رنگی بازی میکنند.کتاب با توصیفاتی از مردم و آداب و رسوم شروع میشه و حتی اطلاعاتی جغرافیایی از اون دوران ارائه میده و این اطلاعات تا حدود بیست درصد ابتدایی کتاب هست. در این خلال یک دودمان اشرافی به نام دوکوسی هم معرفی میشه و کم کم فردی به نام عالیجناب آنگران دوکوسی محور روایت کتاب میشه. روایت از جنگ های صد ساله بین انگلیس و فرانسه، روایت طاعونی که یک سوم جمعیت جهان رو نابود کرد و به مرگ سیاه شهرت پیدا کرد، روایت خیانت های درباریان، ظلم پاپ ها و کاردینال ها، شقاق کلیسا، جنگ با عثمانی و ....ه
کتاب از نظر روایی اصلا خسته کننده نیست اما به خاطر حجم بالا تمرکز نسبتا زیادی برای خوندن نیاز داره چون اطلاعات واقعا زیادی رو منتقل میکنه با جزییات بالا به نظرم تنها نکته منفی کتاب اینه که تاریخ قرن چهاردهم رو صرفا از دید اروپا گفته و به اتفاقات شرق نپرداخته در حالی که اونجا هم روایت های و اتفاقات جالبی در حال وقوع بوده.ه
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,301 reviews22k followers
May 26, 2009
I have been recommended this book by many of my good reads friends, and so I’ve read it. My friend Eric’s review says simply, “Normally, I have always enjoyed Barbara Tuchman's books, but this one, while very interesting, I felt I had to struggle a bit”.

This is a very uncharacteristic review by Eric. I think Eric is one of the most thoughtful and best reviewers on this site. His reviews generally give valuable insights into a book and unfortunately far too often have me adding books to my ‘to read’ list that I really will probably never get around to reading – but if I ever do read any of them I will read purely due to Eric’s recommendations.

Then there is Wendy, another friend here, whose opinion I also respect, value and seek out and who has introduced me to many excellent books. She told me she had read this one three times – now, if that isn’t high praise it is hard to know what is.

Then there is Richard who although enjoyed this said that it didn’t feel as historically relevant to him as Tuckman’s WW1 books.

So, what to do? I tried to read this one ignoring the advice of friends and plunged in. And my reactions are as mixed as those of my friends. I’ve ended up having to agree with virtually all of them.

Like Eric, I find it hard to explain just what my problem with this book is. Really, this should be a book I rave about. I didn’t know very much about the 14th Century before I read this – although I did know enough to know that it was one of those ‘cusp’ centuries – where things that had stayed pretty much the same for a very long time were about to come up against innovations that would make their continuing virtually impossible. In many ways this is the doormat century that welcomes in the modern world. This is very much the last century of the Middle Ages in which (to mix my metaphors appallingly) the birth cries of the modern world are virtually drowned out by the death rattle of the old one.

This is the century in which Europe is first confronted with the plague (the black death). It is also the century in which that most lethal of inventions (the long bow) makes its entrance and makes the entire notion of knights and the type of warfare they preferred obsolete overnight (at least, it would have if people knew what was good for them – which, of course, they generally don’t). It was a century in which the undisputed power and unity of the church and the strict boundaries between royalty and peasants was beginning to be usurped by the rising merchant and capitalist classes. It was a century in which peasants revolted shaking the existing order to its core.

This book is called ‘A Distant Mirror’ and in some ways that is the problem I had with this book. A mirror reflects an image of the viewer back onto themselves – but this mirror was placed so far away that it was hard to make out any of the images in a way that felt satisfying. As I was reading this one I found myself wondering why I was quite so dissatisfied with it. At first I thought it was because this book lacked a central thesis – her March of Folly, for example, has just such a thesis and it bridges with ease stories from diverse centuries, giving a dreadful perspective on self-destructive foolishness that is all-to-human. So, for a long time I thought this one lacked something like that – a central idea to drive the book forward. But I’ve read other histories that don’t have such a thesis and haven’t felt it necessary.

Then I thought perhaps there was just too much focus on wars during the century – but even so, her other books focus solely on wars and I had no problem with them. Maybe Richard is right and the concerns of the 14th Century just seem too far away, too long ago. But then, I’ve read quite a few books on Ancient Greece and Rome and have never felt they are receding too far into the distance (although, admittedly, there is a sense in which Classical Societies do seem closer to us than those in the Middle Ages).

The most interesting bits of this book were when she gives a glimpse into the odd lives of people and how they viewed their world. I’ve known since I was a child that there were differences between the Eastern European and Western European calendars – but I had no idea that for a long time the year started at Easter. Think about that for a second and you will understand how hard it would be to know what year you are talking about. Easter isn’t a fixed date – so using that to beginning the year is a deeply strange thing to do.

Then there were discussions on religious life. Look, if you are going to have trouble with the idea of people putting their lips to pus filled sores, then you are going to find this part of the book challenging. This was a time when one in three (and perhaps even as many as two in three) children did not make it out of childhood. It was a time when people were dying in droves even without the endless and senseless wars being waged to hurry them along to their graves. The Turks decapitating the French soldiers in front of their masters towards the end of this book – their masters being spared as they could be used to provide ransom – is a disturbing image of the first order. In fact, it is the stuff of nightmares, to be quite frank.

The treatment of Jews throughout this century is also something that is designed to induce nightmares. As a case in point – I had heard of the flagellants before, those fun guys who would whip themselves until they were a bleeding mess as their way to seek God’s forgiveness and thereby stop the plague. Now, as a way of stopping plague this is probably not the most obvious or the most effective treatment, and I guess we all know without reading this book that it actually helped to spread the disease. But what I didn’t know was that after their little parades (where people would come over to them and either drink or use their blood as some odd form of ‘protection’ or treatment) they would then generally head around to the local Jewish quarter and kill as many people as they could get their hands on. In fact, killing Jews seems to have been the century’s recreation of choice.

