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re: A Distant Mirror
2011-08-11

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century (Barbara Tuchman) was my first experience listening to a nonfiction audiobook, and it was a very good one (but I wish I had a print copy, for footnotes and such).

Even at more than six centuries’ remove, the stories of these people can make for somber listening. The inscrutable Black Death spreads misery widely. Peasants revolt, desperate for freedom or relief, only to be crushed. Jews are slaughtered. Bands of brigands exploit the populace, out of control. The crusaders described towards the end of the book march off with misguided dreams of glory, and die en masse ignominiously. The picture is not generally pretty, but it is fascinating.

Random tidbits that piqued my curiosity:

  • Chivalry’s idealized “courtly love” envisaged a knight romancing not a maiden, but a married lady. Obviously a bit difficult to reconcile with adultery’s status as a grave sin!
  • Apparently medieval stagecraft could be pretty impressive. I guess given all the effort we put into special effects in movies, it shouldn’t be surprising our ancestors sought to perfect wonders in their own entertainments. Cinema’s fascination with the vulgar and macabre had its precedent in their plays, too - “Sex and sadism were relished in the rape of Dinah, in the exposure of Noah naked and drunk … . Scenes of torture in revolting realism were regular theatrical fare …”
  • “…Christine de Pisan, the only medieval woman, as far as is known, to have earned a living by her pen.”

Tags: review

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