Posted by Wayne A. Smith on 5/7/2001
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 can not be abrogated.
This is a marvelous work from every facet. I am now ordering other Tuchman books to see how she handles man's affairs in centuries distant from that enjoyed by Enguerrand de Coucy.