The fourteenth Century must rank as one of the gloomiest in the last thousand years, with its plagues, climate change, famine, war and corruption. The Twentieth Century had its moments, the Twenty-first Century is shaping up well.
I was reminded of this when re-reading Barbara Tuchman’s wonderful book: A Distant Mirror. (This and the new Hllary Mantel should see me some way through the present crisis.) The book explores C14th Europe through the life and career of the renowned knight, Enguerrand de Coucy (1340 – 1397.) He had a spectacularly successful career, fighting his first battle at the age of fifteen, and whilst a prisoner of war in England, wooing and marrying Edward III’s daughter Isabella. He died of bubonic plague aged 57 in the Turkish city of Bursa, ironically as a prisoner of war.
What makes him an ideal pair of eyes for Tuchman is the fact that he was in all the right places at the right time, and so much of the century is explored through his direct or indirect experience, and once you start this book you won’t want to finish it too quickly. The book is full of the macabre and bizarre; to take just one example, a real life Danse Macabre
On the Tuesday before Candlemas Day— 28th January 1392— the Queen of France held a masquerade to celebrate a twice married lady’s maid re-embarking upon her third marriage. Six young men including the young King Charles, Yvain, bastard son of the count of Foix and four others, disguised themselves as ‘wood savages.’ Linen cloth soaked in resin and pitch was sewn to their bodies. Frazzled hemp, meant to resemble fur, was stuck to the resinous linen so that each resembled a ‘shaggy beast’ of the forest. Face masks completed the picture and hid their identities.
One of the ringleaders of these ‘shaggy beasts’ was Huguet de Guisey, a notorious debauchee and ‘cruellest of men.’ He was also a notorious corrupter of youth and held those beneath him in contempt. If a servant displeased him, the servant was forced on the ground. There Huguet whipped him and, through the screams of pain, made the unlucky servant bark like a dog.
God is patient.
In the ‘Dance of the Savages,’ the six men capered in front of the party-goers howling like wolves and making the obscenest of gestures—the young king being particularly foul in front of the fifteen year old Duchesse de Berry.
At that moment, Louis de Orleans and Philippe de Bar arrived from an orgy elsewhere in the palace. Both held torches to light up the gloom. The rest is history.
Curious as to the identities of the masked savages, Louis held up his torch close to one of the capering demons. A spark fell. Flame raced up first one leg then the other. Screaming and gesticulating even more wildly than before, he set the rest of the dancers alight, too. The Duchesse de Berry, recognising the king in time, protected him with her voluminous skirt, dousing out the flames before they took hold.
Around them, the room was filled with wild sobbing, screams and shouts of unrestrained horror. There was one other survivor. He jumped into a large wine cooler filled with water.
And what of the villainous Hugeut de Guisay? He lingered on for three days in appalling agony cursing everyone but himself for his plight. When his coffin was carried through the streets, peasants and townsfolk greeted it with barking and cries of ‘Bark, Dog!’
Reading the book you are struck by how much it resonates with our own era, not in terms of swords and plate armour, but in human greed, incompetence and corruption. Proving that nature is a law unto itself, this century too experienced climate change with its severe mini ice-age when the Baltic sea froze solid more than once, crops failed, and people starved. History never repeats itself; man, always does.