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A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

4.7 37
by Barbara W. Tuchman

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The fourteenth century reflects two contradictory images: on the one hand a glittering time of crusades and castles, cathedrals and chivalry; on the other, a time of ferocity and spiritual agony, a world in chaos.


The fourteenth century reflects two contradictory images: on the one hand a glittering time of crusades and castles, cathedrals and chivalry; on the other, a time of ferocity and spiritual agony, a world in chaos.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Beautifully written, careful and thorough in its scholarship . . . What Ms. Tuchman does superbly is to tell how it was. . . . No one has ever done this better.”The New York Review of Books
“A beautiful, extraordinary book . . . Tuchman at the top of her powers . . . She has done nothing finer.”The Wall Street Journal
“Wise, witty, and wonderful . . . a great book, in a great historical tradition.”—Commentary

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Blackstone Audio, Inc.
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5.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 2.00(d)

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Chapter 1

“I Am the Sire de Coucy”: The Dynasty

Formidable and grand on a hilltop in Picardy, the five-towered castle of Coucy dominated the approach to Paris from the north, but whether as guardian or as challenger of the monarchy in the capital was an open question. Thrusting up from the castle’s center, a gigantic cylinder rose to twice the height of the four corner towers. This was the donjon or central citadel, the largest in Europe, the mightiest of its kind ever built in the Middle Ages or thereafter. Ninety feet in diameter, 180 feet high, capable of housing a thousand men in a siege, it dwarfed and protected the castle at its base, the clustered roofs of the town, the bell tower of the church, and the thirty turrets of the massive wall enclosing the whole complex on the hill. Travelers coming from any direction could see this colossus of baronial power from miles away and, on approaching it, feel the awe of the traveler in infidel lands at first sight of the pyramids.

Seized by grandeur, the builders had carried out the scale of the donjon in interior features of more than mortal size: risers of steps were fifteen to sixteen inches, window seats three and a half feet from the ground, as if for use by a race of titans. Stone lintels measuring two cubic yards were no less heroic. For more than four hundred years the dynasty reflected by these arrangements had exhibited the same quality of excess. Ambitious, dangerous, not infrequently ferocious, the Coucys had planted themselves on a promontory of land which was formed by nature for command. Their hilltop controlled passage through the valley of the Ailette to the greater valley of the Oise. From here they had challenged kings, despoiled the Church, departed for and died on crusades, been condemned and excommunicated for crimes, progressively enlarged their domain, married royalty, and nurtured a pride that took for its battle cry, “Coucy à la merveille!” Holding one of the four great baronies of France, they scorned territorial titles and adopted their motto of simple arrogance,

Roi ne suis,

Ne prince ne duc ne comte aussi;

Je suis le sire de Coucy.

(Not king nor prince,

Duke nor count am I;

I am the lord of Coucy.)

Begun in 1223, the castle was a product of the same architectural explosion that raised the great cathedrals whose impulse, too, sprang from northern France. Four of the greatest were under construction, at the same time as the castle—at Laon, Reims, Amiens, and Beauvais, within fifty miles of Coucy. While it took anywhere from 50 to 150 years to finish building a cathedral, the vast works of Coucy with donjon, towers, ramparts, and subterranean network were completed, under the single compelling will of Enguerrand de Coucy III, in the astonishing space of seven years.

The castle compound enclosed a space of more than two acres. Its four corner towers, each 90 feet high and 65 in diameter, and its three outer sides were built flush with the edge of the hill, forming the ramparts. The only entrance to the compound was a fortified gate on the inner side next to the donjon, protected by guard towers, moat, and portcullis. The gate opened onto the place d’armes, a walled space of about six acres, containing stables and other service buildings, tiltyard, and pasture for the knights’ horses. Beyond this, where the hill widened out like the tail of a fish, lay the town of perhaps a hundred houses and a square-towered church. Three fortified gates in the outer wall encircling the hilltop commanded access to the outside world. On the south side facing Soissons, the hill fell away in a steep, easily defensible slope; on the north facing Laon, where the hill merged with the plateau, a great moat made an added barrier.

