A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century | Barbara Tuchman #USAnon-fiction

The genesis of this book was a desire to find out what were the effects on society of the most lethal disaster of recorded history – that is to say, of the Black Death of 1348-50, which killed an estimated one third of the population living between India and Iceland.

A number of times throughout A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman forgot what her initial intentions were regarding this book. Instead of focusing on the effects and after effects of the Black Death, she got caught up in the age old roll call of history. Pages and pages and whole chapters devoted to kings and queens and lords and popes and monks going to battle, getting ready to go to battle, thinking about going to battle, coming back from battle whilst planning the next.

This is a book where the majority of pages are concerned with war and battles. Tuchman has chosen to follow one man of nobility through his lifetime, Enguerrand de Coucy VII(1340-1397). He is from Picardy, France, and is married to the daughter of the Kind of England. He is a perfect character to follow since he is thus connected to both the French and English nobility, the two warring nations. He took part in many of the decisive battles. The book follows what he DOES. Little attempt is made to understand the psychology of the man. That is not the point of the book. You observe his actions. 

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The problem for me was that I decided to read this hefty book due to the promise of the first sentence. I wanted to observe the first instance of the Black Death as it moved around the world, bringing death, chaos and misery. I wanted to see how the world changed and was affected by the loss of so many people. I wanted to learn how they coped with the many subsequent reoccurences of the plague. And when Tuchman remembered that this was her premise, the story was illuminating and absorbing. Like me, she found it ‘reassuring to know that the human species has lived through worse times.’

The rest was a tedious list of marriages and deaths, political intrigues, interspersed with lengthy descriptions of finery and castle renovations. All with a heavy European focus.

I should acknowledge that Tuchman did state later on that her initial search for details about the Black Death proved ‘elusive‘. She was also dealing with the problem of ‘chronic exaggeration of medieval numbers‘ where data was used for literary affect rather than keeping a factual historic record. She prepares us for contradictions and differences in approach and view points, but ultimately, A Distant Mirror is a fairly straight forward, traditional approach to the making of history.

However, it was the Black Death that drew me to this book in the first place, so that is what I will focus on here.

The first four chapters provide the background details, introducing the de Coucy dynasty, who was ruling each country, the impact of the Catholic Church and superstition on politics and daily life and the nature of childhood (there wasn’t one). This was when I realised that the calamitous 14th century was going to be all about Europe.

I’ve often wondered at the level of human cruelty on display in accounts of this time. Tuchman suggested, and it made a lot of sense to me, that the lack of attachment (physical and emotional) in the child-rearing practices of the time created adults incapable of affection or empathy.

She explained that children and babies were basically left to their own defences until five or six years of age. Perhaps it was because so many babies and toddlers died (as well as their mothers) that no-one bothered to get attached until they had got through this dangerous period. From about the age of seven, ‘their recognised life began, more or less as minitaure adults. Childhood was over already.’ Tuchman believed that the,

relative emotional blankness of medieval infancy may account for the casual attitude toward life and suffering of the medieval man.

The Black Death of 1347 was simply then another act of suffering in a lifetime of suffering that began from the moment of birth.

Rumours of a plague in Asia and Asia Minor had been circulating for a year, but until a ship full of dead and dying Genoese sailors put into port at Messina in Sicily, there had been no recorded occurence of it in Europe. They brought back both forms of the bubonic plague – the one that infected the bloodstream (which caused the buboes and internal bleeding) and the more virulent pneumonic one (that infected the lungs). With no cure or prevention, it is claimed that a third of the world died during the two to three years it travelled around the globe.

Unfortunately, in The Distant Mirror, we only see and hear about the plague in Europe. Tuchman’s research does not extend to Asian or Middle Eastern sources.

Those who died of the Black Death usually did so within 4-6 months of its arrival in their town. Larger cities then experienced second waves of infection the following season. Reports indicated that people were dying faster than they could be buried. Corpses were simply left piled up in the street. Enclosed communities like monasteries and prisons saw their entire population die from the infection. In most cases, it was each to their own.

The plague was not the kind of calamity that inspired mutual help. Its loathsomeness and deadliness did not herd people together in mutual distress, but only prompted their desire to escape each other.

The results?

The first problem was ‘the dearth of labor‘ to bring in the harvest and prepare for next year’s planting. More women seemed to have died then men, as did the clergy and doctors. ‘Lawlessness and debauchery‘ erupted not long after the plague went through an area.

In reports of the time, it was called the Pestilence or Great Mortality. It was only called the Black Death in later epidemics.

Ignorance to its causes created confusion and fear. Superstition took over. It was either seen as Divine punishment from God or a more demonic, sinister form. Both views added to the sense of guilt and sin that the church had been expounding for centuries, cementing the idea that life on earth was to be suffered and that salvation was to be found only in the afterlife. However, where before God’s purpose was seen as mysterious but accepted without questioning, those left behind began to question the purpose of so much suffering. The schism in the Church during this time also created confusion and doubt.

Minds that opened to admit these questions could never again be shut…to that extent the Black Death may have been the unrecognised beginning of modern man.

Tuchman noted that writers of the time barely mentioned the plague. She suggested that ‘divine anger so great that it contemplated the extermination of man did not bear close examination.’

A few towns enforced strict quarantines which appeared to serve them well. Others looked to scapegoats to take the blame. In many towns the Jewish population were targeted, accused of poisoning the wells, they were killed or run out of town.

