on 15 October 2001
Barbara Tuchman transports the reader from the present world to fourteenth century France where we witness the contradictions, the decline and ultimately the self-destruction of the age of chivalry. We travel on a journey, via the life of a unique French nobleman, to world characterised by conflict and fear. In a world of political ambition, terror, inequality, and exploitation we learn of the great events of the age including the schism of Rome, the great plague, the crusades and the wars with England and other states. Barely surviving was the lowly peasant despite exploitation by state, church, landowner and mercenary alike. A historical tour de force.
on 19 July 2001
How interesting can a history of the 14th century be? Extremely!
Barbara Tuchman has an easy reading style which transports the reader into life in 14th century life in England and France. Her vehicle of choice, Enguarrand VI, makes the book palatable and dispenses with the usual "hohum way of writing an historical tome."
The reader is taken on a voyage through this period and is exposed to the trauma which was the normal life for the peasant, and the obscenity, which was the excesses of nobles and kings alike.
A highly recommended book for someone daunted by the thought of reading an historical account. This truly makes easy and excellent reading for all. We are educated by stealth such is the manner in which Tuchman entiwnes us in her story.
on 18 December 2002
This book made me interested in history. The book is part biography part textbook. It follows the life of the Comte de Courcy a french noble more important than the king of france. And that is why I loved this book, it opened up the whole fascinating political structure of the medieval world. The story of de Courcy reveals how the European states of the 14th Century were nothing more than loose connections of nobles. The Duke of Bordeaux for example was more likley to invite the English to invade than defend France for which he cared nothing. Tuchman writes a story like an author yet includes facts and statistics to give us more than a flavour of the period. But as she herself points out these facts and statistics are often contradictory. This may be one of the few books you ever read that may inform you but never patronise you. Tuchman requires no previous knowledge of the subject, she never asks the reader to understand a concept or evaluate a theory which she hasn't already fully explained. That doesn't mean she has nothing to offer the experienced, her own theories are insightful and honest.
I suppose Longtitude made history books fashionable to read but Tuchman managed to combine a history book and a novel into a monumental book.
This is a wonderfully readable and engrossing book on the period that marked us more deeply - as the source of so many of our touchstone images and ideas - than just about any other. We, or at least I, imagine dungeons, cold, early death, blind faith, and the knightly order of repression and the search for glory. Tuchman questions these stereotypes and myths by holding them to intelligent scrutiny.
Tuchman chose 14C, when the feudal order was at last breaking down, after nearly 500 years of relative stability as a politico-economic system, if tumultuous in terms of conquest and war. I have wanted for years to find an account of this second dark ages, when the fabulous expansion of the Gothic era ended in plague, famine, war, and the beginnings of popular revolt. Tuchman chooses an aristocrat, Coucy, as the vehicle for this story, and the choice is a perfect fit. She also follows the great writers of the time, including Chaucer and Petrarch, in fascinating detail.
Coucy was the embodiment of the late Chivalric ideal: rich, prudent, decidedly less cruel than his forebears, militarily brilliant and a fine diplomat. Rather than rush into military engagement with relish and rashness as his contemporaries tended to do for glory, he actually analyzed the situation and chose his moment. He leads an exemplary life of service, though dies in shame as a prisoner in the hands of the Turks and without an heir. It is an incredible life, though we get to know little of his character and personal thoughts due to gaps in the documentary record.
The age that Tuchman portrays is one in which everything that could have gone wrong, did. The plague kills up to 50% of the European population in several waves, which loosed the peasants from the land as labor costs rose with higher demand. A terrible war (of "100 years") began in France, devastating large portions of it by very unknightly pillage and simple havoc. The Catholic church suffers its first schism, which divides societies and plays out - destroying its image of unity - in the first great political-military disasters that get far far worse in the Reformation. Finally, the Turks are approaching and take Constantinople, after a series of victories that frightened the West with a new style of warfare. No wonder people felt the apocalypse was approaching.
