By Barbara W. Tuchman

"Wise, witty, and beautiful . . . a superb booklet, in a good ancient tradition." —CommentaryThe 14th century provides us again contradictory pictures: a glittering time of crusades and castles, cathedrals and chivalry, and a gloomy time of ferocity and religious pain, a global plunged right into a chaos of struggle, worry and the Plague. Barbara Tuchman anatomizes the century, revealing either the good rhythms of historical past and the grain and texture of household existence because it was once lived.

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Extra info for A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

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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.

Enguerrand IV was convicted, and although the King intended a death sentence, he was persuaded by the peers to forgo it. Enguerrand was sentenced to pay a fine of 12,000 livres, to be used partly to endow masses in perpetuity for the souls of the men he had hanged, and partly to be sent to Acre to aid in the defense of the Holy Land. Legal history was made and later cited as a factor in the canonization of the King. The Coucy riches restored Enguerrand IV to royal favor when he lent King Louis 15,000 livres in 1265 to buy what was supposed to be the True Cross.

While political power centralized during the 12th and 13th centuries, the energies and talents of Europe were gathering in one of civilization’s great bursts of development. Stimulated by commerce, a surge took place in art, technology, building, learning, exploration by land and sea, universities, cities, banking and credit, and every sphere that enriched life and widened horizons. Those 200 years were the High Middle Ages, a period that brought into use the compass and mechanical clock, the spinning wheel and treadle loom, the windmill and watermill; a period when Marco Polo traveled to China and Thomas Aquinas set himself to organize knowledge, when universities were established at Paris, Bologna, Padua, and Naples, Oxford and Cambridge, Salamanca and Valladolid, Montpellier and Toulouse; when Giotto painted human feeling, Roger Bacon delved into experimental science, Dante framed his great design of human fate and wrote it in the vernacular; a period when religion was expressed both in the gentle preaching of St.

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