Sunday, April 11, 2010

Barbara W. Tuchman - A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century


Barbara Tuchman's book on the 14th Century is surely one of the great works of popular history. It's scope is impressive, less from geographical coverage than from the depth of her research and coverage. Concentrating on life in the areas that we now know as modern France and England, Tuchman explores the lives of people living in the 14th Century and how those lives changed through the developing years.

Out of neccessity, Tuchman has to concentrate mostly on the lives of rich men. This is because, as Tuchman points out any woman whose life was adequately documented would be "atypical" and commoner's lives aren't documented enough, as well as failing to have the scope for her method of showing what the century was like. Tuchman shows the century by concentrating on the life of a noble, Enguerrand de Coucy VII, one of the last of a great dynasty of knights who lived from 1340 - 1397. The reader shouldn't imagine though that this is a biography in a normal sense. While de Coucy, as some sort of real-life Flashman seems to actually have been present at much of the important events of those years, the author uses de Coucy's life as a backdrop to the story of the century.

In contrast to de Coucy's life though, the experience for the majority of the population wasn't as nice. As Tuchman summarises of the six decades that marked de Coucy's on life;

"If the sixty years seemed full of brilliance and adventure to a few at the top, to most they were a succession of wayward dangers; of the three galloping evils, pillage, plague and taxes; of fierce and tragic conflicts, bizarre fates, capricious money, sorcery, betrayals, insurrections, murder, madness and the downfall of princes; of dwindling labor for the fields, of cleared land reverting to waste; and always the recurring black shadow of pestilence carrying its message of guilt and sin and the hostility of God."

For Tuchman, the 14th Century was the end of an ideal, a period of change, she quotes with recognition, one description of the era as a "period of anguish when there is no sense of an assured future". The rise in mercantilism and capitalist relations was shifting the centre of power away from the nobility towards a new class. The hundred years war had left the most prosperous nations poorer, and the peasents on which their wealth was based, sickened and tired. The Black Death that decimated the populations over and over, meant that the old relations of production were no longer set firm. Peasents could and did leave their Lords to find better pay and conditions. There wasn't enough labour to maintain fields. In one haunting passage, Tuchman describes a Paris whose population was so diminished, that wolves patrol the empty streets of the suburbs.

Out of neccesity, Tuchman covers much of this briefly. There are central themes running through the work - the end of the age of chivalry being one, the changes to the church and organised religion being another. I am sure that scholars of the period would find fault, particularly in areas of speciality. I felt that the one bit of the time that I knew fairly well, the English Peasant's Revolt of 1381 was dealt with briefly as an aside - though Tuchman does acknowledge it's importance in representing the end of an era.

These are minor criticisms. Tuchman's book deserves to be read widely, not simply for its fascinating insights into previous times. Nor because it exposes how corrupt and nasty some of the most powerful dynasties in Europe have been in the past (in particular religious ones). It deserves to be read for it's grasp of history as a sweeping story, punctuated by moments that alter it's course, driven by forces that are sometimes, but in no way always, out of human control.

She also understands though, that the forces in 14th century society that would develop and shape the history of the next few centuries were present and developing in the 14th. These new forces could be directed and shaped, but weren't yet ready.

"The times were not static. Loss of confidence in the guarantors of order opened the way to demands for change, and miseria gave force to the impulse. The oppressed were no longer enduring but rebelling, although, like the bourgeois who tried to compel reform, the were inadequte, unreadym and unequipped for the task."

The history of the next few centuries would show these forces developing, first to break through the old order, at the same time as engaging in mutual bloody conflict. That battle continues on new terrain, but a terrain that has been shaped by the past.

Related Reviews

Tuchman - The Guns of August

1 comment:

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