A Distant Mirror, by Barbara Tuchman

A Distant Mirror

A Distant Mirror is a history of the 14th century in Europe, especially France. It is clearly a work of much research, and describes its subject matter in considerable detail in well over 600 pages.

In some ways, then, it fits the mold of a book that might be used as a text in a college history class. The way I’ve seen it described, though, is in contrast to a textbook, more a work of popular history for a general readership.

I wonder, though. I think people tend to exaggerate how staid and stodgy textbooks are or should be. I could also see people exaggerating how reader-friendly, informal, or “popular” in style this book is.

A Distant Mirror is well-written, and readers particularly interested in the subject matter might even experience it as a page turner, but for the most part it’s a straightforward, competent history book. It doesn’t throw in a lot of humor, it doesn’t have an unconventional or artsy narrative structure, it isn’t written in the first person, etc.

Maybe when it came out in 1978 it was more clearly a work for the general public, but my impression is that both popular writing and textbook writing have loosened up since then to where I don’t think this would be out of place at all as an assigned text for a college class (and on the flip side I would imagine some readers who pick it up in the expectation it will be a fun and informal read would be disappointed). It’s definitely a “serious” book.

The book functions in part as a biography of Enguerrand VII de Coucy, a French knight/nobleman. Tuchman thought he was an appropriate figure to focus on, as his life and career intersected with so many of the main things of historical significance happening in Europe at the time.

I found that device not particularly successful, rather pointless in fact. It’s not as if the book is really about him; he’s present for maybe 10% of the pages. All it does is make the other 90% of the book feel like tangents when they’re really not.

The 14th century was an eventful time in Europe, mostly in a bad way. Probably, though, if you dug into any such time period you could pretty easily find a lot of important stuff to write about and it would seem like a particularly momentous time.

Among the things going on at that time that you can learn more about in this book are: The “Black Death” bubonic plague pandemic, a good portion of the Hundred Years War, and the papal schism where you had rival popes in Rome and Avignon, France for a number of years. I’ll mention a few points from the book that happened to stand out to me about these and other matters.

Thinking about the Black Death, though really this is true in general, it’s striking how different history is before it’s history. Now we can look back and talk about what years the Black Death occurred in, what percentage of the population died, how many times in the years after that it came back and how bad those outbreaks were, etc.

But if you’re living through it, there are trees but no forest. Not to mention, besides the lack of temporal perspective, there was also enormously more geographic isolation back then. There was no TV, Internet, no mass media in general, so for all intents and purposes no “news.”

So you saw that 10% or 30% or 50% or whatever of the people in your little town or the area you were familiar with had died so far, but you had no idea where that number was going to end up—maybe ultimately everyone was destined to die of this pestilence. You probably had little or no idea what was going on in the town 50 miles away, and almost certainly didn’t know what was happening in other countries. If 20 years later people started dying in a similar way, you couldn’t know that this was a more minor outbreak that would have only a quarter as many fatalities as the Black Death had; for all you knew this would be just as catastrophic or more so. This time maybe indeed everyone would die.

The noblemen of the time were knights. They were born and bred to be soldiers and could do little else.

We think of war as a kind of necessary evil at most, and our soldiers (most anyway) would much prefer to never fight in a war. If you can serve a stint in the military and never see combat, you’re considered one of the lucky ones.

But for these knights, to not see combat would be like a doctor never treating a patient or an NFL player never participating in a football game. War was the reason they existed. War was how they accumulated honor, not to mention how they were enriched, since successful war meant booty, often in the form of capturing opposing knights to ransom as prisoners.

Luckily for them, war was a frequent occurrence. But in between wars, it was common for knights to form into groups of bandits basically, and pillage wherever they happened to be, whether it be in their own country or another.

Kings and popes often tried to find some foreign adventure for knights precisely to avoid their turning on their own countrymen like that. If you could find a nice little war for them to fight—maybe there was some dispute over succession in a German state conveniently far away, or maybe one of the city-states in Italy was getting a little big for its britches and had provoked its neighbor—hopefully your knights would busy themselves with that rather than make trouble at home.

The Crusades had largely petered out by then, but there were still some small and abortive pseudo-Crusades that century, and they seemed motivated, at least in part, by this same consideration of wanting to give any dangerously idle knights something to do.

Whatever codes of honor and chivalry and such we might associate with knights were largely fictitious. Or as they said in The Pirates of the Caribbean, “The Code is more what you call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

The Hundred Years War wasn’t so much a single war as a series of smaller wars and skirmishes between England and France in the 14th and 15th centuries. Since there was so much fighting going on all over Europe, it doesn’t really stand out from the other on again off again wars of the time. If the knights of England and France weren’t fighting each other, they would probably have found a way to fight someone else, and routinely did in the numerous breaks that occurred throughout the Hundred Years War.

England was the heavy underdog in that war—France was much more populous and had more of a tradition as a military power—but England seems to have won more often than it lost. The thing is, whoever won it was typically temporary and reversible as the warfare of that age was a lot more effective for gaining territory than for holding it.

As to why England beat the spread, a lot of it seems to have been that as underdogs they were more willing to try tactics that were innovative or went against tradition. They used archers effectively, for instance, when French knights considered such tactics beneath them. (Archers were non-knights, and what self-respecting knight wants to rely on some lower class bumpkins to save his bacon?)

One point Tuchman makes is that the principle of central authority under a king was really not yet well-established and always respected. As in the case of the newly independent colonies under the Articles of Confederation centuries later, there was much ambivalence about having a strong central government at all. So kings had to constantly fight to maintain or increase their authority.

Popes and other church officials were pretty much indistinguishable from any other powerful people of the time; the Church was just another group trying to increase its wealth and power any way it could. Certainly there were some popes and others in the church that had at least some moral scruples and were somewhat motivated by wanting to do what was right, but they were the exception, and probably were no greater in proportion than the kings and nobles and such who had some human decency to them.

A Distant Mirror has a great deal to offer anyone interested in history, and in this time period and place specifically.

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