Review: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century [1978] ★★★★★

In this book, Barbara Tuchman explores the 14th century Europe focusing in particular on the situation in France and on the powerful clan of lords – the Coucy of Picardy, whose ambition at that time almost rivalled that of the King. The centre of the narrative here is the lifetime of Enguerrand VII de Coucy, whose double allegiances and adventures could be compared to some mythical storytelling. Providing vivid insight into various aspects of the medieval life, from childhood to tournaments, and from the state of medicine to the status of women, Tuchman’s book makes one truly step into the intriguing world of the Middle Ages and into the mentality of its people. This was a historical period that was deeply paradoxical and chaotic, in which famine, peasant revolts, foreign wars, the bubonic plague and religious struggles were all taking place in a non-stop succession amidst the existence and the proclamation of a high moral code of chivalry among the nobility, and where magic and superstition reigned inexplicably alongside one strict religious canon.  

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Celtic Mythology

Celtic mythology is fascinating and includes tales from Wales, Scotland, Ireland, England’s south-west and Brittany. The legends of King Arthur (including of such figures as Lancelot and Merlin) are probably the most famous example, but the romance between Tristan and Iseult is also well-known. Below are three figures from the Celtic mythology whose stories perhaps influenced modern literature. 

caer

I. Caer (Ibormeith)

Caer is a pan-Celtic goddess/fairy maiden (worshipped in Ireland, Scotland and Wales), who is associated with dreams, sleeping and prophecy. She takes the form of a swan and lives on a lake called The Dragon’s Mouth. Caer was a love interest of Aonghus, the Irish love god, who first saw her in a dream. Aonghus wanted to marry Caer, but he first had to pass one challenge – to recognise Caer, who took the form of a swam, among other seemingly identical one hundred and fifty swans. Caer and her sisters take the form of swans every second Samhain (a pagan festival celebrated on 31 October), and remain like that for a year. Aonghus successfully completed this challenge, and he and Caer were married. Swans feature in many Continental fairy-tales too, most famously in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tale The Wild Swans [1838], where a wicked witch turns the main character’s brothers into swans, and in Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake [1876], where Prince Siegfried falls for the Swan Princess Odette. Interestingly, tasks to recognise someone and mistaken identities feature in many similar stories.

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