A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

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A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

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Men and women hawked and hunted and carried a favorite falcon, hooded, on the wrist wherever they went, indoors or out--to church, to the assizes, to meals. I personally found the review of the plague to be fascinating and macabre in equal measure, and the tale of devastation is well told. The meats and fish, all gilded, paired suckling pigs with crabs, hares with pike, a whole calf with trout, quails and partridges with more trout, ducks and herons with carp, beef and capons with sturgeon, veal and capons with carp in lemon sauce, beef pies and cheese with eel pies, meat aspic with fish aspic, meat galantines with lamprey, and among the remaining courses, roasted kid, venison, peacocks with cabbage, French beans and pickled ox-tongue, junkets and cheese, cherries and other fruit. The tradition of chivalry of the knights was shown to be hollow, the knights themselves to be petty, the Church to be a charade and its leaders self-serving.

The desperation of kings for more money to fight their wars and the extent of political manoeuvring and corruption suggest that they could match anything we witness in the modern world. Medievalists tend to take themselves rather seriously, so it’s fairly easy to ignore their sniffing (and their dry monographs). The overview sections were my favorite, because I’m more interested in the essence of the 14th Century than in the timeline.

In fact, death in every form (famine, war, disease) stalked the 14th century and death personified as a pale horseman or as a hawk-like old hag, was a recurrent image in the art and literature of the era. Wycliffe translated the bible into Middle English believing the faithful should approach God directly bypassing the priests. The Dukes were in charge and taxed everybody and everything to finance wars to expand their territories. In his book written in 1387, The Tree of Battles, he asked “Whether this world can by nature be without conflict and at peace? My interest in medieval times is not incredibly strong; it is, in fact, relegated mostly to the hope of someday going to a Medieval Times restaurant.

Most of what I've read has been deeply thought-provoking, on the one hand, if somewhat tiresome to read, on the other. Barbara Tuchman achieved prominence as a historian with The Zimmerman Telegram and international fame with the Pulitzer-Prize winning The Guns of August. What was this peasant who supported the three estates on his back, this bent Atlas of the medieval world…Snub-nosed and rough in belted tunic and long hose, he can be seen in carved stone medallions and illuminated pages representing the twelve months, sowing from a canvas seed bag around his neck, scything hay bare-legged in summer’s heat in loose blouse and straw hat, trampling grapes in a wooden vat, shearing sheep held between his knees, herding swine in the forest, tramping through the snow in hood and sheepskin mantle with a load of firewood on his back, warming himself before a fire in a low hut in February.The author makes a point that this may be due to the fact that deaths of infants were common and pretty much expected, and, this, coupled with frequent child-bearing, meant that love and attachment to children were discouraged since both would, more likely than not, prove to be meaningless in the end and only lead to the experience of sorrow upon sorrow. The treatment of Jews throughout this century is also something that is designed to induce nightmares. That slight attention is evidenced in the arts and literature of that time from which children are almost absent. Barbara Wertheim Tuchman brings a wealth of knowledge to a little-known period of history and brings the history books to life. The strict hierarchy meant that everyone knew their place: “ the clergy had to pray for all men, the knight to fight for them, and the commoner to work that all might eat” [1978: 24].

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