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Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Centuryby Barbara W Tuchman
Synopses & Reviews
“I Am the Sire de Coucy”: The Dynasty
Formidable and grand on a hilltop in Picardy, the five-towered castle of Coucy dominated the approach to Paris from the north, but whether as guardian or as challenger of the monarchy in the capital was an open question. Thrusting up from the castle’s center, a gigantic cylinder rose to twice the height of the four corner towers. This was the donjon or central citadel, the largest in Europe, the mightiest of its kind ever built in the Middle Ages or thereafter. Ninety feet in diameter, 180 feet high, capable of housing a thousand men in a siege, it dwarfed and protected the castle at its base, the clustered roofs of the town, the bell tower of the church, and the thirty turrets of the massive wall enclosing the whole complex on the hill. Travelers coming from any direction could see this colossus of baronial power from miles away and, on approaching it, feel the awe of the traveler in infidel lands at first sight of the pyramids.
Seized by grandeur, the builders had carried out the scale of the donjon in interior features of more than mortal size: risers of steps were fifteen to sixteen inches, window seats three and a half feet from the ground, as if for use by a race of titans. Stone lintels measuring two cubic yards were no less heroic. For more than four hundred years the dynasty reflected by these arrangements had exhibited the same quality of excess. Ambitious, dangerous, not infrequently ferocious, the Coucys had planted themselves on a promontory of land which was formed by nature for command. Their hilltop controlled passage through the valley of the Ailette to the greater valley of the Oise. From here they had challenged kings, despoiled the Church, departed for and died on crusades, been condemned and excommunicated for crimes, progressively enlarged their domain, married royalty, and nurtured a pride that took for its battle cry, “Coucy à la merveille!” Holding one of the four great baronies of France, they scorned territorial titles and adopted their motto of simple arrogance,
Roi ne suis,
Ne prince ne duc ne comte aussi;
Je suis le sire de Coucy.
(Not king nor prince,
Duke nor count am I;
I am the lord of Coucy.)
Begun in 1223, the castle was a product of the same architectural explosion that raised the great cathedrals whose impulse, too, sprang from northern France. Four of the greatest were under construction, at the same time as the castle—at Laon, Reims, Amiens, and Beauvais, within fifty miles of Coucy. While it took anywhere from 50 to 150 years to finish building a cathedral, the vast works of Coucy with donjon, towers, ramparts, and subterranean network were completed, under the single compelling will of Enguerrand de Coucy III, in the astonishing space of seven years.
The castle compound enclosed a space of more than two acres. Its four corner towers, each 90 feet high and 65 in diameter, and its three outer sides were built flush with the edge of the hill, forming the ramparts. The only entrance to the compound was a fortified gate on the inner side next to the donjon, protected by guard towers, moat, and portcullis. The gate opened onto the place d’armes, a walled space of about six acres, containing stables and other service buildings, tiltyard, and pasture for the knights’ horses. Beyond this, where the hill widened out like the tail of a fish, lay the town of perhaps a hundred houses and a square-towered church. Three fortified gates in the outer wall encircling the hilltop commanded access to the outside world. On the south side facing Soissons, the hill fell away in a steep, easily defensible slope; on the north facing Laon, where the hill merged with the plateau, a great moat made an added barrier.
Within walls eighteen to thirty feet thick, a spiral staircase connected the three stories of the donjon. An open hole or “eye” in the roof, repeated in the vaulted ceiling of each level, added a little extra light and air to the gloom, and enabled arms and provisions to be hoisted from floor to floor without the necessity of climbing the stairs. By the same means, orders could be given vocally to the entire garrison at one time. As many as 1,200 to 1,500 men-at-arms could assemble to hear what was said from the middle level. The donjon had kitchens, said an awed contemporary, “worthy of Nero,” and a rainwater fishpond on the roof. It had a well, bread ovens, cellars, storerooms, huge fireplaces with chimneys on each floor, and latrines. Vaulted underground passageways led to every part of the castle, to the open court, and to secret exits outside the ramparts, through which a besieged garrison could be provisioned. From the top of the donjon an observer could see the whole region as far as the forest of Compiègne thirty miles away, making Coucy proof against surprise. In design and execution the fortress was the most nearly perfect military structure of medieval Europe, and in size the most audacious.
