A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

Front Cover
Ballantine, 1979 - History - 677 pages
Barbara W. Tuchman—the acclaimed author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning classic The Guns of August—once again marshals her gift for character, history, and sparkling prose to compose an astonishing portrait of medieval Europe.

The fourteenth century reflects two contradictory images: on the one hand, a glittering age of crusades, cathedrals, and chivalry; on the other, a world plunged into chaos and spiritual agony. In this revelatory work, Barbara W. Tuchman examines not only the great rhythms of history but the grain and texture of domestic life: what childhood was like; what marriage meant; how money, taxes, and war dominated the lives of serf, noble, and clergy alike. Granting her subjects their loyalties, treacheries, and guilty passions, Tuchman re-creates the lives of proud cardinals, university scholars, grocers and clerks, saints and mystics, lawyers and mercenaries, and, dominating all, the knight—in all his valor and “furious follies,” a “terrible worm in an iron cocoon.”

Praise for A Distant Mirror

“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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LibraryThing Review

User Review  - ElleGato - www.librarything.com

Though in some ways dated, this is still a highly informative and entertaining book about the 14th century in Europe. The book explores the catastrophes that befell 14th century Europe--mostly the ... Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - ikeman100 - LibraryThing

Amazing book. This well researched tome is packed full of history and facts about the 14th century. Tuchman is good at keeping, what can be tedious, history interesting. I will be interested in any of her other works. Read full review


The Dynasty
The Century
Youth and Chivalry
The Black Death
The Battle of Poitiers
The Bourgeois Rising and the Jacquerie
Hostage in England
Part Two 17 Coucys Rise
The Worms of the Earth Against the Lions
The Lure of Italy
A Second Norman Conquest
The Fiction Cracks
The Siege of Barbary
In a Dark Wood
Danse Macabre

Enguerrand and Isabella
Sons of Iniquity
The Gilded Shroud
Double Allegiance
Coucys War
Englands Turmoil
The Emperor in Paris
The Papal Schism
Lost Opportunity
Hung Be the Heavens with Black
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About the author (1979)

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

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