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A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

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A wonderful, beautiful book painting a brilliant and detailed picture of France and Europe in the disastrous 14th century. Much faster to reload than the French crossbow, the longbow proved a decisive advantage, particularly as deployed by the far more organized and disciplined English army. If a servant displeased him, he would force the man to lie on the ground and, standing on his back, would kick him with spurs, crying, “Bark, dog!

In these eminently readable and compelling pages the author brings the insights of a modern historian to bear on the decades of Chaucer and Boccaccio, the time of the Hundred Years' War and the Black Death, of the great fame of Dante, of extravagant civilization and bizarre superstition, of pilgrimage and plague, of revolutionary new technologies and enraged revolt against a poll tax. Attachment to children was virtually non-existent or very negligible, and child-rearing was left almost to chance. The fourteenth century was a time of fabled crusades and chivalry, glittering cathedrals and grand castles. But then, I’ve read quite a few books on Ancient Greece and Rome and have never felt they are receding too far into the distance (although, admittedly, there is a sense in which Classical Societies do seem closer to us than those in the Middle Ages). Most of what I've read has been deeply thought-provoking, on the one hand, if somewhat tiresome to read, on the other.Again believing in chivalry, Jean used his knights to lead the charge just as Philip VI had done at Crecy with the same result.

Chivalry denotes an informal code of conduct that was associated with the medieval Christian institution of knighthood, and was meant to govern knights’ behaviour and social etiquette. Unlike some authors of ambitiously long and complicated books, Tuchman doesn't peter out near the end and leave the reader feeling cheated.The desperation of kings for more money to fight their wars and the extent of political manoeuvring and corruption suggest that they could match anything we witness in the modern world. In 1303 King Philip IV of France in conjunction with the anti-papist Italian army captured Pope Boniface VIII, who not surprisingly, soon was dead.

To become a subscriber to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly Magazine, please visit our subscriptions page. However, in my opinion, that “casual attitude towards life” has a more straightforward explanation and that is the simple fact that death itself was so common and present everything, contributing to the development of a fatalistic attitude in people. In theory, the nobility was tasked with the protection against tyranny and had a goal to fight against the oppressor, as well as cultivate virtues. Tuchman wrote this book – as the title implies – to compare the catastrophes of the 20th Century with those of the 14th. I visited many of the sites since living here in Paris that Tuchman mentions in her book and loved having the context to understand why they were standing.For younger bookworms – and nostalgic older ones too – there’s the Slightly Foxed Cubs series, in which we’ve reissued a number of classic nature and historical novels. That said, her chronological sections are just as engaging, displaying her rare gift for giving life to people who lived hundreds of years ago. By way of example, here is one memorable happening where the French Queen gave a masquerade to celebrate the wedding of a twice widowed lady-in-waiting: six young noblemen, including the King who recently recovered from a bout of madness, disguised themselves as wood savages and entered the masked ball making lewd gestures and howling like wolves as they paraded and capered in the middle of the revelers. A similar story took place in England where Richard II, only 13 in 1380, was likewise guided by the recently departed Edward III’s relatives. This also meant that there were strict rules of dress in place so that people’s societal statuses could be easily discerned.

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