Favourite line in the book? Probably the young man who was ‘very religious’ who chastised his brother by telling him off for laughing – as the Bible doesn’t record Jesus every laughing but does say, “Jesus wept”.

The increasingly bizarre machinations involving the split in the Catholic Church and the damage this did to both the church and society at large makes for fascinating reading in that it confirms yet again that people are often the last people you can rely on to act in any way that might be in accordance with their own best interests.

Like I said, there are lots of things to love about this book – and I should have loved it much more than I did, I really should have, and really wanted to – but there was something missing that I just can’t put my finger on and which just kept me at arm’s length.

Profile Image for Aaron Welborn.
16 reviews5 followers
October 26, 2008
I'm not quite sure how I came to read this strange and unwieldy book. It just kept popping up in my sights. For a while now, I've had a boyish fascination with the Middle Ages, intensified by a couple of years spent studying Old English in grad school, and nursed along since then with occasional books about the Black Death, the Crusades, castle building, and whatever else seemed interesting to me. Most of what I've read has been deeply thought-provoking, on the one hand, if somewhat tiresome to read, on the other. Norman Cantor, at his best, is an exception, but even he grows drowsily academic. There are few great writers among medievalists, I've discovered. Steven Runciman, the British historian of the Crusades, is one. But Barbara Tuchman, the author of this book, is in a league entirely of her own.

Maybe that's because she wasn't a traditional medievalist. Tuchman was an amateur historian, unaffiliated with any academic institution. She was a writer, first and foremost, who produced gigantic, painstakingly crafted books on a wide variety of subjects. Her history of the events leading up to World War I, "The Guns of August," earned her the first of two Pulitzer Prizes. (Just added to my "to read" list.) From the moment I started in on this hefty 600-pager, I was enthralled by the voice of the consummate stylist guiding me along. Perhaps that's a naive thing to say about a historical account, and perhaps it's the sort of thing that leads to a flawed understanding of historical events. Eloquence isn't everything, and plenty of important books have been the work of rough hands. But it's not so much Tuchman's command of language that draws you in as her infectious enchantment with her subject: the period of Western European history beginning with the Black Death of 1348 and ending with the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the early 1400s, all as seen through the life of a single French nobleman. "People of the Middle Ages existed under mental, moral, and physical circumstances so different from our own as to constitute almost a foreign civilization," Tuchman writes. And indeed the reflection of humanity you see in this "distant mirror" is almost unrecognizable, but all the more fascinating for that.

Today, as I finished off the last hundred pages, I found myself reading long passages aloud, the way you do when you read Gabriel Garcia Marquez for the first time, or some other uncannily good novelist. Unlike some authors of ambitiously long and complicated books, Tuchman doesn't peter out near the end and leave the reader feeling cheated. Her culminating chapters are some of her best, and it doesn't even matter that the people and events she's describing are so old and of so little relevance to your daily life that you will probably never hear them mentioned again, not even on Jeopardy. What matters is that she makes them all alive again, more alive than they've been for 600 years.
Profile Image for Martin.
327 reviews143 followers
April 7, 2019
If Time Travel becomes possible I will not be signing up for tours of the 14th century.

The fourteenth century was a step back in the flow of history. Europe was slowly rising up from the dark ages only to descend into confusion.

Many things disrupted this time such as;
the Bubonic plague, which overturned the feudal system,
the Hundred Year's War,
the many petty wars against neighbors,
the Papal Schism,
the Jacquerie revolts,
peasant uprisings,
and the start of a mini Ice Age.

Interesting fact #462
Seventy five books in a personal library was considered to be a great show of wealth.


Profile Image for Jill Hutchinson.
1,480 reviews104 followers
August 21, 2009
I have been a Tuchman fan for years but put off reading this book because it concerned a period of history of which I was not particularly interested. Wrong!!! Chock full of details, it fills in all the details of a bloody, unenlightened time in history where war for no justifiable reason was the norm, crusades against distant lands were the epitome of a knight's duty, and the Black Death was decimating half the world's population.
As usual, the author has done extensive research and although it is often difficult to keep all the players straight, it offers a fascinating panoply of a time when "knighthood was in flower". I'm sorry I waited so long to read it.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,780 reviews1,459 followers
November 13, 2014
Tuchman's books are always interesting, but usually they have more than one can absorb. For this reason, reading them is always a bit of a struggle. OK, I am merely speaking for myself.

I am going to try to keep this review short, maybe a reaction to having just completed Tuchman's extensive opus. Not every detail need be explained. A Distant Mirror covers thoroughly every single aspect of medieval life. It covers in detail the battles of the Hundred Years' War. What is the Hundred Years' War?

The Hundred Years' War was a series of conflicts waged from 1337 to 1453 pitting the House of Plantagenet, rulers of the Kingdom of England, against the House of Valois for control of the Kingdom of France. Each side drew many allies into the war.....

Historians commonly divide the war into three phases separated by truces: 1) the Edwardian Era War (1337–1360); 2) the Caroline War (1369–1389); and 3) the Lancastrian War (1415–1453).

Contemporary conflicts in neighbouring areas, which were directly related to this conflict, included the War of the Breton Succession (1341–1364), the Castilian Civil War (1366–1369), the War of the Two Peters (1356–1375) in Aragon, and the 1383–85 Crisis in Portugal. Later historians invented the term "Hundred Years' War" as a periodization to encompass all of these events, thus constructing the longest military conflict in history.

