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A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century


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In this sweeping historical narrative, Barbara Tuchman writes of the cataclysmic 14th century, when the energies of medieval Europe were devoted to fighting internecine wars and warding off the plague. Some medieval thinkers viewed these disasters as divine punishment for mortal wrongs; others, more practically, viewed them as opportunities to accumulate wealth and power. One of the latter, whose life informs much of Tuchman's book, was the French nobleman Enguerrand de Coucy, who enjoyed the opulence and elegance of the courtly tradition while ruthlessly exploiting the peasants under his thrall. Tuchman looks into such events as the Hundred Years War, the collapse of the medieval church, and the rise of various heresies, pogroms, and other events that caused medieval Europeans to wonder what they had done to deserve such horrors.

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Excellent History of Life Around the Hundred Year's War

Who is Enguerrand de Coucy and why should we care?Coucy was a French noble whose life and position intertwined neatly with many of the momentous events that defined the 14th Century. He appears, Zelig-like, at the head of armies, at the elbow of both the Kings of France and England and in the great councils of state that determined the actions of a nascent French nation.His story is remarkable and remarkably well documented. His life and actions serve as the central thread that ties the events surrounding the Hundred Year's War between England and France together in this marvelous book. Tuchman displays this late Middle Age period in all of its nasty burtality. The Great Plague hit in several waves, reducing Europe's population by between one half and one third. A century of warfare left roving bands of knights and armed men loose in the countryside to pillage and destroy between summons to fight for king and country. The common man and woman, evolving from a status of near slavery to severe oppression, owed service to their lord and taxes to almost everyone.Tuchman brilliantly weaves the above facts of life with the politics and struggles between rival nobles, kingdoms and a corrupt church. This book is very well written, as I had always heard Tuchman's works to be. She possesses the rare ability to write solid history -- this book is fact filled, and thoroughly documented -- in the manner of a great storyteller. Her characters and events, leavened by Tuchman's wry observations and logical conclusioins, are marvelously developed.So much happened in this time period that it does bear scrutiny. Chivalry, the code of the Knight that was suppossed to benefit people in exchange for a life free from common worries, had denegrated into a corrupt facade that shielded ruthless brigands from law and sanction. The great Church, long the common denominator among disparate peoples became first hopelessly corrupt then divided for decades by rival popes more interested in Europe's balance of power among earthly kingdoms than in promoting the Kingdom to whom they suppossedly gave vasselage. Great landed nobility struggled with each other and began a transformation from nearly autonomous players in an ever changing system of alliances across nationalities to becomming the building blocks of the infant state. Policy and war rose and fell on the ability, whim and maturity of changing kings.Although our own recently passed Twentieth Century could witness evil and bloodletting on a more sustained and organized basis than any that preceeded it -- hence the title "Through a Distant Mirror," Tuchman's work also illustrates how far society has come in those parts of the world where it is civil and grounded in natural rights. Thus, Tuchman's book shows both the constant danger through time of man's darker side as well as the progress earned by those who have managed to diffuse power and ground everyday people with a voice in their affairs and rights that ca

A great read, fascinating times..

Our all time favorite history book, a well-written history of western civilization between 1300 and 1450. Tuchman writes in a way that makes this an enjoyable read. She doesn't paint a pretty picture, for mankind was dealing with the expectations of chivalry, the rise and development of Christianity, the Plague, numerous battles (the 100 Years War, the Inquisition, the Crusades), not to mention the difficulties of ordinary life. One reviewer complained that the book had too much about battles in it -- unfortunately, the struggle for power and land-ownership was what mattered most in this time period. It was not a generally peaceful time to be alive. This book is considered a classic now. If you are interested in this time period, and haven't read this book, it's a great place to begin!

Things Fall Apart...

With painstaking detail and bittersweet humour, Tuchman delves into the history and events surrounding one of the greatest of the French knights. Enguerrand de Coucy is a knight caught between old and new world orders. Perhaps the highest example of a crumbling ideal - chivalry - he shows the fatal flaws in an oppressive system beginning to decay before his birth, leading to some of the greatest excesses within his lifetime, and finishing with the fall of the French monarchy in the 18th century. Parts of Tuchman's tale are more gripping than an adventure novel, more humourous than a comedy, and more unbelievable than fiction. In fact, her story is so engaging because of its truth.Anyone intersted in the Avignon Papacy, the Great Schism in the Church, Popes and Antipopes, the Black Plague, Feudalism, Protestantism, the persecution of witches and sorcery, the prelude to the Renaissance, Italian banking, Antisemitism, and the Medieval in general should adore it. I must admit, my jaw dropped several times while reading this book, particularly during the chapters focusing on the schism in the church. It is not easy to escape the image of a furious Pope screaming anathema and excommunication from the walls of the Castel Sant'Angelo upon the beseigers below. Unbelievable arrogance and mercilessness seem the hallmark of the times, and Tuchman captures the essence of these with great alacrity.Following de Coucy lets us experience life through the attitudes of someone placed firmly in the time. While many of his attitudes may seem foreign to us, his more modern qualities allow us to identify, if perhaps not sympathize, with him.I highly recommend this book both as an introduction to the study of the 14th century, and as fascinating reading for anyone interested in the human condition.

A great way to help us understand our time

I am always amazed at people who don't seem to enjoy or understand the relevance of history. Trying to understand the present without a knowledge of the past is like trying to figure out what's wrong with a clock by examining its face. It's like being a leaf that doesn't know it's part of a tree.In Tuchman's comprehensive look at 14th century Europe, we see the beginnings of our modern market economy, the notion of romantic love, trade unions, urbanization, nationalism, anti-semitism (portents of the Holocaust), ideas of chivalry in warfare being torn down by advances in technology, and on and on. I found this book to be endlessly fascinating, told in a lively and engaging manner.If you don't think civilization has made much progress, read this book. It will give you a new perspective on just how far we've come--despite the sometimes eerie similarities.

Edition Details

Publisher:Random House Trade Paperbacks
Lowest Price:$3.59
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