"A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century", Barbara Tuchman, 1978

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Heir Apparent , TRF Author
Jul 26, 2005
New York
United States
It's not a royal book per se, but a historical narrative about Europe in the 14th century and has a lot of interesting stories about the royal families of that time.

It centers on the life of Enguerrand de Coucy, a French noble who married the daughter of the King of England and his conflict of allegiance when France and England went to war. His story is interesting enough but the rest of the book reads like a who's who of the Middle Ages. Edward, the Black Prince, Charles V (the first Dauphin and renovator of the Louvre) and Charles VI of France (the insane king who thought he was made of glass), the Duc du Berry who commissioned the incredibly beautiful Book of Hours, the Visconti family of Milan who commissioned the Visconti-Sforza deck of tarot cards, Henry V, and a bunch of non royal characters such as Chaucer, Petrarch, Sir John Hawkwood (English mercenary in Italy).

The women are by far the most interesting characters in the book. I felt a great deal of sympathy for Isabeau of Bavaria who was married to the mad Charles VI. When he was in his fit of madness, he couldn't recognize her and fleed from her thinking she was a ghost. Isabelle, the daughter of Edward III who married Coucy seemed like a spoiled rich kid, her father kept giving her titles and lands and she went through the money as fast as he gave it to her. The descriptions of some of her gowns with rich green velvet strewn with pearls and jewels together with a dozen of her matching ladies-in-waiting read like the medieval version of "The Lifes of the Rich and Famous" Against royal custom, when her husband gave up his English lands to fight for France, she separated from her husband and stayed with her father.

The author also writes a bit about Joan of Arc but she spends more time writing about the medieval woman chronicler, Christine de Pisan who made the name of Joan of Arc a household name. Christine's father and husband were minor court officials in the court of Charles V. When both of them died, Christine was left to earn her own living and turned to writing. She gained the trust of Charles V by writing a complementary biography of him but openly complained how women were treated by the male chroniclers of the time.

One of her books came about because she was despairing of great women to write about their deeds. A saint came to her in a vision reminding her of great women of the past. When Joan of Arc came upon the scene, Christine of Pisan was already waiting on a great woman to write a chronicle about and so she did, making her work the only major chronicle centering around a woman, Joan of Arc, and the only work written by a professional woman writer.

I haven't finished the book yet. Its rather long and the author throws so much detail and side stories in that its difficult to follow the story of Enguerrand de Coucy and his wife but overall its a fascinating and enjoyable book so far.
ysbel -- thanks for the great write-up. I checked the book out of the library but couldn't get into it, despite this being a historical period I generally like. After reading what you wrote, maybe I'll try again. I have read another of Tuchman's books called The Proud Tower -- set in the late 19th, early 20th centuries and it is very good.

If you like medieval historical fiction, have you read a series by Sharon Kay Penman or Dorothy Dunnett. Both are good, the latter author is very dense reading but probably more accurate historically than the Penman books.
Thanks for the recommendations, Emily. :)

'A Distant Mirror' was very slow going in the first few chapters but it picked up after the chapter on the Black Death. What makes it really worthwhile is the extensive index in the back that lists all the people, places, and events of the time. So if you want to read up on Isabelle, the daughter of Edward III, you can go to the index and look up all the sections about her.

I've done a bit of jumping around the book by choosing an interesting character and looking up their entries in the index.
Barbara Tuchman is one of the greatest historians, and I have in addition to "Distant Mirror" "The Proud Tower" and "Guns of August." The last two are about Europe before and during WWI-there's some about the British aristocracy and the Romanovs pre-Revolution. She's absolutely one of the indispensable history writers.
I've read this book too and I adored it.

It's quite an extensive work, I think it took me about a month to read it!

What's so great about it is that it doesn't just tell the story of Enguerrand de Coucy and his family, but also the story of France, the war with England, the relationship with other European kingdoms, dukedoms etc. But it's also very revealing on medieval society and its habits. At times it was hilarious I thought, and it made me think that it's nearly a miracle mankind has survived the middle ages!

I definitely recommend this one if you're interested in all aspects of history and have a lot of time to read it ! :)
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