That is taken directly from Wiki. Pay attention to the sentence I have underlined. This is a book where the majority of pages are concerned with war and battles. Tuchman has chosen to follow one man of nobility through his lifetime, Enguerrand de Coucy VII(1340-1397). He is from Picardy, France, and is married to the daughter of the Kind of England. He is a perfect character to follow since he is thus connected to both the French and English nobility, the two warring nations. He took part in many of the decisive battles. The book follows what he DOES. Little attempt is made to understand the psychology of the man. That is not the point of the book. You observe his actions. Who does he marry? What battles did he fight in? Where did he live? How did he die? Through him we study medieval life and the Hundred Years’ War. After his death Tuchman quickly summarizes the end of the Hundred Years' War. So while the Edwardian Era War and the Caroline War are depicted in complete detail as well as related battles with the Bretons, battles in Italy, in Spain, in Belgium and finally in Bulgaria (contemporary country names used), only a quick summary of the Lancastrian War is given. Enguerrand dies in 1397 at the Battle of Nicopolis in Bulgaria. This explains why the Lancastrian War is summarized, in the epilog.

Approximately the first fourth of the book establishes the setting. Enguerrand was born in 1340. The world he was born into, that is the earlier years of the 14th Century prior to his birth are studied. They provide a general overview of how people behaved and thought during the medieval era, while the remainder of the book covers more closely the battles. I preferred the first part of the book. The Black Death, the Schism of the Church, clothing, foods, mysticism, chivalry and how motherhood was perceived – it’s all here and it is all interesting, but there is too much to grasp given the abundance of details.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Nadia May. This was excellent, but I do NOT recommend the audiobook. There are so many names of places and people! it is hard to keep everything straight. You need maps and genealogical charts which a paper book can easily provide.

I learned a lot. It is an excellent book, but in terms of my personal enjoyment I can only say I liked it. I don’t love books describing battles.
Profile Image for Sud666.
1,977 reviews162 followers
February 23, 2021
Roi ne suis,
Ne prince ne duc ne comte aussi;
Je suis le sire de Coucy

"Not king nor prince,
Duke nor count am I;
I am the lord of Coucy"

When one is the owner of one of the greatest Baronies in France, there is no need for a title as sheer arrogance will do a fine job of it. With this humble start, we are launched into the world of the 14th Century. The vehicle for this journey is the grand seigneur Coucy family.

Founded in 975 when Oderic, Archbishop of Reims ceded the fief (encompassing modern Picardy, France) to the Comte d'Eudes, who became the first Lord of Coucy. He established a fierce dynasty on top of that hill, one that will survive for over four centuries. Barbara Tuchman's magisterial work, follows this great family in the service of the great nation of France. At the start of the 1300s, France rules supreme. From chivalry to learning, the "Most Christian King" of France, Philip IV, ruled over a powerful and wealthy nation that led in the various fields of the time.

Yet, all is not well. From changes in climate to political changes, all will have far-reaching consequences for the European world. Tuchman's work, which reads like a novel, covers the intricate history of this time. The book is the story of change, from the start of the 14th Century where the King, Country, and Church reigned supreme to the end of the century where the Plague, Famine, and War have brought those pillars of society and society itself to its knees.

Full of information and telling an amazing tale about the massive changes that take place over the course of a century. From the high and mighty to the low and overworked, Tuchman touches on all the social, economic, and military changes, and disasters, of the time. We learn about the Plague, the Hundred Years War, and the decline in the power of the Church as it cannibalizes itself in an orgy of unmitigated greed and perniciousness.

The end of the century is markedly different than the start. Few books can cover such a vast period of time and still keep the reader enthralled. Tuchman has no such issues as her tome is a vast story that unfolds through the troubled 14th Century. One of the finest examples of top-notch historical writing and one that ought to be read by anyone interested in this calamitous time. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Matt Brady.
199 reviews115 followers
August 30, 2014
The Hundred Years War, the Papal Schism, the Black Death, peasant uprisings, the death of chivalry, crusades, assassinations, tournaments, all these things and more Tuchman explores through an examination of the life of one man, Enguerrand de Coucy. Scion of perhaps the most powerful and wealthiest baronial family in France, Coucy lead a fairly amazing life. He fought wars in his homeland of France, Italy, North Africa, Switzerland and Bulgaria, lead important diplomatic missions, twice turned down the title of Constable of France and, for over a decade, was married to the favourite daughter of the King of England, who also happened to be his captor at the time, and died a captive of the Ottoman Sultan after the disastrous Battle of Nicopolis.

This isn't a strict biography though, and Tuchman wanders wherever her interests take her. There's a hell of a lot of ground to cover, so this isn't as tight as, say, Guns of August, and Tuchman will occasionally get hung up on something, but these are minor faults. Speaking of getting hung up, this book was cited by George R R Martin and the inspiration he drew from it is very apparent. Tuchman really relishes describing feasts, fetes and tournaments in incredible detail, and portrays the major and minor figures of the era with a blend of real ambiguity, grittiness and the occasional larger-than-life anecdote that any reader of A Song of Ice and Fire will find familiar. This book is littered with Barristan Selmys and Gregor Cleganes.