Within walls eighteen to thirty feet thick, a spiral staircase connected the three stories of the donjon. An open hole or “eye” in the roof, repeated in the vaulted ceiling of each level, added a little extra light and air to the gloom, and enabled arms and provisions to be hoisted from floor to floor without the necessity of climbing the stairs. By the same means, orders could be given vocally to the entire garrison at one time. As many as 1,200 to 1,500 men-at-arms could assemble to hear what was said from the middle level. The donjon had kitchens, said an awed contemporary, “worthy of Nero,” and a rainwater fishpond on the roof. It had a well, bread ovens, cellars, storerooms, huge fireplaces with chimneys on each floor, and latrines. Vaulted underground passageways led to every part of the castle, to the open court, and to secret exits outside the ramparts, through which a besieged garrison could be provisioned. From the top of the donjon an observer could see the whole region as far as the forest of Compiègne thirty miles away, making Coucy proof against surprise. In design and execution the fortress was the most nearly perfect military structure of medieval Europe, and in size the most audacious.

One governing concept shaped a castle: not residence, but defense. As fortress, it was an emblem of medieval life as dominating as the cross. In the Romance of the Rose, that vast compendium of everything but romance, the castle enclosing the Rose is the central structure, which must be besieged and penetrated to reach the goal of sexual desire. In real life, all its arrangements testified to the fact of violence, the expectation of attack, which had carved the history of the Middle Ages. The castle’s predecessor, the Roman villa, had been unfortified, depending on Roman law and the Roman legions for its ramparts. After the Empire’s collapse, the medieval society that emerged was a set of disjointed and clashing parts subject to no central or effective secular authority. Only the Church offered an organizing principle, which was the reason for its success, for society cannot bear anarchy.

Out of the turbulence, central secular authority began slowly to cohere in the monarchy, but as soon as the new power became effective it came into conflict with the Church on the one hand and the barons on the other. Simultaneously the bourgeois of the towns were developing their own order and selling their support to barons, bishops, or kings in return for charters of liberties as free “communes.” By providing the freedom for the development of commerce, the charters marked the rise of the urban Third Estate. Political balance among the competing groups was unstable because the king had no permanent armed force at his command. He had to rely on the feudal obligation of his vassals to perform limited military service, later supplemented by paid service. Rule was still personal, deriving from the fief of land and oath of homage. Not citizen to state but vassal to lord was the bond that underlay political structure. The state was still struggling to be born.

By virtue of its location in the center of Picardy, the domain of Coucy, as the crown acknowledged, was “one of the keys of the kingdom.” Reaching almost to Flanders in the north and to the Channel and borders of Normandy on the west, Picardy was the main avenue of northern France. Its rivers led both southward to the Seine and westward to the Channel. Its fertile soil made it the primary agricultural region of France, with pasture and fields of grain, clumps of forest, and a comfortable sprinkling of villages. Clearing, the first act of civilization, had started with the Romans. At the opening of the 14th century Picardy supported about 250,000 households or a population of more than a million, making it the only province of France, other than Toulouse in the south, to have been more populous in medieval times than in modern. Its temper was vigorous and independent, its towns the earliest to win charters as communes.

In the shadowed region between legend and history, the domain of Coucy was originally a fief of the Church supposedly bestowed on St. Remi, first Bishop of Reims, by Clovis, first Christian King of the Franks, in about the year 500. After his conversion to Christianity by St. Remi, King Clovis gave the territory of Coucy to the new bishopric of Reims, grounding the Church in the things of Caesar, as the Emperor Constantine had traditionally grounded the Church of Rome. By Constantine’s gift, Christianity was both officially established and fatally compromised. As William Langland wrote,

When the kindness of Constantine gave Holy Church endowments

In lands and leases, lordships and servants,

The Romans heard an angel cry on high above them,

“This day dos ecclesiae has drunk venom

And all who have Peter’s power are poisoned forever.”

That conflict between the reach for the divine and the lure of earthly things was to be the central problem of the Middle Ages. The claim of the Church to spiritual leadership could never be made wholly credible to all its communicants when it was founded in material wealth. The more riches the Church amassed, the more visible and disturbing became the flaw; nor could it ever be resolved, but continued to renew doubt and dissent in every century.

In the earliest Latin documents, Coucy was called Codiciacum or Codiacum, supposedly derived from Codex, codicis, meaning a tree trunk stripped of its branches such as those the Gauls used to build their palisades. For four centuries through the Dark Ages the place remained in shadow. In 910–20 Hervé, Archbishop of Reims, built the first primitive castle and chapel on the hill, surrounded by a wall as defense against Norsemen invading the valley of the Oise. Settlers from the village below, taking refuge within the Bishop’s walls, founded the upper town, which came to be known as Coucy-le-Château, as distinguished from Coucy-la-Ville below. In those fierce times the territory was a constant bone of conflict among barons, archbishops, and kings, all equally bellicose. Defense against invaders—Moors in the south, Norsemen in the north—had bred a class of hard-bitten warriors who fought among themselves as willingly and savagely as against outsiders. In 975 Oderic, Archbishop of Reims, ceded the fief to a personage called the Comte d’Eudes, who became the first lord of Coucy. Nothing is known of this individual except his name, but once established on the hilltop, he produced in his descendants a strain of extraordinary strength and fury.

