Stela's Reviews > A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

A Distant Mirror by Barbara W. Tuchman
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's review
Apr 14, 14

bookshelves: history-non-fiction, reviews
Read from March 21 to May 21, 2013 — I own a copy

Is history a cold science for you or does it enhance your imagination? Do you like it because it is a source of information information or because it helps you revive lost times? Whatever the case, A Distant Mirror... will appeal to you, because it marries history with literature. And a happy marriage it is, indeed!

Written (according to the title) to prove the old saying that nothing is new under the sun, the book organizes the historical data around a figure of secondary historical importance: Enguerrand VII de Coucy, great knight of France and the last of a great dynasty, maybe the last chivalrous figure of his time, a born diplomat, a resourceful strategist and a brave warrior, a Ulysses of his time and ancestor of one of most popular kings of France, Henri IV.

But Coucy’s life is also a pretext to bring back to life an entire century, with the fame and the decline of France, the glory and the fall of knighthood, the greed and the duplicity of the Church, the humility and the uprising of the poor, the persecution and the pogrom of Jews. It is also a glimpse into everyday life with its peculiarities, cruelty and fears: the difference between classes (enforced by laws that forbade lower classes to imitate nobility from clothes to manners), the weird disinterest in children (explained probably by the high infantile mortality), the lack of intimacy (married couples shared even their bedroom with servants and children), the interdiction for the knights to practice some professions (as innkeeper, trader, shoemaker, etc.), the distinction between the nobility of the sword (with its heraldic coat-of-arms), and the “noblesse de robe” (which bought its title), and so on, and so forth.

The part about Black Death, the plague that decimated a third of population is one of the most striking chapters of the book. The impossibility to cope, to explain and to vanquish the disease led to pathetic, absurd and cruel reactions, such as supernatural explanations, radical but pathetically inefficient measures, birth of some aggressive religious sects and, of course, the need to find a scapegoat, which was as usual, the Jews.

Add to all this the never-ending wars, the schism (during 40 years two popes led the Catholic church, which meant, according to a popular saying, that “no one since the beginning of the schism had entered Paradise”) and the last disastrous Crusade, at Nicopolis, where our hero Coucy was to be captured for the first time in his life and where he died in prison at the age of 56.

After 700 years, during the World War I, the dungeon of his castle, once the most glorious in France, was strafed by Germans, and now only some ruins can be seen..

But, thanks to Barbara Tuchman’s book, Enguerrand de Coucy’s figure emerges proud and unforgettable, bringing some dignity into a dark period. He did not make history, he was only part of it, but his distinct personality is novel material.

“A whole man in a fractured time, he was the least compromised of his class and kind by brutality, venality, and reckless indulgence.”
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Reading Progress

10.0% "Medieval justice was scrupulous about holding proper trials and careful not to sentence
without proof of guilt, but it achieved proof by confession rather than evidence, and
confession was routinely obtained by torture."
25.0% "Notwithstanding all their charts and stars, and medicaments barely short of witches’
brews, doctors gave great attention to diet, bodily health, and mental attitude. Nor were
they lacking in practical skills. They could set broken bones, extract teeth, remove
bladder stones, remove cataracts of the eye with a silver needle, and restore a mutilated
face by skin graft from the arm."
05/21/2013 marked as: read
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