I particularly enjoyed Tuchman's sneering portrayal of knighthood and the ruling class. No flower of chivalry here, Tuchman portrays people like the famous Black Prince as the brutal, rapacious, violent thugs they really were, and even her main character, who she is obviously fond of, is not spared, being described as "the least compromised of his class and kind by brutality, venality and reckless indulgence." Not exactly a glowing reccomendation.
Profile Image for Maryam.
99 reviews18 followers
August 18, 2022
کتاب با توصیف قلعه کوسی در پیکاردی، شمال فرانسه، یک بنای باشکوه، که گسترهٔ قدرت طایفه کوسی را در قرن چهاردهم نشون میده آغاز میشه. زمانی که روابط پیچیدهٔ سیاسی بین انگلستان و فرانسه وجود داشت و کوسی به عنوان یک اشرافی فرانسوی که با دختر پادشاه انگلستان ازدواج کرده بود نقش مهمی در کتاب داره.جنگ و مذهب بیشترین بخش کتاب رو تشکیل میده، جنگ‌های صدساله بین فرانسه و انگلستان تا درگیری در ایتالیا و جنگ‌های صلیبی. تاکمن تقریبا هر جنبه دیگری از زندگی قرن چهاردهم رو از غذا گرفته تا لباس، مسکن موسیقی، ادبیات رو بررسی میکنه. از بخش‌های جالب کتاب پرداختن به طاعون و اثرات طولانی مدتی که بر ذهنیت مردم از جمله تاثیر بر اقتصاد و جهان بینی مردم نسبت به مرگ و درد و رنج داشته. در کل مهارت نویسنده در تعادل ظریف بین ارائه اطلاعات تاریخی گسترده و جزئیات زندگی مردم در قرون وسطی تحسین برانگیزه.
Profile Image for Philip Allan.
Author 12 books370 followers
June 17, 2022
A Distant Mirror is a highly readable tour through what the author describes as the “calamitous 14th century.” This is an apt description for a period that included the start of the Hundred Years War, the Black Death, two competing Papacies and popular uprisings like the Peasant’s Revolt in England and the Jacquerie in France. Much of the narrative follows the life of a single French nobleman, the Sire de Coucy. Tuchman has an eye for the bizarre and strange, focusing on the periods many villains, like the splendidly evil scheming poisoner Charles of Navarre.

It is a colourful romp through history, rather than serious scholarship. The writer’s attitudes to the period seems very conventional, conforming to the medieval world I grew up with watching Errol Flynn films and reading Walter Scott. But history at its best should surprise and challenge the assumptions and prejudices of the reader, making them see the past with fresh eyes. That was lacking in A Distant Mirror. It is a fun book, both pacey and interesting and certainly a good read, but falls a little short for me.
Profile Image for Susan.
397 reviews94 followers
November 18, 2010
I read a little more than half of this a couple of years ago and stopped. This time I read it all, for the discussion of my local book group. I really liked it--I've never NOT liked a Tuchman book. I admire the way she's able to follow one historical figure and still manage to tell the story of a whole age, especially one person, in this case Enguerrand de Coucy about whom so little is known other than what he did. There exist references to him in contemporary works but never more than a figure who steps out of the background now and then to be seen from a distance. He nevertheless comes alive, particularly toward the end when he seems to be a thoughtful and sensible man in a era which encouraged the opposite. I also liked the book because I know so little about France and am trying to rectify that lack. And before this "the hundred years war" seemed to me an historical stalwart with no detail behind it--except perhaps the picture of Mother Courage pulling her cart.... I know much more English history so it was instructive to see the Black Prince and John of Gaunt and the Peasant Rebellion from the other side and in the context of what was going on on the continent.

The focus on Coucy was not like Tuchman's focus on Stillwell in her book on World War II in China. That really was a biography of Stillwell as well as an attempt to understand the US in China in WWII and after. Coucy is, in many ways, a rack--a hat rack not a torture device-- to hang Tuchman's understanding of the 14th century on. Her title in interesting: "distant" is self explanatory--600 years and more ago, but why "mirror"? That I think is because Tuchman found the calamitous 14th century (her term) analogous in many ways to her own century. Understanding that pivotal century might be "consoling in a period of similar disarray" characterized by war, plague, religious schism, irrationality and progress.
Profile Image for Antonomasia.
974 reviews1,220 followers
October 13, 2021
Gore and sensationalism: that was my impression of A Distant Mirror for years before I listened to it. The top Goodreads review, Glenn's, used to contain a quote about one of those savage communal games that involved torturing cats - the sort of thing you'll have heard elsewhere if you've read much medieval and early modern European history - but the paragraph in question must have been removed at some stage.

So I was surprised to find that the bulk of A Distant Mirror - about 70% of it, I'd guess - was trad political history, all war and royalty, largely in England and France, with occasional tendrils out to the Italian city-states, Spain, the HRE, the Ottomans and Bohemia where the story necessitated. (Like twentieth-century history textbooks, whose limited coverage in effect projected the Iron Curtain hundreds of years into the past.) Re. Bohemia, we get to hear about a King Wenceslas who wasn't very good at all, and was one of the more memorable episodes in this brisk trot through Edward, Richard, Charleses and Philippes. At least we hear fairly often about how war affected the ordinary people, via the tax burden, by expropriating and destroying crops, (and somewhat further up the social scale, interrupting trade). No doubt thanks to the work of the Marxist economic historians who were one of the main schools of thought when the book was written, and remained influential into the 90s when they were among the interpretations we were advised to always mention at A-level.

Though I can't complain too much, as a) I chose a pre-2000 history book because it would fit a reading challenge, and b) I choose relatively familiar topics for audio so that I can follow easily and don't feel compelled to take lots of notes.

This is the earliest history book I've encountered which, although its topic is an era, centres itself around the life of an individual who lived successfully in that time. Did Tuchman start this approach? I don't know - but at any rate it reminded me of Orlando Figes' The Whisperers (2007), and its coverage of the career of poet, soldier and party apparachik Konstantin Simonov, much admired in his time, and an exemplary survivor of one of the hardest-to-survive regimes in recorded history, who had a knack for tacking with shifting ideological currents. Tuchman's subject, French nobleman Enguerrand (VII) de Coucy seems to have had great political agility too: a master diplomat by middle age, considered by contemporaries to be one of the greatest knights of his era, and he married Isabella, daughter of Edward III of England despite not being a king's son himself. Isabella seems to have been a fashion tastemaker and shopaholic, and unusually and wilfully independent by the standards of women of her time, refusing a succession of proposals until Enguerrand's, in her thirties. If Isabella were alive now, one can only assume she'd be a very big deal on Instagram.

