Title: A Distant Mirror
Rating: 5 Stars
The 14th century was a disaster. European society essentially comes apart at the seams as a series of disasters destroy it, leaving it depopulated and its people cast adrift without effective leadership or religion.
The hundred years war
Two sets of nobles fight for no general purpose except for vainglory and the acquirement of temporarily held lands for over a 100 years.
Madness of long lived kings
The whole myth of the divine rights / nature of kings is laid bare here. Where are Plato’s philosopher kings? Kings are still in power long after they’ve lost the ability to rule.
We have Charles VI of France, who starts off attractive and feckless but ends up spending the last 30 years of his reign in increasingly longer fits of madness.
We have Henry IV of England, who has successive mental breakdowns again leading to regime breakdown and civil war.
We have Edward III of England, who has a glorious early reign but by the end is senile and incapable of leading.
We have Wenceslas, the Holy Roman Emperor, who can’t stay sober long enough at a conference with Charles VI, who can’t stay sane long enough, to address the threats of a Turkish invasion.
Incapable of learning from mistakes
At Crecy, in 1347, we have the French launch a bold chivalric attack against the English, who unleash their longbows against them and defeat them decisively.
At Poitiers, in 1356, we have the French launch a bold chivalric attack against the English, who unleash their longbows against them and defeat them decisively.
At Agincourt, in 1415, we have the French launch a bold chivalric attack against the English, who unleash their longbows against them and defeat them decisively.
The plague and the embrace of death
In some major towns, population was reduced by over 50 percent.
Small towns in some cases cease to exist.
Some monasteries have a 100 percent death rate.
With the plague and the 100 Years war, there arose in culture an embrace of death (danse macabre).
Brigandage, taxes on the poor and their rebellion
During the 100 Years war, the soldiers learned to pillage the land to feed themselves. During the periods of time when there was no ongoing war, the soldiers still banded together and scoured the countryside as brigands. This was another source of horror to the peasants during the 14th century. Occasionally, rulers would effectively invent foreign conflicts and/or crusades for the purpose of leading these soldiers out of their country and depositing them in another.
Between the brigands, the plague, the incessant taxes to fight noble wars for which they saw no benefit, the poor would occasionally rebel. This, due to their numbers, would terrify the nobles. The poor did not have the knowledge / organization that would allow them to actually accomplish their aims and improve their situation. Inevitably, either the nobles would crush them or would give them false promises and then crush them.
Random acts of violence
There were regular acts of simply extreme violence. There are regular accounts of notable historical figures taking action to assassinate their opponents. There are also examples of extreme actions taken as some kind of paroxysm of grief.
You get the feeling that there just wasn’t thought about consequences or even surface level of analysis. The responses were the pure emotional responses of savages.
The papal schism
In case the mass population did not have enough to worry about, for much of the century there were two rival popes, who of course would immediately excommunicate the followers of each other. Given that the people at that time had a much more literal view of hell, it can only be imagined how much additional suffering this placed upon people.