A DISTANT MIRROR: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century by Barbara W. Tuchmen
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A DISTANT MIRROR: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century

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With consummate ease, Barbara Tuchman draws her reader into the sprawling, violent 14th Century, making clear at once both the gulf that separates the modern and medieval worlds, and those striking, often ugly, similarities, lodged in the human character, which make that age a mirror of our own humanity. It sometimes times seems that brutal carnage in the name of an ideal, universal social unrest, and a pervasive sense of decline are the hallmarks of our era, they were equally characteristic of the period Tuchman recreates in such absorbing detail. The mind of the 14th Century was encased in the paradoxical mental outlook of a romantic chivalry foreign to modern sensibilities, and the clash of this ideal, and of the universally accepted values of Christianity, with harsh reality in the form of bubonic plague, the Hundred Years' War, and the exile and schism of the Papacy, led to turmoil. As Tuchman shows, these realities resulted in unrest among the lower classes, a failure of will at the top, and a pervasive sense of disintegration, an atmosphere in which a ""cult of death"" flourished. While her story is largely a general cultural and social history of the period, Tuchman has found an engaging metaphor for this process of change in the story of Enguerrand de Coucy VII, ""Sire de Coucy,"" an important French nobleman and son-in-law of the English king. From its beginnings in France to its end after the Turkish victory at Nicopolis in 1396, de Coucy's life symbolizes the values and strengths of chivalry, as well as its inevitable decline. This combination of general history and the closer study of de Coucy adds poignancy and concreteness to a work in which all the characters, whether kings, knights, or entire social groups (such as, interestingly, women) come to life. Here history blends with art, for Tuchman has combined her usual fine command of the sources with that most valuable historical tool, Pascal's esprit de finesse. As in her other works, she has preserved the richness and complexity of her subject, without sacrificing the lucidity, wit, and liveliness of her presentation.

Pub Date: Sept. 21st, 1978
Publisher: Knopf