One governing concept shaped a castle: not residence, but defense. As fortress, it was an emblem of medieval life as dominating as the cross. In the Romance of the Rose, that vast compendium of everything but romance, the castle enclosing the Rose is the central structure, which must be besieged and penetrated to reach the goal of sexual desire. In real life, all its arrangements testified to the fact of violence, the expectation of attack, which had carved the history of the Middle Ages. The castle’s predecessor, the Roman villa, had been unfortified, depending on Roman law and the Roman legions for its ramparts. After the Empire’s collapse, the medieval society that emerged was a set of disjointed and clashing parts subject to no central or effective secular authority. Only the Church offered an organizing principle, which was the reason for its success, for society cannot bear anarchy.
Out of the turbulence, central secular authority began slowly to cohere in the monarchy, but as soon as the new power became effective it came into conflict with the Church on the one hand and the barons on the other. Simultaneously the bourgeois of the towns were developing their own order and selling their support to barons, bishops, or kings in return for charters of liberties as free “communes.” By providing the freedom for the development of commerce, the charters marked the rise of the urban Third Estate. Political balance among the competing groups was unstable because the king had no permanent armed force at his command. He had to rely on the feudal obligation of his vassals to perform limited military service, later supplemented by paid service. Rule was still personal, deriving from the fief of land and oath of homage. Not citizen to state but vassal to lord was the bond that underlay political structure. The state was still struggling to be born.
By virtue of its location in the center of Picardy, the domain of Coucy, as the crown acknowledged, was “one of the keys of the kingdom.” Reaching almost to Flanders in the north and to the Channel and borders of Normandy on the west, Picardy was the main avenue of northern France. Its rivers led both southward to the Seine and westward to the Channel. Its fertile soil made it the primary agricultural region of France, with pasture and fields of grain, clumps of forest, and a comfortable sprinkling of villages. Clearing, the first act of civilization, had started with the Romans. At the opening of the 14th century Picardy supported about 250,000 households or a population of more than a million, making it the only province of France, other than Toulouse in the south, to have been more populous in medieval times than in modern. Its temper was vigorous and independent, its towns the earliest to win charters as communes.
In the shadowed region between legend and history, the domain of Coucy was originally a fief of the Church supposedly bestowed on St. Remi, first Bishop of Reims, by Clovis, first Christian King of the Franks, in about the year 500. After his conversion to Christianity by St. Remi, King Clovis gave the territory of Coucy to the new bishopric of Reims, grounding the Church in the things of Caesar, as the Emperor Constantine had traditionally grounded the Church of Rome. By Constantine’s gift, Christianity was both officially established and fatally compromised. As William Langland wrote,
When the kindness of Constantine gave Holy Church endowments
In lands and leases, lordships and servants,
The Romans heard an angel cry on high above them,
“This day dos ecclesiae has drunk venom
And all who have Peter’s power are poisoned forever.”
That conflict between the reach for the divine and the lure of earthly things was to be the central problem of the Middle Ages. The claim of the Church to spiritual leadership could never be made wholly credible to all its communicants when it was founded in material wealth. The more riches the Church amassed, the more visible and disturbing became the flaw; nor could it ever be resolved, but continued to renew doubt and dissent in every century.
In the earliest Latin documents, Coucy was called Codiciacum or Codiacum, supposedly derived from Codex, codicis, meaning a tree trunk stripped of its branches such as those the Gauls used to build their palisades. For four centuries through the Dark Ages the place remained in shadow. In 910–20 Hervé, Archbishop of Reims, built the first primitive castle and chapel on the hill, surrounded by a wall as defense against Norsemen invading the valley of the Oise. Settlers from the village below, taking refuge within the Bishop’s walls, founded the upper town, which came to be known as Coucy-le-Château, as distinguished from Coucy-la-Ville below. In those fierce times the territory was a constant bone of conflict among barons, archbishops, and kings, all equally bellicose. Defense against invaders—Moors in the south, Norsemen in the north—had bred a class of hard-bitten warriors who fought among themselves as willingly and savagely as against outsiders. In 975 Oderic, Archbishop of Reims, ceded the fief to a personage called the Comte d’Eudes, who became the first lord of Coucy. Nothing is known of this individual except his name, but once established on the hilltop, he produced in his descendants a strain of extraordinary strength and fury.