The dynasty’s first recorded act of significance, religious rather than bellicose, was the founding by Aubry de Coucy in 1059 of the Benedictine Abbey of Nogent at the foot of the hill. Such a gesture, on a larger scale than the usual donation for perpetual prayers, was meant both to display the importance of the donor and to buy merit to assure his salvation. Whether or not the initial endowment was meager, as the monastery’s rancorous Abbot Guibert complained in the next century, the abbey flourished and, supported by a flow of funds from successive Coucys, outlived them all.

Aubry’s successor, Enguerrand I, was a man of many scandals, obsessed by lust for women, according to Abbot Guibert (himself a victim of repressed sexuality, as revealed in his Confessions). Seized by a passion for Sybil, wife of a lord of Lorraine, Enguerrand succeeded, with the aid of a compliant Bishop of Laon who was his first cousin, in divorcing his first wife, Adèle de Marie, on charges of adultery. Afterward he married Sybil with the sanction of the Church while her husband was absent at war and while the lady herself was pregnant as the result of still a third liaison. She was said to be of dissolute morals.

Out of this vicious family situation came that “raging wolf” (in the words of another famous abbot, Suger of St. Denis), the most notorious and savage of the Coucys, Thomas de Marie, son of the repudiated Adèle. Bitterly hating the father who had cast his paternity in doubt, Thomas grew up to take part in the ceaseless war originally launched against Enguerrand I by the discarded husband of Sybil. These private wars were fought by the knights with furious gusto and a single strategy, which consisted in trying to ruin the enemy by killing or maiming as many of his peasants and destroying as many crops, vineyards, tools, barns, and other possessions as possible, thereby reducing his sources of revenue. As a result, the chief victim of the belligerents was their respective peasantry. Abbot Guibert claimed that in the “mad war” of Enguerrand against the Lorrainer, captured men had their eyes put out and feet cut off with results that could still be seen in the district in his time. The private wars were the curse of Europe which the crusades, it has been thought, were subconsciously invented to relieve by providing a vent for aggression.

When the great summons of 1095 came to take the cross and save the Holy Sepulcher on the First Crusade, both Enguerrand I and his son Thomas joined the march, carrying their feud to Jerusalem and back with mutual hate undiminished. From an exploit during the crusade the Coucy coat-of-arms derived, although whether the protagonist was Enguerrand or Thomas is disputed. One or the other with five companions, on being surprised by a party of Moslems when out of armor, took off his scarlet cloak trimmed with vair (squirrel fur), tore it into six pieces to make banners for recognition, and thus equipped, so the story goes, fell upon the Moslems and annihilated them. In commemoration a shield was adopted bearing the device of six horizontal bands, pointed, of red on white, or in heraldic terms, “Barry of six, vair and gules” (gules meaning red).

As his mother’s heir to the territories of Marie and La Fère, Thomas added them to the Coucy domain to which he succeeded in 1116. Untamed, he pursued a career of enmity and brigandage, directed in varying combinations against Church, town, and King, “the Devil aiding him,” according to Abbot Suger. He seized manors from convents, tortured prisoners (reportedly hanging men up by their testicles until these tore off from the weight of the body), personally cut the throats of thirty rebellious bourgeois, transformed his castles into “a nest of dragons and a cave of thieves,” and was excommunicated by the Church, which ungirdled him—in absentia—of the knightly belt and ordered the anathema to be read against him every Sunday in every parish in Picardy. King Louis VI assembled a force for war upon Thomas and succeeded in divesting him of stolen lands and castles. In the end, Thomas was not proof against that hope of salvation and fear of hell which brought the Church so many rich legacies through the centuries. He left a generous bequest to the Abbey of Nogent, founded another abbey at Prémontré nearby, and died in bed in 1130. He had been married three times. Abbot Guibert thought him “the wickedest man of his generation.”