Most interestingly, the feudal system is under such stress that it is on the verge of collapse. Not only are knights proving incapable of facing up to growing popular rebellions with several shocking military defeats (e.g. William Tell in Switzerland), but their technology of warfare was in decline with the use of longbows (by British yeoman) and far more maneuverable lighter arms and professional standing armies (the Turks). With the end of their monopoly of force, the entire political system of landed aristocracy with limited loyalty to a central kingly authority was clearly on the way out - mercenaries and even nationalist armies are on the horizon. War is no longer an affair restrained by rule and knightly custom, where the captured expect to be held for ransom comfortably and perhaps for years, but is evolving into far more brutal confrontations with mass executions.
Tuchman explains these developments with lightning clarity, in dense paragraph after paragraph. The reader gains wonderful insight into the forces that shaped the period. For example, I never had understood the chain of reasoning that went behind certain theological disputes, such as the "transubstantiation" of the body of christ in the wine and wafer of mass. If it wasn't true godhead, she explains, then the authority of the church (leading directly to the pope) would be undermined. Thus, it was defended with extreme violence. What I so love about popular historians is that, in contrast to many academics, they understand that this needs a brief explanation.
Tuchman is brilliant at showing the period as a nexus, a watershed in which one order is giving way to another. She never assumes, however, inevitability and always brings a depth of understanding that never appears superficial, at least to me. That makes this a masterpiece on a crucial period, in my view. Her descriptions are poetic in their vividness. Interestingly, this is about the same period covered by Huizinga in Autumn of the Middle Ages, but brought to palpable life with the story of Coucy.
on 10 September 2003
Having never studied history, or read about it in any great detail, upon being recommended this book by a friend I was somewhat unsure what to expect. After some pre-amble with the author defining how she has approached her subject, it rapidly becomes a gripping read, dense with information, narrative and episodic stories from the age, but never overwhelmingly academic in approach.
Through this book I went on not only to read more about the age, but also to look at the writings from the period - Tuchman brought me to Chaucer, and for that I will be forever grateful!
This is a wonderful, rich and absorbing read, covering all aspects of the 14th century in great detail. I read this deliberately fairly slowly, in order to savour it. The focus on Coucy at times seems slightly forced and means, from the point of view of the English reader, that there is relatively little coverage of English history (e.g. only about 7 pages on the Peasants' Revolt). But Coucy does bridge France and England through his marriage to one of Edward III's daughters and, as he also campaigned in Italy, Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia Minor, his choice as a focus is understandable from the point of view of covering a broad sweep of location.
Only a few minor points of real criticism: the maps were wrongly placed within my edition and there could have been a few more. The book could also have done with a chronology and probably genealogical tables of the French royal family in particular.
on 7 February 2007
I have quite a wide range of book interests - history, thrillers, sci-fi, comedy - but this book ranks in my all time top ten books, probably in the top five. It is beautifully written, easy to read, and full of insight and fact.
If I had to summarise it's key achievement is that it blends the macro global events of the 14th century with a phenominal insight into what drove, inspired and motivated individuals. It's a totally effective hybrid of your traditional history book and the new breed of personal histories.
The key fact I took away? That when you have the majority of Europe being ruled by young men under the age of 25 who were permanently drunk (with no clean drinking water - beer and wine was all they had) - calamatous things happened....
Read this book.
on 17 September 2010
I have read other books on 14th century Europe in the past, but none which bring the century alive in all it's glory, depravity and horror like this book. The author uses the Sire de Coucy as the vehicle to tell this story and he is a good choice. He was important in his time, a high noble of France who was married to the King of England's favourite daughter who was involved in many of the major wars during the century - and what a century it was!
This is a big book, dense with a lot of information. The author has obviously delved deeply into archives in Europe to give us a look at life from 1300-1399 as Europe was scoured by plague, brigands, multiple popes and never-ending war. That even in the face of apparent extinction the nobles could not stop fighting is a sad indictment both on mankind and the failure of chivalry to protect anything except it's incessant need for tournaments.
This book gives you a feeling of both breath of vision and an attention to detail. You are provided with clear explanations for events, or when conflicting records exists the "or" option. While there is probably a greater emphasis on France than any other country you still get a good look at how the century impacted England, Italy and Switzerland. No matter how bad you might think things are today all you do is have to look at this century in any depth to know how fortunate you are to not be experiencing what many thought in their lifetime was god's abandonment of humankind and the end of the world. This book is highly recommend to anyone who likes a well written history or is interested in the medieval world and you can easily see many of the seeds of the modern world were created in this period.