A DISTANT MIRROR (Book Review)

The past is a mirror of the present, albeit a distant mirror. In her introduction, Barbara Tuchman quotes Voltaire: “History never repeats itself; man always does.” In this history of “The Calamitous 14th Century” (the very apt sub-title), she has added human interest as well as validity to this approach by focussing on a particular person’s life. She wanted someone who saw and lived through more than most common folk ever could, she tells us, yet who was not exceptional as a king or saint would inevitably be. She finally lit on Enguerrand de Coucy VII, “the most experienced and skillful of all the knights of France” (according to a contemporary), whose life from 1340 to 1397 suited her perfectly. As did the fact that he married the eldest daughter of Edward III of England and became the Duke of Bedford for several years until he and the princess separated and he renounced his allegiance to the English Crown.

By following the man through the history of his times, Barbara Tuchman manages to go everywhere, see everything important, and yet keep her feet firmly on the ground.

It is a period I am very familiar with (Coucy is a contemporary of Mariana’s) but on almost every page, there is something that will surprise most readers. Did you know that in 1306, the year before Philip the Fair turned on the Templars, he expelled the Jews from France, thus wiping out his own debts to them and also, incidentally, the debts of the peasants, who used to borrow from Jews to tide them over when times were bad and they needed tools or seed – but his son, Louis X, brought the Jews back on terms that made him a partner with a two-thirds share in the recovery of their debts? Which of course led to the predictable pogrom against the Jews and a widespread uprising against the rich landowners and the Church. The Templars themselves Philip accused of heresy and sorcery in order to get out of his enormous debt to them; it also enabled him to lay hands on at least some of their fabulous wealth.

Elements of witchcraft, magic, and sorcery were taken for granted in medieval life, [she writes] but Philip’s use of them to prove heresy in the seven-year melodrama of the Templar’s trials gave them fearful currency. Thereafter charges of black arts became a common means to bring down an enemy and a favoured method of the Inquisition in its pursuit of heretics, especially those with property worth confiscating. In Toulouse and Carcassonne during the next 35 years the Inquisition prosecuted 1,000 persons on such charges and burned 600. French justice was corrupted and the pattern laid for the fanatic witchcraft persecutions of subsequent centuries.

As easy to read as a well-written novel, yet immensely detailed and, so far as I could tell, as reliable as history gets. Essential background reading for those who enjoy novels set in the fourteenth century.

And her original thesis? Yes, after reading this I must say I agree: times change, people don’t. Which is one of the things that make HF so fascinating.

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