Along those lines, the focus on the upper classes means that some of the most entertaining bits are the celeb scandal and gossip of their day. The Duc du Berry (who commissioned the beautiful Tres Riches Heures) was insolvent and personally mediocre. (But hey, if you're a great patron of the arts, do you actually need to be talented yourself in anything except taste?) Charles VI's queen, Isabeau of Bavaria, built a recreational farm nearly 400 years before Marie Antoinette. The two main factions at Charles' court were named the Uncles and the Marmosets - like something out of Lemony Snicket. More seriously, and emphasising the impunity of medieval monarchs in the way that yet another story of executions could not, Edward III was publicly known to have raped the Countess of Salisbury. A totally convincing contemporaneous account of her emotions is given, tallying with modern understanding of PTSD from rape.

There's similar salacious material about religious figures too. A lot of people found St. Catherine of Siena too much. (Similar to Margery Kempe but with less crying, I guess?) "Even her devoted confessor... sometimes fell asleep" listening to her endless raptures about the sweet blood of Christ. [It all sounds very fetishy - and reminded me how my repetitive childhood reading of Catholic saints' stories had knock-on effects on my sexual and romantic life when I grew up.] Though the gossipy atmosphere makes it easy to infer and guess at what is not actually said: did Jean Gerson's concern, unusual for the time, that children should be children, and that he and his six sisters all remained unmarried point to some kind of childhood abuse - or was this all simply a mixture of moving with the times and medieval high religiosity.

Pierre de Luxemburg, a devout child who became a bishop in his teens, now sounds like someone who never had the chance to reject a childhood obsessive special interest because he lived in a society that valued it so highly (and because he was of a social class readily funnelled into the Church) - or, more positively, like a young elite sportsperson of the present, for whom careers follow a similar path. It sounds odd to us because we expect church leaders to have life experience and a wisdom attendant on that. There is perhaps much greater scepticism now that very young people can have such general moral wisdom - though if they are campaigners for a specific cause, such as Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousufzai, there is an exception. Though the conflict around Joan of Arc shows that in the late middle ages it was by no means a given, and could be an even more dangerous political football.

Despite the space given to political history, Tuchman is good at showing how different the medieval mindset was from that of late 20th century westerners, even if some of the details don't quite match up with contemporary scholarship. It seems to be unfashionable currently in the history field to connect the youthfulness of the medieval population as a whole, and of rulers and military commanders, to the violence and recklessness of the society as a whole ("a total lack of inhibition was characteristic of persons born to rule", she says, and the brawling of medieval and early modern young men in towns, students and apprentices, is well known to anyone who's had a cursory look at the era). Though I've never seen anything solidly refute this theory, and academic political sociology that connects "youth bulges" in modern populations with popular unrest and revolution, e.g. the Arab Spring, seems to tally with what was said in Tuchman's time about medieval Europe.

Those savage communal games I mentioned in my first paragraph were just one of the manifestations of the normality of violence in medieval society. Whilst Tuchman condemns the cruelty, she also says "adults' play requires constant new excesses" - which sounds very 1970s, seen from the perspective of the late 2010s and early 2020s when many educated young people are questioning the mores of the sexual revolution, which held sway for going the previous half century.

But her most interesting thesis about medieval culture and mentality is that it was constantly clashing and disharmonious. Emblematic of this is the entire complex ideal and scheme of courtly love: the only romantic love approved of, especially in the aristocratic cultural milieu, was guilty love, which was illegal and shameful in reality. I hadn't looked at the courtly love phenomenon that way before - and whilst it is an interesting theory, I wonder what counter-evidence is omitted: there are always some mentions of love marriages in medieval literature. Civilisation, she says, has always found it difficult to incorporate passionate love. In my twenties, after childhood and teen years absorbing too many of what I thought were social norms from books, films, and the media, I slowly discovered, sometimes via difficult experiences, how different these could be from what was actually acceptable and likeable behaviour in the real world. I'd always thought of this as a phenomenon which couldn't have happened before the 19th century - but Ehrehreich makes it sound as if the literary and musical culture of medieval courtly love was big enough among some social circles for it to create a somewhat similar tension between different layers of norms found in socially influential fiction and in reality and law.

Similarly, there were massive contradictions between the pacifist doctrines of original Christianity and the widely sanctioned and normalised violence of the society to which they had been introduced several centuries earlier - and of course many caveats and exceptions were made to allow the two to coexist. Some nobles' projects to mitigate brutality and and going to war - such as endowing monasteries and having prayers said for their souls - sound to me like the medieval version of carbon offsets, used to supposedly make up for environmental damage caused by the lifestyles of the rich and famous and products of large corporations: an artificial exercise in balancing the books which serves only to appease the conscience without actually undoing the effects of actions. But sin was inescapable in everyday life and they were trying to do what they thought was their best, even whilst somewhat humbler others were acting better in reality - it is much like a large carbon footprint is inescapable if you live in a Western country; there are parallels cutting both ways, I think.

Away from the political history, there is plenty of interesting material, among them these few metaphors and factoids I liked too much not to note here: the textile industry as the automobile industry of the middle ages; that a few places already had kitchen sinks and drainage pipes; that the dead were expected to rise at age 33 at the Day of Judgement - the age of Christ at his death; that the Husite rebels were the first military force to regularly use handheld firearms. There is also a little analysis of social change as affecting ethnic and religious minorities, though not as much as is now expected: for example, a reminder that the rise of Christian moneylenders like the Lombards was related to the decline in status and expulsion of Jews from many Western European countries.

