Category Archives: Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, A

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century: Read from May 03 to August 18, 2014

Exhaustive but exhausting.

Not too long into this book I started to wonder if perhaps Tuchman was going to cover the life and events of every single person who was alive on this planet during the 14th century. Tuchman covers so much ground, introduces so many events, writes about so many people that by the end I felt as if the entire 14th century had fallen on top of me.

This isn’t a bad book by any means – the fault lies entirely with myself. I’m not cut out to enjoy an endless parade of peoples and events that have no clear narrative. And while Tuchman does attempt to frame the century through the life of one man, de Coucy, I never felt like had a clear enough picture of him or how all the events she talks about truly effected him. And I suppose had she drawn a clearer picture then this book would have become more speculative and less factual which would have been counter to her purpose of recounting the events of this tumultuous century.

I should have known what I was getting into because the title uses the word ‘distant’, as in remote, ‘mirror’, as in a lens, and ’14th century’, as in the entire century and every single event that took place during those 100 years. Yet what I’ve come to realize about myself as a reader is that I prefer the personal over the grand informative, the mundane over the ‘calamitous’, and the microscopic over the macro. I’m far more interested in learning about how events effected just a few people and not the broad, sweeping strokes that effected all of a society. That’s why I prefer literary fiction over this type of nonfiction.

However, Tuchman has produced a supreme work of knowledge and she is an excellent writer. She speaks with humor and wit and is ever lively – even mischievous such as when talking about the pointy shoes – so any failing to not be engaged my this tremendous work is all on me. Yet I still wish I could have gotten a more personal, more minute look at the people who were alive during this century. I felt that after awhile I was watching a parade – Danse Macabre – of tragic life after tragic life. And while it would be unreasonable for me to think many close personal accounts from the century remain (if they ever existed at all), I should look harder to find something that would engage me more than this book was able to.

I wanted to fall in love with this book, but it was far too academic for me, too distant, not nearly personal enough, and overwhelming in scope. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn about the 14th century on the grand scale, but aside from a few points she makes about how religion and death and economics played a role in how people viewed themselves, I don’t feel this book is able to (or was even attempting to) paint a clear picture of what it was to be an individual at the time.

Were someone were to write about the 20th and 21st century 600 years later and only wrote about the major headlines of those times I don’t think we would have any better idea of what it was to actually be alive at the time than what Tuchman does here. Yes we would learn all about the major historical events of the day, but for me (and this is a matter of personal taste) I’m not interested in that sort of thing, I only care about the individuals and how they lived day to day. Most people do not live their lives according to the headlines.

But the failing is all mine. This is a work of historical nonfiction and not a novel and it attempts to show us the entire century. In that regard it is brilliant, it’s just that it’s so much information that it’s hard to keep it all together. So while I can only critique the book that is and not the book as I want it to be then I have to admit this is a wonderful book and an excellent reading on a very distant time. Yet as as an engaging work that speaks to me as an individual, then I have to admit I failed this book because I’m just not cut out for it.

42% done with A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

Women are blamed for all the evil in the world, mercenaries roam the countryside with thieving impunity, and the rich are so extravagant as to be absurd. And in 700 years we’ve only managed to solve the problem of mercenaries.

A great personal library at the time consisted of fewer than 100 books – I have twice that on my Kindle at the moment with room for 10X that amount still.

35% done with A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

It’s funny how French never really became the global language like English or Spanish. Every court in Europe spoke French from medieval days right up into the days of Tolstoy in Russia. But this class based language meant it never trickled down to regular people and here Tuchman points to another interesting twist of linguistics: the Black Death itself. Teachers in French outside of France died; the vernacular lived

31% done with A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

It’s funny that while all through history there is the so very common and repeated story of the poor and exploited rising up against those in power and killing them that you’d think, after all these centuries people would, you know, ‘get it’. Right now we live in a time where even the slightest hiccup in economics could spiral dangerously out of control in all parts of the world. Why can’t we EVER LEARN!

26% done with A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

It’s amazing the perfect storm of bad luck that was the 14th century: plague (the Black Death) being carried by both rats AND fleas, famine and its associated economic implications, and really bad leadership made up of a lot of teenagers. It’s almost a wonder Western Civilization didn’t just dry up.

Tuchman falls victim to telling so much history that it gets hard to follow one strand very long – too many people.

21% done with A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

There’s a memorable scene in the Seventh Seal where, during a theatrical show, the Flagellants arrive in town burdened with heavy wooden crosses, dressed in rags, burning incense, and whipping themselves bloody. It seems almost over-the-top, but to know it really happened speaks a lot about human nature in the face of total devastation. Men are not always ennobled in crisis; men can turn animal, too.

15% done with A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

I might have to re-read this section because I’m still a little unclear as the cause of 14th century hostilities between England and France. However, Flanders does play a role and in the burgeoning economic climate of the times, whoever controls Flanders is going to be quite rich.

The long bow is well documented in its importance to war. Must have been terrifying. Foot-soldiers were just fodder; class mistake.

12% done with A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

It really is quite odd the attitude towards children (under 6-7) in medieval times. Life was so difficult and children dying common but human nature seems counter towards social norms towards children.

Chivalry makes more sense in that it does present a civilizing force upon warlike men, even if it manages to encourage more violence at times.

I like how medicine fell under the sphere of music = harmony of body

9% done with A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

Like now, when we look at powerful institutions (government, church) we remember and focus on the scandals yet never mind at all the majority of boring people who are trying to do their best. We think of the medieval church as a gang on lecherous thugs squeezing money from filthy dirt farmers, yet the truth is far more complicated.

I like how their was a code of dress for fine clothing; a rich person’s uniform.

5% done with A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

This is the second book by Tuchman I’ve read – The Guns of August being the other.

I like her no-nonsense methodology; she cuts straight to the facts, dismisses pedantry, is interested in the unusual and is people oriented. She can be very dense at times but she expects a lot from her reader.

I like that she looks at the century through the eyes of one central figure (a unique approach).