A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

In my first book review, I reviewed a book about a fictional calamity (World War Z). Today’s book review is A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman about “The Calamitous 14th Century“. This is an old history book published back in 1978, but I liked it.

You might think some random century from time is a pretty obscure subject for anyone 7 centuries later to be reading about, but I’m telling you it’s not. Students of English lit required to read Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are going to learn a lot about his time period. Chaucer, the first real genius in English writing, lived in the 14th century. He was witness to the earth shattering events covered in the book.

Geoffrey Chaucer - Canterbury TalesThe main events covered include the Black Plague of 1348 through 1350 (and onward) and the Hundred Years War. The Hundred Years War between England and France is a big part of the history in those two countries. The Hundred Years War is the subject of several historical plays written by William Shakespeare. If you want to learn about the events surrounding either Chaucer’s writing or Shakespeare’s plays like Richard II and Henry IV, A Distant Mirror is a good place to start reading.

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century is remarkable for the disasters, but also the reaction people had to those events. To study how little some people are affected or learn to change from repeated disasters, I was shocked. That’s part of Barbara Tuchman’s historical philosophy. I’ll talk about that more later.

A Distant Mirror spends it time on the years 1340 to 1400. The book follows Enguerrand VII de Coucy, a French knight who became a hostage of the King of England in 1360 (after the French loss in the Battle of Poitiers). The hostage eventually married a well-connected Englishwoman and gained many titles in the English kingdom. de Coucy is an interesting framing figure for Dr. Tuchman, because he maintained his loyalty both to the French king and his own English father-in-law throughout this period of strife, though de Coucy did resign his English titles when Richard the Second ascended the throne.

Besides all the tragedy and intrigue on the English side of the war, you also get to read about the wreck the French kingdom was at the time. The English ruled huge portions of the land, while the French king in the latter decades of the 14th century was insane–so insane he was a puppet of other French nobles.

French knights are also a big part of the story. These French nobles fought using outmoded tactics and therefore lost major historical battles like Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt. Along with the French king’s madness and the intrigues of its nobles, this left France weak throughout much of the period. The stupidity of the knights and the hypocrisy of chivalry in general is a big theme. The whole story could be described a farce, though the massive death toll keeps it from becoming so.

Black Plague - Black Death - Bubonic Plague - Holbein Dance of DeathThe big calamity of the 14th century is the Black Death, which swept through Europe in 1348 and killed an estimated 20,000,000 people--or about one-third of the people in Europe. Historians don’t portray the Black Death as just a human tragedy, though; they portray it as an engine for social change. The massive death toll caused Europeans to question everything about their world: the Papacy, Catholic clerics, and God’s role in the plague were just some of those questions. With the cities especially hard hit, many peasants left the farm to fill jobs left open by the plague deaths, so the changes weren’t only about people questioning their society and religion. The bubonic plague caused a social earthquake that completely changed the rigid, stratified culture that had built up in Europe for centuries.

In short, the world changed in big ways. The events of A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century starts the rise of Europe towards the modern world we now know, which is what I find cool about history books. You find out why these events connect to us. You also find out people aren’t much different today than they were seven centuries ago, despite the different cultural setting.

You might be wondering who Barbara Tuchman was. Mrs. Tuchman was a journalist and historian who lived from 1912 to 1989 who worked for The Nation, New Statesman, and the Office of War Information. She has a Harvard College dormitory named for her and was associated with Radcliffe College and Harvard University, California. Barbara Tuchman also won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1963 for her book The Guns of August. The Guns of August tells the story of the events just prior to World War I and the first month of that struggle, which had similar effects on society as the Black Death. I highly recommend that book, too.

Barbara Tuchman is also known for Tuchman’s Law: the idea that recording disasters makes it seem continuous and universal to later historians. So Tuchman’s view of the disasters of the 14th or the 20th or any other century is that these events were sporadic and life went on in seeming normalcy most of the time. That might explain why the French nobles didn’t change their tactics through defeat after defeat. It’s also good news for most of us living through whatever troubles our age is going to face. Future people may see the big events of today and think life was one big disaster, but it won’t be for most of us.


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