But many readers of the early 2020s may be most interested in a book on 14th century Europe because it inevitably deals with that greatest known human epidemic, the Black Death. And A Distant Mirror does it pretty well, especially considering its age. I've read and heard so much about the Black Death since my teens, before, after and during my history degree, that I don't expect to hear anything new in most popular histories, but I found it interesting that Tuchman pointed out that propitiatory processions could (counterproductively) cause outbreaks. And perhaps not surprising given the turn to Marxist interpretations of history during the twentieth century, but it was good to point out chroniclers who noted that the poor were worse affected by the plague. Looking forward, the sins of greed and personal display (in effect early consumerism) that some blamed for the outbreak can be seen as leading to modernity and worse despoliation of nature.

When the material is interesting, Tuchman has a stirring sense of time and place and how people fit in, and are shaped by them: If there have been mute inglorious Miltons in rural villages, presumably there have been unrealized Washingtons born in unpropitious times. (after Grey's Elegy. And her book became famous enough to have spawned its own references, such as Neil Gaiman titling one of his Sandman stories, 'Distant Mirrors - Thermidor'. But, especially nowadays, not all readers will enjoy a book with so much of an old-school aristo-male political focus alongside the social history. If you want to read only one popular general history about life in 14th century Western Europe, it should probably be Ian Mortimer's Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England (2009), which, whilst still having some male bias, is more recent, therefore more accurate according to current scholarship, and more detailed about social history, and personally involving, yet does also touch on details of politics and nobility.

(listened March - April 2021, review May-Oct 2021)
Profile Image for Samira.
81 reviews29 followers
July 26, 2021
«تاریخ هرگز خود را تکرار نمی‌کند. این انسان است که خود را تکرار می‌کند.»
- ولتر
Profile Image for Jamie Smith.
494 reviews78 followers
June 14, 2020
It seems to every generation that its problems are the worst ever, that no one else has ever seen such an insurmountable combination of dire circumstances. And yet somehow, through all the greed, stupidity, and brutality, civilization has managed to hang on. Well, it has hung on so far, though it makes you wonder when the luck is going to run out….

Certainly the people of the fourteenth century would not have been impressed by today’s troubles. If the Black Death, which killed a third of Europe’s inhabitants, were not enough, there were also the Hundred Years’ War, the Papal Schism, Islamic expansion, roving bands of killers who freelanced when there wasn’t a war to employ them, and a collection of kings and nobles so shortsighted and blitheringly idiotic that it is a wonder anything survived their incompetent attention.

Barbara Tuchman describes it all brilliantly. As with her other history books, it is written in a style that manages to be clear, evocative, and compelling, pulling the reader into the story.

Everything seemed to be falling apart. Peasants were taxed to the point of starvation, and the protection their taxes were supposed to provide them was a lie. They were at as much risk from the depredations of their own king’s forces as those of their enemies. Multiple popes were excommunicating each other’s followers, so no one could be sure where salvation lay. Even the local clergy, who might have been a source of comfort and strength, proved cowardly and venal. It is no wonder that people asked what good is religion, if it does nothing but add to people’s troubles.

This was the century of the battles of Crecy and Poitiers, dominated by the fearsome English longbow, capable of rapid fire and long range lethality. Both battles were decisive victories for the English but there was no qualitative difference between the nobility of the two countries. It was just a matter of who got to do the looting and exploiting.

It seems fitting that the century’s end coincided with the end of the Age of Crusades, in a catastrophic defeat of the Christian forces of France, England, Germany, Hungary and other nations by the Turks at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396. Defeat was not inevitable but the leaders of the Christian forces were so enthralled by the idea of knight errantry and individual glory that they threw aside a plausible tactical plan to charge headlong into the enemy. The Ottomans made a good profit ransoming back the ones who survived.

One is tempted to just say good riddance to a bad century, and move on to the Reformation and the Renaissance. And yet, somehow, people managed to survive during those tumultuous times, albeit with short average lifespans. Families and crops were raised, and for those who could escape disease, starvation, and the depredations of rulers foreign and domestic, life went on. They were hardy people in those days, expecting little (and mostly getting nothing), and they provided the continuity that eventually led to more enlightened times. Barbara Tuchman brilliantly evokes their lives and struggles. There are plenty of other books about medieval times, but for the non-specialist, this is the one to start with.
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,161 reviews1,254 followers
July 31, 2021
This is an interesting work of medieval history, full of facts and on the dense side for a work of popular history, but certainly readable. It focuses on the 14th century in France, with sojourns to Italy and England, and uses as a loose focal point the life of a powerful lord, Enguerrand de Coucy, who was involved in many of the military campaigns and diplomatic maneuvers discussed. At the beginning, the book is wide-ranging, with diversions to discuss interesting aspects of medieval life, from childrearing (oddly not given much attention at the time; in art, for instance, women were pictured in all sorts of ways but rarely as mothers), to entertainment, to belief in witchcraft (it seems only in the 14th century that people began to see this as a serious crime), to religion. The religious aspect of 14th century life is particularly interesting: the Catholic Church played an enormous role in politics and everyday life, but was so corrupt and political that it had little moral authority. The clergy complained that young people rarely attended church, except on holidays when they were mostly there to see and be seen, and that some people didn’t believe in God at all—quite unlike our modern stereotypes of the medieval period.

