Barbara W. Tuchman

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

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A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century Summary

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A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman is a work of nonfiction that was originally published in 1978. Tuchman is an American historian who aims to draw connections between the 14th and 20th centuries. In the 20th century, Tuchman’s focus is largely on World War I. In 1980, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century received the U.S. National Book Award in History.

The book begins at the castle of Coucy. Located atop a hill in Picardy, the castle is massive, with five towers and a donjon. A donjon is a citadel located at the center of the structure. The castle is large enough to house one thousand people, during every-day life or during times of struggle, such as a siege. Built in the year 1223, the castle was completed in seven years, despite many other buildings taking much longer.

Enguerrand VII is born to rule Coucy. Well-regarded for his honorable personality and service to his country, Enguerrand is held hostage along with several nobles when King Jean—the French king—is captured by the English during the Hundred Years’ War. France purchases Jean’s freedom by agreeing to a ransom, but Enguerrand and the other nobles are held as collateral against the promised ransom.

Years pass before France is able to collect enough tax money to cover the cost of the ransom. During those years, Enguerrand meets a young woman named Isabella. She’s the English king’s daughter, known for having avoided marriage on more than one count. She and Enguerrand want to marry, and her father, the king, favors the match. After they marry, the king frees Enguerrand, even though the ransom hasn’t been paid in full yet. The king also gifts him lands in England in honor of the marriage. The lands technically belonged to Enguerrand’s mother, though the English kept them from the Coucy family for a long time.

Enguerrand, now free, travels back to France with Isabella. There, she gives birth to their first child, Philippa. In Philippa’s infancy, Enguerrand and Isabella return to England, where they have a second daughter whom they name Marie. As war still rages between England and France, Enguerrand finds himself between both nations. He feels loyalty to France, the nation of his birth, as well as to England, where his wife was born. He takes his family back and forth while he tries to figure out where his loyalties lie. Isabella ultimately moves back to England, where she perishes. Because Philippa is in England, Enguerrand cannot see her that often.

He does arrange a marriage for his younger daughter, Marie. She weds Robert de Bar and bears his child before he dies from the bubonic plague, or the Black Death. Now a widower, Enguerrand marries again and has a daughter. Then, he fathers a bastard son, named Perceval. Enguerrand recognizes Perceval, who becomes known by the moniker, “Bastard of Coucy.” Having finally settled on remaining in France, Enguerrand lives there through most of his fifties. Then, he travels to Hungary to get the Turks to leave that country, and in this effort, he is captured.

Once more, he must wait for France to raise enough money to ransom him, except Enguerrand doesn’t live long enough. After his death, his second wife and his daughter Marie squabble over the Coucy estate, which ends up belonging to the crown. Marie is an ancestor of King Henry IV.

There are several important themes in A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, one of which is loyalty. Being loyal earns one admiration, whereas a lack of loyalty can condemn one to death. After marrying Isabella, Enguerrand, who wants to be loyal, isn’t sure where his loyalties lie—with England or with France. At the start of the story, he is loyal to King Jean, taking his place to ensure the king’s freedom after he’s captured by the English. However, he spends much of his adult life vacillating between serving England and serving France, and publicly, he is neutral. Only once Isabella returns to England permanently does he return to serving France openly.

Another prevalent theme is the importance and impact of religion. In a time plagued by war and plague, people are eager to make amends for all of their sins on their deathbeds, in hope that doing so will earn them a place in Heaven. Sometimes, this causes great financial strain for the still-living members of the family. Mortality is another big theme, because of the toll the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War both take. None are spared by the plague, rich or poor. After the death of so many, there are shifts in the socio-economic standing of many people. This leads to more resources and opportunities becoming available for more people, across a broader stratum of society.

Barbara W. Tuchman wrote eleven books, including A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. She won the Pulitzer Prize for two books: The Guns of August and Stilwell and the American Experience in China.