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A Distant Mirror

Pulitzer Prize winning author Barbara Tuchman wrote a book in 1978 entitled “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century”. In it she recounts how the 14th and the first half of the 15th centuries give us back two contradictory images. An “Indian summer” of the Middle Ages–a still glittering time of castles, cathedrals and chivalry, and a dark time of ferocity and spiritual agony, a world plunged into a chaos of war, fear, famine, and the Plague. The title is referencing how the catastrophes of that transitional time and the contemporary world of the 20th century (or in our case the 21st century) shows disturbing similarities. Here are several revealing excerpts from her work:

“When the gap between ideal and real becomes too wide, the system breaks down.”

“Human beings of any age need to approve of themselves; the bad times in history come when they cannot.”

“An event of great agony is bearable only in the belief that it will bring about a better world. When it does not, as in the aftermath of another vast calamity, disillusion is deep and moves on to self-doubt and self-disgust.”

“Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of the disturbance, as we know from our own times. After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-nazis, and rapists. [today we could add economic woes, political divisions, prevalence of poverty in much of the world, fears of terrorism, cyberattacks]. The fact is that one can come home in the evening–on a lucky day–without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena. This has led me to formulate Tuchman’s Law, as follows: The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold (or any figure the reader would care to supply).”

While using the above statements as a launching point for your essay engage in a discussion of the crisis thesis of the late Middle Ages. Write an essay explaining the significance of the various crisis—political, social, economic, and religious–facing Western Civilization in the 14th and 15th centuries. Be sure to cite details the textbook while giving arguments to support your answer.

The essay should be 1,200-2,000 word essay. In the body of your work, try to answer at least THREE of the following questions with references from the textbook while demonstrating historical analysis. This list is meant to serve as a sort of outline and guide for the essay.

1. Describe the benefits and costs of the Mongol Empire.
2. How does living in and experiencing the Age of COVID inform our understanding of the 14th century Black Death–socially, economically, biologically, etc.
3. Revolts in Europe (Jacquerie, English Peasants, Ciompi Rebellion).
4. Why is it correct to consider this time an era of exploration and globalization?
5. What caused the rise of national monarchies in England and France in terms of the Hundred Years War? or discuss the emergence of Russia?
6. What was the condition and role of religion and the Church during the period under consideration (think about Avignon papacy, the rise of piety, heresies, spiritual crisis, etc.)?
7. What are the implications of the emergence of vernacular literature and culture in the Late Middle Ages? Think Chaucer and Dante, among others.

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