Week 14

In early October 1347, twelve Genoese galleys put in at the port of Messina in Sicily. The town was one of the principal stopping-off points on the lucrative trade route from the East that brought silks and spices along the Old Silk Road, through the Crimea, across the Black Sea and into Europe. On this occasion, however, no silks or spices were to be unloaded from the vessels, which had probably come from the trading stations Genoa maintained at Tana and Kaffa on the north coast of the Black Sea. The port authorities found, to their horror, that scarcely anyone onboard the twelve galleys was left alive, and those who were exhibited a pronounced lethargy and a strange sickness 'that seemed to cling to their very bones'. They suffered from black boils and everything that came out of their bodies – breath, blood, pus – smelled awful. The presence of the galleys was deemed a public health emergency of the first order and, within a day or so, the galleys were driven from the port, so afraid were the Messinese of what they found on board the Genoese vessels. Although the measures were understandably protective, it was too late: the sickness the Genoese crewmen were suffering from took hold of the town within a few days. The doomed galleys drifted on, infecting all who came into contact with them. The Black Death had arrived in Europe. This was not the first time the plague had struck. The town elders and physicians in Messina may well have known – after either hearing eyewitness reports or venturing, almost certainly suicidally, onto the Genoese boats – what the sailors were dying from. There had been outbreaks of plague for generations, usually sporadic and confined to localised areas, lasting a few months, but deadly nonetheless. It had attacked Frederick Barbarossa's army outside Rome in 1167, before it became rife in the city itself, where it recurred in 1230. It had also attacked Florence in 1244, and the south of France and Spain in 1320 and 1333. This time, however, it would be different. This time the plague would not be confined to one or two towns, but would spread unpredictably and, at times it seemed, uncontrollably, across the whole continent, taking rich and poor to their graves in the worst single epidemic in history. But in October 1347, as the Messinese died screaming in their homes and in the streets from what seemed like a Divine punishment, the wider world must have been the last thing on their minds. The experience of the Black Death coming at midpoint in the 14th century changed the whole vision of life and art forever.


Barbara Tuchman,

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century,

Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reissue edition (July 12, 1987),

ISBN 0345349571

This is the best book in English on the 14th Century and I can't imagine anyone will ever write a better one. Barbara Tuchman was a miracle in the history world. She had no special training; she was just a Manhattan housewife who loved history. One day she walked down Fifth Avenue to the New York Public Library. She began to read and soon began to write and was soon into a spectacular career as an international best-selling author. She wrote five of the best books ever written in the field. Her masterpiece is A Distant Mirror on the 14th Century. She takes one character, Enguerand de Coucy, a French noble whose life touched almost everyone important in the century, and then she takes us all through the stories of the incredible century. History has never been better. It is like a novel; only better. You can read it on paper, in Kindle, or on audible.

Amazon Comment:
In this sweeping historical narrative, Barbara Tuchman writes of the cataclysmic 14th Century, when the energies of medieval Europe were devoted to fighting internecine wars and warding off the plague. Some medieval thinkers viewed these disasters as divine punishment for mortal wrongs; others, more practically, viewed them as opportunities to accumulate wealth and power. One of the latter, whose life informs much of Tuchman's book, was the French nobleman Enguerrand de Coucy, who enjoyed the opulence and elegance of the courtly tradition while ruthlessly exploiting the peasants under his thrall. Tuchman looks into such events as the Hundred Years War, the collapse of the medieval church, and the rise of various heresies, pogroms, and other events that caused medieval Europeans to wonder what they had done to deserve such horrors.

“Beautifully written, careful and thorough in its scholarship . . . What Ms. Tuchman does superbly is to tell how it was. . . . No one has ever done this better.”—The New York Review of Books

“A beautiful, extraordinary book . . . Tuchman at the top of her powers . . . She has done nothing finer.”—The Wall Street Journal

“Wise, witty, and wonderful . . . a great book, in a great historical tradition.”—Commentary

From the Publisher:
Anyone who has read The Guns of August or Stilwell and the American Experience in China, knows that Barbara Tuchman was one of the most gifted American writers of this century. Her subject was history, but her profiles of great men and great events are drawn with such power that reading Tuchman becomes a riveting experience. In A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman illuminates the Dark Ages. Her description of medieval daily life, the role of the church, the influence of the Great Plagues, and the social and political conventions that make this period of history so engrossing, are carefully woven into an integrated narrative that sweeps the reader along. I am a particular devotee of medieval and pre-Renaissance music, so Barbara Tuchman's brilliant analysis of this period has special meaning for me—and I hope for many others. —George Davidson, Director of Production, The Ballantine Publishing Group

About the Author:
Barbara W. Tuchman (1912–1989) achieved prominence as a historian with The Zimmermann Telegram and international fame with The Guns of August—a huge bestseller and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Her other works include Bible and Sword, The Proud Tower, Stilwell and the American Experience in China (for which Tuchman was awarded a second Pulitzer Prize), Notes from China, A Distant Mirror, Practicing History, The March of Folly, and The First Salute.