“A Distant Mirror – The Calamitous 14th Century” by Barbara Tuchman – Part I: 1301 – 1350

“A Distant Mirror – The Calamitous 14th Century” by Barbara Tuchman (1978) – 597 pages

   The Battle of Crecy - 1346

The Battle of Crecy – 1346

The cost of war was the poison running through the 14th Century.”

“Money was the crux. Raising money to pay the cost of war was to cause more damage to 14th century society than the physical destruction of war itself.” – Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror

A few months ago, I was faced with the trivia question ‘Who were the opponents in the Hundred Years’ War?’  I could not answer the question correctly.  My ignorance of the 14th century was total.

Here was an entire century of which I knew nothing.  It was definitely time for me to read “A Distant Mirror – The Calamitous 14th Century”. A book I’d been promising myself ever since it was published in 1978.  For me, a history of a time or place of which I know nothing is almost as good as fiction.

I certainly will not attempt to review or critique Barbara Tuchman as a writer of history.  “A Distant Mirror” stands above criticism.  Instead I will discuss a few of the events related in the book.

VIII_17_08AAt the beginning of the 14th century, France was the dominant power in the world.  It certainly had the largest contingent of aristocratic knights to draw upon for battles.

In 1304, Pope Benedict X in Rome died, supposedly after eating poisonous figs.    French influence leads to the selection of the Bishop of Bordeaux who becomes Pope Clement V.  In 1309 Pope Clement V moves his court to Avignon, France, at the request of the French King to escape Roman hostility.

Starting in 1315 a cold wave hits Europe, the start of a climate change called the Little Ice Age that lasts hundreds of years, and with the shorter growing seasons the peasants become subject to famines. The lords and ladies of the aristocracy continue to do well thanks to the rents, taxes and other fees they collect from their subjects.

In 1338 the Hundred Years’ War, a dispute between France and England, begins.  This war actually lasts 115 years, although it was only fought sporadically.

King_Edward_IIIA major battle of the war took place in 1346 at the town of Crecy in northern France.  It was a major victory for the English under King Edward III because of the English superiority with the long bow.  The aristocratic French knights considered themselves much too good to fight alongside commoners who were the best archers.

 “As long as combat was desirable as the source of honor and glory, the knight had no wish to share it with the commoner, even for the sake of success.”

 The first wave of the Bubonic plague hit Europe in 1348-49, killing a third of the population at that time.  So many workers died that wages actually rose.

A Group of Flagellants

A Group of Flagellants

Along with the witchcraft and the anti-Semitism, a group called the Flagellants appeared after the first wave of the Plague.  They believe that the Plague is a judgment of God on sinful mankind.  As they walk through the countryside, men and women flog one another.  They preach that anyone doing this flogging for 33 days – one day for every year Christ lived – will be cleansed of all sin.

Thus ends the first half of the 14th century.  It only gets worse.

(to be continued)


2 responses to this post.

  1. Tony, I’ve long meant to read Barbara Tuchman, and am also vague about the 14th century. Funny what centuries we know, and what we skip. I do have a copy of this, and maybe I will actually read it now. She is still being read.



  2. Hi Kat,
    Yes, we people in the United States are taught in our history classes that history began with Christopher Columbus. We are taught more about John Smith and Pocahantas than entire centuries of world history.
    I only wish Tuchman had written a book about the 12th, 13th, and 15th centuries.



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