Meet the Author

Barbara W. Tuchman (1912–1989) achieved prominence as a historian with The Zimmermann Telegram and international fame with The Guns of August—a huge bestseller and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Her other works include Bible and Sword, The Proud Tower, Stilwell and the American Experience in China (for which Tuchman was awarded a second Pulitzer Prize), Notes from China, A Distant Mirror, Practicing History, The March of Folly, and The First Salute.

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Distant Mirror 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 37 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have read the Distant Mirror repeatedly over thirty years and now it is in the Nook library. When it was first published I used excerpts while teaching economics to evening school students. The reflections of this critical century in western history remain all around us in daily life. Including why we bless someone for sneezing, the meaning of children's nursery ryhmes, the source of idioms in language, the persistent cause of inflation, the roots of religious intolerance to rival the horrors of the 20th century, and history which reads like a fictional novel. Don't miss your chance to read one of the great books of our time.
JsrNull More than 1 year ago
Even those who are not students of medieval Europe will like this book. It has an easy to read and engaging style. The nice thing for the serious and non-serious reader is that Ms. Tuchman found a relatively obscure nobleman who always seemed to be on the edges of the great events of the 14th Century. So it is a history and a biography and something new to find out even for those fairly familiar with the period. I have read it twice and am glad to have it in my eBook library.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you only want to read one book to better understand the 1300's,"A Distant Mirror" is, by far, the best one available! Tuchman's scholarship is impeccable, her writing is beautiful, and her conclusions are provocative. What struck me was the utterly horrible conditions that people, especially the poor, had to endure during this period. And there was no possibility of things improving! Starvation, the worst plague in history, unending labor, and the possibility of being pillaged, killed, and tortured were constant worries. For generations we have been conditioned to believe that, while there might be "bumps on the road" from time to time, the upward progress of western man was inevitable. During the 1300's this was unbelievable! It is a sobering conclusion.
LN_Adcox More than 1 year ago
MASTERFUL This is the most absorbing, interesting and engaging straight history book I have ever read. It uses the device of tracing one protagonist, Enguerrand de Coucy VII, to keep the historical story more intimate, although he is often not in the forefront. It covers a vast array of topics to include the plague, customs and fashions, crusades, the continuous, intermittent warfare between England and France, the foibles of chivalry, the political landscape and dearth of rationale leadership, the papal schism and the moral depravity of the church, economic conditions and insufferable taxation. I have a much better understanding of the papal schism that lasted over seventy years, the Hundred Years’ War, the ability of superior French forces to sustain catastrophic defeat, and the importance and manner of death of Jeanne (or Joan) d’Arc. I would challenge anyone that thinks American or world politics, leadership, morals, and economic and military problems are worse today than at any time in history to look at the fourteenth century. As Tuchman quotes Voltaire, “History never repeats itself, man always does”.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Tuchman takes the tack, in this highly regarded and very informative, classic of cultural history, of tracing the development of an important and increasingly influential family of the time, the Coucy. Tuchman walks us through various economic and cultural rooms of the age, and - at her best - we feel that we are inside the room seeing it for ourselves. Chapters that cover the Black Death and sexual and romantic matters are particularly fascinating and revealing. I suggest reading this book in slices - the best way to enjoy a large feast. An excellent book for the layman and scholar alike.
RHSTX More than 1 year ago
A Distant Mirror has it all! It reads like a novel, yet is packed with the pathos of history... The black death, the black prince, the flagellants, and the 100 years' war. No one can write like Tuchman, and this is one of her best. You will have a fantastic ride, drop your jaw at Poitiers, and shed a tear for the hubris of the French. If you want a real education into the 14th century read this book along with Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's "Montaillou, The Promised Land of Error". You will gain a real insight into the three estates of medieval Europe...
CaptDJ More than 1 year ago
One of my favorite books of all time. Brings a little known period of history to life. Fascinating historical facts and accounts based on real people. This period of history left an indelible mark on our culture and society. Every time we sing 'Ring around the rosie' with a child we recall our cultural memory and the impact of this period on Western Civilization. Read this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fantastic historical writing but most of all a great insight into different times and a different mentality. Not just who and when but how they thought and what motivated them.
Guest More than 1 year ago
