A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman

By Barbara W. Tuchman

"Wise, witty, and beautiful . . . a good e-book, in a very good old tradition." —CommentaryThe 14th century offers us again contradictory pictures: a glittering time of crusades and castles, cathedrals and chivalry, and a depressing time of ferocity and religious soreness, a global plunged right into a chaos of struggle, worry and the Plague. Barbara Tuchman anatomizes the century, revealing either the good rhythms of historical past and the grain and texture of household lifestyles because it was once lived.

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A person under the ban was deprived of the sacraments and doomed to hell until such time as he made amendment and was absolved. In major cases only the bishop or in some cases the Pope could lift the ban. While it was in force the local priest was supposed to pronounce the curse upon the sinner before the parish two or three times a year in the name of the Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Virgin Mary, and all the Apostles and saints while the funeral knell tolled, candles were put out, and the cross and missals laid on the floor.

Such democratization, as far as it went, was not so much a step in a steady march toward liberty—as 19th century historians liked to envision the human record—as it was the inadvertent by-product of the nobles’ passionate pursuit of war. Required to equip himself and his retainers with arms, armor, and sound horses, all of them costly, the crusader—if he survived—usually came home poorer than he went, or left his estate poorer, especially since none of the crusades after the First was either victorious or lucrative.

Four of the greatest were under construction, at the same time as the castle—at Laon, Reims, Amiens, and Beauvais, within fifty miles of Coucy. While it took anywhere from 50 to 150 years to finish building a cathedral, the vast works of Coucy with donjon, towers, ramparts, and subterranean network were completed, under the single compelling will of Enguerrand de Coucy III, in the astonishing space of seven years. The castle compound enclosed a space of more than two acres. Its four corner towers, each 90 feet high and 65 in diameter, and its three outer sides were built flush with the edge of the hill, forming the ramparts.

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