Sadly, by the second half of the book, those interesting digressions are largely over, and the book becomes a detailed chronicle of military campaigns and diplomatic maneuvers and intrigue, focused on the Hundred Years’ War and France’s turmoil, with various campaigns to other places. I began the book engaged, but by the end felt I was pushing through for the sake of being done. It’s a chunky tome, and not enough is known about any of the players 600 years later for the reader to get much sense of who they were as people; or where we have that sense, they mostly seem to have been awful. This was a time of moral breakdown, with mercenary armies ravaging the countryside both during and between wars, and a ruling class only interested in its own entertainment and enrichment.

Interestingly, this book has been cited as inspiration for A Game of Thrones and its sequels, and the parallels are obvious. The comparisons aren’t entirely in George R.R. Martin’s favor, though they show that the medieval period was more complicated than we give it credit for. What he took: casual violence, rape, sacking of cities, mercenaries ravaging the populace. What he left behind: a society with values and ideals in which it believed passionately (hypocritical though people often were in practice); the crucial importance of money to successful warfare, and the corresponding preference for capturing noblemen for ransom rather than killing them on the field; the role of the Black Death, which by killing a large chunk of the population probably laid the groundwork for the casual violence and impunity that followed (not all the Middle Ages was like this); the role of the church; the representative institutions (Parliament in England, the Estates in France) that were already an indispensable part of their countries’ political landscape; the frequent revolts by peasants and townspeople, who knew very well they were being had, were willing to do something about it, and on a few memorable occasions even defeated armies of knights; the power of universities, particularly in Paris; the ineptitude of most military campaigns; and more. Compared to the people of this history, Martin’s characters are hopelessly out of their depth in their own world, but then one can easily become emotionally invested in them and their stories are gripping, which is after all the goal of a novelist.

At any rate, this book is quite good: very informative and detailed, evidently well-researched, bringing out interesting aspects of medieval life. It was too long for me, at least at the time I read it, but I’d certainly recommend to anyone interested in the period.
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,565 reviews1,887 followers
June 27, 2018
This introduction to the 14th century uses the biographical framework of the life of the seigneur of Coucy to take in aspects of the hundred years war, the crusade of Nicopolis and late medieval life generally.

That's what the book is and that is the problem I suspect, in that the Tuchman style much loved in great fat book about the First World War and the period preceding it does not work in a period without the same wealth of information, you can not recapture the sense of immediacy and driving rapid narrative without the mass of detail to illustrate an intense story taking place over a short length of time. The era of the Black Death, has its drama but it is rather spread out, and while the seigneur of Coucy was a real person, we can't feel that we know him or have been with him on life's journey for all Tuchman's literary skills.
Profile Image for WarpDrive.
272 reviews404 followers
February 7, 2013
Beutifully written and very detailed book. Recommended to all people genuinely interested in the history of the period. It is not about knights in gleaming armour rescuing and seducing defenseless ladies, but about a potent and credible mixture of well researched historical truth and good story-telling. A classic. If you want to get a good understanding of 14 Century Europe this is a book for you (it gets a little long and dense at times, but overall it is a rewarding read).
Profile Image for Mike.
1,137 reviews151 followers
July 3, 2020
Look around you, your friends, family, neighborhood, school, town, state, country. Now imagine 40-50% of them are gone forever. Empty chairs, rooms, houses, fields, roads, etc. What you see is what happened in the 14th Century as the Black Death, war, brigandage, famine, poverty ravaged the population of Europe. Tuchman brings this world alive with incredible detail, following the story of one French nobleman. Not always riveting reading but well worth the effort—it took me over a month to finally slog through. The final battle against the Turks was emblematic of the entire period, hubris and the vanity of the so-called nobility is shattered on the battlefield. So much death and destruction. I won’t attempt a detailed review of the book—there are so many good ones already. Just a few excerpts that I found especially interesting. Overall 5 Stars but at times seems like homework rather than fun.

Tuchman’s law is now multiplied by a factor of 24/7 X 365 with the advent of talking heads on cable:

Illuminating explanation of the eventual corruption of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages:

The idea of chivalry is much exaggerated. This Century was filled with bloodthirsty men with only one skill:

These medieval people had a way with words and were not afraid of a little sexual innuendo:

The third wave of the Plague resulted in extreme measures in some places:

I thought Tuchman was very effective in explaining the Hundred Years’ War and all the conflicts around the continent. With all the battles and wars, you would think the knights and leaders would gain some expertise in going to war, but they don’t seem to:

The Germans in WWI destroyed a great castle that helped focus the story in Tuchman’s book:
In 1917 Picardy, invaded once more, had been occupied for three years by the German army. Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, commander of the Sixth Army, urged General Ludendorff, Chief of General Staff, to ensure that the castle of Coucy be spared as a unique architectural treasure of no current military value. Neither side, he pointed out, had attempted to use it for military purposes, and its destruction “would only mean a blow to our own prestige quite uselessly.” Ludendorff did not like appeals to culture. Coucy having been unwisely called to his attention, he decided to make it an example of superior values. Rammed with 28 tons of explosives at his orders, the colossus raised by Enguerrand III in the age of the greatest builders since Greece and Rome was dynamited to the ground.
Profile Image for B. P. Rinehart.
747 reviews256 followers
March 17, 2020
"If the [century] seemed full of brilliance and adventure to a few at the top, to most they were a succession of wayward dangers; of the three galloping evils: pillage, plague, and taxes; of fierce and tragic conflicts, bizarre fates, capricious money, sorcery, betrayals, insurrections, murder, madness, and the downfall of princes; of dwindling labor for the fields, of cleared land reverting to waste; and always the recurring black shadow of pestilence carrying its message of guilt and sin and the hostility of God.
Mankind was not improved by the message. Consciousness of wickedness made behavior worse. Violence threw off restraints. It was a time of default. Rules crumbled, institutions failed in their functions. Knighthood did not protect; the Church, more worldly than spiritual, did not guide the way to God; towns, once the agents of progress and the commonweal, were absorbed in mutual hostilities and divided by class war; the population, depleted by the Black Death, did not recover. The War of England and France and the brigandage it spawned revealed the emptiness of chivalry's military pretensions and the falsity of its moral ones. The [Papal] schism shook the foundations of the central institution, spreading a deep and pervasive uneasiness. People felt subject to events beyond their control, swept, like flotsam at sea, hither and yon in a universe without reason or purpose. They lived through a period which suffered and struggled without visible advance. They longed for a remedy, for a revival of faith, for stability and order that never came.

