Horrors of the 14th Century -- Barbara Tuchman's a Distant Mirror turns the image of the quaint, chivalric Middle Ages in Europe into an image of a divided land, in a state of crisis and despair
The rather poetic title A Distant Mirror given by the historian Barbara Tuchman to her landmark work about the 14th century belies the horrors she chronicles, terrors of disease, war, and religious intolerance that were rife in the chaotically governed Europe of this period of time. The subtitle of the book is "The Calamitous 14th Century," and calamitous for almost all of its citizens it was indeed. The century was marked by the plague, internal as well as external wars, and suffered under the control of the church over European political affairs. The misery of disease, the constant turmoil of war, caused the already divided population to be constantly divided. Because of disease and the dangers of war, the population constant state of fear, and to turn to the church for solace -- and when the church proved either ineffectual or meddling, local and often more violent manifestations of religious fervor were resorted to, and tore communities in Europe even further asunder.
Tuchman's thesis that because there was no unifying system of governance, the population was especially prone to warfare and strife between fiefdoms, and the church had ample room to act as the only unifying authority -- even when its counsel proved dangerous, as during the era of the bubonic plague. Tuchman's central theme is that, rather than an age where knights were bold and maidens were modest, the 14th century was wreaked by governmental chaos much like the 20th century when she wrote her book. The source of the three horrors were all interrelated, namely the inability to find a common governing authority, and the division of Europe into fiefdoms where knights owed loyalty to their lords and to the church, not to the state. The reason such a system continued, in part, was the fear of neighboring fiefdoms taking control, the ideological control of the church as opposed to the state, and the way that the plague created a further stress upon the population's nerves and economy.
The plague was horrible to witness, even in a physical fashion: "The disease [that kept Europe in a constant state of fear] was [the] bubonic plague, present in two forms: one that infected the bloodstream, causing the buboes and internal bleeding, and was spread by contact ... The second by respiratory fashion." (67) Regardless of whether the lungs or the blood were affected, the progression of the disease was swift, the plague spread like wildfire. Most of the victims died in three days or less, sometimes as quickly as less than 24 hours -- Tuchman records that some sufferers went to bed well and died of the plague the next day. (67) Socially, society became even more internally divided, as when the plague came to town, individuals were quick to ostracize the infected, and the home of the infected, sometimes barring up entire households where one individual was infected.
This paranoia was justified to some degree, as patients would sometimes infect and kill the doctors at their bedside who had come to treat them. "Out of 24 physicians in Venice, 20 were said to have lost their lives in the plague, although, according to another account, some were believed to have fled or to have shut themselves up in their houses." (67) When the plague was described as a plague that cuts off the young the speaker meant the illness cut off the youth of Europe from life, and Europe from progressing into the future with a young generation physically intact. (67_
Frightened, individuals turned to religion, heightening the fervor that already marked Europe. A crisis of faith was created for the mainstream church. "Then faith must suffice," said Pope Clement VI, when he was told of the seemingly unstoppable plague. He found it necessary to grant remissions of sin to all who died of the plague because so many were unattended by priests, making the church, which had stood so ideologically intransient on some issues dear to the common populace's heart, seem ineffectual in its upholding of doctrine. (70)
The church was also forced to halt another source of its power of display as religious processions were ended, as they were the source of infections, as people mingled in common places on the days of such festivals. (79) Without answers from the church, people became more frightened because they were unsure how the disease spread -- no one suspected rats or fleas on rats, the actual source of the ailment. Bleeding, purging with laxatives and other remedies of doctors also proved ineffectual. (81) Only the evidence of human-to-human contact provided any clue to the source of the ailment -- and, the fallen nature of the soul, according to fanatical folk religion, often not endorsed by the church. "The result was an underground lake of guilt in the soul that the plague now tapped. That the mortality was accepted as God's punishment may explain in part the vacuum of comment that followed." (80)
To ward of the plague, individuals scourged themselves to no avail. "Self-flagellation was intended to express remorse and expiate the sins of all." (89) The persecution of the Jewish population of Europe increased. "In Cologne the Town Council repeated the Pope's argument that Jews were dying of the plague like everyone else," but a group of militant flagellants insisted on attacking the Jews for well poisoning, a common anti-Semitic charge made against Jewish populations in Christian communities. Without answers, and now divided amongst themselves in already divided and disparate fiefdoms, people searched for answers from religion and from their governing lords and found none. (90)
By the end of the century, the population of Europe, especially its most young and vulnerable members, had been reduced by 50%. (119) Revenue from taxes for the state had declined, as did commerce and general economic as well as personal, human, prosperity. Religious fanaticism and questioning increased on a grass-roots level, while support for the legitimate, institutional church declined as well as from the local lords who had provided the tenuous structure of government that had sustained Europe up to this time. The political power of the peasants increased, as landowners could not charge taxes that were as high, one 'positive' or at least, non-detriment result or side-effect of the disease.
The thirst for warfare between fiefdoms was also temporarily contained by the spread of the plague, even though Tuchman still considers the thirst for war the second great terror of the age, along with disease. 14th century warfare was bloody, and seemingly never-ending as the course of the hundred years war indicates. "These private wars," unlike the wars of previous times "were fought by the knights with furious gusto and a single strategy, which consisted in trying to ruin the enemy." (6) War was especially popular at the beginning of the century with the development and breeding of the warhorse, and the use of the horse in combat. Astride, a knight could "do more in an hour of fighting than ten or maybe one hundred could do afoot." The destrier or war-horse was bred to be "strong, fiery, swift, and faithful" and ridden only in combat." (14) War bound society together as well as tore it apart, as the much-lauded knight, rather than a chivalric gallant really, in return for protection "owed ministerial service to his overlord or sovereign, and counsel in peace as well as military service in war. Land in all cases was the consideration, and the oath of homage, made and accepted." (15) Chivalry was developed as a way of giving moral authority to the often immoral acts war demanded. "More than a code of manners in war and love, chivalry was a moral system, governing the whole of noble life." (38)
As warriors were often far away from home for long stretches of time, adultery also became a primary concern -- and also the focus of courtly love, even while the church condemned adultery as a worse sin than killing in warfare. Thus, the century began in warfare, "of the three brothers in 1328 left the succession to the crown open, with results that led to the longest war-so far-in Western history," and ended in war as well -- the "Hundred Years War" merely being a constant expression of the localized warfare that tore apart smaller areas of Europe over this period of time. (20) Without a centralized government, no peace was possible, Tuchman believes, as without an efficient quarantine policy and understanding of disease, the plague spread.
Out of this turbulence, partly a residual effect of the dissolution of the unifying Roman Empire whose still were felt centuries afterwards, and of the divided nature of the presence of so many fiefdoms of governance, the only unifying power that emerged from this "set of disjointed and clashing parts…