This is an expansive look especially at France in the 14th century, but in lesser detail also at England and the rest of Europe. Tuchman examines all aspects of medieval life, be it customs, romance, chivalry, or the living conditions of the poorest and the richest, simply everything one could ever want to know about this particular period in history, which was an absurdly terrible time indeed. In the 14th century, the first harbingers of the Little Ice Age caused periods of famine, the Hundred Years’ War started to devastate the land, the Black Death covered the whole continent in bodies, the Great Western Schism that led to one pope in Rome and one in Avignon promoted political instability, anti-Semitism led to widespread pogroms, and pillaging gangs and crushingly high taxes plagued the few people that were left.
Tuchman puts the focus on the life of Enguerrand de Coucy (1340-1397), a member of the French nobility and husband of the daughter of Edward III, King of England, who played a role in many important events during his lifetime. However, despite using this one historical figure as a lynchpin, it is in fact a comprehensive work about this particular century that the author likens to the also disastrous 20th century. I have to admit that I don’t think that this comparison can stand up to a thorough examination, and Tuchman does not present her case in a convincing or even detailled enough manner. Both of these centuries had unbelievable disasters and atrocities happen, but I don’t think that there’s an underlying central theme despite their horribleness that connects them in a more meaningful way than many other historical happenings that can be compared.
What I enjoyed the most was the way Tuchman dives into the medieval mindset and explains how different people thought about a lot of subjects, for instance, the value of a life or the meaning of the earthly and the spiritual life, and how a strange cult of death began to emerge at the end of the century; how people lived their day-to-day lives, how they raised their children, how they celebrated certain events, their values, and much more. Most of it is alien to a modern audience and that makes it immensely fascinating. Her examination of chivalry is also a highlight for me. She explains not only what it initially meant and what it was designed to be, but also how perverted it became until it played its part in the decline of France’s power. There were no knights in shining armour, only complacent and greedy warmongers that fought under the banner of a useless concept.
Tuchman’s description of the Black Death is also outstanding, in that she makes one feel the despair and helplessness of the people. They did not know in the slightest what they were facing or how it was transmitted. There was no remedy and no relief, and the death toll was so horrific that it led to a decline in the population of Europe for a century. When Tuchman describes the bodies too numerous to be buried, the empty houses, and the abandoned fields, she drives the point home of how boundless the impact was.
I liked the book a lot, because Tuchman has an engaging writing style and I thought that she interweaves the life of Coucy seemlessly with a comprehensive examination of this particular century. Because of its broad scope, however, it’s not an easy read and it sometimes failed to hold my interest because it became hard to follow due to an abundance of protagonists, locales, and intrigues. Overall, I did learn a lot about a period I was not overly familiar with and I felt that I at least started to understand the utterly different morals and values of the people that lived during that time. Definitely recommended for anyone interested in history.