Don't think I can do better to summarize the topic of the book than the above quote, so that frees me to give general impressions and a sort-of explanation of why I have read it and will be turning my attention to more books on European history for the foreseeable future.

This book (and historian) was put to my attention by one Ta-Nehisi Coates, who read it for similar reasons I have read it. It's charting of the decline of the medieval era is breath-taking. Tuchman, who is known more for her books on 20th century warfare, did an amazing job here. She has written an engaging, down-to-earth history, of the 14th century. Like Edward E. Baptist, she recounts the history but is not afraid to commentate on the folly of it. She uses the life of a French nobleman--Enguerrand VII, Sire (Lord) of Coucy & Count of Soissons--to tell the greater story of this time of woe. Rarely do historical eras transition peacefully and the end of the Middle Ages was a very violent 150 years. Though it did have some interesting writers like Petrarch, Geoffrey Chaucer, Giovanni Boccaccio, and William Langland, it was a time of plague and nearly every person with authority being enslaved to the worst myths of chivalry and their own egos. The three most capable heads of state during the century were King Edward III of England, King Charles V of France, and Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti of Milan. They weren't "good guys," because such does not exist in the politics of any age, but they were by far the most competent in their prime. The one factor in their favor was that they either subverted or (in the case of Charles V) did not subscribe to the chivalric code--the dominant and destructive ideology of the era. The Sire de Coucy's success during the century was in-part because he only used chivalry as a last resort in all matters. His reliance on practical wisdom and personal charisma saved him from the brutal fate of many of his contemporaries, but his obedience to the code at the end of the century during the Nicopolis Crusade cost him his life.

Here is a clip of Tuchman being interviewed on the book and some of her other works: https://archive.org/details/openmind_...

My reason for reading this (and my plan for reading more European history) is a rather simple one. In becoming ever more versed in history and growing up being educated in African-American history and white-American mainstream/general-American history, I felt like I was seeing a picture, but not fully. I've spent almost thirty years of my life seeing the "effect," now I want to know the "cause." Sun Tzu says " know your enemy, know yourself." I read Nelson Mandela's story of studying the works and language of the Afrikaners in jail to better understand the people who he was dealing with. So I have taken-up this challenge. When one reads the news and sees what's happening now, it becomes apparent that the mirror is much closer than it was when Tuchman wrote this book. In The Color Purple, the protagonist tells the antagonist that everything he's done to her, he's already done to himself. My educated-guess is that that's true here too, given the treatment of villens and Jews described in this book.

I had thought to put more and make this a thorough review, but I think this sums-up my thoughts directly, anymore is just wasting all our time.
Profile Image for Chris Gager.
1,977 reviews77 followers
October 1, 2019
Just started. Looks interesting ...

Well, it IS interesting, but kind of dry, as at least one other reviewer has noted. It's going to take a while!

Continuing to enjoy this book as the author is doing a fine job of combining the informative with reading pleasure. So far it's a bit like reading a sci-fi account of a far-away alien planet and it's weird but familiar culture! Jack Vance-like indeed ...

The Black Plague - why can't we have one of those, only more virulent and untreatable? Steve King had the right idea in "The Stand." The cure for the many man-made ills the rest of the planet is suffering from could be a plague with a 99.6% non-survival rate.

Moving along now into post-Poitiers(a disaster for the French) brigandage. Sounds like the 14th c. was a miserable time to be living(and dying). Sometimes you're just trapped. Not a great time to be a poor "villein"(peasant) either - of course!

I was at the local transfer station, where I voluntarily straighten out the book shelves(and get some good ones for myself), and I found a nice hardbound edition of this book. It'll be easier to read than the paperback, so that one will go into the out pile. However, the paperback is better in that the cover image(of an impressive Medieval painting) is in color. My newly acquired hardbound is blank of course. The page numbers correspond exactly ...

Part One ends with the papal schism thing. Part Two begins tonight.

Lately reading of peasant uprisings in England and on the Continent. Sheesh! Has it not ever been thus? Are we not still fighting the same political/economic battles in this country? The haves versus the have-nots. Republicans versus Democrats. My reading of various history books(this one, "Citizens" by Simon Schama(about the Fr. Rev.), and "The Glory and the Dream"(about the middle of the American 20th century) all feature the same thing. The rich and powerful(and now the corporate) keep wanting more and everyone else getting the shaft. Those f---ers NEVER GIVE UP! The rest of us mean NOTHING to them. When oh when will the rest of the people in this country get that?????

Getting towards the end as we reach the 1380's of this action-packed and seemingly chaotic century. SO MUCH detail to attend to, but it's still fascinating. The violence(warfare) is endless and usually no clear outcomes ensue. Just more warfare and intrigue.

Finished up last night with this excellent and engrossing read. Yes, there IS an abundance of detail, but then, there was an abundance of dramatic activity during this dysfunctional epoch. As Ms. Tuchman points out, things DID begin to turn around for Europe in the latter half of the 15 c. Whew!
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