According to Tuchman there were no visible or immediate signs of radical change in society after the plague, ‘social change was to come invisibly with time.’

The poor and homeless took over empty houses and ‘peasants acquired unclaimed tools and livestock‘. Cultivated land decreased and goods became scarce as prices escalated. The loss of the clergy meant that education suffered in many regions for years to come (which may also be why there were not many written accounts of what happened)?

The plague continued to break out ‘six times over the next six decades in various localities‘.

The rest of the book, however, is all about the ins and outs of The Hundred Years’ War 1337–1453. Every decade or so, a few brief paragraphs detailed the next outbreak of the plague, but in the end Tuchman’s focus was firmly on de Coucy and his role in the various battles and peace missions of this time.

Tuchman does write engaging narrative history even when she gets caught up in describing finery or the next battle plan. The byline on the bottom of the book cover says, ‘crusades and chivalry, plunder and plagues…’ and this is pretty much the order of attention that these four events get in her book. This is history with a European-centric, male-centric, Church-centric gaze. In the end, I skim read a lot of the stuff about the battles and cherry-picked the information I was looking for.

Epigraph: John Dryden | On the Characters in the Canterbury Tale | Preface to Fables, Ancient and Modern

For mankind is ever the same and nothing is lost out of nature, though everything is altered

Plague/Pandemic Reads:

Title: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century
Author: Barbara Tuchman
ISBN: 9780241972977
Imprint: Penguin
Published: 15 October 2017 (originally published 21 September 1978)
Format: Paperback
Pages: 714
Dates Read: 18 July 2021 - 4 September 2022
  • This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.

16 thoughts on “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century | Barbara Tuchman #USAnon-fiction

  1. Hmm. I don’t believe that non-attachment theory.
    I don’t believe that women didn’t cherish each baby and pray that it survived. I don’t believe that toddlers didn’t cling to their skirts and that their bigger brothers and sisters didn’t look after them with love and affection.
    I bet if more women had had access to literacy and creative opportunities, their writings and artworks would tell a very different story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Possibly.
      I did look into this a little before posting on a couple of medieval history sites. It seems that swaddling and various forms of cradles were the main form of child care. If the mother died or couldn’t breast feed, then a wet nurse was used. Babies were often left in the cradle by the fire to stay warm whilst the whole family (who were old enough to walk and carry something or pick something) went out in the fields. This is often how the babies died. Scalding water or soup got spilled on them or animals mauled them when left unattended.
      But I would like to read more ‘bottom up’ history from this era, although of course the peasants were illiterate and we mainly have the clergy’s version of daily life.

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  2. I enjoyed this more than you did, but I do find medieval European history interesting and I didn’t come to the book specifically wanting to read about the plague – I read it pre-pandemic, so plague didn’t feel quite as relevant then, I suppose! I’m glad you still found some parts of the book of interest, even if it wasn’t really what you were hoping for.

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    1. I think I realised when reading this book that I like my history to be more about the regular folk. Lots of lords and knights and kings going off to war is not really for me, unless it shows how said war affects the peasants and children and soldiers.
      But you’re right, there was enough in here to keep me turning the pages.

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    1. It took me two goes Kay, but the font is small and the pages many, so it’s only worth tackling if you have an interest in this period of history and if you’re happy to have your history told in a traditional way.

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  3. That’s why I originally picked up this book, to learn more about the plague in the 14th century, and like you I was disappointed to see all the genealogical stuff and the chronology of dynastic matches and the “old, unhappy, far-off things, | And battles long ago” of Wordsworth’s solitary reaper.

    Still, I hope when I feel in the mood to eventually come back to this to see what I can glean from it!

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    1. I knew very little about the Hundred Year’s War before reading this…and I’m not sure I can tell you much now! But it was a big sprawling messy lot of battles and peace treaties that have been lumped together by later historians to try and make sense of them.

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  4. I am sorry you were disappointed. I read it many years ago, and cannot really recall it. Although, my notion is that it was mainly about the Hundred Years’ War and the times, rather than the Black Death as such. Personally, I like when a historian is using a ‘private’ real person as a theme in a book. It tends to make it easier to understand the times in which they live. I might have to re-read it. I tend to find too much of war battles quite boring, so might see it quite differently today.

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  5. I am one who enjoyed it when I read it several years ago (I particularly liked a bit where a French tailor fulminated about the stupid king) but I absolutely do not buy the non-attachment theory. I’m willing to believe that people had to be realistic about babies’ vulnerability to illness and accident, and that quite a few parents were overburdened, but when I read Gregory of Tours History of the Franks he said this:
    The epidemic began in the month of August. It attacked young children first of all and to them it was fatal: and so we lost our little ones, who were so dear to us and sweet, whom we had cherished in our bosoms and dandled in our arms, whom we had fed and nurtured with such loving care. As I write I wipe away my tears….
    OK, this is from the 6th century, not the 14th, and that’s a long way apart. But I think it shows that it was established as normal for parents to love their little children.

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    1. Thank you for sharing that moving quote from Gregory of Tours.

      I included the mention about non-attachment (Tuchman didn’t use that word, but that’s what I understood was being implied) because it struck me. I hadn’t come across that idea before and was curious about how pertinent it might be. I’ve often wondered how so many of the adults from this time grew up to be so cruel and barbaric – the tactics used in warfare, the methods of torture, the public audiences for executions etc. I’m none the wiser!

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