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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars absolutely first-rate reconstruction of our medieval soul, 18 April 2011
This review is from: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (Paperback)
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.

Highest recommendation.
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