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The No-Longer-Distant Mirror

Everything I have learned about the calamitous 14th century

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Il Trionfo della Morte, Franceso Traini

It didn’t start with Covid — not at all. It was Melvyn Bragg (and friends) who spent an hour some time ago talking about the Plantagenets and whether who they were has been undone by what Shakespeare did with them.

I listened to that episode of ‘In Our Time’ twice, as I do with the episodes that interest me beyond their capacity to put me to sleep. Then I hit our ridiculous library of Penguin Monarchs. ‘Where’s Henry Four?’ I asked my husband. ‘We have Henry V and VI. We have Henry the third and Edward the third. No Henry Four. Why’s that?’

I read Henry V and Henry VI. I read Edward IV. And that had me thinking about the Hundred Years War. I was remembering a book that I read in high school — World History, I guess. And it was a glorious book. I thought that maybe it was about The Hundred Years War and it was by Barbara somebody and it was called ‘The March of Folly.’

Then I went to Mallorca. I brought along ‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras, for reasons that have nothing to do with Lancasters or Yorks or Vallois or the sack of Normandy. And there on the guestroom bookshelf was a copy of ‘A Distant Mirror ‘by Barbara Tuchman. Which is, of course, the book I was thinking of a few days earlier, after not thinking of it, at all, in decades.

So I read ‘The Lover’ the first night of my stay in Mallorca and ‘A Distant Mirror’ over the next three. When it was time to leave, I decided it was bad form to steal a book from a guestroom. Even if it is the guestroom of a woman who was currently living in Jakarta and sliding into dementia and could very well never return to find her history books from the 1970s pilfered.

When I returned to London, I began looking for the book. ‘A Distant Mirror,’ published in 1978 and written by a Pulitzer Prize historian, is not a book you buy new. You buy it second hand, because there is history in its history. But the Oxfam bookshops didn’t have a copy. Skoob didn’t have a copy, nor did Judd. They had ‘The Zimmerman Telegram’ and they had ‘The March of Folly,’ which I carried through the aisles of the basement floor, because I’m sure that it, too, is a riveting history. But then I left it, misshelved, in feminist studies.

A week went by and then another, and at last I found a copy in the Barbican Library (always the savior). It was ‘in reserve’ somewhere. Somewhere less convenient than, say, ‘The Lover’ had been. Because when I requested ‘The Lover’ a month earlier, the tall stooped gentleman at the issues desk had very obligingly headed for the lift to fetch it. (‘Interestingly,’ he said, ‘I just recently sent this down to reserves. That’s how I knew where to find it.’) But that was not the case with ‘A Distant Mirror’. So another week passed before I could claim it.

When I did, I was pleased. The copy appeared to be a first print run. The stamped dates on the check-out pad stretched back to 1982. Prior to my collection, on 10 March 2020, it had not been borrowed since 2016. Now it’s the 26th of March and the 10th seems like ages ago. March 10th was early Covid, when people who read history first started to expect pandemic.

Needless to say, by the time I arrived home there was a new notification from the Barbican Library: ‘A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century’ had been requested by a new patron so I would not be allowed to renew it. No matter. I knew that I would have plenty of time to read it. That patron, I knew, was less interested in the Edwardses and Charleses than in that other century- long menace. The patron wanted a book about The Black Death, because history is funny and the library would surely be closed long before I was expected to return it’s thirty-year-old book.

With that long preface, I would like now to note the things I have learned about the 14th century. Not all of which has to do with plague and contagion and mortality. There are calamities aplenty.

Pointed shoes. The tattoos of their day. Maybe not in ubiquity but in their rapid adoption by those who stand at the furthest end of the spectrum when they emerged. It’s not an original thought — to connect all dark age dress with jesters and fools, and I do remember a summer in Moscow when everywhere there were gangsters and fathers and in absurdly long shoes … but it is curious, isn’t it? What makes a fashion take. Pointed and slashed, no less — a wild violation of sumptuary laws.

Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer. Hell of a writers’ group. And this, I learned: they were, all of them, diplomats. Real ones. Not, like, ‘diplomatic.’ Boccaccio was the Florentine emissary to the Pope. Petrarch served the Visconti in Italy. Chaucer brokered (or failed to broker) truces, and also held the title of ‘Comptroller of the Wool Customs,’ — a powerful position in the late medieval. Chaucer was granted a daily dispensation of a pitcher of wine from the King. But each of them — poets, envoys, orators — was a misogynist at heart. (So much for diplomacy.)

French. Yeah, I knew that modern English is Norman French mixed with anglo saxon. But it didn’t dawn on me that the lingua franca of Britain was fully French until the 14th century. Kind Edward, writes Tuchman ‘probably did not speak English with any fluency.’ (And I thought it was just the Russian nobility of the 19th century.) I wonder what an Essex accent on medieval French sounded like? Here’s the best part: schooling in grammar schools switched over to English only when the plague wiped out the French teaching clerics. (see Plague)

Interior chimneys. Biggest game-changer of the century, along with the longbow. Because once you could heat rooms with something better than a massive firepit and a hole in the ceiling, you could have privacy. Once you have privacy, you lords and you ladies could choose to sequester themselves away from their household servants and retainers. The crackling fireplace: the beginning of social inequality! (oops. On fact-checking I see these were actually 11th century innovations. Anyway…)

Children. “In literature the chief role of children was to die, usually drowned, smothered, or abandoned in a forest on the orders of some king fearing prophecy or mad husband testing a wife’s endurance.” (I just like this statement.)

