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

Conflict is the engine of every narrative, but it is the engine of every individual life, every culture, and every age. Because conflict takes up so much of our time and energy, we often look to the past, the conflicts of which all have-- or at least appear to have-- cemented resolutions chronicled by museums, monuments, and books. Because past struggles have endings, which even an amateur historian can see, the present, the order of which is more often to meet conflict than it is to rejoice inconflict overcome, seems like exile from an Eden we have lost.


Though Tuchman subtitles her book as The Calamitous Fourteenth Century-- and medieval Europe has received little to no commendation as any kind of Golden Age-- before cataloguing the trials that beset that time and place Tuchman notes that any age, even a troubled one, has light against which the darkness appears that much more threatening. Even amongst the draconian taxes, brigandage, and plague life often found a way to continue in relative peace. Even Tuchman’s choice of protagonist for her narrative history book is an exception that proves the rule. Enguerrand de Coucy VII, though living in times where the rule was licentiousness and vainglory, was, as far as can be gleaned, a man who practiced temperance, and level-headedness.


Using Coucy’s life as a focal point, Tuchman addresses the day-to-day of the nobility, the peasantry, and the clergy; she pauses to contextualize Coucy’s marriage to Isabella of England within the larger goings-on of The Hundred Years’ War, his campaigns in Italy within the Papal Schism, and his fateful journey to Nicopolis within the chronic medieval crusading. Always striking a premium balance between accumulative of raw data, and a lucid structure, Tuchman’s benchmark for popular history is well worth a read, especially for someone looking to move up from the sophomoric, dumbed-down pseudo-medieval histories that dominate a lot of the fantasy and historical fiction clogging up the shelves at Barnes and Noble.

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