A Distant Mirror
A Distant Mirror: The “Calamitous” 14th Century Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror is about as entertaining as a history book can get or should be. Tuchman is a captivating storyteller and the quality of her history of France in the 14th century speaks for itself as the book has remained in print after 25 years. Famous for her engaging, narrative style that makes history flow like a thrilling novel, Tuchman presents a comprehensive review of 14th century Europe (via France, the dominant European power of the Middle Ages).
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She emphasizes three main events that dominate the lives of Europeans in the 14th century: the Plague, the Hundred Years’ War and the Papal Schism. Despite this large-scale vision, she also succeeds in bringing this “distant mirror” as close to the reader as possible. The theme that runs thought this book (as well as other works by Tuchman) is the folly, pride and irrationality of behavior that she sees as characteristically human: “For mankind is ever the same and nothing is lost out of nature, though everything is altered,” as the quote from John Dryden says on one of the first pages of the book.
The title itself reflects this philosophical position. For her, the 14th century serves as a distant mirror for the 20th century. While most of the major characteristic of the two eras are quite different, human nature as such has not changed in the course of six centuries as evidenced by the madness of the two world wars being comparable to that of the Hundred Years’ War (wars of ardent nationalism and mass/total warfare).
Yet, the 20th century, for example, saw no epidemic like the plague that killed off more than one third of the population (though one might make a case for AIDS, though that will be more a global phenomenon of this century instead of the last); on the contrary, the discovery of penicillin in 1928 and its application as an injected drug in 1941 improved the chances of surviving a serious illness dramatically.
More importantly, the 20th century did not see the first signs of disintegration of an established political order that would later give rise to a new one (the replacement of feudalism by the nation-state); on the contrary, democratic states successfully withstood the challenge from totalitarian systems (though again, one might make the case that we are heading for a more global world order replacing the nations-state). That distant mirror serves as a wonderful analogy, but should not be taken too far as an accurate reflection of the world we live in today.
Tuchman acts like a modern biographer instead of being a chronicler or a social historian. She follows the life of one man, neither extraordinarily good nor evil but nonetheless very capable and active, whose name is Enguerrand VII, Lord of Coucy, and explains his era by the story of his life. He was a shrewd and practical politician as well as courageous warrior, and his life spanned most of the 14th century. As conqueror, mercenary, crusader and diplomat, he was active all over the known world of medieval Europe and participated in most of its historic moments.
This means the historian’s case study is not limited to one country or culture and makes her research more comprehensive and accurate as well as interesting. Barbara Tuchman in this narrative gives a vivid and detailed picture of life in the 14th century, in particular the life of the nobility. She does not leave out the scandals or the slaughter of battles, the machinations of nobles greedy for power and the suffering of the peasants. Her style is descriptive and detailed.
She does not simply tell that, say, realism was the desired effect of miracle plays and mysteries staged for the populace in the 14th century, she shows it in unforgettable detail: “When John the Baptist was decapitated, the actor was whisked away so cunningly in exchange for a fake corpse and fake head spilling ox blood that the audience shrieked in excitement (311,312). ” Her style is also not without the occasional wink at the reader.
A fine example for her subtle sense of humor is the list of possessions of the Duc de Berry (famous for the illustrated book “Les Tres Riches Heures” he commissioned): “He owned one of Charlemagne’s teeth, a piece of Elijah’s mantle, Christ’s cup from the Last Supper, drops of the Virgin’s milk, enough of her hairs and teeth to distribute as gifts, soil from various Biblical sites, a narwhal’s teeth… (427). ” To the detriment of the work, the peripheral role of analysis in the book is perhaps a consequence of her narrative style.
While Tuchman feasts on descriptions and details, she does not really want to dwell on the technicalities of changes in technology (other than those in the art of battle), medicine and economics, or on theories that try to put these developments in a broader perspective. At its worst, the reluctance to use analytical tools produces a kind of historical mysticism: “Times were to grow worse over the next fifty-odd years [after 1400] until at some imperceptible moment, by some mysterious chemistry, energies were refreshed, ideas broke out of the mold of the Middle Ages into new realms, and humanity found itself redirected (581). While a certain cause cannot always be attached to these changes, an analysis of the progression of these other fields during those years would help to explain it rather than leaving it as mere chance. The lapses into pop psychology happen when Tuchman generalizes; for example, when she concludes, “Human beings of any age need to approve of themselves, the bad times in history come when they cannot (451). Or, worse yet, when “pride and folly” become driving forces of history, because “Vainglory, however, no matter how much medieval Christianity insisted it was a sin, is a motor of mankind, no more eradicable than sex (577). ” On the whole, though, A Distant Mirror is a pleasure to read, and the work will surely continue to find readers who enjoy the colorful and vivid stories Barbara Tuchman unfolds about the “calamitous” 14th century. ———————–  In the great scheme of things, to call the 14 century “calamitous” is to overstate.
Yes, while Europe was racked by war, plague, and religious controversy one after the other, the trials of that era ended up being for the betterment of the whole civilization of Europe whether the people of the time knew it or not. The destruction of the secular and clerical aristocracy was the only was we came to live in the world we do today. If division and the deaths of millions make a century “calamitous,” then all of the centuries of Man’s history can be described by that name. The 14th was no more desolate or painful than the others.