Childishness. Indeed, Tuchman suggests that mother love, though innate might ‘atrophy under certain conditions.’ Conditions that the 14th century were full of, including crazy child mortality rates. Even more fascinating to ponder is the phenomenon of a great, feuding, plundering , scheming world in which the chief feuders, plunderers, schemers — sovereigns, popes, bishops, lords were under the age of 30. Half the population was younger than 21 years of age, and Tuchman reckons that ‘if children survived to age seven, their recognized life began, more or less as miniature adults.’ Immaturity, then, is defining characteristic of the age: impulsiveness, intemperance, selfishness, childishness.

Education. “Medicine, though not one of the liberal arts, was analogous to Music because its object was the harmony of the human body.”

Plague. Sensitive moment for that one. Maybe save it for later. But here are two salient bits: Estimates of the mortality rate were wild. No app for that. Instead they used Revelations which revealed that when plague hit, ‘one third of the world died.’ Also, the damn thing was so loathsome and deadly it drove out humanity. Says Tuchman: ‘not the kind of calamity that inspired mutual help.’ The best headline I have seen this week was the 450,000 volunteers who signed up to support the NHS within 24 hours of the call. Now, whether or not they will do any good …

Ransom. This is my favourite bit. You fought wars to sack and to kill. Then you took the Kings of the Castle hostage. The captured Kings hung out in one of your spare castles, well fed and probably attended by his retinue, who would be shipped over to serve. Along with, say, ‘horses, dogs, falcons, a chess set, an organ, a fawn-coloured palfrey, venison and whale meat from Bruges”. When he needed to get back to his castle to rustle up some money from his peasants to pay his captor’s ransom, he sent for some other noble fellow to take his place. Maybe six Dukes to take the place of one king. And they hung out, till the ransom was paid. Except, with the King in question, King Jean (and this is wild) — King Jean voluntarily returned to captivity when he failed to come up with his own ransom, owing to the fact that brigands had pillaged his realm in his absence. Writes Tuchman: ‘he arrived in London in January 1364, was greeted with lavish entertainments and processions, fell ill of an unknown malady in March, and died in April, aged 45.’ I wonder if he lost his sense of smell.

Violence. ‘In village games, players with hands tied behind them competed to kill a cat nailed to a post by battering it to death with their heads, at the risk of cheeks ripped open or eyes scratched out by the frantic animals claws. Or a pig enclosed in a wide pen was chased by men with clubs to the laughter of spectators.’ (See children and childishness)

Borders. We say, now, that the Hundred Years War was between England and France. But in truth it was between England and its English in France against France and the Frenchmen in England. There wasn’t a France per se, until English fighters wore down the French from Picardy to Normandy, forcing the Channel-straddlers to exclaim: ‘You can hold nothing this side of the sea except by tyranny; the sea is and ought to be your boundary.’ This, writes Tuchman mildly, ‘was new.’

Pageantry. ‘Such was the curiosity to see the French King that the procession took several hours to cross the town to Westminster. As the center of attention among the thirteen other noble prisoners, Jean was dressed in black and rode a tall white horse Past houses hung with captured shields and tapestries, over cobblestones strewn with rose petals, the procession moved through fantasies of pageantry that were the favorite art of the 14th century. In twelve gilded cages along the route, the goldsmiths of London had stationed twelve beautiful maidens, who scattered flowers of gold and silver filagree over the riders.’ (See Ransom)

War. The Hundred Years War, it turns out, is just a matter of finding something to occupy a sizeable portion of the non-working class who had no other skill but pillage. Yes, there was an elaborate chivalric code to justify it and yes, there was far too much coinage to be spent on mercenaries (see Plague as well as the non-existent entry on spoilage of said Plague). The Black Death wiped out the labour force, but certain ranks are not retrainable and so, they had to be sent off to Crusades or to foreign feuds to keep them from ruining their hometown neighbours. The Military Industrial Complex, it turns out, ain’t modern a’tall.

This is what I have learned about the calamitous 14th century. And I’m not even half-way finished. But I have time. The Barbican library will not be opening soon, London is on lockdown until 13 April, and no one really understands A Hundred Year anything until its long passed. The Distant Mirror remains distant, but in it, I see the reflection of Weinstein dying of pneumonia in disgrace as the word rattles on towards a multi-strained apocalypse.

However. This time we are all able to chronicle our era in real -time and in a shared language, where tik-tok is a verb and there is only one subject and object.

Let us tell it with humanity and humor, for historians to disregard or scrutinize as they see fit —

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