A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

A stunning, detailed, comprehensive peek under the covers of the 14th century with its myriad of ills: the plague and its re-occurrence wiping out 50% of the European population during the century, endless war between France/England and the ravaging/pillaging of the land by marauding bands in times of peace or war, and the schism in the church with two popes, one in Avignon, France, the other in Rome. “Apocalypse was in the air.” Taxation as a constant and escalating burden on the lower classes to pay for the pomp and frivolity of the upper, who were more concerned about going to war bedecked in jewels and decorative tunics than in bringing the proper equipment (battering ram) to break through fortresses. “Funds had been invested in silk and velvet and gold embroidery, cargo space packed with wine and festive provisions. Why drag heavy machinery a thousand miles across Europe for use against a contemptible enemy? Something fundamental in the culture determined these choices,” and “The common people ‘groaned,’ wrote Jean de Venette, ‘to see dissipated in games and ornaments the funds they had so painfully furnished for the needs of war.'”
Tuchman selects Enguerrand de Coucy VII as the hero which the entire book follows; “to narrow the focus (in the 50 years that followed the Black Death), I have chosen a particular person’s life as the vehicle of my narrative… this has the advantage of enforced obedience to reality. I am required to follow the circumstances and the sequence of an actual medieval life.”
Joanna of Flanders (Countess of Montfort) led soldiers in defending her town, “devised feints and stratagems, wielded her sword in sea fights.” Inexplicably she is written off to history as “going mad” and being shut up and forgotten in the castle of Tickhill (England) for thirty years until her death; the fate of strong-willed women = declared mad?
Christine de Pisan, the only medieval woman to make her living with a pen, wrote about the art of war, a life of Charles V, a treatise on the education of women, and La Cité des dames (lives of famous women of history).
Rising up against the hypocrisy of the church, Brethren of the Free Spirit spread doctrinal and civil disorder, embracing poverty and communal living, “cluttering the towns like sparrows, preaching, begging, interrupting church services, scorning monks and priests.” Women were more prominent among the mystics, and its major gospels were written by women, “one a shadowy figure known only as Schwester Katrei, the other named Marguerite Porete, who wrote The Mirror of Free Souls who was excommunicated and burned with her book in 1310.” Other notable women: Bloemardine, Jeanne Dabenton. The movement was condemned by the Inquisition, but flourished and spread.
The initial outbreak of Black Death carried off “a third of the world,” which would equate to 20M deaths in Europe. One immediate consequences was labor shortages in manufacturing/agriculture harvest, which in turn gave labor groups more power (eventually). Not surprisingly, Jews were accused as bringing the plague (well-poisoning), and hysteria massacred Jewish communities throughout Europe, “a whole community of several hundred Jews burned in a wooden house especially constructed for that purpose on an island in the Rhine.”
Tuchman weaves Coucy’s story among a detailed look at the century’s customs.
Women’s treatment:

While husbands and lovers in the stories are of all kinds, ranging from sympathetic to disgusting, women are invariably deceivers: inconstant, unscrupulous, quarrelsome, querulous, lecherous, shameless… their antagonism to women reflected a common attitude which took its tone from the Church.

Examples of the terrible fate that meets carping and critical wives are cited by the Menagier and Landry, who tells how a husband, harshly criticized by his wife in public, “being angry with her governance, smote her with his fist down to the earth,” then kicked her in the face… “her due for her evil and great language as she was wont to say to her husband.”
So much emphasis is repeatedly placed on compliance and obedience as to suggest that opposite qualities were more common. Anger in the Middle Ages was associated with women, and the sin of Ire often depicted as a woman on a wild board, although the rest of the seven Vices were generally personified as men. If the lay view of medieval woman was a scold and a shrew, it may be because scolding was her only recourse against subjection to man…

On entertainment:

Entertainment was not only the recital of lofty epics of chivalrous if tedious adultery. The coarse comic fabliaux in quick rhymed couplets, satiric, obscene, often cruel or grotesque, were told for laughs like dirty stories of any age… treated sex more as pratfall than ennoblement, and their recital or reading aloud was as welcome in the castle as in town, tavern and probably cloister. A knight, asked by the Queen if he has fathered any children, is forced to admit he has not, and indeed he “did not have the look of a man who could please his mistress when he held her naked in his arms… for it is easy to judge from the state of the hay whether the pitchfork is good.” In his turn, the knight asks, “Lady answer me without deceit. Is there hair between your legs?” When she replies, “None at all,” he comments, “Indeed I do believe you for grass does not grow on a well-beaten path.”