Archive for July, 2007
Got back from the annual trip south this week, and spent a good deal of the time reading, and when not doing that, acquiring more stuff to read. We stayed first at The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. More on the trip and maybe some pictures later.
But there sitting by the Relaxation Pool (where the lifeguards actually enforce a rule requiring patrons to speak quietly and to forgo using wireless phones) I worked my way through the second half of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. It’s an utterly fascinating, if dense read. Essentially what Tuchman does is tell the story of Europe during a period where the entire continent was, putting it lightly, down on its luck. Starting with a climate change now known as The Little Ice Age which had begun in or about the year 1250, the weather began to cool and agriculture became problematic. This followed a period of unusually warm weather which had been favorable to farming and so had encouraged a period of population growth. With less food to go around, life became harder for average people, who were generally shackled by the rules of the feudal system. Against that backdrop came The Black Death which killed some 20 million people in Europe, and some 75 million worldwide. The population of England is thought to have dropped from 7 million to 2 million by 1400.
And if the plague didn’t kill you, war might. England and France began what we now call The Hundred Years’ War which actually lasted 116 years. Meanwhile other wars minor wars were fought in Italy, in the territory now known as Switzerland, and in Spain.
And if war didn’t get you, then marauding gangs of out-of-work mercenaries might. These “free companies” were generally made up of men who had been employed in the private armies assembled to fight in the various campaigns. But when the fighting would pause, they instead sack whatever village or town happened to be nearby.
And if that weren’t enough, there were various political upheavals, a papal schism (two competing claimants to the throne of St. Peter, one in Rome, one in Avignon), and more than few popular revolts, such as the Jacquerie in France.
Tuchman tells the story largely through the eyes of one person, Enguerrand de Coucy who was an important French nobleman, and sire of a domain in northern France called Coucy now in the department of Aisne in the regions of Picardie (See some fabulous pictures of the original castle at Coucy, or rather what’s left of it, here.) His mother was a Habsburg — a fact which later caused him to lead an ill-advised war to claim some Austrian land he thought should be his — and his first wife was English. In fact she was, Isabella, the daughter of the King of England, and he met her while serving five years as a voluntary hostage in English custody on the orders of the King of France. (Long story.) Through this marriage he became in addition to a titled French Sire, also an English Earl, and as such was in the unique position of owing allegiance to both kings. Given that the two countries were engaged in an epic war, it was, shall we day, a little awkward.
With all this trouble brewing, no one in Europe gave much thought to the problem of the Turkish invasions. What we now call The Ottoman Empire was on its initial rise at this point, and its eyes were set on Eastern Europe. Western Europe didn’t give much thought to it, though every King went to great lengths to talk about how important the idea of “crusade against the infidel” that is against Islam was to them, they rarely did much about it. Enguerrand was twice involved in rare occasions when one king or another decided launch a crusade, first in Tunisia, and then later in Hungary, where he was ultimately taken prisoner at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396.
The story of any century is always a complicated one and sorting out the many moving parts into a coherent narrative is no small feat. Tuchman spent seven chapters building a foundation and setting the stage so that the life of Enguerrand and his place in the many events that shaped his time can be placed within the massively complex context. The modern reader can’t help but find it challenging to keep track of the many crowned heads and ever-changing alliances and loyalties, deals, betrayals, claims and counter-claims as well as all the realms, territories and fiefdoms. The idea of nationalism a shared cultural identity was a new one that hadn’t yet taken hold in France and Italy, but England was already English. As such there is no such thing as a national army in this time period, and for every royal act that on its face seems to make sense and which is enacted for the “good of the people,” there are 10 or 20 such acts that are carried out for the good of the king taking the action and his many nobles seeking his favor and offering money, material and other such things necessary to carry out the war of the moment. A present-day reader’s head can’t help but ache at the neglect of the common people and the sheer idiocy of fighting endless wars amid such economic and social instability.
Tuchman tells a compelling, if disturbing and downright depressing tale of a miserable time and the people who couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything to make it any better.