The dynasty’s first recorded act of significance, religious rather than bellicose, was the founding by Aubry de Coucy in 1059 of the Benedictine Abbey of Nogent at the foot of the hill. Such a gesture, on a larger scale than the usual donation for perpetual prayers, was meant both to display the importance of the donor and to buy merit to assure his salvation. Whether or not the initial endowment was meager, as the monastery’s rancorous Abbot Guibert complained in the next century, the abbey flourished and, supported by a flow of funds from successive Coucys, outlived them all.
Aubry’s successor, Enguerrand I, was a man of many scandals, obsessed by lust for women, according to Abbot Guibert (himself a victim of repressed sexuality, as revealed in his Confessions). Seized by a passion for Sybil, wife of a lord of Lorraine, Enguerrand succeeded, with the aid of a compliant Bishop of Laon who was his first cousin, in divorcing his first wife, Adèle de Marie, on charges of adultery. Afterward he married Sybil with the sanction of the Church while her husband was absent at war and while the lady herself was pregnant as the result of still a third liaison. She was said to be of dissolute morals.
Out of this vicious family situation came that “raging wolf” (in the words of another famous abbot, Suger of St. Denis), the most notorious and savage of the Coucys, Thomas de Marie, son of the repudiated Adèle. Bitterly hating the father who had cast his paternity in doubt, Thomas grew up to take part in the ceaseless war originally launched against Enguerrand I by the discarded husband of Sybil. These private wars were fought by the knights with furious gusto and a single strategy, which consisted in trying to ruin the enemy by killing or maiming as many of his peasants and destroying as many crops, vineyards, tools, barns, and other possessions as possible, thereby reducing his sources of revenue. As a result, the chief victim of the belligerents was their respective peasantry. Abbot Guibert claimed that in the “mad war” of Enguerrand against the Lorrainer, captured men had their eyes put out and feet cut off with results that could still be seen in the district in his time. The private wars were the curse of Europe which the crusades, it has been thought, were subconsciously invented to relieve by providing a vent for aggression.
When the great summons of 1095 came to take the cross and save the Holy Sepulcher on the First Crusade, both Enguerrand I and his son Thomas joined the march, carrying their feud to Jerusalem and back with mutual hate undiminished. From an exploit during the crusade the Coucy coat-of-arms derived, although whether the protagonist was Enguerrand or Thomas is disputed. One or the other with five companions, on being surprised by a party of Moslems when out of armor, took off his scarlet cloak trimmed with vair (squirrel fur), tore it into six pieces to make banners for recognition, and thus equipped, so the story goes, fell upon the Moslems and annihilated them. In commemoration a shield was adopted bearing the device of six horizontal bands, pointed, of red on white, or in heraldic terms, “Barry of six, vair and gules” (gules meaning red).
As his mother’s heir to the territories of Marie and La Fère, Thomas added them to the Coucy domain to which he succeeded in 1116. Untamed, he pursued a career of enmity and brigandage, directed in varying combinations against Church, town, and King, “the Devil aiding him,” according to Abbot Suger. He seized manors from convents, tortured prisoners (reportedly hanging men up by their testicles until these tore off from the weight of the body), personally cut the throats of thirty rebellious bourgeois, transformed his castles into “a nest of dragons and a cave of thieves,” and was excommunicated by the Church, which ungirdled him—in absentia—of the knightly belt and ordered the anathema to be read against him every Sunday in every parish in Picardy. King Louis VI assembled a force for war upon Thomas and succeeded in divesting him of stolen lands and castles. In the end, Thomas was not proof against that hope of salvation and fear of hell which brought the Church so many rich legacies through the centuries. He left a generous bequest to the Abbey of Nogent, founded another abbey at Prémontré nearby, and died in bed in 1130. He had been married three times. Abbot Guibert thought him “the wickedest man of his generation.”
"Intrigued initially by the effects of the Black Death on late medieval society, Mrs. Tuchman understandably has sidestepped this knotty problem to give us, instead, a succession of vignettes in the development of France and England in the 14th century. The writing is intelligent and lively in high-class journalistic style. The pace is rapid, the episodes entertaining. The cruelty, cunning, cupidity, and compassion of her men and women are described in vivid colors, and the endless minutiae of daily living are given to us to feast upon." Reviewed by Daniel Weiss, Virginia Quarterly Review (Copyright 2006 Virginia Quarterly Review)
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.
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