‘A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century’


A Distant Mirror:  The Calamitous 14th CenturyA Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

She is always good, but this is not her best.


It is well worth an interested reader’s time, however. Tuchman’s idea is to tell her story through the life of a French nobleman, Enguerrand VII de Coucy. He was lucky enough, or unfortunate enough as the case may be, to have played a key role in nearly all the momentous events of the time, including the Crusades-ish (emphasis on -ish) Battle of Nicopolis.

Battle of Nicopol, 1396, by the Master of the ...

Battle of Nicopol, 1396, by the Master of the Dresden Prayer book from the Gruuthuse Froissart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In which he was captured.

And. After which he died in captivity of the plague.

Nicopolis (1396), of course, is an interesting battle because of the hubris displayed by the French knights. Interesting because the 13th and 14th centuries seem to be time spent waiting for French knights to display (fatally) their hubris.

In this case, though details of the battle are understandably murky, it seems that that the moderate gains won by an initial charge of French knights were foolishly spent by antsy, younger (probably snail-sucking) knights who believed they had already won a great victory. In the end, those in the Western army who were not killed or left to die were captured, a harsh, buzz-kill ending to what turned out to be the last thing anyone could uncontroversially call a crusade.

Forty years earlier, the French nobility basically pulled the same stunt against the English outside Poitiers in the was-longer-than-100-years Hundred Years War with perhaps even more disastrous effects. Apart from the concomitant death and destruction, the French king was captured and the wrangling over his ransom would prolong the war for decades. As a contemporary chronicler put it, “all went wrong with the Kingdom and the state was undone.”

Battle of Crécy between the English and French...

Battle of Crécy, from a 15th-century illuminated manuscript of Jean Froissart’s Chronicles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(But, wait. There’s more.) Ten years before that, at Crecy, terrain and English longbows frustrated a similar bold attempt with, if you will allow me, perhaps even more disastrous effects. Crecy transformed what was probably just a desultory English raid for plunder into the already-mentioned, generations-long Hundred Years War.

Never mind that, in 1302, a rash charge by knights against an army of Flemish amateurs outside Kortrijk should have been the only lesson the French needed to learn. So many French nobleman were skewered by angry farmers in this battle that the sanctuary of the local church was festooned with golden spurs. In fact, in perhaps the worst display of sportsmanship in history, the Flemish called it the Battle of the Golden Spurs.

Still, four blundering, bloody defeats in about 100 years time, certainly within living memory, was not enough to shift the medieval mind-set. Nineteen years after Nicopolis, 113 years after the Golden Spurs, the English defeated the French, thanks again to an ill-advised charge of knights, at perhaps the most famous tussle of the Middle Ages: the Battle of Agincourt.

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the Flemish line of battle during the Battle o...

The Flemish line of battle during the Battle of the Golden Spurs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)