Barbara Tuchman is most noted for The Guns of August, her excellent take on World War I. While that book deserves the flowers it gets, this one should probably garner more just based on its ambition and scope.
Tuchman is trying to capture what western Europe — specifically France — was like in the 14th century. The entirety of the 14th century. From dirt poor peasants to games of thrones amongst kings, nobles and popes, Tuchman’s view is broad and finished. I can’t think of any corner in this era she could have otherwise uncovered. It’s laid bare.
What’s remarkable though is how great Tuchman tells the story despite the immense amount of data on the subject. Using the life of Lord Enguerrand VII (a powerful French lord in the region of Coucy) as a framing device, Tuchman streamlines every aspect of life in this era, from the horrors of the plague to the horrors of war, from minor quibbles with nobility that lead to small skirmishes and major conflicts of papal restoration that lead to civil wars. It’s a brutal tale and Tuchman writes it without compromise.
I would say the book falters a bit in the final third. Tuchman runs out of other subjects to cover besides Enguerrand’s life and the political circumstances around him. They were interesting enough, but perhaps I had hit my limit by then.
But that is a small quibble. This is a triumph of historical scholarship. I’m not an expert on canonical historians for the western world but Barbara Tuchman’s name has to be included with them.