From besieges to peasantry uprisings. From corrupt officials to demonology and witch-hunts. From the holocaust that was the Black Death to the Hundred Years¿ War when the phrase ¿This is the end of World¿ was axiomatic. The 14th century was indeed one of the most calamitous time periods man has ever witnessed. Indubitably, no contemporary author has ever anatomized the Century, showing readers both the travesties that transpired and the accomplishments of the age, as the world-renowned historian and Pulitzer Prize winner Barbara W. Tuchman in her narrative A Distant Mirror. As the ¿Vehicle¿ of her narrative, Tuchman ingeniously choose one of the most prominent and skillful knights of his time, Enguerrand De Coucy of France. Chosen because his life from 1340-1397 coincided with the time period concerning Tuchman, Coucy truly lived one of the most extraordinary medieval lives, making this narrative a delightfully exhilarating read. Unfortunately, nothing is known about the multifaceted Coucy until he quelled a cataclysmic peasantry uprising at the meager age of 18. In order to paint a vivid picture of Europe¿s condition before Coucys known life, Tuchman devoted the first seven chapters of her narrative to explaining in detail the catastrophic events that materialized before Enguerrand made his mark on history. Enrapturing readers right from the beginning, Tuchman tells the all true tale of the arrogant French King, Phillip IV, who after a dispute with the Pontiff, used his military powers and political connections to elect a new Pope and move the Papacy to the French province of Avignon where it would remain for successions to come. Indeed, at the turn of the 13th Century, France was one of the mightiest powers in the world with narcissistic rulers, a massive army, and a love for Chivalry. As the 14th Century commenced, although French Supremacy reigned, the century was already in trouble. In 1303-1307 an advance of polar and alpine Glaciers started what was to be known as ¿The Little Ice Age¿ lasting until 1700. Farmers suffered from depleted crops triggered by the wintry temperatures. Furthermore, heavy downpours set off huge floods compared to that of the biblical flood. Amid Mother Nature¿s wrath, Political turbulence was brewing. Surprisingly, after territorial disputes with the Phillip IV, Edward III, King of England claimed the right to the French throne. Edward III¿s claim to the throne began what was to be the longest war in recorded history, the Infamous One Hundred Years¿ War. Through Alliances, Spies, manipulation, and marriages, the English obtained formidable strongholds in France. In consequence of England¿s growing strength in French territory, Phillip IV called for the best knights in his kingdom to destroy English forces. Although overwhelmingly outnumbered, the English use of longbow men (scorned by chivalry) annihilated the French Knights. Although the French had garrisons of Longbow men, they were never used, in view of the fact that the French believed it was ignoble to fight from long ranges. Through battle the English obtained Calais, a foothold that gave them a safe route into France. The French effort to take back Calais was prolonged by the most lethal catastrophe in recorded history, The Black Death. Brought to Europe by Italian Traders who recently visited Asia, the Black Death spread rapidly, leaving a worldwide death toll estimated at 23,840,00(1/3 world population). In the next six decades the Black Death would rise six more times. Hardly emerging from the Plague, France moved toward another military debacle with England, this time lead by the king¿s imprudent heir to the throne Jean II. After raising the largest and most daunting army of the century, the French were defeated at the Battle of Poitiers. Extraordinarily, Jean II was captured in Poitiers, an event that would directly influence Enguerrand De Coucy. Maddened by the defeat at Poitiers, taxe
Charlottes-son More than 1 year ago
This is one of those books that i love to share. It is historically important when trying to understand this portion of history. IT is well organize. It reads like a history book rather that a textbook.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of my favorite books, giving insight into human and societal behaviors for any time period.
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Crammed with facts not presented elsewhere. This is a great reference book.
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Dave_The_Red More than 1 year ago
A Masterpiece, I have read this book at least 3 times, and will probably read it again to catch all the different nuances and facts. I recommend this to anyone who enjoys history and a good story. I have related parts of this story to my children and my parents. History repeats itself in many ways, as the title suggests.
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I recently gave this book as a gift to a bright young history graduate who loves France. Even though it's years since I read it myself, it came immediately to mind as possibly the most informative, involving and significant account of an amazing time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've read this book 3 times and still can't get enough
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deemure More than 1 year ago
I first read this just after getting out of college. Re-read it a few years ago. It brings so much of this period to life that you are left with the most true understanding possible. Woven within this text are many tidbits of knowledge such as word origins, the use of the color purple, as well as the attitudes towards children. So many books regarding this period of time are dry reads, but Tuchman breathes life into it, into a time when so much is about death. My only wish and disappointment is that this has as yet not come to the nook. I so much want this in ebook form to ease my reading of it once more. For anyone interested in knowing what life really was like for people during the black death and this time period, seeing through the eyes of those who lived it this is a must read.
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